Monoculture, Monsanto, and the threat of famine

As the world’s financial system reels and the peoples of the industrialized West shudder as the ground shifts beneath them, long-held certainties about life in the post-Modern era are vanishing as a new, troubling world begins taking form.

Both manufacturing and consumption are migrating, with that part of the planet once dubbed the developing world capturing the lions share of both at the very moment that fossil fuels, the life’s blood of in industrial age, are in precipitous decline.

Corporocrats promise new, unlimited energy sources through the tweaking of genes and the development of new technologies, but the means are theirs, secured by patents, for which the rest of us will pay dearly.

Most troubling of all, however is the problem of food.

For the first time since our ancestors first stabbed a stick in the ground to plant a seed, humanity faces a crisis unprecedented in its history. Food sovereignty, the basis of life itself, has been seized by forces answerable to no one, and our new masters—beings created out of whole cloth yet given powers never wielded by any monarchs of the past—have placed our species in their thrall and in mortal peril.

Our new masters, legal fictions created short centuries past to enable monarchs to pillage and colonize vast reaches of the globe, are now claiming ownership of the stuff of life itself.

They wield the genetically tweaked crops—created by the Drs. Frankenstein

of their laboratories—in the same way the crowned heads of Europe once deployed armadas and armor-clad troops to the lands of Africa, the Americas, and Asia, transforming once-independent farmers into corporate serfs, dependent on the products of their laboratories for every aspect of their existence.

You cannot buy our seeds, they tell farmers, forcing them to sign complex legal instruments. God forbid you attempt to hold back any for next year’s planting: If you dare such an act of lèse-majesté, we’ll haul your sorry ass into court and seize your farm to pay for our legal costs. They’re our seeds, not yours, and we have the patents to prove it.

And not only do these corporate crops require heavy courses of fossil fuel-dependent fertilizers; they also demand saturation with chemicals to annihilate competing forms of plant life, patented weed-killing compounds often manufactured by the same corporations that peddle the seeds.

Farmers, once hailed as the yeoman bulwarks of industrial society, have been reduced to corporate instrumentalities.

But that’s not the worst of it.

For those of us who don’t farm, the peril is even greater.

The same patented plants may also contain genes that trick the organism into producing its own pesticides, subjecting all of us who consume them to a global chemical experiment the outcome of which may not be apparent for generations despite all the corporate claims to the contrary.

But the most troubling consequence of this vast gambit to seize control of the biosphere can be summed up in a single word: Monoculture.

In evolutionary terms, agriculture is the new kid on the block. Throughout most of the ages genus Homo was evolving into its modern form, our ancestors relied on the plants and the occasional animal they found living without their assistance in the world around them.

Agriculture came late to the game, an epochal discovery that enabled humans to settle down in permanent settlements, yoked to the land and their crops, which needed constant care.

The lessons of catastrophe

Long-forgotten catastrophes taught us a critical rule of farming: Dependence on single strains of cultivars could prove lethal. While some plant varieties quickly succumbed to drought, insects, fungal attacks, and other threats, other strains of the same crop fared better.

Over time, farming cultures found or developed a variety of strains. One form of wheat might not yield the most abundant harvest, but fared better in crises which killed the otherwise preferable strains. Villages which could keep enough varieties growing were able to survive when villages dependent on a single strain perished. Besides, different varieties of the same crop offered an array of flavors, or might be easier to cook. Variety, as they say, spiced up life.

In Peru, native peoples cultivated dozens of varieties of their main staple, the potato, which came in a wide range of flavors, colors, and sizes. In the U.S. 150 years ago, orchards produced scores of apple varieties, rather than just today’s Delicious, Granny Smith, MacIntosh, and Fuji. Likewise for other plant foods.

Two major factors account for much of the simplification of agriculture: Shipping and genetic patents.

With the rise of the industrial era and the creation of railroad systems, foods became delocalized and city-dwellers became dependent on foods shipped over long distances. While grains could hold up well on road or track, many fruits and vegetables proved all too perishable.

Varieties that might handle a wagon ride from farm to village market were discarded in favor of other varieties which could handle trips of hundreds or thousands of miles in a boxcar or a ship’s hold. Countless thousands of otherwise delectable foods were thus relegated to the history’s scrap heap.

The rise of proprietary crops

A second, even more devastating reduction in crop diversity ensued when the Supreme Court bestowed its legal blessing on corporate genetic patents.

By transforming the genetic codes of living things into proprietary entities, the practice of agriculture underwent the most radical transformation since the first ur-farmer plunged a dibble stick into the soil.

Monsanto, Cargill, Bayer, and their fellow corpocracies promised farmers unprecedented bounty. We’ll give you worry-free crops, resistant to insect pests and to weed-killers, yielding unprecedented bounties.

What they got instead was a nightmare.

Not only did farmers who “bought” their seeds find themselves locked into a latter-day feudalism, but even those who opted out could find themselves enthralled to the corporate giants if their own downwind crops were fertilized by pollen blown across the fence-line from a neighboring field of genetically modified plantings.

Even worse, for the rest of us, was the enthronement of corporate monocultures.

With the lack of diversity, the surviving, patented strains became all too vulnerable to threats both old and new, raising the threat of global famine to never-before-seen heights.

Proprietary perils enthroned

Los Angeles Times reporter Karen Kaplan tells of the rise of one such threat.

The widespread planting of a genetically engineered crop designed to withstand a menacing pest has had the unanticipated consequence of transforming benign bugs into agricultural predators, according to a new study.

In findings that drive home the difficulty of trying to stay one step ahead of nature, scientists explain how farmers of bioengineered cotton in northern China were able to drastically reduce their insecticide use for more than a decade, only to find themselves spraying a crop that wasn’t supposed to need such measures.

The genetically engineered plants were designed to withstand attacks from the cotton bollworm by growing their own pesticide — a deadly toxin that was originally discovered in a soil bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt. Splicing the Bt genes into the cotton plants’ DNA has kept the bollworm at bay.

Opponents of genetically engineered crops had warned that insects like the bollworm would inevitably breed resistance to the Bt toxin. So far, that hasn’t happened. Instead, the crops effectively created a new category of pests called mirid bugs.

Researchers from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the National Agro-Technical Extension and Service Center in Beijing documented that as adoption of Bt cotton rose — and pesticide use declined — mirid bugs did more damage to cotton crops. What’s more, the growing population of hungry critters also devoured crops of Chinese dates, grapes, apples, peaches and pears.

In essence, the introduction of genetically engineered cotton transformed the fields into a habitat that enabled mirid bugs to thrive and spread, the researchers reported Thursday in the journal Science.

The reliance on one miracle crop has thus given rise to a new/old pest that threatens not only the GMO itself but other crops on which millions are reliant for survival.

Wheat crops face grave threats

Brendan I. Koerner, who blogs at Microkhan , has been reporting on grave dangers confronting a world in which monoculture has become the rule.

Having dedicated the better part of 2009 to understanding the threat posed by Ug99, a fungus that threatens to decimate much of the Eastern Hemisphere’s wheat crop, our ears always prick up when we hear of looming agricultural catastrophes. The latest comes in the form of Pathogen206, which afflicts wheat with yellow rust (aka stripe rust). Like Ug99, the emerging pathogen overcomes one of mankind’s key genetic defenses—a gene in which we seemingly placed far too much trust:

Following the epidemics associated with the development of virulence for Yr9, stripe rust susceptible cultivars were in most cases replaced. Unfortunately the resistance of many of the replacement cultivars, including the mega-cultivars PBW343, Inquilab-91, Chamran, Shiroudi, Kubsa, and Imam, was based on the single major gene Yr27 only. These cultivars represent the same genetic material (Atilla) released under different names in respective countries.

The breakdown of Yr27 was first reported in South Asia between 2002-2004, with mega-cultivars like PBW343 and Inquilab-91 in India and Pakistan showing susceptibility to the new Yr27 virulent pathotype(s). Replacement of these cultivars is underway (e.g, Inquilab-91 in Pakistan is being replaced by new resistant cultivars like Seher-06). Unfavourable environmental conditions presumably restricted the increase in frequency and distribution of pathotypes within the Yr27 lineage until 2009, when favourable conditions resulted in serious outbreaks of stripe rust in several countries e.g., Morocco, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Algeria and Afghanistan. Virulence for Yr27 was confirmed in many of the 2009 outbreaks.

Climactic conditions are currently ideal for a widespread epidemic, which could take out much of the Middle East’s wheat in just two weeks.

As for Ug99 itself, Koerner reported earlier this year for Wired:

The enemy is Ug99, a fungus that causes stem rust, a calamitous disease of wheat. Its spores alight on a wheat leaf, then work their way into the flesh of the plant and hijack its metabolism, siphoning off nutrients that would otherwise fatten the grains. The pathogen makes its presence known to humans through crimson pustules on the plant’s stems and leaves. When those pustules burst, millions of spores flare out in search of fresh hosts. The ravaged plant then withers and dies, its grains shriveled into useless pebbles.

Stem rust is the polio of agriculture, a plague that was brought under control nearly half a century ago as part of the celebrated Green Revolution. After years of trial and error, scientists managed to breed wheat that contained genes capable of repelling the assaults of Puccinia graminis, the formal name of the fungus.

But now it’s clear: The triumph didn’t last. While languishing in the Ugandan highlands, a small population of P. graminis evolved the means to overcome mankind’s most ingenious genetic defenses. This distinct new race of P. graminis, dubbed Ug99 after its country of origin (Uganda) and year of christening (1999), is storming east, working its way through Africa and the Middle East and threatening India and China. More than a billion lives are at stake. “It’s an absolute game-changer,” says Brian Steffenson, a cereal-disease expert at the University of Minnesota who travels to Njoro regularly to observe the enemy in the wild. “The pathogen takes out pretty much everything we have.”

Wisdom from an Uncommon Scold

Cassandra, who blogs at Uncommonscolds, has this to say about our plight:

Like the ancient cultures whose ancestors transformed teosinte into modern corn, most of us take corn for granted. We modify corn genetics in the laboratory, endanger it further by extensive monoculture, and then wastefully turn it into ethanol. Corn is in an extraordinary number of products. We even use corn to make plastics. So a devastating corn blight or a severe drought would change our world in ways that would dwarf the effects of Great Irish Potato Famine.

In other words, corn can crash civilizations. It already has. The example I have in mind comes from Jared Diamond [Updated. See her comment below.] I’m relying on memory here, but I think this recollection is fairly accurate even though I can’t remember specifics.

When the corn crops of this major ancient Native American civilization began to fail, the civilization failed to adapt. Although they had other food crops they could have switched to, they didn’t. They called themselves “the corn people,” and this over-identification cost them dearly. Much of their population perished or scattered. Major cities were already covered by jungle when Europeans “discovered” the “New World.”

So the early Native Americans were typically human. They deserve credit for slowly developing the unpromising little teosinte plant into modern corn. Their careful improvement of this food crop allowed the rise of complex civilizations based on corn. Unfortunately, when times changed, the stubborn, inflexible part of human nature set in and their reliance on what had always worked proved to be their downfall. Instead of ruling their system, they let their system control them until it collapsed around them. So this is also a cautionary tale; for when their pattern of existence became unsustainable, they lacked the time or vision to change or modify their ways.

I wonder if “the fossil fuel” people will suffer the same fate.

Time to grow our own

If humanity is to survive the crisis posed by monoculture, we’ll have to do it ourselves. And the only tool we have is to nurture the foods replaced by the monocultural strains.

Growing up in a small Kansas farm town, esnl recalls a day when almost everybody grew some of their own food. Our home was located on a large lot of rich bottom soil laid down over millennia by the Smoky Hill River.

My dad grew a large garden, and mom home-canned many of is products. esnl recalls with fondness her green beans, each jar canned with a small piece of bacon to add a delightful richness to the taste.

In times of economic chaos, with jobs vanished or in peril, the old American virtues of reliance on family and community should loom large, offering us a means both for our sustenance and for a meaningful engagement with our local environments.

One thing is certain. We can not longer repose our trust in an agricultural system run amok and in violation of all the hard-won knowledge of history.

And a final note: This post is dedicated to moussequetairre, who has done so much to both enlighten us and to brighten out lives. Happy birthday, dear one!


6 responses to “Monoculture, Monsanto, and the threat of famine

  1. I’me telling this alike you are since ages..nothing ever changed @all..Who really cares about me and you, about all of us living together into this so/called =democratical= world indeed??

  2. uncommonscolds

    Thanks for the mention.

    I want to add a correction. Someone responded on my blog alerting me to a serious error. I attributed the ideas of Jared Diamond to Joseph Tainter, whose work deals with the complexity of systems.

    As I mentioned in the part quoted here, I was working from memory. In doing that I broke one of my own rules: Always confirm your sources. My apologies.


  3. I’ve lived and worked the fields of open pollinated seeds and the modern hybrids and GMO’s and I don’t want to go back. Modern seed must be purchased each year because it does not breed back true. You do not get the yield out of held back seed you do out of the purchased seed. The extra cost is worth the money spent.
    Sorry, I don’t buy into your paranoia. I think we will overcome the problems of the future if we can keep from killing each other off over fuel, water, land or religion.

  4. Pingback: Where might we have gone wrong...... - Page 4 | Mark's Daily Apple Health and Fitness Forum page 4

  5. Pingback: Greed, drought threaten America’s farmland | eats shoots 'n leaves

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