Recently I spent several evenings reading The Year of the Flood, the newest novel by award-winning Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. In this visionary fiction story of societal and environmental breakdown caused by gene splicing free-for-alls run by the Corporations, the world is populated by strange animals including wild pigs with superior intelligence, and sheep with human hair. Don’t ask where the meat in the burgers comes from, and watch your back when you’re outside a Corporate compound. An extremist cult, God’s Gardeners, welcomes outcasts as long as they are willing to go along with the religion that goes with growing your own food. It’s a cool religion that honors folks like Saint Euell (Gibbons) for his wisdom of useful wild plants
Considering my recent immersion in Atwood’s nightmarish post-gene-stacking world, I had to read the recent investigative report on Monsanto's growing list of misdeeds (by award-winning Associated Press writer Christopher Leonard) three times before it sunk in. It’s really happening. In 2006 Monsanto bought Delta and Pineland, a leading producer of cotton seed, so that it now controls a huge share of the cotton seed market. Monsanto’s genes are in about 95 percent of commercial soybeans and 80 percent of commercial corn, and people like the attorney generals of Iowa and Texas are concerned that Monsanto’s business practices violate federal antitrust laws that protect free competition. When it comes to licensing agreements, Monsanto is reportedly a big time bully.
Either or both accusations may prove to be true, and while I do care about these things, I also feel like I’m watching dangerous games being played by the mean kids at the other end of the playground. I can mind my own business, grow most of my own food using traditionally-bred organic seeds, and what Monsanto or Dow or Sygenta do shouldn’t be my problem.
But it is my problem. Monsanto is constantly adding new food plants to its ensemble of “Roundup Ready” varieties that resist herbicide damage, and Dow has soybeans that survive being sprayed with 2-4D. That’s my planet, my water we’re talking about. There is so much Bt corn pollen out there that no garden is safe from it, and rotting residue from Bt plants is messing with the life cycles of stream-dwelling insects. With Monsanto and other companies polluting the world with genetically modified pollen and plants, Bayer killing off honeybees with imidicloprid, and Dow turning horse manure into killer compost, maybe we should worry about big Corporations. A lot.
But what really makes me mad is the way Monsanto is trying to hijack the concept of sustainability. According to the M Company video (which depicts happy, remarkably clean third world farmers), sustainability is about three things: Increased production to meet everyone’s needs, thus improving the lives of everyone; more effective use of natural resources, and improving the quality of life for farmers and their families. It does not mention all the hidden costs of reliance on pesticides, nor does it acknowledge the steady increases in seed prices, with a very small number of companies setting those prices, cartel style. This is where federal antitrust laws come into play, at least theoretically.
And here I was thinking that sustainable agriculture was about using Nature’s patterns and human intelligence and resourcefulness to create systems that run themselves with minimal outside inputs, while creating strong local food economies and a cleaner, more honest food supply. At least that’s how we play at my end of the playground.
As for Atwood’s book, I won’t tell you how it ends, but it will make you feel good about knowing how to grow and store your own food. Maybe it will help you think more clearly about where genetic engineering is headed, and help you make better guesses as to how long we are likely to survive. At this point, I’m betting on the pigs.