Calling Things by Their Name: The World’s Urgent Summons to Agrosanity

September 2, 2015

For industrial-chemical-genetically-modified agribusiness, this has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, butt-kick summer. Maximally so.

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The whole, gargantuan, super-efficient, hyper-technical, chemical-dependent agriborg has been repeatedly whacked upside the head by reality. Yet despite a steady assault of paradigm-shattering facts, the mega-tentacled, bottom-line corporate complex plows systematically onward into toxic drainage ditches of its own fouling.

As made inescapably evident by the flood of ag-related news stories arising through summer 2015, corporate chemical GMO systems have over time spawned a deeply problematic matrix of land, animals and human beings. For the sake of life, it’s time to stop, to look at reality, to terminate intoxication, and to change direction. It’s time to act fast.

The news stories cited below represent a chorus of sharp alarms. At the same time they also represent an urgent summons to agrosanity – the necessity to act with intelligence and common sense to transform the contaminating status quo into clean, sustainable, agroecological farm and food systems in America and globally.

That summons to agricultural sanity is the call of the land. The call is plain: to actively transform and retrofit existing systems to agroecological enterprises that will heal rather than harm the land and the people. This ideal, given eloquent expression in the Seventh Generation teaching which is native to North America, is a critical thread in the rising network of community farm and food initiatives. Many of the emerging agroecological initiatives offer models that could be of high service for the wholesale agriculture transformation which is now imperative.

Here’s a roundup of gut-wrenching, paradigm-annihilating Ag news just for the months of summer 2015.

Cavalcade of Contamination

o – Major study finds GMO soy is not equivalent to normal soy. Even in 2015, it is premature and unscientific to label such GMOs as safe (August 18). The study published in the journal Agricultural Sciences revealed that GM soy generates a significant increase in levels of a known carcinogen, formaldehyde, in plants. GMOs also disrupt the development of glutathione, an important anti-oxidant necessary for cellular detoxification.

The study concludes that the U.S. government’s current standards for the safety assessment of GMOs based on the dubious principle of “substantial equivalence” – are both outdated and unscientific. The study’s findings call into question the FDA’s food safety standards for the entire country. The authors conclude, “…we believe it is premature to approve GMOs and to consider them safe.”

0 – Doctors issue a resounding call for a complete scientific review of glyphosate (aka Roundup), and for labels on GM food (August 19). The ubiquitous and infamous “weed killer” called glyphosate, toxic handmaiden to GM crops, is now officially suspected as a carcinogen. According to a column published in the New England Journal of Medicine, “There is growing evidence that glyphosate is geno-toxic and has adverse effects on cells in a number of different ways.”

Image courtesy of Creative Commons.

Image courtesy of Creative Commons.

The authors cite this summer’s determination by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that the most commonly used herbicide, glyphosate, is a probable human carcinogen, Despite its claimed non-toxicity at low levels, accumulation over time is problematic. GM foods and the herbicides applied to them may pose hazards to human health that have notbeen assessed. Regulators have relied on flawed and outdated research to allow the expanded use of this herbicide.

Evidence shows that glyphosate may well be a factor in the development of multiple chronic diseases. The journal noted that labeling of GM food is “essential for tracking the emergence of novel food allergies and assessing effects of chemical herbicides applied to GM crops.” Without labeling, there is no such thing as long-term safety research.

In the face of direct blowback from the chemical-GMO corporate public relations industry, and several shoulder-shrug, what’s-the-big-deal? articles in mass media, WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer went to the trouble of making a second public announcement to specifically reiterate their finding that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. Meantime, Pesticide Action Network (PAN) added the weedkiller to its list of highly hazardous substances.

o – New study suggests that chronic exposure to glyphosate at ultra-low doses can result in liver and kidney damage (August 26) After the WHO report on glyphosate and the demand for a complete scientific review of the plant-killing chemical, yet another deeply troubling study on glyphosate was published. The new study showed significant potential health implications for both animal and human populations. Glyphosate is spread far and wide on land to kill other plants that GMO crops may dominate. Thus for both animals and human beings, there is already extensive exposure to ultra-low doses.

Yet another study published this year found that glyphosate in combination with aluminum induces pathology in the pineal gland. That crucial degeneration of the pineal gland has been in turn linked to gut dysbiosis and neurological disease. As the researchers note, “many neurological diseases, including autism, depression, dementia, anxiety disorder, and Parkinson’s disease, are associated with abnormal sleep patterns, which are directly linked to pineal gland dysfunction.

o – Synthetic nicotine chemical insecticides found in half of USA streams (August 18) – The US Geological Survey released a study showing that insecticides known as neonicotinoids contaminate more than half of the streams sampled across the dedbeUS and Puerto Rico. Published in Environmental Chemistry, the study represents the first national-scale investigation of the environmental occurrence of these insecticides. Use of neonicotinoids to control insects has increased over the past decade, especially on corn and soybeans. Most scientists consider neonicotinoids as the main culprit in Colony Collapse Disorder, which is killing bees around the world. The poisons have been banned outright in many nations around the world, but not fully by theS. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For its determinations the EPA relies on studies done by others, including companies that manufacturer the poisons.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that there are traces of at least 29 different pesticides in the average American’s body. Overall, both individually and collectively, the cocktail of synthetic chemicals infesting almost every human being in North America increases the risk of birth defects, diminished IQ, cancer, depression, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and more.

o – Colossal zombie zone in the Gulf of Mexico metastasizes (August 3) As reported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the infamous dead zone in Gulf of Mexico — a vast, noxious, oxygen-starved area in the sea that suffocates shrimp, fish, and other sea creatures — is bigger than ever in the summer of 2015. The dead zone is caused mainly by runoff of chemical fertilizer and manure from factory farms and corporate livestock confinement operations (CAFOs).

This year’s dead zone spans about 6,500 square miles. That’s size of Rhode Island and Connecticut combined. According to NOAA, there are more than 550 of these zombie zones floating around in the world this summer. The dead zones happen when runoff from industrial agriculture stimulates furious overgrowth of algae, analogous to the unchecked growth of cancers. The pumped-up masses of algae then sink, decompose and gobble up the oxygen necessary for healthy aquatic life, spawning massive, infernal zombie zones.

o – Industrial agriculture found to be contaminating America’s major aquifers with uranium (August 17) – A study

Uranium Electron shell. Courtesy of CC.

Uranium Electron shell. Courtesy of CC.

conducted by researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) showed dramatically high levels of uranium contamination in both the Great Plains and the Central Valley (CA) aquifers. The toxic silvery-white metal known as uranium is released in the aquifers through interaction with nitrates a common groundwater contaminant that originates mainly from chemical fertilizers spread on fields, and mass quantities of manure from industrial livestock confinement operations (CAFOs). The researchers found that the aquifers contain uranium concentrations up to 89 times the EPA standard for safety, and nitrate concentrations up to 189 times greater. This acute concentration of uranium has a detrimental impact on human health.

o – Industrial commodity corn is scorching our planet (July 27) The University of Minnesota published a blockbuster study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study showed that our foremost industrial corn production systems are frying the planet with the release of nitrous oxide, a compound that traps far more heat in our atmosphere than CO2 does. The extent of nitrous oxide arising from industrial corn has been grossly under-measured to date. New data show that it is a critical factor in climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), industrial agriculture is responsible for a huge detrimental impact on climate change: almost a quarter of the continuing increase of greenhouse gas emissions.

Nowadays the dominant industrial Ag production systems are glyphosate-drizzled rotations of GM soy with GM corn. The corn harvest largely gets funneled toward the production of taxpayer-subsidized ethanol, livestock feed, and the sickly-sweet substance which has become notorious among dietitians and health advocates: high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).

o – Major ethical violation for GMO scientists (July 29) – The American Journal of Clinical Nutritionretracted a major study on GMOs because of ethical transgressions. The authors of the often-cited study had claimed that GM rice (so-called Golden Rice) was an effective Vitamin A supplement. This study has served the well-funded GMO industrial agriculture public relations industry as a key talking point for years. The industry has relentlessly touted this flawed study about Golden Rice as proof that a patented GM product would solve a major global health problem by providing children with extra Vitamin A. Editors at the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition determined that the study was afflicted with major ethics violations and thus they had to retract the study and it’s claims.

o – Interlocking ties between GMO industry and scientists probed for conflict of interest (August 6) According to

Sculpture by Antony Gormley, Quantum Cloud. Courtesy of Creative Commons.

Sculpture by Antony Gormley, Quantum Cloud. Courtesy of Creative Commons.

report in Nature, US universities, including taxpayer-supported land grant institutions, have been targeted by a private advocacy group, US Right to Know. The group is investigating collusion between the agricultural biotechnology industry and academics involved with science, economics and mass communication. The activist group has so far used the courts to compel records from 40 researchers at US public universities. The report in Nature pointed out that “at least one institution, the University of Nebraska, has refused to provide documents requested by the group.”

There are 106 US land grant institutions. They have at their disposal an annual budget of nearly 2 billion taxpayer dollars, and many millions more from corporate funding. The land grant universities have decades-old relationships with agricultural groups, corporations and state legislatures.

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Individually and collectively the studies cited above sharply call into question the foundation and the principal thrust of the industrial-chemical-GM Ag industry, of the USDA, and also of America’s public land grant institutions.

Despite the well-known capacity of agroecology to address many of the problems created by corporate industrial agriculture, and to help mitigate the accelerating damage of climate change, such clean, sustainable approaches are treated either like neglected children, or like an enemies at the gate of corporate bank vaults. That’s got to change.

In the governmental realm, sustainable agriculture is currently allocated only about 2% of the multi-billion dollar USDA budget. True clean, agroecological and sustainable farm and food systems remain at best an adjunct concept – an outlier — at most land grant institutions.

By far the lion’s share of our tax dollars goes to benefit corporate-industrial-chemical agriculture systems. In 2015, in the face of all the head-whacking realities, this pathway emerges as truly shortsighted, ill advised, and profoundly perilous.

Consideration for the human beings

fire-forestThe bundle of disturbing Ag reports cited above came forward this summer only to be obscured behind an inferno of news about record-breaking wildfires, the ongoing meltdown in arctic regions, flood-inducing deluges, and the hottest months ever recorded on Earth. Those months – summer 2015 – set us all firmly on course to finish out the hottest year ever recorded. So far.

At the start of summer 2015 Pope Francis threw down a gauntlet in the global controversy about industrial-chemical-GM agriculture systems. He raised not just environmental and health concerns, but also the glaring social and economic imbalances that corporate Ag systems intensify. He asked for an honest debate.

Perhaps as he visits the US in late September, 2015, the Pope will press the demand for debate on industrial-chemical-genetically modified agriculture. I hope so. He pulls media attention. People will be informed and will talk. But the Pope is just one prominent voice articulating deeply and widely held concerns for life. The real debate challenge – the one that must for the sake of integrity be answered – arises from the many millions of human beings who want to live healthy lives on a healthy planet and to ensure the well being of their children unto seven generations. Their voices are so far mostly unheeded.

In all respects ethical, economic and environmental, the farm and food challenge of the human beings to the corporations and their manifold matrix of contamination is valid, worthy and necessary. America’s land grant institutions should take the lead in focusing public attention on this critical debate.

  • In Laudato Si, the Encyclical published this summer, the Pope wrote: In many places (around the world), “following the introduction of these (GM) crops, productive land is concentrated in the hands of a few owners due to the progressive disappearance of small producers, who, as a consequence of the loss of the exploited lands, are obliged to withdraw from direct production.”
  • As a result of this general model of development, the Pope noted, farmers are driven to become temporary laborers. Many rural workers end up in urban slums, ecosystems are destroyed, and “oligopolies” (markets dominated by a few huge corporations) expand in agricultural production. While the trend to Ag oligopoly is global, America experienced this pattern playing out as a result of the massive ag consolidations and vertical integrations of the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and ongoingly. “Get big or get out,” was the infamous mantra of Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture (1971-76). That is just what happened across America’s heartland, a hard reality attended by great waves of family heartbreak, widespread depopulation of rural communities, and a troubling cavalcade of contamination.
  • The Pope’s Encyclical called for broad, responsible scientific and social debate, a debate capable of considering all the available information and of “calling things by their name.”
  • In his encyclical the Pope included a telling remark instructive for America’s Land Grant institutions which are now so critically dependent on corporate financing: “It sometimes happens that complete information is not put on the table; a selection is made on the basis of particular interests, be they political, economic or ideological.”

In service to the actual human beings who are citizens, our public land grant institutions should not dodge this debate by pretending that it’s not happening. That would constitute an outright betrayal of humanity in favor of corporate hegemony over the earth. This is shortsighted in the extreme.

Go Sustainable, or Go Extinct

Rachel Carson sounded the alarm on the environmental consequences of industrial agriculture well over 50 years ago in her book, Silent Spring. Then in his book Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times (1978), Jim Hightower documented the reality that America’s land grant institutions were by and large turning their interest and focus from the working people of America that they were initially chartered to help, and instead more and more frequently casting their lot with deep-pocket corporations.

In light of the deeply troubling facts coming forward, especially now in summer of 2015, it’s time for everyone to stop, to take a deep breath, detox, and seriously to weigh the true costs and true consequences of their actions. It’s that serious. Industrial Ag business as usual is lunacy.

The realities of summer 2015 underscore the critical importance of the resilient, community farm and food initiatives that have been arising so dynamically in the US and abroad over the last 30 years or more. The emerging, networked community food movement with its emphasis on clean, sustainable, democratic agroecological farming systems – along with economic and social justice – arises in an era of vast environmental contamination.

Agroecology in its many permutations offers a multitude of pathways for reforming and redeeming our farm and food systems. We can have clean agriculture, and we can use it to help cleanse and heal our distressed lands.

seekingAs we move from summer 2015 on to December, the United Nations will sponsor in Paris the 21st session of the Conference on Climate Change: COP21. This will be a huge event. The conference aims to demonstrate the commitment of non-state actors (companies) to reach new legal agreements that will help protect the earth.

Among the ideas being floated is something that appropriates the acronym CSA, which for 30 years has been recognized as a term of integrity referring to Community Supported Agriculture.

But now through the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) which floated the concept, corporate actors are now promoting their vague, loosely defined concept of CSA. This second “CSA” ought to be clearly labeled as CSA, Inc.  It’s not about community. It’s essentially corporate green washing, a flaccid concept that is in no way makes corporations accountable to democracy, health, food security, climate reality, or the spirit of the land and the people.

borbee

Borage for courage, bee for life. Photo by Ferran, Creative Commons.

One must hope that in the context of the COP21 global gathering and all the troubling paradigm-shattering realities of industrial Ag, that the corporations themselves, the USDA and America’s array of land grant institutions will find the wisdom, the integrity, and the courage to change course. They can become leaders embracing and developing clean, intelligent, authentic community and global agroecological systems in the face of climate change, resource scarcity, and the growing demand for food.

To date the most prominent global spokesperson for this kind of healing trajectory has been UN Rapporteur Olivier De Schutter. After intensive study of the big questions, in his final official report to the world on food, he sounded a salient summons to agroecology and food democracy. He urged swift and radical transformation of the world’s food systems, and emphasized the importance of rebuilding and strengthening clean, local democratic community food systems.

In what should be universally recognized by now as profound common sense, the UN Rapporteur recommended shifting the emphasis in agricultural policy from productivity and profit to “well-being, resilience and sustainability.”

In the spirit of calling things by their true name, and based on the realities of summer 2015, it’s time to uproot from our agricultural vocabulary Earl Butz’s menacing mantra: “get big or get out.” We must supplant that thought-form with something based on the realities of 2015, something wiser, something that serves human beings and the land we all depend upon for life: “Go sustainable, or go extinct.”


No No Nano: Macro-Objections to Micro-Machinations of Industrial Processed Food

October 2, 2014

“To be interested in food but not in food production is clearly absurd.” – Wendell Berry

Steadily, stealthily, corporations are driving the goodness of natural life itself from our food, and cleverly – though unwisely – infesting it with dim bits of microscopic material substance that are obscured from human awareness. I object. Wholeheartedly.

Mammona (Aaronsims)

Mammona (Aaronsims)

Just as synthetic chemicals, manufactured additives, irradiation, and then genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been corporately imposed upon processed food, now a micro-invasion of nanoparticles is gaining momentum. Patented lab-created nanoparticles are even penetrating the realm of organic food, as the USDA’s organic program chooses to do nothing.

The invisible, insidious micro-mechanistic food interventions being aggressively advanced by industry are now incarnate via nanotechnology. That’s the practice of manipulating materials on an atomic or molecular scale, and then incorporating the synthetic molecules into processed stuff, including our food.

The scale of nanotech is so infinitesimal that it’s a mindstretch for most people. A sheet of newspaper, for example is about 100,000 nanometers thick.

The chemical-food industry has already incorporated nanomaterials into dietary supplements as well as packaging materials and cutting boards. They claim their nano-products make food safer, and they have dozens of direct food applications in development.

A MishMash of Micro-Machinations
Overall, at this early stage of the 21st Century, corporations are churning out a complex mishmash of novel, man-made, synthetic materials to impact the industrial food chain, and eventually our bodies and souls. They are doing it with minimal or no regulation. Consider:

  • The market right now offers more than 300 foods and food packaging materials that likely contain engineered nanomaterials, according to the Center for Food Safety. Nanomaterials can cause damage to ecosystems by transporting toxic contaminants through the environment, potentially causing cancer and organ damage.
  • Researchers are now developing nanocapsules containing synthetic nutrients that can be released in your intestines when nanosensors detect a vitamin deficiency in your body.
  • Nanoproducts already on sale in Europe purport to smuggle fat through your stomach and into your small intestine. This triggers a feeling of satiety and manufacturers claim it can help people cut their food intake.

atomsNano is the latest dimension, but by no means the whole of the manufactured machinations impacting the corporately patented and processed food chain:

  • We are consuming a wholesale eruption of food additives. In the 1950s there were only about 800 food additives. Today there are an estimated 10,000, many of them dubious and provoking a cascade of health complaints. Since the days of the Bush-Quayle Administration in the early 1990s, the FDA has shrugged its regulatory shoulders. It provides no scrutiny of food additives to determine whether they are safe for human consumption. The government allows corporations to monitor themselves.
  • Over 275 chemicals used by 56 companies appear to be marketed as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Secret) and are used in many products based on companies’ safety determinations that, pursuant to current regulations, do not need to be reported to the FDA or the public. This is probably just the tip of an iceberg.
  • The science is just not in on the safety of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and their long-term impact on health and the environment. Yet against the explicit recommendation of FDA scientists, the FDA does not test GMOs. The FDA, in fact, does not even have a testing protocol for GMOs. Since the Bush-Quayle era, the federal government has placed faith in the corporations and their dubious dogma of “Substantial Equivalence.”
  • Fake DNA is now worming its way toward our food chain. As Tom Philpott reports in Mother Jones, synthetic biology – synbio for short – is tantamount to “genetic engineering on steroids.” Synthetic biologists generate new DNA sequences for food the way programmers write code for computers. Like nanotech, food additives and GMOs, synbio foods may well also escape government oversight, independent testing, and the requirement of labels so people may know what they are eating.

This foreboding fiesta of micro-mechanistic manipulations to our human food chain is happening in the context of an assault of disinformation being perpetrated through both social and mass media. As reported by Reuters, GMO, chemical and processed food corporations have committed themselves to a multi-year, multimillion-dollar campaign to defeat attempts to require GMO labels.

The campaigns pursue a number of different strategies to manipulate public opinion, including false claims that there is scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs, and the oft-echoed meme that we (citizens and consumers) are just too stupid to appreciate corporate scientific brilliance. Meanwhile, well-funded attacks continue in efforts to corrupt or undermine the integrity of organic food.

My Macro Objections
Although in time some innovations may prove worthy, in general I’ve got a skullful of reality-based objections to these micro-materialistic manipulations of the natural world and our food. But for the sake of brevity, here’s a half dozen of my macro-objections:

1. Free Will. First, I object to corporate micromanipulation of our human food supply on the spiritual basis of free will. As consumers of processed food, we are not asked for input or permission. We are not even afforded the basic respect of being informed about the material substances being mechanically ingrained to alter our food. That constitutes a direct violation of free will. That’s unacceptable.

I suspect that – if more widely known – such fundamental transgressions would be unacceptable to the vast majority of human beings. With no corporate or governmental transparency there can exist no trust on the part of citizen consumers. That’s pretty damn basic, despite the info war to convince us that our knowledge is wanting, and that our free will is irrelevant.

Scientific research indicates that when nucleic acids are introduced into our foods – such as through genetic engineering – they can survive digestion and wind up woven into the fabric of our blood and our body organs. Corporate GMOs can become part of our human bodies, and interact with our normal, natural genes in ways not understood or predictable.

Thus, I object to having corporately designed, produced and patented genes intermingling with my natural genes without my informed consent, or my even knowing about it. My genes are a key part of the spiritual, biological recipe for me. They are sacrosanct, and not available against my will for corporate exploitation with their unknowable synthetic entities.

2. Relationship. My second objection is spiritual as well. It has to do with our relationship with the earth and the land and all the animals and plants that are part of our world. These relationships are integral to our health and well-being. The complex relationship of the web of life is identified and appreciated in both leading-edge science and in ancient native knowings concerning The Sacred Hoop.

web-of-lifeWhen corporate science isolates factors such as genes, and studies them short-term for isolated results, it’s examining perhaps half of reality, and ignoring the rest. That is dangerously myopic. We are part of a cosmic web. All of life is related and interconnected whether corporations allow themselves to be aware of it or not. When you pluck a single thread on the web and it vibrates throughout the whole. This basic reality must become a consideration for the entire technological realm.

The establishment of synthetic constructs between human beings and nature – as is the case with the action of many drugs, chemicals, GMOs and other materials concocted in the lab — causes distortions, and tends to incrementally divorce human beings from the natural world and its rhythms.

Many materials used in industrial agriculture have the capacity to enhance plant growth and performance. But at the same time they exterminate or otherwise suppress the billions of life forms found with healthy soil biology. Industrial-chemical agriculture has already diminished vast tracts of the earth into denser, dimmer material substance. This conquering and controlling approach to nature in the food chain tends intensify the material aspect and blunts the animating spiritual life elements. With chemical-mineral fertilizers, and synthetic chemical herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides, industrial agriculture systematically snuffs out or reduces life so that a dull monoculture may exist.

zomSoil forms the basis for healthy food, and food forms the building blocks of our bodies and health. Deader, denser soil yields duller, denser food which over time — as I see it — yields denser, duller people. Even our mental health is linked to healthy soil, rich in living microbes. So when the soil is deadened, ultimately the light (biophotons) in our bodies and souls is deadened as well. Metaphorically speaking, zombie soil gives rise to zombie culture.

3. Precaution. I object to the heedless velocity of these synthetic enterprises. As a core value, I embrace thoughtful, independent science and sober progress. I advocate accuracy of perception of the whole, not just a few precise but narrow peeks and pecks at the web of life.

For this reason I stand with the moral community in championing the common sense embodied in the Precautionary Principle. The principle states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is not harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking an action – in this case that would be the corporations manufacturing micro chemicals, synthetic materials, and GMOs for the human food chain. The fundamental level of conservative common sense expressed in the Precautionary Principle is generally missing from these enterprises.

The probability of major problems underlying this mish mash of mechanistic meddling with nature and our food is exceedingly high. The risks of GMOs are far higher than nuclear energy, and far less well understood. Statistically speaking, GMO risks are extreme, global, unknown, and perpetual.

With a fundamental matter such as human sustenance, we are wise to take a conservative stance and proceed more prudently, honestly appraising both the short and long-term consequences of actions on the web of life. This is the essence of Seventh Generation thinking, a core ethical principle in North America for many thousands of years.

4. Oversight. My fourth macro objection is that these manufactured micro materials are entering the market place, and eventually our bodies, with little if any regulatory oversight.

As established under the Bush-Quayle Administration, the FDA relates to GMO foods as part of a team of federal agencies that includes the EPA and the USDA. Their policies (unchanged since 1992) place responsibility on producers or manufacturers to assure the safety of the food. If a company tells the government their stuff is safe, the government takes their word for it. There’s rarely independent scientific review.

Meanwhile, both corporocrats and bureaucrats are busily striving to establish further hegemony for industrial food through new rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FMSA). These 600 pages of proposed rules tend to favor indsutrial-scale operations, and to place onerous burdens on small and moderate-scale organic and agroecological farm operations.

5. Mechanistic Metaphysics. My fifth macro objection is to the widely held corporate-scientific materialist yang notion that mechanistic “fixes” can and will trump nature. The industrial food juggernaut strives for control and domination, and apparently rejects the possibility of working in respectful relationship with nature.

free willWe see this kind of thinking embodied, for example, in many CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). The animals, crowded together, are systematically injected with antibiotics and growth hormones at a notoriously high rate according to reports from a Reuters investigative team. Eighty percent of all antibiotics used in America are given not to human beings directly, but rather to the animals that we human beings eat. This practice of food-chain drug abuse is giving rise to superbugs that directly impact human health.

circleoflifmalsWith thousands of pigs, chickens, or beef cattle all crowded together and essentially treated as Units of Production in ruthlessly efficient industrialized settings, the creatures tend to be disregarded as individual, sentient beings, even though they are. Animals are our relatives, part of the Sacred Hoop or Circle of Life. They merit basic respect.

As with the CAFO meat factories, similarly utilitarian and materialistic ethics and procedures hold sway in the realms of micro and nano manipulations of processed food. The subjugation of living interests to the impersonal mechanisms of corporate profit-seeking by the artificial, mechanical “person” or “citizen” that is the modern corporation is establishing a chain of troubling consequences for the environment and human health.

This mechanical material approach of corporately striving to trump nature arises in a realm of abstract thinking. It’s devoid of connection to soul of the world and of human beings. It’s a kind of automatic intelligence, often disguised as science, yet so rigid and narrow as to disregard half or more of whatever it considers. The world is just not a material conglomeration of bits and mechanical processes open to ongoing exploitation. There are consequences.

6. Obsfucation. My sixth macro objection is to the obscured nature of the whole corporate enterprise. Almost all of this stuff that’s happening to our food is lacking in transparency, but is patented to ensure corporate profit and control. Without full-time vigilance – a challenge far beyond the capability of almost every citizen consumer – you cannot know what the chemical, bioscience, agriculture and industrial processing conglomerates are doing to the land and to the material substances they sell us as food.

Integrity of Body, Mind & Soul
I choose to stand on — and to eat from — conservative turf.  I also choose in my own life to buy, or to grow, and to consume what I have come to call “agrarian food.” By that term I mean to suggest food that is clean, that is grown with organic or agroecological techniques. I cultivate a large organic garden and I buy clean, natural food that is grown with sustainable organic, biodynamic, or agroecological techniques from a co-op (Open Harvest), which does business with over 100 local farms, and that I and my fellow townspeople own and manage for the benefit of our community.

Agroecological growing techniques have long, established solid track records for environmental and dietary excellence. Even the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is now declaring definitively that the world must change from  radically polluting, petroleum-based industrial ag practices to sustainable agricultural systems as the heart of our efforts to manage climate chaos. Agroecological approaches have become so sophisticated and dependable in recent decades, that they can supply all the clean food necessary to feed the world. And they can do it while improving soil, air, and water quality, helping to stabilize Earth’s climate, and enhancing human physical and mental health.

There is genuine 21st century wisdom in knowing your farmer, or in knowing where and how your food was grown and processed, or in having some kind of food firewall that gives you information and allows you to make informed choices for yourself and your family. Of this I am certain.

For the moment co-ops, CSAs, Farmers Markets and the burgeoning local food movement are the firewalls, and the clear choice for people who recognize the troubling mish mash of patented mechanical material corporate factors, ethics and practices at work on our daily sustenance, and who choose something that is clean, more natural, more full of life.


Historic Pivot Point for Food Democracy

April 24, 2014
Dr. Vandana Shiva. Photo by Dominik Hundhammer, from Wikimedia Commons.

Dr. Vandana Shiva. Photo by Dominik Hundhammer, Wikimedia Commons.

“Something is happening at this point in history,” Katherine Kelly said as she brought to conclusion an April 17 lecture by international farm activist Dr. Vandana Shiva. “We are at a point in time where we can make an important change. Dr. Shiva is helping to lead the way. The rest is up to us.”

Kelly, the Executive Director of Cultivate Kansas City, articulated an overarching context for Shiva’s acute critique of the food system as well as her inspirational entreaties.

The context of Shiva’s presentation was further framed by three signal events. National Geographic had just published a cover story focused on the increasingly pertinent “New Food Revolution.” Meanwhile, more significantly, US merchandizing behemoth Walmart announced a program to create an industrialized organic food production system that they intend to use to “drive down the price of organic food.” The same week merchandizing rival Target Corp. also announced it was increasing its offerings of “natural, organic and sustainable” food.

Love Window CROPPED and STRAIGHTENEDIn counterpoint to these industrial-scale, profit-focused initiatives, when Dr. Shiva took the stage at Unity Temple in Kansas City, she swept her arm back, gesturing to a stained-glass window with a star burst and the word love spelled out. “That’s it,” she said. “Love. Love is the altar. It’s all about love, about bestowing attention, fostering, cherishing, honoring, tending, guarding, and loving the Earth which provides our food. The only way we can cultivate that essential ingredient of love is with community and diversity.”

The 61-year-old physicist, ecologist and author from Delhi, India then served up a penetrating deconstruction of the mechanistic mindset and the industrial food system it has spawned. This is the same mindset Walmart and Target now intend to apply to organic food.

“For a short time,” Shiva said, “the mechanistic mind has projected onto the world the false idea that food production is and must be of necessity an industrial activity. That’s a world view that is in profound error.”

“When food becomes a commodity it loses its quality, its taste, and its capacity to provide true nutrition,” she said. Industrial agriculture turns the earth into units of production, farmers into high-tech sharecroppers, and is the single biggest contributor to our declining environment. She said industrial agriculture distorts the proper relationship between humans and the natural world.

* * * * * * * *

A physicist by training, Dr. Shiva became an activist for small-scale, decentralized sustainable agriculture in 1987. That’s when she acquired insight into the motivation behind industrial farming and genetic engineering. She attended a conference on biotechnology and heard representatives of chemical corporations say that they must do genetic engineering on crops because it is a way to start claiming ownership over life.

“If we can claim ownership,” the corporate representatives reasoned according to Shiva, “then we can then collect rent or royalties on the seeds’ capacity to reproduce themselves.”

Shiva argued that it is absurd that corporations are allowed to codify life as a patentable and profitable form. “GMO,” she said, “has come to mean ‘God Move Over.’ It violates the rights of the Earth, the rights of the farmers, and the rights of the people who need to eat food to live. The patenting of life violates every principle of law and ethics and morality.”

278187This kind of one-dimensional, profit-based thinking is the core of what Shiva wrote about in her seminal 1993 book, Monocultures of the Mind. Coming at the subject from her mastery of particle physics and her understanding of the fundamental inseparability of all facets of life, she concluded that “issues about environment, economics and politics are inter-related through the way humans interact with their surroundings and with each other.”

Shiva argues in her book and in her lectures that a mechanical monocultural mindset has led to vicious circle of injurious impacts in the realms of farms, food and the environment.

“A monoculture of the mind in the economic system is what has led to corporate globalization,” she said in her Kansas City talk. “A monoculture of the mind makes it appear as if the only market that there is, is the globalized market controlled by the global giants, whereas the real market, and the real economy, are the economies of nature. That is where local food movements and systems are becoming the solution to the multiple crises created by the monoculture monopoly system.”

Our mainstream food system is designed by corporate entities having a responsibility to shareholders, investors, and private owners, she said. The bottom line is the almighty dollar. But in maximizing certain kinds of production, we are systematically ‘weeding out’ other kinds of life.

Through the monoculture of the mind we have been establishing what Shiva termed an “Empire of Man” over the earth and lesser creatures (which for people immersed in the monoculture of the mind also includes women and indigenous peoples). It constitutes an attempt at a mechanistic takeover of the universe.

“Diversity has everything to do with food,” Shiva said. “In fact, any system that is not a diversified agriculture system is something else. It’s an industrial system that is producing non-food, food that is unworthy of being eaten and that is creating huge problems in health. Real food provides the diversity of nutrients that our body needs – the trace elements, the micronutrients…Diversity creates decentralization, and decentralization creates democracy.”

Having greater diversity of seeds and of local, smaller-scale farms and food processing operations creates a wealth of options, Shiva said. “We need to intensify diversity and biology, and we can do that only through love.”

Diversity loves diversity, because it is freedom. This, she has said, is a political act, a kind of revolution. To further that revolution, and to save seeds in her home nation of India, Shiva founded Navdanya, a nonprofit organization named for the nine crops that provide food security in India.

* * * * * * * *

With Dr. Shiva’s analysis in mind, one cannot help but question the impact and outcome of Walmart’s and Target’s announced intentions to aggressively exploit what Wall Street financial analysts have branded as “the hot organic market.”

Doubtless some good will arise from increasing the number of farms using chemical-free growing practices, and the wider availability of food with decreased chemical contaminants. But the entry of such large-scale corporate players into a traditionally modest-scale and decentralized endeavor is a game changer. It’s also representative of the industrial mindset that Vandana Shiva – and advocates of food democracy – regard as profoundly troubling.

The burgeoning interest of people in clean, local food, and the accelerated entry of Walmart and Target into the realm of organic food and sustainable agriculture, establishes a critical pivot point for the food democracy movement.

As farmer John Peterson of Angelic Organics recently explained to me, farmers get beat in to the ground when they work for prices set by wholesalers, and must struggle to make their mortgage, equipment and labor payments and all the rest.

When retailers and wholesalers are in command – as they are in industrial-scale operations – efficiency and profitability become the dominant values. Farmers are contracted under these values and thereby relegated to the role of corporate vassals, laboring in servitude to fulfill the terms of contract on quantity, quality, timing, and pricing – all factors that have little to do with nature or with the rising spirit of the food democracy movement.

“You cannot have the stewards of the land struggling under that much pressure,” farmer Peterson told me. “A farm is not just an economic unit to produce food. It’s also a living social, environmental and educational organism. It cannot be thought of as just a unit of economic production. That just commodifies the farms and farmers, as food is commodified also.”

Cultivate KC Director Katherine Kelly and Dr. Shiva.

Cultivate KC Director Katherine Kelly and Dr. Shiva.

This is one of the key points Vandana Shiva strove to get across in her Kansas City visit. We have arrived at a pivot point for the food democracy movement. We need a fundamental transformation in the way we regard and relate to farms and food. An industrial-scale monoculture of the mind, and a monoculture of putative organic farms and food, are unlikely to fulfill this ideal. Instead they present a complex range of potentially corrupting possibilities.

“We need to cultivate freedom, to cultivate hope, to cultivate diversity,” Shiva told the Kansas City audience. “We need to build the direct relationship between those who grow the food and those who eat it. Care for people has to be the guiding force for how we produce, process, and distribute our food.”

“We need to shift the paradigm of economics to measure the well being of people,” she said, “not the profits of the oligarchs.”

Shiva spoke about the drastic climate changes underway, and also the corporate hegemony at work around the world. “Our responses must be quick, but not desperate, and also simple,” she said. “Simplicity is the highest order – the simplicity of good food, safe food, and food produced and consumed in love. This can only come out of community. Cultivate compassion, love and food democracy. Food democracy is about action, changing the way we eat every time we take a bite. It’s about people learning, engaging and acting in our food systems.”

“Every movement for human freedom throughout history has needed people to lead, people who stand for love and for higher law. That’s the challenge we face now,” Shiva said. “That is what we need.”

The Kansas City audience of about 1,200 people gave Dr. Shiva a standing ovation.

The Kansas City audience of about 1,200 people gave Dr. Shiva a standing ovation.


Bowl of BioPhotons or Crock of Corporate Life Forms?

April 20, 2013

cherrykirilian

What would you like for breakfast: a bowl of fresh, clean organic food naturally radiating the golden goodness of the Sun (aka biophotons), or a crock bulging with lab-engineered, genetically-modified, profit-patented, corporately-owned, food product (aka “novel life forms”)?

Unbidden, this queer question came to the forefront for me last week when two stories arrived all but simultaneously in my email in-box. One story was about novel genetically engineered life forms, and the other was about biophotons. I found the distinctions starkly dismaying.

First I read news from The Cornucopia Institute that Monsanto and DSM Nutritional Products are soon likely to be constructing even more “novel life forms” such as genetically engineered algae, processed with synthetic petrochemical-based solvents, then incorporating these substances, more or less surreptitiously, into “food products.”

If they follow what has so far been their standard corporate operating procedure, these concocted substances will be disseminated without labels or any other way for people to understand what they are ingesting.

In this unsettling, unknowable manner is the industrial food chain being relentlessly infiltrated with “novel life forms” generated in laboratories away from the light of the sun, and owned not by nature, but by corporations. For this I have no appetite.

Then I read about biophotons. Turns out that’s a word for describing the smallest known units of light. Biophotons are sparks of life within biological systems, and best explained by quantum mechanics: subatomic phenomena that exhibit properties of both waves and particles.

Biophotons are used by and stored in all organisms, including the food we eat, the water we drink, and our bodies. When our food is vibrant with high-quality life energy (biophotons), that energy – not just the material substance of vitamins and minerals — is absorbed into our bodies.

The existence and the importance of this basic life force has been known for centuries in China where it is spoken of as chi, in Japan where it is known as ki, in India where the ancient Sanskrit term is prana, and by various terms among many of the native peoples of the Americas.

In recent decades, the reality of the animating life force has been increasingly recognized in Western science. Physicist Fritz-Albert Popp, Ph.D., of Marburg University, researched and named this phenomenon as biophotons – particles of light that infuse life.

Dr. Popp was among the first Western investigators to indicate that this light must come, at least in part, from the foods we eat. The more light a food is able to store, the more nutritious it is.

plant-kirilianNaturally grown fresh fruits and vegetables, for example, are rich in biophotons. It’s obvious. You need not be a mystic who can see auras to understand. The reality of light waves, or biophoton energy, is obvious to any receptive and discerning eye.

Biophotons elevate the organism – such as your physical body – to a higher oscillation. As I read that, basically, if you eat fresh, clean food grown on healthy natural land, you support your body at a higher, healthier vibe.

Our bodies are made up not just of organs, tissue, and blood vessels, but are also composed of light. Biophotons enliven, order and regulate living organisms.

The greater your supply of light force from fresh, clean foods, the greater the vitality of your overall electromagnetic field (aura), and consequently the more energy available for maintaining optimal health. In matters biophotonic, quality as much as quantity is key.

Physicist Popp theorizes that the biophoton light emissions of healthy people follow biological rhythms, and that those rhythms are connected to the measureable biorhythms of the earth. There is a direct correlation and an active resonance amidst land, food, and people.

Clean, healthy land tended organically or Biodynamically gives rise to clean healthy food rich in biophotons (chi, ki, prana, life energy). It’s that simple. Starkly simple.


The Roots of Good Health Are Anchored in the Land

March 2, 2013

grass-roots

“Let food be thy medicine,
and medicine be thy food.” –
 Hippocrates

Healthy land is the key to healthy food; thus, inevitably it’s also the key to healthy human beings.

The famous Greek physician of antiquity, Hippocrates – often called the father of western medicine – drew attention to this health key over 2,000 years ago when he authored On Airs, Waters, and Places.

Hippocrates argued that disease was not a punishment inflicted by the gods but rather the product of environmental factors: diet, habits, and the land where you live.

As observation over time shows, clean, vibrant land that is intelligently, organically cultivated constitutes an oasis of health on the face of the earth. The land’s health radiates to everything around, as well as everything that banquets from the land’s bounty arising. Conversely, unhealthy, polluted, chemically saturated land — and  the food raised from it — trend health on a numbing downward spiral.

roots-silhouetteIn a time of increasing impact from climate instability and swiftly rising food prices, we can no longer leave the care of the land that sustains us, and the production from it of our food  – to less than 1% of the population. That’s how few of us are active farmers — the human beings who serve as ambassadors to the earth for all of us.  They touch the land on our behalf. Depending on how we have invested our money to secure our food, the ambassadors work either great good or great harm upon the land.

The land is calling out with thunder as we approach planting season 2013. We are called to listen now and to respond creatively by establishing thousands more networked oases of clean, organically cultivated land, or by directly and actively supporting the farmer ambassadors touching the land for us via the many thousands of 21st Century agrarian initiatives already at work to sink the roots of good health deep into the land.


Cereal Crimes: the Bottom of the Breakfast Bowl

October 18, 2011

Parents, children, anyone who routinely sits down to eat a bowl of breakfast cereal, will want to take a look at the new report on ‘Cereal Crimes‘ released by the Cornucopia Institute.

The report makes plain the sharp and important difference between cereals that are actually grown and produced with clean, sustainable, organic methods and materials, and those cereals marketed with the vague and often misleading label ‘natural.’

The term ‘natural’ on a food product should, at this point, simply raise questions for consumers, who will want to read the product label more carefully. What is really in it?

In the USA there are no restrictions whatsoever for foods labeled “natural.” According to Cornucopia, the term often denotes little more than marketing hype from companies seeking to exploit consumer desire for clean food produced in a genuinely sustainable manner. So called ‘natural’ products may well be grown with chemicals and include genetically engineered grains or other ingredients.

If you eat cereal, or if your children do, you will want to check Cornucopia’s online Cereal Scorecard to see how your favorite brands have been rated.


The Dangerously Deranged Ethics of Biotech Ag

September 3, 2011

My unease about genetically engineered crops and animals dates back to the beginning. I had immediate concerns in the late 1980s and early 90s as I began to learn about the technology and associated marketplace machinations. Over the following decades as more and more facts emerged my concerns deepened.

Then just a couple of weeks ago my misgivings were rudely provoked to the forefront when I read an op-ed column by Nina Federoff, published in The New York Times. Her column amounted to a fact-deficient apologia for the GMO industry, and an exhortation to charge heedlessly forward with genetically engineered food. For me, and for millions of other people, this is a massively deranged and dangerous proposition.

So many factors are coming to a head now. Widespread famine, a global land grab, soaring food prices, a horde of profit-mad speculators, drought on the scale of the Dust Bowl, a host of other wildly wobbling environmental events, and a huge, well-organized, well-funded propaganda push by corporate industrial agriculture to claim that the only sensible way forward is with genetic engineering and its allied cauldron of petrochemical-based herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides. But it’s not the only way forward. It is, instead, a profoundly perilous pathway encouraged by what I regard as dangerously deranged ethics.

After the Times published Federoff’s column, well-reasoned rebuttals came swiftly from Anna Lappe writing for Civil Eats, from Tom Philpott in Grist, and from Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, Senior Scientist, Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA). Individually and collectively, their articles constitute a convincing, fact-backed refutation of Federoff’s claims for GMO safety and suitability. They effectively assert the case for a global 21st century agrarian vision of human-scale organic sustainable farms and food.

Their responses to the Times column deepened my understanding of why it’s fundamentally important to advance clean natural organic practices and products. They also impelled me to consider again my anxiety about the deranged ethics evidenced in the GMO industry: utter disregard of the baseline Precautionary Principle, repeated roughshod override of human free will, and a radically impudent abnegation of the Seventh Generation teaching.

Seventh Generation Teaching

Tipi for the Prayer Vigil for the Earth at the Washington Monument. All people of all traditions are welcome. This year the Vigil is set for September 30 - October 2, 2011 in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of The Circle.

In the market-driven rush to bring GMO crops into the fields and thence into the people, I see forces and institutions fundamentally averse to the common sense teaching of the Seventh Generation. That precept — native to North America — holds that leaders are responsible for considering the impact of their decisions on the seventh generation yet to come.

Most memorably, I heard the seven generations teaching expounded by Leon Shenandoah, the late elder and chief in service to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Six Nations).  I shook hands and spoke with Leon in 1995 in a ring of tipis set up for the annual, ecumenical Prayer Vigil for the Earth at the base of the Washington Monument in our U.S. capital city.

“Look behind you,” Grandfather Leon said. “See your sons and your daughters. They are your future. Look farther and see your sons’ and your daughters’ children and their children’s children even unto the Seventh Generation. That’s the way we were taught. Think about it: you yourself are a Seventh Generation.”

Another Six Nations elder, Oren Lyons, has commented, “As a general injunction to live responsibly and respectfully, and as a practical guide to specific moral decision-making, the seventh generation principle may be without equal.”

I agree. I look around and I see that just one generation has passed since the widespread introduction of GMO crops. Already potentially catastrophic problems have begun to arise by the bushel. These are amply documented in the rebuttals to Federoff’s column.

Free Will

A second troubling realm of GMO industry ethics and practices involves the ongoing violation of human free will. From the outset, the industry has insisted and aggressively lobbied to make sure there are never any identifying labels on GMO products.

The American public does not, and never has had, any way to actively choose, or actively avoid GMO food. The real nature of the food is hidden, and consumers have no opportunity whatsoever for informed consent about the nature of the food they feed themselves and their children.

Out of respect for the sacrosanct nature of human free will, we should be able to know the truth of the food that is set before us. But we do not know this in 2011, nor can we. There are no identifying labels to let people know they are eating genetically engineered food. Our free will, thus, is continually disregarded and disrespected.

In response to this abuse, many citizens and organizations are actively advocating the labeling of all genetically engineered foods: to restore for consumers a free-will choice in the marketplace. You can begin to learn about the burgeoning movement for labeling GMO foods at the Non-GMO Project, and at the Truth in Labeling project.

Precautionary Principle

The Precautionary Principle is a simple and sensible ethical guideline. It holds that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those promoting the product or action. In other words, you must establish that your action or product will not cause harm before you promulgate it and actually cause irreversible harm to human beings or to the natural world essential to life.

This common-sense principle is a statutory requirement in the law of the European Union, but not in the USA. The USA has, in fact, lobbied actively and secretly — without citizen knowledge or approval — to pressure European governments to ease or overlook legitimate objections to genetically engineered food.

Mounting Evidence

The evidence continues to mount that GMO technologies and practices are causing profound harm. Respected agricultural researchers are repeatedly raising serious concerns.

In mid-August Robert Kremer, a microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, told a Kansas City audience that repeated use of the chemical glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup herbicide, adversely impacts plant roots.

He said also that fifteen years of research indicates that the chemical is causing harmful changes in soil, and potentially reducing yields of the genetically modified crops that dominate vast acreage in North America and elsewhere around the world.

Research shows that genetically engineered crops do not, in fact, yield more than conventional crops, he said. Nutrient deficiencies tied to the root disease problems are likely a limiting factor for crop yield, as is the burgeoning plague of poison-resistant Superweeds unleashed by the overuse of chemical herbicides used on GMO crops. Further and alarmingly, news reports revealed this week that researchers are now finding significant levels of the poison widely infesting both the water and the air of farm states.

Meanwhile, Michael McNeill, an agronomist who owns Ag Advisory Ltd. in Algona, Iowa, has pointed out that scientists are seeing new, alarming patterns in plants and animals due to increased use of glyphosate on GMO crops. “When you spray glyphosate on a plant, ” McNeill has said, “it’s like giving it AIDS.”

McNeill reports that he and his colleagues are seeing a higher incidence of infertility and early-term abortion in cattle and hogs that are fed on GM crops. He adds that poultry fed on the suspect crops have been exhibiting reduced fertility rates.

Ominously, the warnings of these scientists echo what Purdue University professor emeritus Don Huber has been saying: “I believe the threat we are facing from this pathogen (nurtured in the context of GMO crops and glyphosate) is unique and of a high-risk status…it should be treated as an emergency.”

Huber said he sees the GMO-glyphosate industrial ag complex as having led to an increase in cancers of the liver, thyroid, kidneys, and skin melanomas, as well as sharp increases in allergic reactions in general,  and an increase on an epidemic-scale in the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Ethos and Mythos

Corporations, universities, and governments are racing blithely forward as if the benefits and safety of GMO technology are above question. But for anyone paying attention now, that is clearly not so. A comprehensive 2011 literature review documents the reality that nothing is settled. The GMO debate is still wide open.

The authors of the literature review reported that most studies claiming that GM foods are as nutritional and as safe as those obtained by conventional breeding, have been performed by biotechnology companies or associates. They conclude: “the controversial debate on GMOs…remains completely open at all levels.”  That conclusion should raise ethical red flags for everyone.

The words ethos and ethics derive from the Greek root ethikos, meaning moral, and it’s the root of our modern term for moral competence. While ethics may be individual, ethos is communal and arises out of common experience and insight. It denotes a characteristic spirit—the guiding beliefs and values of a team, a company, a tribe, or a nation.

As we confront radically changing circumstances in our economy, energy supply, and food chain, we have an opportunity to change and reconstitute our ethos and the way we live with the land.  The corporate, university, and government institutions that comprise industrial biotech agriculture have embraced an ethos of speed, efficiency, and profit and as a consequence created an environmental behemoth of threatening mien. Yet we have potential to make a deliberate shift to embrace a conservative but enlightened ethos not just out of necessity, but also out of wisdom. Perhaps mythos will be a factor in bringing about this urgently necessary shift.

Forty years ago a small group of citizens — seeing profound harm being inflicted upon the natural world that supports human life, and impelled by their shared ethos — formed the nucleus of Greenpeace.

While the actions of that seed group were mandated by immediate realities, much of their inspiration came from the realm of mythos — specifically, the legend of the rainbow warriors. The myth tells of how in a time of great peril, people of all colors and faiths — in response to ominous degradation and disturbance of the natural world that supports us all — band together peacefully and give birth to a clean world based on principles of respect. That modern myth is so powerful and offers so much hope that as a journalist I’ve been drawn to write about it repeatedly in several nonfiction books: Legend of the Rainbow Warriors, Odyssey of the 8th Fire, and most recently in Tales of the Whirling Rainbow.

Greenpeace long ago embraced a life-preserving ethos including the Precautionary Principle, respect for human free will, and the teaching of the Seventh Generation. The orrganization has called for a ban on all genetically engineered crop field trials in Australia and elsewhere.

A new report from Greenpeace and GM Freeze analyzes almost 200 independent and peer-reviewed scientific studies. Those studies show that the culture of genetically engineered food and its chemical supplements has serious problems, and is linked with upsurges in rates of cancer, birth defects and neurological illnesses including Parkinson’s. This study also echoes resoundingly the sharp warnings of Don M. Huber.

As The Wall Street Journal noted in a recent article about Greenpeace, an emerging consensus among eco-activists is that environmentalism is now a matter of life and death. It is in this alarming context that new executive director Kumi Naidoo and all of Greenpeace are preparing this month to mark their 40anniversary with the launch of Rainbow Warrior III, a successor to the group’s famous flagship sunk by the French government in 1985.

Perhaps the new ship —  a visible manifestation of the mythos and a powerful action-oriented expression of a wisdom-based ethos — will help spark and encourage a necessary moral evolution in citizens, governments, universities and corporations.

The new Rainbow Warrior III will be launched this month to mark the 40th anniversary of Greenpeace, fusing mythos and ethos.


Sacred Tobacco Teachings Illuminate Bee Colony Collapse Catastrophe

April 23, 2011

© 2011 – by Steven McFadden

Poster by Meghan Stratham for a screening of 'Queen of the Sun' - Ross Theater, Lincoln, Nebraska.

In bleakly immense numbers, billions of bees, birds and bats continue to perish. These massive, mysterious pollinator exterminations are steadily stinging our food supply and the whole of the natural world.

One out of every three bites of food that we consume is directly linked to pollinators. Thus, as the bees go, so go we.

While the precise cause of bee colony collapse is still argued, clues continue to emerge. Suspects still include mites, viruses, funguses, chemicals, genetically modified plants and associated pathogens, as well as EMF radiation from wireless technology.

According to a widely noted paper in the journal PLoS One, an active part of the problem is a tag-team consisting of a virus and a fungus. Exactly how these micro-entities kill bees remains uncertain. However, researchers did confirm that both the virus and the fungus have their impact in the bee gut. Somehow, the bees’ guts are being rendered vulnerable; then the virus and fungus have their fatal impact.

As for beekeepers, they are increasingly convinced that an underlying cause of this gut-weakening, global death plague is a family of insecticides called neonicotinoids. They are chemicals which mimic the form and function of nicotine, the naturally occurring alkaloid in tobacco. In synthetic, chemical form the neonicotinoids are sprayed on seeds or crops to keep them clear of marauding insects.

By now the neonicotinoids, in combination with a ‘chemical soup‘ of other substances, are widely believed to be a major player in losses being described collectively as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). (See recent comments on this from the USDA top bee scientist.)

Note well the tobacco aspect of this story. It may prove key to a multitude of mysteries. For thousands of years tobacco has been recognized in native North America as chief of the plant world. It is the first and most important plant.

As chief of the plant realm, tobacco can be employed for great good, or for great harm. This has been understood for generations. In this context, the widespread, commercial use of manufactured, synthetic, chemical tobacco — a substance reduced to a base material form — appears as a matter of resounding agricultural and spiritual significance.

Subtle Mysteries

Mystery lives in the hive. Bees emerging from the hexagonal form of their homes, guided by the position of the Sun, are drawn into engagement with life via the colors and fragrances of flowers. From the exquisite forms of the flowers they draw the dew-moistened essences of nectar and pollen. This they refine within their bodies into the warming, golden, hive-filling elixir that is honey, a sublime food.

Queen of the Sun, a new film opening May 13 in Lincoln — and on other dates around North America this spring — explores the bee, hive, honey, and pollination mysteries with art and intelligence. The film is being widely praised for its nature cinematography, and for serving up insights both scientific and esoteric.

Queen of the Sun explores how our natural, rhythmic relationship with bees has been fundamentally altered by mechanized, chemicalized, and edgily efficient industrial practices. The film explores also the possibilities and pathways of human beings responding intelligently and helpfully to the death murmurings of the bees by restoring our lands to full, natural, organic health and vitality, while also reorienting bee-keeping practices.

The bee mysteries explored in the film, in combination with the suspected role of neonicotinoids in the collapse of the bees, put me strongly in mind of traditional Native teachings about tobacco. Having traveled and studied with Native elders for nearly 40 years, I am aware of some of the core cultural and spiritual understandings about tobacco, and I regard them as significant.

Because tobacco is understood to play such a key role in the natural world and in human life, and because the derangement and collapse of the bee colonies is so important to our survival, the subject merits both physical and metaphysical study.

The Four Sacred Medicines

As held in the millennia-old teachings of Turtle Island (North America), tobacco is appreciated as the first plant that Creator gave to the human beings. Tobacco, part of the nightshade family of plants, has a special role, and is chief among the plants — the most significant medicine. Three other plants, sage, cedar and sweetgrass, follow tobacco. Together, since antiquity, they have been spoken of as the four sacred medicines.

As the ancient teachings maintain, tobacco was given to human beings so people could communicate with the spirit world. Said to be powerful beyond contemporary reckoning, tobacco opens the portal allowing that communication to take place in a safe, conscious, and wholesome manner. Traditional people say “always through tobacco.” Tobacco is always first, used as an offering for most everything and in every ceremony.

Tobacco has been used for many generations as offerings of gratitude, for planting, for harvesting, for healings and for acknowledgments. Tobacco pathways streaming prayerful thoughts have characteristic qualities of respect, protection and healing. Tobacco is Big Medicine, Chief Medicine, the main activator of all the plant relatives.

In the past, the naturally occurring alkaloid of nicotine from the tobacco plant was used as an insecticide. In our era a synthetic form of nicotine — the neonicotinoid family of chemical insecticides — has come into wide use. Those commercially sold nicotine analogs bear names such as clothianidin, imidacloprid, nitenpyram, and thiamethoxam.

Using tobacco with wisdom brings protection and communication; using tobacco without wisdom is exceedingly dangerous. Most people are aware of how habitually smoking and inhaling the plant leads to acute health problems, often to cancerous death.

Correspondingly, using a reductionist synthetic form of tobacco as an agricultural or backyard insecticide can lead — and many beekeepers believe is leading — to sickness and death for our essential bee relatives.

Correspondences

Queen Bee

Queen of the Sun notes that the pollinator catastrophe of today was foreseen as early as 1923. That’s when, in a series of lectures entitled “The Bees,” Rudolf Steiner stated that within 80 to 100 years we would see the consequences of our tendency to mechanize the hive forces that had previously operated organically.

Born in Austria (1861–1925), Steiner made his mark as a literary and philosophical scholar credited with dozens of important observations and initiatives. He gave the starting impulse for the biodynamic approach to agriculture. He indicated that as a consequence of meddling with hives, manipulating the queen bees (Queens of the Sun), and a generally mechanistic approach to the otherwise healthy, natural rhythms of the colonies, we would create conditions causing the mass disappearance of the bees. So it has come to pass.

One of Steiner’s related ideas was that an essential spiritual requirement of the modern age is to be aware of the increasingly powerful influence of regressive, materialistic impulses which tend to numb or deaden the living spirit. He cautioned that if mechanical strategies of efficiency were imposed upon the hives, they would wither and fail. With the widespread  use of chemicals, and mechanistic processes such as interrupting brood production, artificial insemination of queens, and clipping queens’ wings, the complex masterpiece of the hive has been tamed into its modern condition.

In metaphysics, the doctrine of analogy and correspondence is the classic approach for exploring the relationship between natural and spiritual realms. The doctrine posits that as the whole of existence is one, all parts are in relationship with all other parts, and different levels (realms or worlds) have correspondences. The parts of the whole are in relationship with one another, and we can learn something about a given realm by examining the corresponding part in another realm.

The ancient Hermetic teachings expressed this doctrine of correspondence in the familiar maxim, “As above, so below; as below, so above.”

In this context, consider the synthetic forms of nicotine-tobacco, the neonicotinoids. They are created in a manufacturing plant as a chemical that mimics some of the properties of natural, sacred tobacco, and then used to protect plants by killing insects.

Head - Hive

Neonicotinoids act as neurotoxins. Bees exposed to them — especially in the context of the modern day ‘chemical soup’ in the environment — exhibit symptoms similar to humans afflicted with neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. They become deranged: normal mind and body functions are disturbed. Derangement leads to progressive paralysis which leads to death.

As derangement and colony collapse surge in the realm of the bees, we can meanwhile observe a corresponding surge — of staggering proportions — in the realm of human beings afflicted with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

As with the bees being negatively impacted by chemicals, a mounting list of studies shows the connection between other chemicals and the soaring rates of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

These observations stand as no absolute, physical scientific proof of a connection. But as apparent correspondences, they absolutely merit metaphysical consideration.

Stark Realities

The whole picture of bee colony collapse was cast in the light of stark reality on March 11. That’s when the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published a report entitled Global Honey Bee Colony Disorders and Other Threats to Insects. According to that report, “The increasing use of chemicals in agriculture, including systemic insecticides and those used to coat seeds, is being found to be damaging or toxic to bees.”

This decline of bee populations, the UNEP report adds, has serious consequences for global food security. Beekeeper Gunther Hauk, who is featured in Queen of the Sun, observes that “colony collapse disorder and the decline of the honeybee is more important even than global warming. Without pollinators doing their tireless work, we wouldn’t have our flowering world, nor 40% of the food we eat and drink.”

Despite numerous red flags, the droning rattle of bee death may grow louder yet this year as farm fields are planted in North America. Despite UN warnings, despite outright bans in Europe, and despite beekeeper protests in the USA, the EPA is again allowing the use of neonicotinoids in 2011.

Late in 2010, thanks to an internal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) memo that came to light via Wikileaks, beekeepers learned that EPA scientists were reporting that a crucial study for the insecticide clothianidin — one of the most widely used neonicotinoids — had been downgraded from “acceptable” to “supplemental.”

The memo stated: “[S]tudies to honey bees show that clothianidin is highly toxic on both a contact and an oral basis….When bees consume guttation (dew drops) collected from plants grown from neonicotinoid-coated seeds they encounter death within a few minutes.”

The leaked EPA memo recommended that a new field study be undertaken along with at least one other study to ensure that the clothianidin, now widely used on crops in the country’s agricultural centers, is not harmful to pollinators.

The memo also made it apparent that the EPA had allowed the neonicotinoid to stay on the market while the crucial study on the subject had been deemed inadequate. Of note, that study had been submitted to the EPA by Bayer, the multinational corporation that is both the maker and the marketer of the insecticide.

In December, right after the leak of the EPA memo, a coalition of beekeeping groups sent a letter urging the agency to issue a stop use order immediately. “Our nation cannot afford, and the environment cannot tolerate, another growing season of clothianidin use,” the letter read.

The letter to the EPA was signed by a host of heavy hitters from the realm of the bees: the National Honey Bee Advisory Board, American Honey Producers Association, American Beekeeping Federation, Pesticide Action Network of North America, Center for Biological Diversity, and Beyond Pesticides.

The groups received the EPA response to their letter on February 18, 2011. Basically, the EPA asserted that “insufficient data exists” to make a conclusive case. “Based on the EPA’s thorough review of the scientific information,” the letter reads, “EPA does not intend at this time to initiate suspension or cancellation actions against the registered used of clothianidin.”

The letter went on to say that “given the concern about the neonicotinoid class of pesticides and protection of bees, the Agency has also accelerated scheduling the comprehensive re-valuation of these pesticides…”

The die is cast for 2011 in North America. Throughout the growing season across the land, the synthetic tobacco that has aroused so much concern – even among EPA scientists — will be in full and widespread use.

Our Cumulative Power

“Who knows what losses the earth has suffered? One who, with sounds that nonetheless praise, can sing the heart born into the whole. “ – Rainer Maria Rilke

As suggested poetically by Rilke and as taught by Steiner, a first step in addressing the realm of nature is to deepen our understanding of the whole, and the web of corresponding relationships that constitute the whole. We have much to gain from penetrating the mysteries via science and intuition, and much to contribute in response if we authentically engage the call of the bees as one key chorus in the overall call of the land.

In this matter as in so many others that characterize our era, it appears that individuals of good conscience must make their own determinations, set their will, and take their own positive actions.

Toward that end, here are some suggestions for steps one might take on the path toward penetrating the mysteries and establishing conditions which allow the bees and other pollinators to prosper in good health, that we human beings may in turn prosper in good health.

  • Educate yourself about bees and the food chain. Read a book or see the film Queen of the Sun.
  • Provide habitat by planting bee-friendly flowers in your yard such as Black-Eyed Susan, Buttercups, Clematis, and Dhalias. Gardens with 10 or more bee-friendly plants support the most apian visitors.
  • Respect plants typically identified as ‘weeds.’ Plants such as dandelions and clover are popular with bees. Consider letting some of these weeds come to flower, then pull them up after they’ve gone to seed.
  • Reduce or eliminate lawn chemicals. Many lawn and garden chemicals are lethal to bees, while others may weaken their immune systems. Consider switching to integrated pest management for lawns, or using natural, organic fertilizers and biological controls.

  • Join the community of beekeepers in urging the EPA to fulfill it’s core responsibilities to protect us against toxins, derangement, and death and thereby to safeguard the nation.  Sign the petition for a National Honey Bee Day. You can print out copies of the petition if you want to seek further signatures at local garden clubs, coops, farmers markets, CSAs, and so forth.
  • Support local organic farms. They are oases of environmental health and thus sanctuaries for bees. Support local beekeepers by buying their honey.
  • Consider becoming a beekeeper yourself.  As a simple search will reveal, the Net is loaded with resources for learning.
  • Grow a tobacco plant (Nicotiana rustica)  in your yard or in a pot.  Contemplate the plant’s form and qualities
  • Offer a pinch of dried tobacco leaf to the land if it meshes with your spiritual practice. Offer, then relax and listen. Tobacco is said to help to open a path of communication, but it is not a one-way path for broadcasting thoughts and desires. We have with this practice a chance to listen to the call of the land and the creatures such as the bees, and thereby to be informed on a necessary level of relationship.
  • Check out the resources on the links page for The Call of the Land. Some of the models listed there may help you find a way to add some positive energy in response to the diminishing buzz of the bees and other pollinators.

These may all appear to be small, insignificant steps. They are not. Consider how small is the packet of pollen and nectar that an individual bee carries to the hive. In combination with the efforts of all the other bees, quarts of golden honey flow forth. Likewise, the individual and shared efforts of people to heal our relationship with the land and the hives brings a cumulative, healing power more fully into the world.

– END –


Flurry of Articles on GM Farms & Foods

April 2, 2011

In the the days following the story published on this blog — Latter-day Luther Nails Troubling Thesis to GM Farm & Food Citadels) — the national press has demonstrated re-vitalized interest in the controversy surrounding Dr. Don M. Huber and his hypotheses on Genetically Modified (GM) crops and the herbicide glyphosate used in conjunction with those crops.

AP sent out a story primarily focused on critics of Don M. Huber, Ph.D. and his hypotheses about how genetically modified crops and  glyphosate may be causing a critically problematic pathogen to spread through the food chain, resulting in heath problems for plants, animals, and people.

Los Angeles Times reporter P.J. Huffstutter offered a balanced, comprehensive, insightful report today on this  controversy in an article headlined: Plant Disease Raises Questions on Modified CropsThe Times reported: “Though the science behind Huber’s claims is far from settled — and Huber has refused to make public any evidence of his claims — his letter has intensified the battle between those who believe technology is the only way to feed a ballooning global population and those who are increasingly fearful that biotechnology is resulting in food that is nutritionally lacking and environmentally dangerous.

The Idaho Statesman also weighed in on the subject today. Huber told the paper that the soil and pathogen data his critics are seeking is being prepared for publication. It will be presented for wide-open scientific scrutiny “within a very few months,” the paper quoted Huber as saying.

Meanwhile, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), arguing that the agency’s recent unrestricted approval of genetically engineered (GE), “Roundup Ready” Alfalfa was unlawful.  The GE crop is engineered to be immune to the herbicide glyphosate, which Monsanto markets as Roundup. The plaintiffs include a diverse coalition of conventional and organic farmers, dairies and agricultural associations, and environmental and consumer groups.

A new paper published in Environmental Sciences Europe reviews 19 studies of mammals fed GM soybean and corn as well as raw data from another one on rats. The paper comes to a red-flag conclusion: GM crops disrupt animals’ livers & kidneys. More independent study is needed, the paper argues.


Latter-Day Luther Nails Troubling Thesis to GM Farm & Food Cathedrals

March 29, 2011

© 2011 – by Steven McFadden

Don M. Huber, Ph.D.

After trucking across the high plains for five hours, and casting my eyes over perhaps 100,000 acres or more of winter’s still deathly gray industrial farmland, I came face to face with the newly famous Dr. Don M. Huber in the cave-dark meeting room of the Black Horse Inn just outside the American Heartland village of Creighton, Nebraska.

On the morning of March 24, along with about 80 farmers and Extension agents, I listened as Huber discoursed with erudition and eloquence upon industrial farming practices that may be impacting nearly every morsel of food produced on the planet, and that subsequently may also be having staggeringly serious health consequences for plants, animals, and human beings.

Huber is emeritus soil scientist of Purdue University, and a retired U.S. Army Colonel who served as an intelligence analyst, for 41 years, active and reserves. In Nebraska, he stood ramrod straight for three hours with no notes and spoke with an astonishing depth and range of knowledge on crucial, controversial matters of soil science, genetic engineering, and the profound impact of the widely used herbicide glyphosate upon soil and plants, and ultimately upon the health of animals and human beings.

Dressed in a conservative dark suit and tie, Huber set the stage for his presentation by observing that he has been married for 52 years, and has 11 children, 36 grandchildren, and a great-grandchild on the way. He then began his formal talk framed by a PowerPoint slide bearing a Biblical quote: “All flesh is grass.” – Isaiah 4:6. With this he emphasized the foundational reality that the biotech grains we eat, as well as the biotech grains eaten by cows, hogs, and chickens, are grown in vast herbicide-treated fields.

Martin Luther nails his theses to the church door.

For the domineering giants of industrial agriculture — multinational corporations, universities, and governments — Huber’s assertions about the impact of glyphosate, and the mounting scientific questions about GMO crops, may be as significant and disrupting as Martin Luther’s “heretical” act in 1517. That’s when Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany to challenge the systemic problems in the almighty institutions of his era.

Luther disputed the claim that spiritual forgiveness from sins could be legitimately sold for money. Huber and other researchers say they are accumulating evidence that — along with the 2010 report of the U.S. President’s Cancer panel which bluntly blames chemicals for the staggering prevalence of cancers — raises profoundly challenging questions about the chemical and genetic-engineering practices of industrial agriculture. The challenge, if it holds up, has implications not just for agricultural institutions, but also for the primary food chain serving the Earth’s population.

Not an altogether new controversy, the complex matters of industrial agriculture, genetic engineering and the far-flung use of herbicides have been exponentially accentuated in the last year by virtue of its ominous context: last summer’s epic oil catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, the nation-ripping 9.0 earthquake in Japan earlier this month, with its subsequent tsunami and nuclear meltdown which is contaminating the nation’s water and food chain, in combination with the statistical reality that on our planet of nearly seven billion people, over a billion human beings — one of every six of us — is hungry.

All of this was brought into prominent public focus — both sharp and fuzzy — in January of this year by the unlikely matter of alfalfa.

Challenges to the Web of Life

The seminar with Dr. Huber, sponsored by Knox County Extension and the Center for Rural Affairs, commenced on a somber note. The moderator announced that Terry Gompert, 66, a veteran Extension educator and respected advocate for sustainable agriculture, and a man who had played a key role in organizing the conference, had just suffered a massive heart attack.  A moment of silence followed before Dr. Huber began his presentation. Mr. Gompert died on March 25, the day after the conference.

Dr. Huber discusses food and safety concerns at the Black Horse Inn, Creighton, Nebraska. (Photo by S. McFadden)

At the conference, Huber’s talk was highly technical, yet he had easy command of voluminous detail. For many in the audience, it must have sounded like an alien language as he spun out the esoteric terms: zwitterion, desorbtion, translocation, rhizosphere, meristemic, speudomanads, microbiocidae, bradyrhizobium, shikimate, and more.

Huber spoke about a range of key factors involved in plant growth, including sunlight, water, temperature, genetics, and nutrients taken up from the soil. “Any change in any of these factors impacts all the factors,” he said. “No one element acts alone, but all are part of a system.”

“When you change one thing,” he said, “everything else in the web of life changes in relationship.”

That brought him to the subject of glyphosate, the most widely used herbicide around the world, and a chemical most commonly recognized in the product named Roundup®. Because it is so widely used, Huber said, it is having a profound impact upon mega millions of farm acres around the world. More than 155 million acres of cropland were treated with glyphosate during the 2008 growing season, and even more by now. Subsequently, Huber said, this chemical is having a sweeping impact on the food chain.

He asserted that glyphosate compromises plant defense mechanisms and thereby increases their susceptibility to disease. He said that it reduces the availability and uptake of essential nutrients, and that it increases the virulence of pathogens that attack plants. Ultimately, Huber said, all of these factors reduce crop vigor and yield  (Yield Drag).

Most dramatically, Huber reported on what he described as a newly discovered pathogen. While the pathogen is not new to the environment, Huber said, it is new to science. This  pathogen apparently increases in soil treated with glyphosate, he said, and is then taken up by plants, later transmitted to animals via their feed, and onward to human beings by the plants and meat they consume. The pathogen is extraordinarily small. It can be observed only via an electron microscope operating at 38,000 power of magnification. The pathogen has yet to be phenotyped (descrubed)  or named, though that work is almost complete, Huber said. He specified that all the research and data would be published in a matter of weeks.

Huber warned that ignoring these emerging realities may have dire consequences for agriculture such as rendering soils infertile, crops non-productive, and plants less nutritious.  He said it could also, and apparently already is, compromising the health and well-being of animals and humans.

The Stratosphere of Controversy

Alfalafa

What propelled Huber, glyphosate and biotech crops into the stratosphere of public attention earlier this year was a pending decision on alfalfa (hay) by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The “queen of forages,” alfalfa is the principal feedstock for the dairy industry. The USDA was being asked to approve unrestricted use of genetically engineered alfalfa seeds, which could result in as many as 20 million more acres of land being sprayed with up to 23 million more pounds of toxic herbicides each year.

Because alfalfa is pollinated by bees that fly and cross-pollinate between fields many miles apart, the biotech crop will inevitably contaminate natural and organic alfalfa varieties.

Dr. Huber wrote a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack asking for a delay in making the decision, and for the resources to do further research. In his letter, Huber raised questions about the safety of glyphosate. Huber’s letter also warned of the new pathogen, apparently related to the use of glyphosate, which appears to significantly impact the health of plants, animals, and probably human beings. He said laboratory tests have confirmed the presence of the organism in pigs, cattle and other livestock fed these crops, and that they have experienced sterility, spontaneous abortions, and infertility.

“I believe the threat we are facing from this pathogen is unique and of a high-risk status,” Huber wrote. “In layman’s terms, it should be treated as an emergency.” Vilsack set Huber’s letter aside for later consideration, and on January 27 he authorized the unrestricted commercial cultivation of genetically modified alfalfa. Immediately thereafter, the Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the USDA, charging that the agency’s approval of genetically engineered alfalfa was unlawful.

While Huber’s letter of warning was not intended for public consumption, it was leaked and immediately went viral on the Internet. In a matter of days Huber became a lightning rod, attracting intense attention from both the scientific community, and the general public, which is  understandably concerned about the genetically engineered food it has never wanted and — since GM food is unlabeled — never been able to identify. The prospect of a new and virulent pathogen sweeping through the food chain was profoundly unsettling

Meanwhile, researchers were deeply upset that they were not first notified by Huber of the new pathogen — as is customary — before the matter became public knowledge. They felt they had been blindsided. Huber says that his letter to USDA Secretary Vilsack was leaked, and thus its publication was not his doing.

Huber became the focus of tremendous pushback. His message of urgent concern and the need for delay until more research was completed was unwelcome in many corporate and university citadels, and was deemed heresy by some vested in the multi-billion dollar industry of GMO crops.

The biggest beef researchers have with Huber — who is well known in his field as a member of the American Phytopathological Society and as part of the USDA National Plant Disease Recovery System —  is that he has not yet made data available for scientific scrutiny. Many researchers, including some at Purdue, say Huber’s data and hypotheses, when studied, are not likely to hold up to peer review, and that in general his allegations are exaggerated.

When contacted for comment on Huber’s concerns, Monsanto, maker of Roundup ® (glyphosate) and producer of Roundup Ready® seeds, had their press office send me a link to a web page with a compilation of  criticisms of Huber’s work. Monsanto also sent along a copy of their official corporate statement: “Independent field studies and lab tests by multiple U.S. universities and by Monsanto prior to, and in response to, these allegations,” the statement reads in part, “do not corroborate his claims.”

Consequences

Glyphosate is a particularly strong broad-spectrum toxin with the power to kill many kinds of plants that have been designated as weeds. As a chelator, or binder, glyphosate changes the physiology and thereby makes plants susceptible to plant pathogens. Roundup Ready® plants are tolerant of glyphosate because technology inserts a new gene. While the RR plants do not die after the toxic herbicide is sprayed over farm fields, the plants do suffer a reduced efficiency in some crucial regards, according to some researchers, changing the nutrient balance in plants. When that change occurs, all subsequent relationships — including the diet of livestock and humans — is changed.

The extensive use of glyphosate and the rapid, widespread use of GM crops resistant to it, have intensified the deficiencies of essential micronutrients, and some macronutrients. This is leading, Huber argues, to weaker and more disease-prone plants, animals, and people. In his presentation, he offered a list of about 40 diseases that, he says, tend to increase in farm fields where glyphosate is used. Those plant diseases include Sun Scald, Leaf Chlorosis, Tomato Wilt, Apple Canker, Barley Root Rot, Bean Root Rot, Wheat Take All, Wheat Head Scab, Wheat Glume, and Grape Black Goo.

Subsequently, he hypothesized, the decrease in nutrients and the increase in the new pathogen in food lead to empty calories, which likely explains increases in allergies, and chronic diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

The list of diseases that Huber suspects may be affected by glyphosate and the new pathogen is, he said, increasing as growers and pathologists recognize the cause-effect relationship:

  • Increase in cancers of the liver, thyroid, kidneys, tests, and skin melanomas.
  • Increase in allergic reactions in general, and an increase of up to 50% in soybean allergies in the USA in the last three years.
  • Increase on an epidemic-scale in the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease, perhaps as much as 9,000% over the last 30 years. Specialists say they expect the incidence of Alzhiemer’s to spike far higher over the next four years.
  • Increase in the incidence of Parkinson’s disease, which researchers say, is being provoked in part by the factor of chemical pesticides.

What Has Changed?

As if it were a mantra, during his three-hour talk Dr. Huber often raised a rhetorical question: What has changed?  If all of these troubling conditions are on the rise for plants, animals and humans in recent years, then what has changed to bring it about?

The most apparent change, he answered, is that glyphosate and genetically engineered plants are out widely in the world. According to Huber, farm animals, including cattle, pigs, horses and chickens that are fed GM crops grown on glyphosate-treated fields have shown an alarming increase in sterility, spontaneous abortions, and stillbirths. By way of anecdotal evidence, he said he gets two to three communications a week from farmers and veterinarians about this troubling phenomenon. “We can no longer ignore the increase in livestock infertility, stillbirths, and spontaneous abortions over the last three to four years,” he said.

GMO feed grown on glyphosate treated fields tends to irritate the stomach of livestock, such that many farm animals are fed daily rations of bicarbonate of soda in an attempt to sooth their stomach lining. Huber showed a slide bearing images of dissected hog stomachs; one from a hog fed GMO feed and the other conventional feed. The GMO hog had a rudely inflamed mass of stomach and intestinal tissue.

A handout from Dr. Huber that was made available at the Nebraska seminar cited 117 peer-reviewed scientific studies that raise serious questions about the impact of glyphosate. These studies have reached critical mass, Huber said, and they could no longer be discounted or ignored. Yet, there are also a substantial number of studies stating that glyphosate and GMO crops are safe and ought to be the cause of no concern.

What Is this Stuff?

Glyphosate is the most used herbicide in the USA. Every year, 5 to 8 million pounds are used on lawns and yards, and another 85 to 90 million pounds are used in agriculture. It is a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide used to kill weeds, especially weeds known to compete with crops grown widely across the Midwest. Initially sold by Monsanto in the 1970s under the trade name Roundup®, its U.S. patent expired in 2000, and thus glyphosate is now marketed in the U.S. and worldwide in different solution strengths under various trade names. Because these products may contain other ingredients, they may have different effects.

Glyphosate inhibits a key enzyme that is involved in the synthesis of amino acids in the plant.  Many fungi and bacteria also have this same pathway. Aromatic amino acids in plants are the building blocks for many of their defense compounds.

Some crops have been genetically engineered to be resistant to it (i.e., Roundup Ready®). Such crops allow farmers to use glyphosate as a post-emergence herbicide against both broadleaf and cereal weeds, but the development of similar resistance in some weed species is emerging as a costly problem.

Glyphosate kills plants by interfering with the synthesis of the amino acids which are used by the plant as building blocks in for growth and for defense against disease and insects. Plants that are genetically engineered to tolerate the glyphosate contain a gene that provides an alternative pathway for nutrients that is not blocked by the glyphosate herbicide. But this duplicate pathway requires energy from the plant that could be used for yield, thus many GMO crops experience Yield Drag – a reduction in yield.

Huber had several recommendations for growers, especially a much more judicious use of glyphosate, as small a dose as possible. He said farmers also need to provide supplementary nutrients to counteract its effects and thereby to restore plant resistance to toxins and diseases.

He mentioned that there are other herbicide products on the market, but they are more specific to particular weeds and degrade more swiftly, whereas glyphosate is broad spectrum and thus kills many types of weeds, and also endures for a longer span of time in the soil and plants.

“Slow down,” Huber said. “It takes time to restore soil biota if a field has been treated with glyphosate. We have 30 years of accumulated damage, so it may take some time to remediate all of this.”

“There are a lot of serious questions about the impacts of glyphosate that we need answers for in order to continue using this technology,” he continued. “I don’t believe we can ignore these questions any more if we want to ensure a safe, sustainable food supply and abundant crop production.”

Primary Realities

In his presentation at the Black Horse Inn Huber was convincing in his demeanor, encyclopedic in his knowledge, precise and eloquent in his delivery.  Late in the morning as he spoke of the fertility and yield issues, the complications for farmers, and the increased prevalence of disease, his eyes momentarily welled up with tears. Then as he concluded his talk he received a standing ovation from the assembly of about 80 Nebraska farmers and Extension staff.

Still, Huber’s personal integrity and his positive reception, at least at the Black Horse Inn, may be of small consequence in the face of a tsunami of criticism arising from the citadels of corporations and universities. None of that will be resolved until the data he and others have gathered passes peer review.

The primary realities in the GM and glyphosate debates are corporate avidity, scientific uncertainty, and overwhelming public disapproval. Many peer-reviewed articles suggest that biotech crops and foods are harmless; many suggest otherwise. The jury is still out. However, as Huber was arguing, the number of published articles showing that glyphosate and the biotech crops grown in its chemical soup cause harm to livestock is rising rapidly.

Studies showing the public has little taste for genetically engineered foods, and especially not for unlabeled  and thus unidentifiable genetically engineered foods,  remain convincing. According to reports from Food & Water Watch, 90% of Americans want GM foods labeled, and 91% say the FDA should not allow genetically modified pigs, chicken and cattle into the food supply. To date, the main parties keen about promoting unlabeled GM foods, and their herbicidal aides, are multinational corporations and their investors.

“Before we jump off the cliff,”  Huber said, “we need to have more research done. It takes a lot to reverse the problems.” Many observers would argue, convincingly, that we have already jumped off the cliff.

Huber sought just $25,000 to do sequencing to establish the phenotype of the newly identified pathogen, and then to name it. But no government, university, or corporation would provide that relatively paltry amount of money. Finally, a private individual came forward and made the money available. Then the lab that was originally keen to do the phenotyping backed out. The issue had become a hot potato and they did not want the controversy.  Still, Huber persevered, and he said they should have the phenotype established, and then be able to name the pathogen, in a matter of weeks.

“Let me emphasize that all of this is not a calamity,” Huber said, surprisingly, near the end of his talk. “Agriculture is the most critical infrastructure for any society. American agriculture has undergone a revolution and it will continue to progress.

“Still, I saw no reason to rush into the critical alfalfa decision and to thereby cause so many more acres to be treated with glyphosate,” he said. “Why take a chance until we get the answers? Research needs to be done…There is lots of new data that needs to be considered, lots of new studies that cannot be ignored.”

(Addendum – May 6, 2011 – Don Huber has written a second letter to the USDA with even further detail.


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