For industrial-chemical-genetically-modified agribusiness, this has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, butt-kick summer. Maximally so.
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standards for the safety assessment of GMOs – based on the dubious principle of “substantial equivalence” – are both outdated and unscientific.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.
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 US 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.
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 Nutrition, retracted 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.
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.
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
The 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.
As 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.
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.”