Note: I recently ran across this article I wrote in 1998. I have intentionally not revised it and offer it now (2017) as an historical document that is much more relevant today than it should be. 20 years ago, genetically engineered food was a threat and, today, it still is, and continues to be a runaway train that needs to be stopped.
The Demise of Agriculture and the Collapse of Civilization
Virgil H. Huston Jr.
Agriculture is the most important activity practiced on the face of the earth. Without it, civilization, as we know it, would not exist. Farmers make it possible for everyone else to do what they do without worrying about feeding themselves. In a nation founded by farmers, today, less than 1.5% of the population produces our food. And, they are generally considered, especially those who are Southern, ignorant and backward folk. Society has decided that they have minimal value, as reflected in their limited earnings unless they are big-time operators.
Even so, if I had a choice, I would be a farmer. I did it for two years and, while the lifestyle was wonderful, I simply could not make a decent living at it. A farmer friend once told me that farming was a profession that offered unlimited overtime, unfortunately, that overtime comes without pay.
A ready food supply is so taken for granted that it is rarely considered newsworthy by the mainstream press. What you do see are usually copies of press releases from USDA or state Agriculture Departments. For people so dependent on farmers, we are incredibly ignorant about how our food is produced.
Collusion and Co-option in the Tossing of USDA Crumbs
Let me give you an example. A few years ago, I was a member of the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, a collection of farmers and non-profit organizations pushing for USDA to adopt a more sustainable outlook toward farming in the Southern United States. I was also at the University of Georgia as a graduate student studying Southern agriculture from an anthropological perspective. I was in the Anthropology Department, not the Agriculture Department. This is important.
The USDA announced a competition for grant funding for a consortium to help the Extension Service learn more about sustainable agriculture methods. Among the requirements for successful proposals was participation of the Extension Service and at least one non-profit organization.
We decided to put a proposal together. Now, you must realize that my department was not part of the Agriculture School. We reasoned that, of all disciplines, anthropology was probably the best suited for a project like this and we had been working in this area and knew all the players. This seemed to be a project certainly not suited for the Agriculture School to lead, especially the Extension Service, since the purpose was to educate them, not have them educate themselves.
My first phone call was to the head of Agriculture Research at North Carolina State University, who was also on the funding decision board. I figured that he would make a good asset and I had met him a couple of times.
He didn’t know I was not part of the Agriculture School and expressed surprise that I was not aware of the meeting where all the Southern land grant university Ag Schools (except for Puerto Rico, they forgot or didn’t know that Puerto Rico was part of their region) had agreed that they would only support one proposal, a proposal to be headed by the Extension Service at one of the schools. They had fixed the grant. No one has ever denied that this agreement was made, only that they felt it didn’t constitute fixing the process. However, that it was fixed was reinforced by the selection process where they selected their own proposal. And, their proposal met virtually none of the proposal criteria.
They knew there would be no competition. To make a long story short, early in the process, we got a number of Extension folks across the region and nonprofit organizations to sign onto our proposal. Every single one of them backed out under pressure from the Extension Service and/or the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group activist organization leaders, who were also in on the fix. As soon as they found out we were doing a proposal, the pressure was applied. The one exception was the Puerto Rico Extension Service that the mainland schools had ignored (just another reason why Anthropology should have run this project).
Only two proposals were submitted and only ours met all the requirements. One of the reasons given ours was not approved was we didn’t have enough Extension Service participation (all we had was Puerto Rico because of the collusion). After the grant was awarded to the Extension Service proposal, we wrote every sustainable agriculture activist organization leader we knew, as well as USDA officials and members of Congress. We formally protested the decision and the process.
Not a single person responded or did anything about it, although privately every nonprofit person and a few USDA people I talked to in-person conceded that what happened was wrong. There was just too much to lose, in their minds, by angering the USDA. This was their reasoning for being silent. They all wanted the tiny amount of money the Clinton administration was throwing at sustainable agriculture while throwing bushels of money at agribusiness.
This small amount of money was enough to corrupt everyone, including the non profit organizations fighting for sustainable agriculture. We contacted news media and none were interested. Can you imagine what the reaction would have been if the subject was AIDS research and all the medical schools had openly conspired to fix grant funding? There is no excitement in agriculture.
My point here is simply that we who are concerned about the future of agriculture are faced with extremely powerful government agencies and agribusiness firms opposed to our agenda. Couple that with an apathetic public and news media, along with activist groups that have been co-opted, and you can see the problem.
Sustainable vs Industrial Agriculture
Sustainable and industrial agriculture represent two fundamentally opposed approaches to how we should produce our food.
Industrial agriculture views the farm as a factory with “inputs,” such as pesticides, labor, feed, fertilizer, seed, and fuel and “outputs,” such as grain, vegetables, and meat. The goal is to increase yield at any cost and to eliminate as much labor input as possible, while maximizing profits for agribusiness companies. This is accomplished with economies of scale, heavy synthetic chemical usage, and mechanization.
The cost per unit of growing 10,000 chickens is less than the unit cost of growing 100. Quality is not a factor in this process. These economies of scale result in, to name just a few; huge farms with no resemblance to the “family” farm many think still exists; a focus on very few commercial crop varieties; heavy reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilizers; and machines. Just remember that the food shortages in the world are not because we can’t produce enough, there are millions of fallow acres in the United States alone. The problem is distribution and money. There are no food shortages, only an unwillingness to get the food to every place it is needed.
Sustainable agriculture views a farm as a system, an “argoecosystem,” made up of elements like soil, plants, insects, and animals. These elements can be enriched and adjusted to solve problems and maximize yields. This approach is holistic: the emphasis is on the farm as an integrated whole, not as a set of merely inputs and outputs. It is also scientific, although modern agricultural research cannot adequately measure things like yields in non-mono crop operations (hence the myth that industrial agriculture is essential to providing enough food and fiber to sustain us). Sustainable agriculture doesn’t mean strictly organic, although organic may be part of it. It relies on knowledge about the elements and their interaction to achieve its results. It attempts to minimize external inputs. It is a powerful approach that can produce high yields and profits for farmers.
I am not going to go into detail about the history of agriculture in the South, other than bring us up to the present situation.
Southern agriculture was generally sustainable prior to the days of chemicals and machines, just as was agriculture in most other places. The industrial revolution required, in some people’s minds, a change, a way to get farmers off the land and into factories.
In 1862, at the request of President Lincoln, an agricultural and statistical bureau was created by Congress. It’s purpose, quite benign on the surface, was “to acquire and diffuse among the people of the United States useful information on subjects connected with agriculture in the most general and comprehensive sense of the word.”
Later that year, the Morill Act was passed, which provided for what we now call land grant universities. Their purpose was, “to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts…in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” This was often at the expense of the traditional classical curriculum. Occurring in the midst of a civil war, this is the first federal government attempt to control education in the states for its own ends. In the end, it was quite successful, destroying family farm oriented agriculture and filling northern factories with low wage and expendable workers who were dependent on others for their very lives.
But, it gets better. In 1914, the Smith-Lever Act was passed to establish a cadre of trained experts to bridge the gap between research and farmers. These Extension Agents eventually diffused to virtually all counties. D. B. Danbom argues that the Extension Service was really created to improve the efficiency of American agriculture to meet the needs of a rapidly industrializing nation, which was not necessarily in the best interests of the farmer.
Theodore Roosevelt said that, “successful manufacturing depends primarily on cheap food.” And Senator Gronna said, in 1922, that “the original idea from which the county agent arose was that the people as a whole needed a more efficient agriculture to the end of cheaper foods and fibers. Help to the individual farmer and the industry as a whole was only incidental.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Farming itself was industrialized. Improved transportation, refrigeration, mechanization, chemicals, and the continuing decline of agricultural profitability for family farms combined to change agriculture into what it has become today. Farming is big business and most farmers without huge amounts of capital and the willingness to meet the requirements of modern market forces have been left by the wayside. Those that are hanging on are continually in danger of being forced out of business.
The Bio-Tech Age – Three Examples
We are now moving out of the industrial age into the Bio-Tech age. This is already adversely affecting an agricultural system that is unsustainable both socially and environmentally into one even more unsustainable.
Genetic engineering is basically a set of technologies that allow us to artificially move functional genes across species boundaries to produce novel organisms. These technologies allow us to do things that could never occur in nature, no matter how drastic the mutation. It is different from traditional plant and animal breeding methods where crosses can only be made between naturally reproducing organisms. With genetic engineering, for example, we can implant genes from a fish into a plant crop.
I am going to briefly discuss three examples of genetic engineering (GE but commonly referred to as GMO) that are currently in place, along with the dangers of each. I am not going to discuss ethical considerations of this technology, other to say I am personally opposed to it on both ethical and practical grounds. Nor am I going to discuss the possible health hazards associated with eating genetically altered foods. These dangers are real, I believe more so than the very real health issues already associated with the current system.
BT, or Bacillus thuringiensis, are soil bacteria that produce toxins that kill specific insects. Different strains produce different toxins, but all attack the larva of a particular insect, such as boll weevil, corn worm, and Colorado potato beetle. BT is an organic, narrow spectrum pesticide which is nontoxic to non target organisms and the environment. It is among the most important insect control mechanisms for organic farmers.
It is normally used sparingly, as any pesticide should, so as not to unnecessarily induce resistance in target species. One application upon noticing an infestation is often enough. Now, there are crops that have been genetically engineered to contain a gene for BT toxin. The altered crop produces BT toxin in all cells of the plant throughout the growing season. In 1997, in the united States alone, seven million acres were planted in BT corn, two million in BT cotton, and 25,000 in BT potato.
So, what’s the problem, you may ask? It sounds great, doesn’t it? Not really. Insects have an amazing ability to develop resistance to pesticides (so do weeds). The key here is that the insects are constantly exposed to the BT toxin. This has not been a problem with BT as used by organic farmers, since they use it so sparingly. Having the BT toxin present throughout the growing season will greatly accelerate insect resistance to BT.
The result is twofold. First, organic farmers will no longer be able to use BT as a primary means of pest control. The use of this valuable natural insecticide will be lost as insect populations do not respect property boundaries. Second, once BT resistance has been developed, conventional farmers will have to return to using synthetic chemical pesticides. Agrochemical companies will love this.
Terminator and Verminator Technology
This is some seriously evil stuff. Terminator and verminator are different approaches to the same thing. Both allow for the development of seeds that cannot be saved for replanting. Primary crops to be subjected to this technology are self-pollinating species, such as wheat, rice, oats, sorghum, and soybeans, staples for most of the world, as well as tobacco and cotton.
Terminator technology was developed and patented jointly by the USDA and Delta and Pine Land Company, the major cotton seed producer in the United States. As of now, Monsanto is in the process of acquiring Delta and Pine Land Company. Monsanto is the number two seed and number one agrochemical company in the world.
Even though the USDA participated in and funded much of the research, a private company (soon to be Monsanto) owns the licensing rights. Monsanto has been called “the Microsoft of microbiology” and “the Monster.” This technology will be particularly targeted at the Third World, but has much significance in the US. The technology basically makes the embryos in the second generation seed sterile, by using both bacterial and plant genes and can potentially be used on any crop.
In response to this obvious market coup, the United Kingdom company, Zeneca BioSciences has recently applied for patents in 58 countries for its seed killer, dubbed “the Verminator” by critics. This technology uses a gene from fat cells in the common rat to require that affected seed be treated with Zeneca’s chemicals before it will germinate or properly produce. Thus, Zeneca could pre-treat the seeds and sell them similarly to Terminator seeds or make farmer purchased and applied chemicals attractive by marketing the seed with a prevention of premature germination pitch.
The dangers are enormous. Use of these seeds could be pushed on unsuspecting farmers, leading to eventual dilution of traditional crop varieties until they are completely dependent on the corporate seed. Worse, use of these seeds may render other farmers unable to continue to use traditional varieties due to unintentional cross breeding with these “suicide” seeds. Finally, it is entirely possible that crosses with wild and weedy relatives could occur that could lead to unknown damage to other plant varieties and further decrease biodiversity.
Herbicide Resistant Crops
Round-Up ready soybeans and cotton are examples of the new crops that are able to withstand herbicide applications that would kill a normal crop. This is, to me, the complete industrialization of agriculture and is about as far from sustainable as you can get. If you have ever compared a shovelful of soil from a properly managed field (organic or not) with one from an intensive chemical operation, you will know what I mean. The managed field is alive, but the chemical field has no life. You won’t find an earthworm nor microorganisms.
Herbicide resistant crops encourage much more use of these poisons. That is bad enough, but there are other problems. This resistance has already been shown to cross into wild and weedy relatives. Just what we need, weeds that are resistant to herbicides. This leads to two things. More and more use of these chemicals (in an industry that is already the most polluting) and will require development of new and more powerful herbicides to counter the resistance. The agrochemical companies love this. That is why these crops were developed in the first place. It wasn’t to help farmers or to save the world.
I hate to complain about something if I can’t offer some kind of solution. I wonder if people just don’t care as long as food is in the grocery store and is cheap. Or, do they really not know about what is going on?
As with most societal problems, the answer lies with our past and its agrarian roots. A return to community, the revitalization of our farm towns across the state. South Carolina, for example, is fully capable of producing almost all of its own food. There may come a time when you have to grow your own food or buy it from someone you trust if you want natural foods, both plant and animal.
The FDA is in no rush to label genetically altered foods. You are probably already consuming rBGH milk without knowing it because of Monsanto’s heavy handedness. And it is even unclear at this time if the National Organic Standards will even exclude them. They were permitted in the draft.
It is up to us to take care of ourselves and support the farmers who could produce the food if we would only let them.
Tags: Abraham Lincoln, agribusiness, agriculture, agrochemical, agroecosystem, Bill Clinton, bio-tech age, biodiversity, BT, chemical, Delta Pine and Land Company, Extension Service, food history, GE, genetically engineered, genetically modified organism, GMO, herbicide, history, mechanization, Monsanto, Morill Act, pesticide, Puerto Rico, research, resistant, Smith-Lever Act, South Carolina, Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group, sustainable, sustainable agriculture, Teddy Roosevelt, Terminator, University of Georgia, USDA, Verminator, Zeneca