Archive for the Losing Ground Category

Genetic Defects Increasingly Apparent

Posted in Losing Ground with tags , , , on June 14, 2010 by talewis

I have taken a certain amount of flack for presuming to argue, in Brace for Impact, that genetic engineering has not been a success, that it indeed cannot be a success, and presents terrifying dangers to the web of life and to human well- being. So it is gratifying to have the New York Times confirm many of my arguments.

In the book I argued that the mis-named practice of genetic “engineering” has nothing to do with precise manipulation of genes, but is in fact a crap shoot in which scientists create new viruses and loose them on cells to see what happens. Once in a while, in the manner of a roomful of monkeys at keyboards, something meaningful results, such as a tomato with a fish gene that allows it to tolerate cold. For this we risk the escape into the world of a mutant organism of unknown capabilities.

Millions of dollars in advertising, bought by corporations that enjoy billions in revenues and research grants because of their genetic ambitions and pretenses, convince us that someone, somewhere, sometime soon, is or will be enjoying the fruits of this ultra-modern technology. Yet there is no objective evidence that this is so.

The much touted Green Revolution in agriculture (whose name, properly understood, refers to the color of money, not of growing things) has replaced traditional, sustainable agriculture with genetically modified seeds requiring chemically and mechanically intensive — above all, expensive — methods that, it was promised, would feed the world. They have, to the contrary, impoverished much of the world and endangered the rest by depressing yields, raising the cost of production and destroying the soils, water and air required for the enterprise to continue.

Unabashed by their failures and unrestrained in their promises of future success, the genetic manipulators moved on from ravaged plants to humans, where the prospects for profits and appalling mistakes were much brighter. The massively expensive “human genome project” ($3 billion is an estimate) set out to map the human genetic code, all three billion genes. Success was declared — albeit a weirdly limited, even truncated success in which most of the genes were not, in fact, “mapped” and most of those identified were labelled as “junk” with no known function — at a presidential news conference in 2000.

It was your standard, technology-is-omnipotent, welcome-to-the-21st-Century songfest. In ten years, said President Bill Clinton, echoing the triumphant gene mappers, the knowledge gained would “revolutionize the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all, human diseases.”

Ten years have passed since that bit of hubris was expressed. And, as the New York Times reported yesterday with an elegant phrase, results remain “largely elusive.”

By which the paper meant intended results. For example, a study of 101 genetic “predictors” of heart disease, in 10,000 women over 12 years, found that the predictors predicted nothing at all.

What has been clearly demonstrated, and is being steadfastly ignored by all the people whose livelihood depends on the funding of strangers, is that the further technology pushes into the codes of life, the further the horizon of comprehension recedes. Having an incomplete and largely speculative map of Africa, it turns out, is not helpful to the enterprise of crossing Africa on foot.

As I reported in Brace for Impact, a participant in the human genome project recalled afterward that they had thought that to transcribe the alphabet of the genome would be to understand it. Instead, it merely allowed them to hear snippets of a marvelously complex, subtle and varied language that is far beyond their comprehension. Where it will remain.

It is one thing to learn what we can of these marvelous and mysterious processes. It is quite another to presume to take them under our management for profit when both our ignorance, and the potentially catastrophic consequences of that ignorance, are huge.


Threats to the World’s Food Supply Proliferate

Posted in Losing Ground with tags on June 2, 2010 by talewis

The relentless assault on the food supplies of the world by industrial agriculture and its consequences continues unabated, and largely ignored. Recent developments involving principal staple crops include:

Bananas. Banana wilt disease continues to decimate the staple crop of East Africa, ravaging the plant relied upon by large populations in Uganda, Rwanda, western Kenya and Bukoba in north-western Tanzania. The disease, which is on a rampage because of the global industry’s insistence on using a single strain of banana (the Cavendish), is adding its threat to food security in a region where severe drought has reduced the production of maize, beans and milk. Continue reading

Yes, We Have No Bananas

Posted in Losing Ground with tags , , , on November 17, 2009 by talewis

Monoculture is a form of mass suicide practiced by groups of people who think they are smarter than Mother Nature. The Irish put their faith in the potato, and the potato famine that resulted nearly extinguished them. In vast reaches of the equatorial world, the potato equivalent — the staple food without which life is not sustainable — is the banana.

The banana famine is imminent. A country such as ours, whose economy and diet depends heavily on one plant — corn — should pay attention. Continue reading

The Swine Weed Pandemic

Posted in Losing Ground with tags , on October 9, 2009 by talewis
The Swine Weed Pandemic
It’s ironic that while our attention is being directed to the swine flu epidemic, which doesn’t seem to be hurting much of anything, a real threat to our life-support system is crawling out of the wasteland created by chemical-industrial agriculture: the super-pig-weed.
It looks just like the pig weed that corn-, cotton- and soybean-farmers have been fighting in the South forever. It’s big, it kicks the crap put of any crop it’s contesting with, and it’s tough enough to stop a combine in its tracks. The only thing different about the superweed variety is that it can’t be killed by any manmade chemical.
Twenty years or so ago, that wouldn’t have been a threat to life as we know it. But it is now. The reason —  the most successful single promotion of a destructive chemical farming practice ever perpetrated. The winner was Monsanto, which in the 1970s introduced the glyphosate herbicide Roundup, which was less persistent after application and thus less toxic to groundwater and other plant life that many other herbicides. Then, in the mid-1990s, Monsanto introduced Roundup-resistant crops, which had been genetically modified so that Roundup couldn’t kill them.
It solved an old problem of chemical farming. Until then, sprays could kill broadleaf plants, or they could kill grasses, but they couldn’t knock the wild oats out of a wheat field without killing the wheat, or select broadleaf weeds in a soybean field. Now, Roundup could. It killed everything
In about ten years, the application of Roundup went from about eight million pounds (1994) to about 120 million pounds (2005). In 2006, Roundup-Ready crops occupied nearly one-half of the available cropland in the United States.
The inherent flaw in chemical agriculture is that no chemical kills everything it’s supposed to, and every application of a chemical spurs the development of resistant mutants. There are already 16 weed species in the world, nine on the United States, that shrug off Roundup as if it was a spring rain. Pigweed is one of them.
The inherent flaw in industrial agriculture, with its relentless pursuit of the economies of scale (while it ignores the simultaneous and equal concentration of risk), is that when you have ten thousand acres of one thing, a threat to that thing is going be pretty catastrophic. Sustainable farming, by contrast, will grow 20 or 50 things on a hundred acres.
So here we have the corn and soybean and cottonseed farmers of the South who are facing ruination because of pig weed. They are trying applications of four times the previously adequate amounts of Roundup. It’s not working. They are rolling out mechanical cultivators, which have not been seen in these fields for 20 years. The problem here is that sow-and-spray agriculture was so easy, and the farms got so big (10,000 acres-plus is now the norm), that the tractors, implements and manpower needed to go back to mechanical cultivation simply don’t exist.
The pigweed problem emerged as a major threat only this summer. As Arkansas extension agent Ken Smith described it, “In July we began hearing horror stories all over the state. ‘Man, there are ankle-high weeds out there that Roundup won’t even touch.’” This year, the pig weed spread to more than a million acres of cotton and soybeans. Says Smith: “I’ve never seen anything that had this major an impact on our agriculture in a short period of time.”
This winter, farm groups all over the country will be trying to come up with an answer to the spreading plague of pigweed (the most effective control yet devised — hand weeding. Try that on 10,000 acres). Monsanto has promised a vaccine — honest,  they swear they’ll have a chemical answer by 2015.
Here’s what you can count on: the pigweed plague, and the associated accumulating failures of industrial agriculture, are going to hit us all a lot harder that the swine flu.
For a careful description of the spreading pigweed panic, written for the industrial-agriculture press, check out this piece in the Delta Farm Press: “Resistance threatens conservation tillage.”
For a less restrained version, this piece in Grist: “The chemical treadmill breaks down and the superweeds did it.”
And for a more complete explanation of of how we got here, see my forthcoming book Brace for Impact: Surviving the Crash of the Industrial Age by Sustainable Living.

It’s ironic that while our attention is being directed to the swine flu epidemic, which doesn’t seem to be hurting much of anything, a real threat to our life-support system is crawling out of the wasteland created by chemical-industrial agriculture: the super-pig-weed. Continue reading


Posted in Losing Ground on July 1, 2009 by talewis

Subdivision developers have discovered, according to the New York Times [“Growing With the Crops, Nearby Property Values”] that they can get more cash for a postage-stamp building lot if it is somewhere near an “organic” “farm.”

In one of the featured examples, a developer is preparing to sell 334 homes on 220 acres in Vermont. The farm amenity consists of 16 acres which the newspaper describes as “not previously used for farming,” which may mean it was not usable for anything. A 220-home project near Atlanta is going to feed its inhabitants from a 20-acre “farm.” Continue reading