In late August a Washington alfalfa farmer reported to the state agriculture department that his crop, intended for export, had been rejected by the exporter because it was contaminated with genetically engineered (GE) material. The state did its own test and confirmed a “low-level presence” of the pollutant. The shipment was rejected because most big foreign buyers refuse to import GMO pseudo-crops.
The farmer bought and planted only conventional seed, but it became contaminated anyway. The culprit is Monsanto’s Roundup Ready (RR) alfalfa, engineered to withstand heavy spraying with the company’s highly toxic herbicide, Roundup. State officials speculated that he might have bought mislabeled seeds. Otherwise the field became contaminated from some environmental vector, with the GE material already loose in the environment. The subsequent state test proved this to be so. (It would’ve been interesting to see what kind of five-alarm recall there would’ve been if the “mislabeled seed” theory had turned out to be plausible. Would it have been comparable to the government-driven hysteria whenever a small farm is alleged to have made anyone sick, or merely to have produced a positive bacteria sample?)
This is the second known major contamination incident in the Pacific Northwest in recent months. Last spring an Oregon wheat farmer discovered RR spring wheat growing ferally in one of his fields. Monsanto conducted hundreds of field trials of RR wheat through 2005, but the genetically engineered pseudo-crop was never commercialized because of grassroots resistance from farmers and citizens in the US and Canada. But we see how the genetic pollution persists in ecosystems. Somehow GE material from these trials escaped to the environment and has managed to sustain itself. No one knows how widespread the pollution is, since no one tests for it.
The USDA’s confirmation of the wheat contamination led South Korea to temporarily suspend wheat imports from the US, while Japan rejected a shipment and Europe imposed extra-rigorous inspection procedures. The cost to US wheat exports has been immense.
The outbreaks in Washington and Oregon are just the latest examples of a long history of major GMO contamination events, going back to the Starlink debacle in 2000, and including the wholesale poisoning of the US rice crop by Bayer’s Liberty Link pharmaceutical rice, which escaped from supposedly secure Arkansas field trials in 2006. This disaster cost US rice growers billions and provoked a lawsuit which Bayer settled for $750 million.
We see from these and from hundreds of lesser-known examples (tallied by the USDA’s own Office of the Inspector General in 2005, and a GAO investigation in 2009) how it’s impossible to prevent GMO contamination of conventional and organic crops, and of the environment in general, once GMOs are allowed to be field tested, and certainly once they’re commercialized.
The ideological lie which seeks to obscure this fact is called “co-existence”. It claims that GMOs can peacefully co-exist with conventional and organic crops. But this is impossible for many reasons, all of them caused or aggravated by the totalitarian intent of the GMO cartel. I’ll write more on the economic and political goals of Monsanto and the other GMO rackets in subsequent posts. For now I’ll focus on the fact that even if corporations and governments were acting in good faith, it would be impossible for real crops to co-exist with GMOs.
The USDA itself, the US government’s primary domestic booster of GMOs, admits that GE alfalfa is guaranteed eventually to contaminate the entire alfalfa crop. This is because alfalfa is a perennial pollinated by bees who range for miles in their quest for nectar. As GE alfalfa spreads, it’ll become more of a sure bet that any alfalfa allowed to go to flower will be visited by bees who already visited GE plants. Already in 2005, at least one organic seed grower was documenting alfalfa seed contamination, either from field trials or illegal plantings. The process is bound to follow that of a previous Oregon disaster, the state’s 2002 field trial of GE bentgrass. Even though the technicians running the experiment tried to destroy the trial grass as planned, GE grass escaped. By now it seems permanently entrenched in the environment. The moment GE alfalfa was commercialized, it wasn’t going to be long before this pollution was documented. Now we have our first confirmation.
I said how this would be true even if corporations and governments were acting in good faith. But we know their intentions and goals are malignant, and the history of RR alfalfa commercialization tells an edifying tale about this. GE alfalfa was fiercely resisted by farmers, eaters, scientists, environmentalists, and civil society groups. For years the USDA was thwarted by lawsuits in its attempts to fully unleash the product. Finally it entered 2011 with a new Environmental Impact Statement (largely a sham) and facing the question of whether to fully deregulate GE alfalfa, or just “partially” do so. (Not approving it was an unoption, as Orwell would’ve said. This was even though there’s no need at all for this worthless product, and no natural market for it.) This question had been forced upon USDA by the opposition. It was in this context that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s 2001 “Governor of the Year”, and frequent traveler on Monsanto’s corporate jets) got together with the luminaries of industrial organic – Whole Foods Market, Stonyfield, Organic Valley, and others – to formulate an attempted compromise with Monsanto. The notion was that industrial organic and Monsanto would agree on “partial deregulation” of RR alfalfa (toward total deregulation somewhere down the road, of course), and the USDA would make a sham promise to really truly honestly enforce the partial regulations, including compensation for alfalfa farmers whose crops were destroyed by the inevitable contamination. This would be accompanied by a propaganda campaign which would lie about the contamination potential. They called this “co-existence”.
One problem with this scheme was that, as we said, such co-existence is impossible, and the contamination of conventional and organic alfalfa on a vast scale was inevitable. We can look at the record of RR canola, which has rendered organic canola effectively impossible in Canada, while organic canola growers are a major driver of the pushback against GMOs in Australia. This is also why farmers are fiercely resisting the pending commercialization of RR alfalfa in Canada. Here the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has already given full approval, through an even less democratic procedure than that of the USDA. Meanwhile a Monsanto front group, the Canadian Seed Trade Association (CSTA), has offered the same kind of sham “co-existence plan” which both Monsanto and the people rejected in the US (I’ll get to that in a minute). CSTA’s plan basically claims that GE material cannot be spread by any natural vector whatsoever, and the plan has no enforcement mechanisms for the scam prescriptions it does make.
So why did industrial organic want to make this “compromise”, and why did the USDA want to broker it? Both the USDA and the industrial organic sector have always wanted to bring GMOs under the umbrella of organic certification. Only massive consumer resistance forced the Clinton administration to back down on this when GMOs were first commercialized in the mid 90s. Today, they want to accomplish this through a combination of contamination and propaganda. They hope GE alfalfa deregulation will lead to a broad pollution of the general alfalfa crop, which will render the current meat/dairy certified-organic sector (which must use non-GMO feed) untenable. In this way the USDA and the Whole Foods contingent dream of making “certified organic” safe for GMOs. The intended goal is to be able to call GMOs “USDA organic” and still extract the premium from the “organic” brand. It’ll be difficult for them to do this, but we mustn’t underestimate the power of inertia and apathy. If the message seems overwhelming – “GMOs are safe, are perfectly compatible with the Organic concept, Organic is still good if it’s GMO, and everything is GMO anyway so There Is No Alternative, unless you want to go all the way to really knowing your local farmer or growing your own food, and we’ll do our best to stamp that out.” – many who vaguely oppose GMOs can be expected to surrender.
WFM and the others got what was coming to them: The “co-existence” notion was far too subtle for Monsanto, which is increasingly inclined to use main force. In January 2011, just as the “co-existence” plan was being unfolded, the cartel told Obama what it wanted instead. President Monsanto then issued an order to Vilsack to move directly to full deregulation. This left WFM and the rest of industrial organic exposed before their customers as having tried to sell them out. Since then there’s been increasing distrust of the industrial organic sector among the people. That’s why they’ve belatedly scrambled onto the labeling bandwagon. Of course, WFM wants to hijack the movement for its own purposes. While touting this idea as the correct form of anti-GMO activism, and while making pious noises about imposing its own labeling program on its suppliers, WFM will try again with “co-existence”. This time they, DC-based NGOs like the Center for Food Safety, and elements within the central government will try to get the cartel to go along with a sham federal labeling program whose only real teeth will be its pre-emption of state and local policy. The goal will be the same attempt to propagandize their customers while also derailing any real labeling efforts at the state level. That’s one reason why, whatever position we take toward state-level labeling campaigns, we must consistently and strongly oppose ANY central (“federal”) level policy which would pre-empt the people’s action at the state level.
Meanwhile, Monsanto wants to see the monoculture of “pure” alfalfa, which may temporarily benefit from a Roundup Ready variety, completely triumph over the far superior practice of growing alfalfa intermingled with grasses like fescue and orchardgrass. Hay made from an alfalfa/grass mix has more bulk and pound for pound is superior to monoculture alfalfa in nutrition and calories. The grass mix also maintains pasture health and provides natural weed suppression. As always, the GMO product provides no improvement over natural, agroecological practices, but on the contrary is meant to force the further intensification of industrial monoculture and all its most destructive practices.
And Monsanto, too, is targeting the organic sector. But I suppose it would just as soon see the sector completely destroyed by contamination (like some parts of it, e.g. organic canola in Canada, have been) as see it co-opted for GMOs. Organic farmers need non-GMO alfalfa for animal feed and soil-building. The system wants to either bring GMOs into the certification, or destroy the sector outright. Either of these is possible with GE alfalfa.
It’s fortuitous that this latest contamination event occurred in Washington, since Washington is the home of the GMO labeling initiative 522, to be voted in November. Yes on 522 is fighting to force the industrial food purveyors out of the shadows of secrecy and deception and into the sunshine. Corporate food, and the corporate agricultural system as a whole, depend upon secrecy and lying about their practices in order to survive. At all costs, we the people must not know what’s in our food. For our own good, of course. Every statement of the anti-labeling mercenaries reeks of elitism and hatred for democracy and freedom.
The idea of labeling campaigns is that once enough states force food manufacturers to tell the truth about what they’re selling, the manufacturers will purge their products of GMOs. This is the minimum strategic goal for the labeling movement, although we must beware of viewing this tenuous hope as a panacea, even and especially when these labeling initiatives and laws start coming into force.
Here’s what I think is necessary:
1. Transparency is a basic democratic value and human prerogative, so by all means we must take back our information as part of taking back our food. Labeling can be part of this.
2. But this action will be effective only at the state and local levels. Short of the corporate rackets themselves, the central US government is the most aggressively pro-GMO organization on Earth. Any central government labeling policy, if they feel forced into enacting one, will be a sham whose only real goal will be to pre-empt real labeling action at the state and local level. Beware of anyone who says a federal government labeling policy is the goal. And we must reject the very notion of central government pre-emption of lower-level governments in general. This is truly anti-federal and anti-democratic.
3. The real end goal must be nothing short of total abolition of GMOs. This must be an abolition movement. We must always be clear on this, no matter what proximate action we undertake for tactical reasons.
4. We must use labeling efforts as the vehicle for building permanent grassroots organizations which will seek the goal of abolition while also providing education and exercising permanent vigilance where it comes to any labeling policy which is enacted. We must reject the disposable “campaign” model, favored by “professionals”, and designed to fail, as it failed in California.
5. Labeling agitation and the building of abolition/vigilance organizations must accompany rather than supplant other kinds of action like campaigns to pressure supermarkets and direct action.
6. Meanwhile we need a core organization for the aggregation of facts about GMOs, their analysis within the framework of anti-corporatist philosophy, and the publicity of the facts and the ideas.
Taking the longest view and highest vantage on all this, we can see that the phenomena we’ve discussed here today – GMO contamination, the escalation of every kind of poison in farming, the self-inflicted wounds of the commodity export sector, corporatist government politics, industrial organic’s attempted sellout of the people – plus many evils we haven’t mentioned, are all part of the pathology of industrial corporate agriculture. We can see that it’s economically, politically, socially, environmentally destructive, and for our health, it’s death. But there’s a superb alternative.
GMO abolition is necessary part of the full embrace of agroecology, AKA organic farming using that term in the original sense as propagated by Albert Howard, Robert Rodale, and other pioneers. Decentralized, low external input (LEI) farming has been proven to outproduce industrial ag, acre for acre, in terms of calories and nutrition. This already proves humanity’s need to reject corporate ag, which has proven itself unable and unwilling to “Feed the World”, to use its own propaganda lie, and embrace agroecology. This need will become more pressing as the era of cheap fossil fuels, the irreplaceable energy basis of industrial ag, comes to an end.
The fight is vs. corporate agriculture, in all its economic and political dimensions. The embrace of agroecology’s companion political philosophy, Food Sovereignty, which maximizes political and economic democracy, also reminds us that we are human beings and citizens of a society, and do not wish or need to wait passively to be “fed” by corporations, as the “feed the world” hacks call upon us to do. If the concept of progress is to have any meaning at all, it has to mean the continuing development of democracy, toward our finally dismissing our regents, renouncing the idea that we need “representation”, and taking our politics and economies directly into our own hands. We can and must do this, and we must start by taking back our food. We must do this negatively, rejecting corporate agriculture, resisting the government’s food police, abolishing GMOs. We must do it affirmatively, building the Community Food movement in our localities and regions, fighting for Food Sovereignty for all the peoples of the world.
As we mentioned, GE wheat was never commercialized. That’s because farmers and eaters organized to reject it. This proves the strength we have, whenever and wherever we have the will to use it.