October 3, 2013

The GMO/Glyphosate Regime and Crop Disease


The unraveling of GMO-based agriculture continues in the US as a devastating corn disease, Goss’s wilt, lays waste to Roundup Ready (RR) corn.
A bacterium takes advantage of any weakness or physical damage to a plant to infiltrate it and infect its cells. The outward symptoms are lesions on the leaves. The infection badly depresses yield, and often kills the plant outright. The disease used to be regional, mostly occurring in western Nebraska and eastern Colorado. But since 2008 it’s spread explosively across the Midwest and southward. 2011 was particularly bad in Illinois and Indiana. Although thanks to drier conditions the outbreaks haven’t been as bad the last two years, farmers and agronomists are still living in fear of how bad the epidemic will get in the future.
This is the kind of bad news even the corporate media can’t just ignore. So the New York Times is on the job, peddling the Monsanto party line.

No one is certain why Goss’s wilt has become so rampant in recent years. But many plant pathologists suspect that the biggest factor is the hybrids chosen for genetic modification by major seed companies like Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta.

“My theory is that there were a couple of hybrids planted that were selected because they had extremely high yield potentials,” said Dr. Robertson, whose research is financed by Monsanto and the Agriculture Department. “They also may have been highly susceptible to Goss’s wilt.”


This explanation does imply the hazards of monoculture agriculture. The less genetically diverse your agriculture is, the more vulnerable it’ll be to disease and other problems. But it’s still trying to be as superficial and ad hoc as possible: The problem is insufficient technology, so it can be fixed with more technology. Sure enough, the piece, which started out describing a broad trend, ends with an anecdote about one farmer who found a temporary respite by switching to a different variety of RR corn.
But why is corn becoming more susceptible to this disease in the first place? The problem of lack of biodiversity wasn’t new in 2008. To answer this we need a structural explanation.
Industrial agriculture is based on a completely false and anti-scientific view of nature. It comprehends nature as a machine with discrete, interchangeable, mass-producible parts. This is rooted in 19th century agricultural dogma which decreed that all plant growth and health is based on three nutrients: Nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K). This led to what organic agriculture pioneer Albert Howard called “the NPK mentality”, which would reduce all natural processes to simple manipulations of a few variables. Once you’ve simplified everything that way, and done so in a way which recognizes only a few readily industrialized factors as meaningful, your path is open to organize everything according to the rhythms of industrialization, mechanization, corporate organization, and power and wealth accumulation.
The NPK mentality was the perfect ideology to complement the rising industrialization of agriculture and its increasing control by big corporations and governments. Who cares that food production and distribution was always naturally locally and regionally based? Since agriculture is nothing but the measured application of three nutrients and some water (with the soil being a passive medium), it’s best to put it under the control of centralized power hierarchies who can deliver these few inputs most prodigiously and efficiently.
Genetic engineering developed its own version of the NPK ideology. Its dogma is: One gene = one trait. This dogma, along with the older one that genetics are the main (or only) factor dictating real life outcomes, enabled technicians to claim that they’d soon be able to precisely analyze, predict, and manipulate the relationship between genetic codes and the way plants, animals, and humans would develop and act in real life. This was their path to funding and influence, and it soon became the path to power for biotech corporations engaging in genetic engineering. One-gene-one-trait became the basis for all the foundation lies of genetic engineering: That it was a precision technology, that its effects could be precisely calibrated, that it would not have unforeseen effects, that food products generated this way would be safe and nutritious. The goal is to achieve total corporate enclosure, control, and domination through GMOs and eugenics.
Based on these lies governments moved aggressively to approve and commercialize GMOs without performing any safety testing. To this day no government has ever performed a scientific safety trial on any GMO. The US set the pace for this policy aggression*, under the banner of “substantial equivalence”, the lie that GMO crops are identical to real crops and therefore, by definition, don’t need to be safety tested.
[*NOT any kind of neglect or abdication, the way the reformists who want “better regulation” would have us believe. The US government, including the USDA, FDA, state department and others, has always been aggressively pro-GMO. Giving more power to the FDA simply means giving more power to Monsanto. Nor has this been any kind of secret, with Obama or any previous president. Obama openly installed Monsanto cadre Michael Taylor as FDA “food czar”, charged with enforcing the new Food Control Act regime on Monsanto’s behalf. The NGOs and others who claim to oppose Monsanto but have supported the Food Control Act and a hopped-up FDA regime have no excuse for their schizophrenic, self-contradictory position. They’re conscious liars or pernicious, willfully ignorant idiots.]
One-gene-one-trait has been completely disproven, most spectacularly by the system’s own Human Genome Project, which expected based on the number of phenotypal traits to find over 100,000 genes in the human genetic code, and instead discovered only c. 20,000. We now know that most genes have multiple effects, and that the range of these effects is very difficult to exhaustively catalog. Similarly, we know that most traits of the phenotype (the way the body physically develops) are the result of several genes collaborating. Here again, it’s very difficult to identify all the genetic contributors.
Meanwhile the nature-over-nurture theory of genetic determinism has long been on science’s trash heap. We’ve known for decades that most genetic effects are dependent upon environmental factors to varying degrees. In effect, a genetic potentiality is often a switch which must still be turned on (or off) by some external factor: The mother’s health during pregnancy, the pregnant mother’s diet, the infant’s diet, infant exposure to things in the water or air, psychological stresses, etc.
So the two basic theories of genetic engineering have been completely disproven. Yet to this day all advocacy of GMOs, and all the alleged “science” supporting GMOs, is based on these same two crackpot falsehoods: That heredity is destiny, and that one gene = one trait. We see how, just as genetic engineering has zero to do with science and is simply technical manipulation, so pro-GMO ideology has zero to do with science, but is rather a fraudulent political ideology based on nothing but Big Lies. For its true believers, it’s a fundamentalist secular religion.
The takeaway: Genetic engineering is not science, and support for GMOs is anti-scientific, based on proclaimed fidelity to crackpot lies.
Coming back to the broader NPK ideology, we find the same crackpot view of nature in its concept of the soil. Here’s where we’ll find the cause of the Goss’s wilt epidemic.
I said earlier that NPK considers the soil to be an inert medium, just there to hold the roots in place. This is completely false. On the contrary, the soil comprises a rich ecosystem of microbes, annelids (like earthworms), and other organisms. These engage in an incredibly complex interaction among themselves and with a vast array of soil nutrients, far beyond the big three of industrial dogma, to create the organic basis of plant growth. Plants depend upon this soil ecology for their nutrition, for water (an organically healthy soil retains moisture far better than the sterile soils of monoculture), for the physical integrity of their roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits. Plant health starts from soil health (and of course seed health), and plant resistance to pests and disease depends upon the basic health of the plant and the soil.
Another reductive notion related to the NPK ideology is “germ theory”, which thickly postulates that a germ comes along and “causes” a disease. This too is crackpot science. Organic terrain theory has proven the opposite. In most cases, for there to be a significant incidence of a disease, the pathogen must first find the right habitat (the “terrain”) where it can thrive, and then it must find a weakened target. This is the usual scenario where an epidemic breaks out.
In agriculture, disease outbreaks are usually from a combination of a degraded habitat providing the right terrain for a pathogen to proliferate, and unhealthy crops providing an excellent target for this pathogen. In the case of Goss’s wilt, the herbicide glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, has been a major cause of both soil destruction and crop weakness. I’ll explain how this has caused the epidemic of Goss’s wilt.
Glyphosate is extremely destructive toward the soil ecology. It directly kills many beneficial soil organisms, weakens others, and chelates soil nutrients, binding them and rendering them lost to the ecosystem. But it also leaves others, including several potentially pathogenic ones, unscathed. This includes the bacterium Clavibacter michiganensis spp. nebraskensis, which causes Goss’s wilt. These unaffected microbes are then able to proliferate in the absence of predators and competitors.
[Glyphosate has a similar effect within our bodies. When ingested (most of our meat and dairy products, and almost all processed foods, are full of glyphosate residue; also the drinking water in many places) it wreaks havoc with our gut microbial community, our microbiome. This can have devastating health effects. For now I’ll have to save that subject for future posts.]
At the same time glyphosate weakens the crop itself. The Roundup Ready GE trait which renders a plant “herbicide tolerant” does not let the plant remain unscathed. On the contrary the crop is physically damaged and nutritionally depleted. (In turn, to the extent our diets rely upon RR crops, our diets with be nutritionally deficient.) The RR trait simply lets the plant overcome a portion of the herbicidal effects, just enough to drag itself along in a weakened state and produce a crop. (The physical state of being genetic engineered in itself also tends to weaken a plant. This most commonly manifests as the “yield-drag” effect, but it has many other such effects which are difficult to discern among other causes of crop failure.)
So glyphosate, by degrading the soil ecology, places the Goss’s wilt microbe in an advantaged position. At the same time it renders the target plant in a weakened state. Since 2008 we’ve been seeing the result.
Of course the corporate system and its corporate media cannot acknowledge this, since it contradicts the NPK ideology of soil as inert, and because the only solution would be to bring an end to Roundup-based agriculture and replace it with a healthy agriculture in harmony with the soil, which would build the soil rather than destroy it. Since GMOs are the last great hope for corporatism’s future, nothing which refutes the GMO regime as such will get a hearing or be acted upon.
Instead we’ll see the usual kludge attempts. It’s the same thing with glyphosate resistant superweeds, which have been expanding exponentially with every passing year. Part of the reason for the acceleration of Roundup-caused soil destruction is that more and more Roundup needs to be sprayed every year to have any effect at all on the target weeds. The whole Roundup regime is collapsing. But the system’s one and only idea is to replace it with other, even more poisonous herbicides – 2,4-D, dicamba, and the GMOs which are engineered to be tolerant to them. Everyone knows this won’t work, and that the collapse of these herbicides will come even faster than with glyphosate, as weeds are developing not just glyphosate resistance but general herbicide resistance. 2,4-D resistant waterhemp has already been documented. (We see the same effect with CAFO-generated superbugs resistant to specific antibiotics as well as developing a general resistance to all antibiotics. Glyphosate, BTW, isn’t just specifically an herbicide, but is a broad-spectrum biocide, in fact an antibiotic. So it too is contributing to the evolution of potentially harmful microbes which may be broadly resistant to all treatment with antibiotics.)
The response to the Goss’s wilt has the same kludge character as this general response to superweeds. Acknowledging the obvious failure of the project is unacceptable. At all costs, the GMO regime must stagger along for as long as it can. So if existing GMO corn varieties, in all their narrow lack of genetic diversity, are being ravaged by a disease, then the solution has to be to grudgingly, under duress, widen the genetic pool just enough to get a few seasons of corn free of the plague. Keep doing this for as long as possible.
That’s the one and only idea these builders of a Tower of GMO Babel have.
Industrial agriculture cannot endure. It’s unsustainable for many reasons. Most obviously it depends upon infinite cheap fossil fuel. But the world is at the end of cheap fossil fuels. It also depends upon fossil water extracted from depleting aquifers, and large phosphorus deposits which can be cheaply industrially mined. These too are becoming depleted. Any of these three may become the proximate cause for the collapse of industrial ag.
As I wrote about here, a fourth potential cause is massive crop failure caused by the endemic weakness of monoculture GM crops and the destruction of the soil they depend upon.
There’s a good solution to all this, and only one solution. We must replace industrial agriculture with a restored traditional, organic agriculture, enhanced by the marvelous discoveries of modern agroecological science. The science has already proven that even today, in spite of industrial ag’s massive resource inputs, acre for acre low-external-input polyculture farming outproduces industrial monocropping in terms of both calories and nutrition. This difference will become infinite once the end of cheap fossil fuels renders industrial ag economically and therefore physically impossible.
If humanity wants to avoid the worst famine effects of this collapse, if we want to not only survive but thrive, we must undertake this agricultural revolution. It’s possible, it’s doable, and there’s no other option anyway. All we need is the will to do it.


1 Comment

  1. the generalizable idea of absolute power corrupts is dangerous for us in single producers of food crops too . the laws of quantum theory will eventually take place with or with out us honking our horn.. but it is great fun to make others think we had something to do with it..

    Dave Outlaw

    Comment by W David Outlaw — October 3, 2013 @ 8:58 am

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