November 15, 2013

GMO Labeling and Movement Strategy (3 of 6) : The Abolitionist Imperative


Parts one and two.
We must always be clear in our minds and take every opportunity to emphasize to others that the necessary goal of activism is the abolition of GMOs. Part of the business of this blog, and hopefully soon a more versatile website, is to prove the necessity of abolitionism and to provide intellectual and moral weapons for this fight.
Meanwhile, GMO labeling, and other kinds of reform action, are positive steps (as long as they never involve preemption or any other consolidation of top-down power at the expense of the grassroots), but not sufficient, and not the end goal. In themselves, and especially where taken as the sufficient goal, these are forms of “co-existence”, a notion which is physically impossible and politically deceptive and malignant.
Demonstrating the undesirability and impossibility of co-existence is part of proving the necessity and desirability of abolitionism. Here I’ll just survey the basics.
1. GMOs are physically totalitarian in that they will inevitably contaminate all other crops and wild ancestors of crops. This is already a documented effect with maize, canola, wheatpapaya, and most recently alfalfa, just to name a few. Wherever GMOs are planted in the open air, whether as field trials or commercially, their pollen and seeds will spread in the normal way to cross-breed with other varieties. This happens most rapidly with the pollen of regular cross-pollinators like maize or alfalfa, or with small-seeded self-pollinators like canola, but the process is the same with every crop.
This is obviously a direct existential threat to organic agriculture. Organic canola is already largely impossible in Canada. South Australia has banned GM canola cultivation in order to try to preserve its organic export industry. When the USDA fully deregulated GM sugar beets it left some regulations in place in Oregon in an attempt to protect organic growers there. (Here and with alfalfa, the USDA has acknowledged the inevitability of contamination.)
It also threatens non-GM conventional agriculture, which the historical record documents is more productive and less expensive than GMO production. That’s why more and more farmers who can are switching back from GMOs to non-GM conventional. But it’s increasingly difficult to make this switch, as even where ostensibly non-GM seeds are available (more on this in a moment), they often turn out to be contaminated.
GMOs also contaminate wild relatives of cultivated crops. This not only adds to the growing problem of herbicide-resistant superweeds, but pollutes the genetic well from which all crop biodiversity is drawn.
Agriculture has always been dependent on its a broad genetic diversity for crop health and resiliency in the face of pests, disease, drought, soil problems, bad weather, changing environmental conditions. Especially as climate change becomes more of a chronic predicament for an ever greater expanse of the world, agricultural productivity, farmer viability, and food security will depend upon a great diversity of locally/regionally adapted crop varieties, along with frequent genetic replenishments from the well of undomesticated genetics.
Farmer breeding, seed saving, the general commons and natural market of agriculture have historically done a fantastic job of ensuring a constant innovation and biological replenishment among crops, and a wide dissemination of these seed innovations, wherever they were agriculturally appropriate. For much of the twentieth century public sector crop breeding continued this tradition, with improving results as modern science joined the commons.
But since the 1970s-80s, when breeding came under the control of a handful of corporations, breeding programs (including nominally “public” ones, but which are really harnessed to the corporate agenda as a form of corporate welfare) have been greatly narrowed and incestuously focused on a handful of corporate imperatives – how to breed tolerance to applied poisons (herbicides), and how to get the plant to endemically generate its own poisons (insecticides). This sums up the entire GMO program, including practically all the GMOs which have ever been commercialized or ever will be.
The result is that where cultivation has become dominated by GMOs, as with field corn in the US (almost 90% GMO), agriculture has become dangerously limited to a handful of genetic variations, with corresponding vulnerability to pests, diseases, and other threats. This genetic vulnerability is what laid US corn low with Southern leaf blight in the early 70s, and even Monsanto admits it’s what’s causing today’s spreading epidemic of Goss’s wilt.
This kind of physical vulnerability is endemic to industrial monocropping, but GMOs comprise a doubling down on this, rendering it an extreme vulnerability. This is typical of how GMOs represent the radical escalation and intensification of every malign aspect of industrial and corporate agriculture.
So both economically and physically, through contamination, GMOs automatically seek to narrow existing crop biodiversity to the vanishing point. At the same time they also contaminate the wild progenitors of these crops, thus seeking to forestall the very possibility of genetically reinvigorating agriculture from this wellspring. GMOs don’t just poison the tap, they poison the well.
The result of all this is that agriculture becomes weaker, more prone to crop failure, and less able to respond to threats and reinvigorate itself. If a cabal had set out with the conscious intent of triggering mass famine, it could hardly have proceeded with greater deliberation and promise of success than the GMO cartel and its allied governments have proceeded, as they have imposed this planned economy. As things are, humanity has the GM Sword of Damocles dangling above it. 
To sum up, co-existence is impossible and abolition is necessary because GMOs inevitably are contaminating all our crops and are forcing us into a suicidally hermetic lack of germplasm diversity.
2. GMOs are socioeconomically totalitarian in that, both by conscious design on the part of corporations and governments, and by their inherent tendency toward economic concentration and vertical integration (another way in which GMOs intensify the evils of corporate ag), they radically increase sector monopoly.
Monsanto and other biotech rackets set out with the strategy of hijacking public breeding money and buying up existing seed companies, all toward the goal of bringing all commercial seeds under their proprietary enclosure and economic domination. The results speak for themselves.
By 2010 Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta together had captured 53% of the global commercial seed market. The top 10, mostly US-based, held 73%. (Even system economics says that a sector where four entities hold 40% or more of the market is not competitive. The seed sector is gripped by a far worse stranglehold.) In 1980 the share of the US soybean crop which was planted with public sector seed was 70%. By 2010 93% of soybean plantings were proprietary GMOs. This extreme inversion is similar for corn and cotton. 
From 1996-2009 over 200 independent seed companies were bought and engulfed. Many of these no longer offer non-GM seeds at all. From this dominant position Monsanto enforces its will on farmers and on primary seed growers, who increasingly provide only GM lines and drop all others. The few non-GM varieties still commercially available tend to be weaker (through corporate breeding neglect) and are often contaminated anyway. Monsanto and the others often impose their harsh grower contracts on buyers of any seed from the companies they own, GM or not.
In every way, wherever they have power, the GMO corporations are enforcing their proclaimed goal of driving non-GM seeds out of the market and out of existence. Here’s one place where they probably do consciously seek to wipe out biodiversity, since so long as alternative genetics exist at all outside their enclosure, these constitute a threat to their domination.
To sum up, GMOs are destroying our market options. They’re enforcing both monopsony, Monsanto’s strong-arming of primary seed growers, and monopoly – its strong-arming of farmers, and of everyone on down the food production distribution chain to the end consumer. As a consumer one shouldn’t think in terms of alleged “choice” at the supermarket, but view it as the GMO-forcing equivalent of a USSR warehouse.
3. GMOs are socioeconomically and politically totalitarian in other ways.
I’ve written before about the totalitarian aspirations of the intellectual property regime in plant germplasm and seeds. The bureaucratic and legal interpretations of seed patents in both the US and Canada are being driven toward the goal of extending “ownership” through aggressive contamination to all crops and wide swaths of the wild ecosystem. GMOs seek legally to steal ownership of our crops, our control of the wild germplasm commons, and to steal control of our land out from under us.
In the form of corporate and government persecution, GMOs cause and are a pretext for the extension of the police state. Many governments have sought to legally outlaw all seed exchange and planting which doesn’t take place within the corporate framework. Policing, both nominally “public” and in terms of government sanction of “private” thuggery, a modern form of privateering, has followed suit. The enforcement of seed patents leads to a new form of the old pattern, raids and depredations from the parasite city to the productive countryside, just like the Bolshevik “food detachments” of the War Communism period.
Monsanto’s campaign contributions and lobbying money, and the revolving door between it and myriad agencies of government, have brought system politics under its domination. Along with Wall Street the GMO cartel perches at the summit of power, and its imperatives hold vast dominion over the policy of US and other government. This power is consciously sought, toward the goals of seed sector domination and from there total domination over the food supply, and from there over the entire economy.
4. GMO agriculture greatly steps up the use of agricultural poisons. Use of the extremely toxic glyphosate has massive escalated as most GMOs were engineered to tolerate increased application of it. As glyphosate is now failing under the pressure of the superweed counteroffensive, the GMO system is planning to escalate to even more toxic poisons. Such destructive chemicals as 2,4-D and dicamba, which corporations and governments previously promised would be rendered obsolete by Roundup Ready crops, are now going to see their own application escalated exponentially if the cartel and governments have their way. Most GMOs also internally generate their own Bt insecticide. Many varieties generate multiple poisons. Monsanto’s SmartStax maize exudes six poisons from every cell. This poison not only kills anything that touches the crop but seeps into the soil, water, and general environment.
GMOs themselves comprise a genetic toxification of our food and bodies, with effects which haven’t yet been determined, in large part because of the systematic refusal of governments and system sources of funding to require or undertake safety and epidemiological studies. But the explosive surge of allergies, autoimmune diseases like asthma and autism, related gastrointestinal diseases like leaky gut, inflammatory bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, and celiac disease, infertility, birth defects, and other health problems since GMO commercialization speak for themselves.
No sane person thinks it’s possible to keep up this wholesale poisoning of our air, water, soil, crops, food, bodies. 
To sum up, GMOs themselves poison the environment through their genetic pollution, and radically escalate the wholesale poisoning of our crops, soil, water, air, through the basic pesticides of poison-based industrial agriculture. GMOs were developed and forced into the market in the first place in order to force agriculture to use more synthetic poisons.
5. Industrial agriculture is unsustainable. It depends completely on cheap fossil fuels, cheap fossil water (from depleting aquifers), and cheaply mined phosphorus. All three of these are finite and unsustainable. Industrial ag has also ravaged the soil, eroding and denuding it. The crops it produces are increasingly weak, denuded of nutritional value, and subject to disease like Goss’s wilt and sudden death syndrome in soy.
In any of these ways industrial production is vulnerable to sudden collapses. In the end, for any and all of these reasons, industrial ag is doomed to collapse completely. To continue to commit humanity to dependency upon this doomed system is to doom humanity to mass famine.
By intensifying the command economy of industrial agriculture and escalating the domination of corporate ag, the GMO regime intensifies and escalates this systemic vulnerability. Through its structural domination and through conscious policy, the system also seeks to forestall the alternative to industrial/corporate agriculture: Food sovereignty and agroecology.
GMOs comprise the system’s terminal doubling down on an inefficient, shoddy, toxic, wasteful, doomed system. If we the people plan to eat in the future, and if we want to redeem our polities and economies, we must break the corporate stranglehold over our food production and distribution. We must abolish all food corporatism. We must abolish GMOs.
GMOs are totalitarian and physically homicidal. For all the reasons given here, co-existence with them is impossible, and all political proposals which represent any form of “co-existence” as desirable or as the sufficient end goal are pernicious.
GMO labeling can’t be sufficient to overcome these forces. Indeed, many versions of the labeling idea – those which emphasize the federal government, those which want to repose continued faith in politicians, those which are willing to temporize with overt calls for preemption (but all proposals for an FDA-based policy are at least implicitly temporizing) – are part of the suicidal “co-existence” mindset.
By the same logic, nothing which seeks reform within the system as the end goal will work. With the exception of the GMO cartel itself, the US government is the most aggressive and extreme pro-GMO organization on earth.
The real, systematic anti-GMO movement must start by setting abolition as the non-negotiable goal and then, without prejudice, evolve all organizational principles, strategy, and tactics out of this.
So what is our position and task where it comes to labeling? We support the right to know as a basic democratic right, and therefore support action on its behalf, always with the explicit caveat opposing all preemption. In becoming active in labeling campaigns, we meet, talk, educate, propagate the abolition idea. We oppose any complacency about co-existence or about labeling being the end goal. This is a fertile ground for what I’ve called POE – Participation, Organization, Education.
Democratic participation as such helps build the key parts of the movement mindset – individual self-respect (that one deserves better and has something to contribute toward the fight to get something better) and political self-confidence (that we can vastly multiply our individual capacities by organizing for a political struggle); any campaign which musters democratic will and drive provides the vehicle to build permanent grassroots action organizations; campaigns like this provide excellent forums for general education about GMO facts and issues. We do all these things toward the goals of building the permanent organizations we have to build, and propagating the abolition idea at every opportunity.
Any successful labeling campaign will provide not only the opportunity to build permanent grassroots anti-GMO organizations, but will generate another need for them as well. Any policy nominally enacted will still require grassroots oversight and pressure to ensure the policy is enforced in the spirit it was fought for. This oversight and pressure will also be necessary to overcome any tendency toward complacency – “we won the vote! now we can go back to sleep, as it’s in good hands” – a tendency which will certainly be encouraged by professional NGO types within the pro-labeling campaigns. For both these reasons the permanent organizations will need to serve as vigilance and pressure groups, at the same time they broadcast the ideas of abolitionism.
To the extent we develop the abolitionist consciousness as individuals, and especially as we form real abolition organizations, we can then enter the reformist campaigns and organizations, doing so in order to help achieve the reform goals while at the same time combating co-existence tendencies and pushing people on toward the further goals.
What about those who think GMO labeling is sufficient? The idea is that once enough places require labeling, food manufacturers will reconstitute their products to completely expunge GMO ingredients instead of having to either run two separate processing systems (one non-GM in the places requiring labeling, one GM in the places which don’t require it), or else have to allow the dreaded label on their packaging, which will cause consumers as a group to shun the product as they do in Europe. This sums up what I call the panacea view of labeling.
On its face it’s not implausible. Food manufacturers certainly resent having had this whole mess forced upon them, and in theory should be able easily to revert to non-GM conventional suppliers. They get practically no benefit from it. And consumers in Europe and elsewhere do shun GMO products, so that in European supermarkets there’s very few GM products. But is this an accurate expectation for America?
The analogy of Europe to the US isn’t a great one. In Europe there was labeling from the start, when GMOs were just entering the food supply. Consumers had a clear choice. Inertia was on the side of non-GM products. Under these circumstances, consumers overwhelmingly chose non-GM and shunned GMOs.
But here it would be the other way around. GMOs have largely conquered the supermarket shelves. They’ve insensibly become entrenched in consumer habits. If labels are now applied, this late in the game, this new knowledge will have to resist and overcome consumer inertia rather than support and flow with it. It’s the difference between having what you already thought confirmed, as opposed to having to register a new piece of information which goes against your tendencies, and which, to be acted upon, would require a significant change in your habits.
Given all this, it wouldn’t be surprising if labels would not achieve the hoped-for sea change in consumer habits. They might even help normalize GMOs in the consumer mindset. Indeed, I suspect that part of the reason why so many people who hadn’t previously thought about GMOs in their food end up voting No on the ballot initiatives is a kind of labelphobia borne of the intuition that labeling won’t really give them anything but something more to worry about, since they don’t expect to be able to do anything about it.
In general, political campaigns against an entrenched system don’t work unless they build upon a well-grounded, coherent, thriving movement culture. Just as with the always vain attempts to field “alternative candidates” in elections without having built an alternative movement first, so GMO labeling initiatives seem to be a form of putting the political cart before the movement horse. (That’s part of why they’ve been so easily dominated by NGO-type “professionals” who can be counted on to sell out the grassroots anywhere a labeling campaign does achieve nominal success.) I think a big part of the reason voters have been willing to believe the flimsy lies of the anti-labeling propaganda is because such lies bolster their existing anxieties, which under the circumstances labeling promises to aggravate, not alleviate.
Under the circumstances of an atomized mass society, where individuals have been isolated as “consumers” and have only a dim perception of what citizenship and democracy can be, this isn’t surprising. Where people have only the vaguest notion of what kind of action is in fact possible, on an individual level and especially if we organize for action, this isn’t surprising. We see how what’s necessary isn’t a series of ad hoc, disposable electoral campaigns for labeling, but to build a real movement from the soil up, a movement which shall rebuild community, rebuild bonds between people, conduct a systematic publicity and education campaign about GMOs, reinvigorate and render conscious the mindset of citizenship and democracy, and build belief in coordinated action, and provide the means to organize and carry out such action.
All this puts into perspective how the labeling movement, if taken as the goal in itself and launched without the necessary movement-building work, is building on sand. Even if these are passed and enforced, do individual consumers have the mindset to act upon the new information? And to repeat, the panacea view assumes (but seldom discusses) not only passing initiatives or bills, but that these are faithfully enforced. That’s a big If. This leads back to my point that labeling can’t work unless we form permanent vigilance organizations to ensure enforcement.
But once the permanent groups are formed, and once the movement is being built, will these be content to fight an endless battle of attrition on consumerist fronts? Both the experience of participatory organizing and the experience of treachery and attrition will, where necessary, teach us both the need and our desire to set our sights much higher. Wherever such pressure groups weren’t abolitionist organizations from day one, they will evolve to become these.
All this is part of the analysis and strategy we must develop. Similarly, we’ll develop analysis of the affirmative alternative to GMOs and corporate agriculture – food sovereignty and agroecology – as being the true, just, and practical alternative to industrial ag. But our analysis shall include the fact that for this alternative to ever find the space and traction to reach its full potential, we must first abolish GMOs.
Of course, as always I emphasize that we can and should start with the affirmative task today, and all over the world food sovereignty/agroecology is a vibrant and surging movement. My point is that the affirmative can continue to grow only in tandem with its negative corollary, the abolitionist movement.
So it is with reform action in the West. It’s achieving good things, has had some successes, also some major setbacks, and predictably is already infested with co-optation trends and complacent attitudes. For it to continue on the democratic vector, and for it to achieve its full potential, it must be reinforced with the supplementary, invigorating abolitionist imperative.
Conversely, in quantitative terms abolitionism is still a small manifestation amid the burgeoning but confused Western trend against GMOs. We who bear this true and necessary philosophy must use every opportunity within the reform trend to build ourselves up, propagate the great ideal, and in the end purify the trend, turning it into a fully developed human and democratic anti-corporatist movement, strong and ready to fight and win this war.




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