Let us pause and pity the modern industrial farmer. He (and most modern industrial farmers are men) spends his life in a poisonous cloud. And because most farmers live close to their fields, his family joins him in his exposure.
American farmers are caught in a vicious cycle. They spray their fields with poison to kill weeds, and they spray their fields with poison to kill bugs. A few weeds and bugs survive and evolve to be resistant to the poison. First the farmer counters by using more poison, but each year the weeds and bugs get stronger and more numerous. Eventually the farmer must change to another, more expensive poison, or more likely, a toxic stew of poisons. And let there be no mistake about it: that toxic stew is not only a rich component of the farmer’s and his family’s environment; it’s increasingly a part of yours and mine too.
A story in this morning’s NY Times provides fresh evidence of the extent of the problem, although in a manner typical for today’s mainstream corporate media, it ignores the worst aspect of it. The headline is that the heavy use of Monsanto’s Roundup (chemical name glyphosate) has encouraged the evolution of tough new weeds that are resistant to it, so the farmers encountering these Roundup-resistant weeds are countering by tilling their soil and using more poisons on their fields. The additional poisons will make you, me, and the farmer less safe, and the additional tilling will increase erosion and make it more likely the farmer’s ever-more-toxic stew will end up in the air you breathe and the water you drink.
And more and more of it will remain as residue in the food you and I eat. That’s the horrible truth that the NY Times conveniently leaves out of the story. As farmers douse their crops with more and more poisons, the residual level of poisons in those crops keeps increasing as well.
I know, and you know, and anybody who actually steps back long enough to see the real problem knows, that what the farmer needs to do is to farm more like Lee and Amanda are learning to do at Longleaf Breeze. We use polyculture, mulch, our brains and a whole lot of work to keep those weeds and bugs under control without using any pesticides or herbicides. And here’s the sad truth: the farmer wishes he could do that, but he can’t. He’s invested too much in the equipment used for spraying poisons, and his fields are soaked in those poisons anyway, so he’s locked in. And because the chemical companies encouraged him to mechanize, his farm is now too big for him to farm it without using that toxic stew.
And because the schools of agriculture are totally co-opted by the chemical companies, the farmer knows only one way to farm, with chemicals. Although he understands application rates for seven different poisons and can keep a 12-port sprayer running like a top, he knows less about growing a tomato organically than the average back-yard gardener. No, he’d better keep doing it this way, thank you.
Only he can’t. As the world adjusts to the reality of life after peak oil, one of the first casualties will be an agriculture system that relies on petrochemicals for everything it does. Farmers are going to change. The smart ones already are. The rest will be left stranded, bankrupt, or worse.
And lest we think otherwise, “genetically modified” is simply a nice way of saying crops engineered to be soaked with more poisons. So when advocates of genetically modified crops insist that it would be good for the rest of the world to approach agriculture the same way Americans do, they’re really saying the rest of the world needs to be using more poisons like we do. Great for Monsanto; lousy for people.
The NY Times story includes a paragraph buried deep within it that is nothing short of chilling:
Bayer is already selling cotton and soybeans resistant to glufosinate, another weedkiller. Monsanto’s newest corn is tolerant of both glyphosate and glufosinate, and the company is developing crops resistant to dicamba, an older pesticide. Syngenta is developing soybeans tolerant of its Callisto product. And Dow Chemical is developing corn and soybeans resistant to 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange, the defoliant used in the Vietnam War.
I really don’t want to eat food that’s been soaked with 2,4-D, and I’m willing to bet that you don’t either. At some point, each citizen of the United States must decide where his or her breaking point lies, where he or she is willing to say no to convenience and yes to healthy food.