Thursday, July 12, 2012

Monoculture v complexity; agribusiness and deceit

Earlier this week I wrote about the recently reported discovery that in the course of normal living human beings carry 100,000,000,000,000 bacteria in and on our bodies. We are legion.

The significance of this knowledge, prima facie and possible, extends in many directions. The one I've been thinking about most this week -- as the FY 2013 Farm Bill makes its painful way through the sausage-making (oops, I mean 'federal legislative') process in Washington, DC -- has to do with the colossally bird-brained proposition that reductionist horticulture is a sustainable proposition in a staggeringly complex biosphere.

What am I talking about?

Well, first let's take a look at a little teeny-tiny, highly explosive piece of that FY 2013 Farm Bill. One of the secret ingredients of this year's Farm Bill sausage -- oops, I mean 'legislation' -- is a rider that was well-described by Alexis Badin-Mayer and Ronnie Cummins on Friday in The 'Monsanto Rider': Are Biotech Companies About to Gain Immunity from Federal Law? on AlterNet:
A so-called “Monsanto rider,” quietly slipped into the multi-billion dollar FY 2013 Agricultural Appropriations bill, would require -- not just allow, but require -- the Secretary of Agriculture to grant a temporary permit for the planting or cultivation of a genetically engineered crop, even if a federal court has ordered the planting be halted until an Environmental Impact Statement is completed. All the farmer or the biotech producer has to do is ask, and the questionable crops could be released into the environment where they could potentially contaminate conventional or organic crops and, ultimately, the nation’s food supply.
There's lots to think and write about when it comes to the dangers of genetically engineered crops, including food-crops, and I've written a bit myself on the topic (Mutant food: agribusiness vs. everybody else a couple months back, for example).

But I won't go there today. Instead, I'd like to focus a bit on monoculture and its intersection with genetic engineering and complex biological systems.

"Industrial agriculture," the practices promoted by corporations known to some as agribusiness, is largely a story about monoculture. In a sound-byte, monoculture means growing a single crop on large acreages of land, year after year after year.

Monoculture farming permits impressive efficiencies of scale for large farming operations, but those efficiencies come at costs that are often masked at the grocery store register by subsidies like ... well ... like those that are baked into our government's farm bills, come to think of it -- though one can just as easily talk about health care costs and bad energy bets as forms of subsidy to agribusiness and its tendency toward monoculture. There are complicated economics at play, and the complexity is not proper fodder for a blog-length post. Instead, here's Miguel A. Altieri, of the Division of Insect Biology at UC Berkeley, explaining what monoculture means, in overview, in the introduction of his dated but still relevant Agroecology in action web page:
Until about four decades ago, crop yields in agricultural systems depended on internal resources, recycling of organic matter, built-in biological control mechanisms and rainfall patterns. Agricultural yields were modest, but stable. Production was safeguarded by growing more than one crop or variety in space and time in a field as insurance against pest outbreaks or severe weather. Inputs of nitrogen were gained by rotating major field crops with legumes. In turn rotations suppressed insects, weeds and diseases by effectively breaking the life cycles of these pests. A typical corn belt farmer grew corn rotated with several crops including soybeans, and small grain production was intrinsic to maintain livestock. Most of the labor was done by the family with occasional hired help and no specialized equipment or services were purchased from off-farm sources. In these type of farming systems the link between agriculture and ecology was quite strong and signs of environmental degradation were seldom evident.

But as agricultural modernization progressed, the ecology-farming linkage was often broken as ecological principles were ignored and/or overridden. [...] Evidence has accumulated showing that whereas the present capital- and technology-intensive farming systems have been extremely productive and competitive, they also bring a variety of economic, environmental and social problems.

Evidence also shows that the very nature of the agricultural structure and prevailing policies have led to this environmental crisis by favoring large farm size, specialized production, crop monocultures and mechanization. Today as more and more farmers are integrated into international economies, imperatives to diversity disappear and monocultures are rewarded by economies of scale. In turn, lack of rotations and diversification take away key self-regulating mechanisms, turning monocultures into highly vulnerable agroecosystems dependent on high chemical inputs.
What we learned last week about human biology is that "a single human being" is actually a single organism existing in deeply interdependent symbiosis with 99,999,999,999,999 or so other single organisms. Not "me." But, rather, "us," where "us" turns out to be a much larger number than scientists understood before. Symbiosis and biodiversity are the cornerstones of our very being.

The connection I'm making here is that, as Prof. Altieri explains, it is only recently that farming practice has taken a major fraction of our food production away from harnessing cycles that imitate nature, biodiversity that has evolved over eons, and symbioses that characterize life as it has proliferated over the last four billion years.

Monoculture is antithetical to how life works.

Digging a little deeper into how monoculture farming works, what are these "chemical inputs" to which Altieri refers?

They're things like insecticides and herbicides -- e.g., Monsanto's Roundup, or the WWII era 2,4-D from Dow. These poisons are "needed" when unnatural biological uniformity across acres and miles of farmland encourage proliferation of unsalable plants (a.k.a. "weeds") that crowd out the desired, monocultured plants. Then, to protect the desired monocultures from the toxic effects of these poisons, genetically engineered variants of corn, soy, etc. are "needed" to keep monoculture farming in business.

So, to recap, we poison the land. Then we poison the slow-evolving, fine-tuned genetic heritage of our biosphere in order to counteract the poisoning of the land. We do this so that unsustainable farming techniques can eke out another few seasons of profit.

Then, when the spread of all this toxicity leads us to instantiate controls putatively separate from the profit-focused monocroppers, we get 'Monsanto riders' buried in complex masses of sausage -- oops, I mean 'legislation' -- that knocks the teeth out of those controls.

By "we" here I mean "human beings." We have a collective responsibility for what we do, for what we allow, for what we fail to prevent. This collective responsibility is part and parcel of being a social creature, of living in a society, of living in social and economic and political interdependence with others.

But who exactly proposes poisonous amendments to legislation like the 'Monsanto rider' in the currently-proposed Farm Bill? Back to the AlterNet article:
Whom do we have to thank for this sneak attack on USDA safeguards? The agricultural sub-committee chair Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) -- who not coincidentally was voted "legislator of the year for 2011-2012" by none other than the Biotechnology Industry Organization, whose members include Monsanto and DuPont.  As reported by Mother Jones, the Biotechnology Industry Organization declared Kingston a "champion of America's biotechnology industry" who has "helped to protect funding for programs essential to the survival of biotechnology companies across the United States."
Now all the above is a lot to follow, even for a political junkie ... but the pattern of self-interested, short-sighted, selective ignorance is there to see for those who care to look. You might say this is a story about corporate money in American politics. I certainly would.

Bottom line, monoculture farming is a simplified, reductionist "solution" imposed in a massively complex biological context. It makes no sense. It serves somebody's short-term Profit/Loss statement, but in the end humanity and most other living beings lose, lose, lose.

If you ask me, monoculture farming smells like a sprawling, festering pool of manure.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
One hundred trillion bacteria: the microbiome within you and without you
Mutant food: agribusiness vs. everybody else
Broken food chains

Thanks to NightThree via Wikimedia Commons and to sniggy for images of tractors parked and in situ included in this blog post.

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