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May 092011

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Prince Charles might seem like an unlikely champion for organic farming. But I’ll embrace reason wherever I find it.

During a recent talk at Georgetown University, the prince extolled the virtues of organic farming over conventional farming, because it doesn’t destroy the soil with chemicals. He pointed out that our current methods of blasting crops with chemicals are endangering our ability to continue to even grow crops; which doesn’t make sense ecologically or economically.

Here’s his quote from the Des Moines Register: “Capitalism ultimately depends on capital but our capital ultimately depends on the health of nature’s capital,” the prince said. “Whether we like it or not the two are inseparable.”

I mean, yes! This is so basic, why does Great Britain’s Prince Charles get it, and we in the U.S. (organic food advocates excepted) don’t?

Here’s why: We’ve been persuaded by marketing blather that we need chemicals and genetically altered foods so that the U.S. can increase crop yields to “feed the world.”

And that may not be true at all. In fact, it’s almost certain to not be true. Organic farming has the best prospects of feeding a growing world, because it protects the ground, and coupled with no-till, crop rotation and composting practices, enriches the soil that plants need to thrive. Chemicals don’t do that. In fact, they wreak havoc from the fields to the rivers where they run off, all the way to the oceans where the synthetic fertilizers cause dead zones.

A blitzkrieg of chemicals eventually wears down the soil, leaving it barren of the microorganisms needed to support plant life.

This is so fundamental.

And the titular head of this assault on nature, Monsanto, makes sure that we continue to degrade the environment and jeopardize our ability to survive on the planet, because, hey, it makes a few (billion) dollars for Monsanto.

I don’t want to digress into an assault on the free market. So let’s just say this, what Monsanto enjoys is not a free market, but a system rigged in its favor. It has the money to buy a hands-off approach from Washington, and to chase down errant farmers who disrupt its death march by cleaving to those old, sustainable ways. This is a company that aspires to own the seeds and the food; and now wields tremendous power to push its bio-engineering plans for plants in whatever direction it chooses. The result is that billions of people around the world are eating genetically modified (GM) or genetically engineered (GE) corn, soy and other products, whose safety has not been well studied. Some of the few independent studies that have been mustered show that laboratory rats and mice are affected by a GM diet, suffering disruptions to their kidneys and livers.

But there are chinks in Monsanto’s armor.

Last week I listened to a news conference with Food Democracy Now! about how Monsanto’s dereliction is catching up with it.

Food Democracy’s founder and executive director Dave Murphy explained how Monsanto’s pesticide Round-up – the world’s most ubiquitous herbicide — is backfiring, causing disease in the very crops it was intended to shield from weeds.

Roundup, used by farmers and suburban gardeners

Farmers have been losing both corn to wilt and soy crops to “a sudden death syndrome”. Murphy says the research points to Monsanto’s weed killer, Roundup, whose active ingredient is glyphosate, as the culprit. Roundup, he says, is killing the beneficial organisms in the soil and allowing pathogenic organisms to thrive and attack the crops.

Plant pathology expert and Purdue University emeritus Dr. Don M. Huber has reported on a similar phenomenon, in which he believes Roundup use gives rise to a deadly pathogen in the soil that appears to cause high rates of infertility among hogs and cows. The animals, which miscarried at rates far above normal (up to 45 percent), had been fed feed containing GE corn and soybeans. They recovered when they were put on an organic diet. That would suggest that the Round Up-treated crops had harbored the pathogen or had been stripped of certain nutrients, either of which would have frightening ramifications for humans eating foods made from these same GMO crops. (See Food Democracy’s helpful visual on Huber’s inquiry.)

“This is a very real and credible threat to our food supply,” Murphy said, adding that he worries that Monsanto’s self-reported science on the chemicals it sells – the company claims that Round Up is safe and dissipates in the environment — cannot be trusted.

“They have a bad history of introducing toxic chemicals into the environment and they go to the Nth degree to cover up the problems with that product so they can make as much money as they can until they have to retire that product.”

Monsanto sees it differently. The company bills Roundup as safe, efficient and “a perfect fit with the vision of sustainable agriculture and environmental protection.”

Murphy says the link between the miscarrying cows and hogs and Roundup was not loosely arrived upon. Examinations by veterinarians of the livers and kidneys of the fetuses showed deficiencies in manganese in the cows and cobalt in the hogs. Knowing that Round Up chelates manganese in the soil, these early testers (2006) turned their reports over to Dr. Huber, who’s been studying Roundup for 20 years.

For those who don’t know, Monsanto’s system works like this: It engineers crop seeds that are resistant to the weed-killer Round Up, which is Monsanto’s biggest seller. Monsanto then sells both the seed and its hallmark product in tandem to farmers who can spray RoundUp on the “RoundUp Ready” corn and soybeans, killing the weeds but not the crops.

This seemingly elegant system of pairing seeds with pesticides lured many farmers over the past 15 years because it promised an easier way to grow food crops, and government agencies deemed Roundup to be less toxic than other pesticides.  Those farmers who found the Monsanto system less alluring – who wanted to grow organically, say — were often pursued legally by the company. (That’s another richly ironic story that went like this: Pollen from “Round Up Ready” crops would contaminate nearby organic fields through wind drift and cross pollination, after which Monsanto would sue the unwitting farmer whose organic crop had been ruined for using its “patented technology” without paying for it. So you see how Monsanto has put a lot of hard work into becoming one of America’s most reviled corporations.)

Obviously, more scientific work is needed, especially more robust independently financed research, to tease out the nutritional and safety effects of genetically engineered or modified foods.  That said, the problems swirling around Roundup do quack like a duck. (In addition to the corn and soybean problems, the infertility issues, it’s now well-known that Roundup use leads to Roundup resistant weeds.)

Drink milk? You eat what she eats. (Photo: USDA.)

And there’s ample evidence that Monsanto’s political influence continues to hold authentic inquiry into its products at bay. Earlier this year the Obama Administration, which normally thinks green (except when it comes to Rocky Mountain wolves and chemical farming) approved the unregulated use of “RoundUp Ready” alfalfa.

Alarms bells jangled through the organic food community, because farmers and dairy operators know that alfalfa — which is easily contaminated by GE varieties — is a main feedstock for organic dairy operations.

If organic alfalfa is infected, you can draw a direct line on the food chain chart to organic milk – which Americans do love, more and more every year. If they knew how Monsanto was endangering their access to this staple, they might just….well, if they were smart, they’d boycott all that RoundUp they’ve been buying this spring to make their front yards look like golf courses.

You may think that chem-yard looks good, but it ain’t fit for at least one prince I know.

So here’s a final nugget to nibble on while thinking about Monsanto and America’s blithe attitude toward chemicals. According to Murphy, all that alfalfa that’s now officially approved for an unregulated dousing of RoundUp doesn’t even need an herbicide. Think: Military plane that wasn’t even ordered.

Apparently most alfalfa growers – some 90+ percent – don’t even use chemicals on their crop, because this grass grows just fine, without RoundUp.

How about yours?

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