An environmental lawyer for 20 years, including four spent with the USDA, Claire Hope Cummings reports regularly on agriculture and the environment; she has also farmed in California and in Vietnam.
We chatted recently about her new book, Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds, for the current issue of Edible San Francisco. This is an extended version of that interview. (Cummings photo by Bart Nagel)
What motivated you to write this argument against the use of genetic technologies in agriculture?
Because GMOs (genetically modified organisms) don’t seem like an immediate personal threat, their risks to our health and the environment are fairly subtle. They’re real; they’re just not the kind you see on the evening news. There’s a lot of information about those risks already available. I wrote the book because I’m very concerned with the political and moral aspects of the technology. As a public-interest lawyer I was appalled to learn how this was invented and imposed on us. We were never given a choice. There’s a whole matrix of control involved, from the biological level — the way they are engineered — to the social level, how they are being imposed on people and nature.
Let’s start with the biological. Why do you call genetic technology the “defining moral issue of our time”?
Because it dismantles the basic integrity of the natural world. It’s so short-sighted. We don’t know enough about the biological world to know what we’re doing, and we haven’t agreed on an ethical framework for these technologies.
But isn't the technology itself morally neutral?
Like all tools, technology simply extends the hand of man. But we forget that that hand is connected to the head and the heart. So how it is manipulated is part of the technology. We can talk about science as a set of different tools of inquiry, that can be a little less value-laden, but technology is never anything but a tool that is connected to a value.
Genetically modifying a plant severs its relationship to its evolutionary course, and inserts into it, by force — using a gene gun or bacteria — some human idea of what the plant should do. The technology is limited both by its violent nature and our imagination. We’re rearranging the molecular structure of these plants because we think we know how this plant should be used. Why, instead of breeding plants with traditional methods and relying on the plant’s own carefully created system for say, drought resistance, would you use a much more expensive, unpredictable process like genetic engineering?
Because of patents. So you can own it. I mean, given all these great tools, what did Monsanto come up with? Herbicide-resistant soybeans to sell more of its chemicals. Most GMOs are plants that don’t die when sprayed with a lethal herbicide, or ones that exude insecticide. That’s Monsanto’s idea of how to use nature to make money.
The point of GMOs is control over seeds for profit.
Which brings us to the social control aspect.
Yes, the ownership issue. For example, Monsanto owns so much of the world’s cotton seed supply now that cotton farmers cannot get conventional [non-GM] seed. It is simply not offered. Monsanto also tells farmers they can’t save seeds, reuse them, or even study them. This is the time-honored heart of agriculture. Seeds have always adapted themselves to a specific place and climate. Now, just when we need more food, more adaptability and natural diversity, millions of dollars’ worth of seeds are being thrown away because of biotech industry contracts.
Playing devil’s advocate, when this was getting started, no one made farmers buy biotech seeds. And they can still save their own seeds, right?
If they grow open-pollinated, non-hybrid crops. So yeah, your average organic farmer growing certain crops can save their seeds, yes, but I’m talking about the dominant agricultural system. It's like saying people smoke because they really like it, not because of advertising or addiction. Agriculture is not a free market, and the reason that farmers have adopted biotechnology is because they have been absolutely desperate — until just recently until prices went up — for some competitive edge. And the reason biotechnology gives them a competitive edge is because they can spray herbicides over the top, and that's a labor-saving device. A competitive edge in agriculture has always been about labor. That’s why the tractor took over from the mule. That’s why the plow took over from the hand-drill. It’s always been about maximizing the labor in your field. And biotechnology crops provide farmers with a slight edge when it comes to labor.
So if Roundup Ready plants are save labor and require less herbicides, aren't those good things?
I did not say they used fewer herbicides. In fact, studies have shown that not only do Roundup Ready crops produce about 10% less in terms of their production — and the reason is, that when you ask a plant not to die by spraying it with a lethal herbicide, the plant has to make a tradeoff between its productivity and that trait — but the studies have also shown that the amount of herbicides being used on these crops is enormous. It’s much greater than farmers growing the same varieties conventionally. This is USDA data, this is land-grant university peer-reviewed data, not some partisan study.
This commercial technology — let’s make sure we make clear we’re not talking about science, but a product like any other product. They’ve positioned themselves as if they are operating in the public interest. They’ve sold the public and farmers and the agriculture departments a bill of goods, that this commercial product somehow makes them equal to public plant-breeders and those working on other issues involving things like hunger. Roundup Ready crops are a commercial product just like their pesticides. And like the pesticides, they would not survive if they weren’t being subsidized.
There is no free market in agriculture in this country. So questions about why farmers adopt these plants, these particular seeds, have to be understood in the context of the fact that this is being completely controlled by the Farm Bill, which just passed and will continue to give billions of dollars of subsidies to commodity crops that are genetically engineered. It’s what I call “zombie agriculture.” Take away those life-support subsidies of money and chemicals, and this technology dies. Because it can’t compete with biological agriculture.
Really this is all about who controls our food supply, isn't it?
Yes. Is food going to be something the public maintains as at the center of our personal and political decision-making, or will we just continue to hand it over to either private corporations, which have a completely different set of interests in mind, or to the government, which is now aligned with these private interests? That’s what we have now. How are we doing so far? I’d say the sorry state of public health and the environment shows our food system is not healthy.
When Abraham Lincoln created the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he called it “the People’s Department.” The USDA used to send seeds out free every year to gardeners and farmers all over America. The democratic underpinnings of our food system have been dismantled.
We’ve already lost most of our seeds. There are about 50K plants in the world that could be edible. About 150 have commercial value. About 40 of those are cultivated regularly around the world. But only four — wheat, rice, corn, soy — make up most of our basic food supply. The FAO has estimated that over the last hundred years, we’ve lost 75 percent of our agricultural genetic diversity within that context. If you look at corn for instance, there might be 85,000 subvarieties in Oaxaca, but they’re not being grown and they’re not really part of our food supply. When you look at the forces reducing this genetic diversity, its partly an environmental problem — the overall reduction of biodiversity — but a big part of it is private ownership, industrial agriculture and the way it operates.
But if these varieties are working for us, surely that means they’re the best seeds for the job?
That’s a typical culinary orientation to food. The way I come at food is from our environment — the natural world and how it supports us more generally. We need agricultural diversity because it maintains the health of even those few plants that we rely on. You could say that 100 varieties of corn might be just fine. But if you only grew those 100 varieties, you would end up with pests, because the natural word has a way of designing resistant pests. So that crop would fail and you wouldn’t have the genes that we need. Better that we should have 100,000 varieties of corn that are resistant to wind, drought, rust, aphids, whatever the particular problem is. You have to see the basic plants that keep us all alive in relation to the natural world.
So genetic diversity is kind of our insurance against future problems.
That’s a symptomatic way of describing its value. Diversity is the basis of resiliency in the natural world, and that applies to all plants and animals. We need it even more now that we have these environmental threats. The industrial food system has put all its eggs in one basket. It has emphasized uniformity and technology, particularly genetic technologies and chemical technologies, and neither of those are very well adapted to those threats we’re facing.
Seeds are us, I hate to use that corporate expression, but it’s true: all flesh is grass. Seeds are what we as a species have depended on for our food system and what has allowed us to develop all this great technology and so called civilization that we have. That relationship is as important as any relationship that we have.
Talk to me about the tripod you write about, of "people, plants, and place."
That’s my favorite way of discussing what we need to return to, what we need to build a productive agriculture on. True productivity, fertility, and health are based on those three things, and all of them are under huge duress right now. We have to go back to understanding that productivity is more an ecological question and more whole-farm based, looking at the whole farm, the soil. It’s about biodiversity and even the larger human community in and around that farm
What can we do?
We can save seeds. It doesn’t matter which ones. Calendula is a really pretty, very hardy flower, very generous with its seeds — so easy to save. Have fun and plant stuff. Kids like to see things grow; radishes are easy kid plants. There are so many easy ways to honor our relationship with plants. It’s sort of like a prayer. You may not want to be a priest, rabbi, or the Dalai Lama, but you can have a simple daily prayer of caring for a plant through its entire cycle, and participate in the generosity and integrity of the natural world by growing food and sharing it. It’s a practical spirituality that keeps us grounded in place and community, while giving us the enormous privilege of assisting in the regenerative capacity of the earth.
What it comes down to is whether or not we are going to be allowed to feed ourselves and make informed choices about how we do that — to live in our biological and social reality, which is that people, plants, and place were meant to be working together.