Sunday, May 29, 2011

Memorial Day Break--No post this week

I am taking a holiday break and expect to post again on Sunday, June 5.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Contamination: The totalitarian strategy of the GMO crop industry

Certainly, many of us know people who say (wrongly) that nowadays everything causes cancer. This view becomes a justification for making no effort to avoid carcinogens, especially in food. It is a case of learned helplessness that becomes a major public relations weapon for creating and maintaining docile populations. Make people feel powerless. Then, even if they disagree with you, they won't oppose you.

This appears to be the strategy of the genetically modified organism (GMO) crop industry. The mode of attack is the contamination of non-GMO crops through the spread of pollen and the inadvertent mixing of GMO and non-GMO seeds. Large agribusiness giants such as Monsanto claim to recognize "coexistence" with conventional and organic growers as a desirable state. But, the industry acknowledges that contamination is inevitable. In fact, the complete segregation of GMO and non-GMO crops was never on the table. Several high-profile cases of mixing have already demonstrated this. Starlink corn comes to mind as well as the virtual elimination of organic canola growing in Canada because of GMO contamination (with no effective redress in the courts available). And, what we now know about the spread of genes via pollen from GMO to non-GMO plants makes it all but certain no regulatory regime, no matter how comprehensive and severe, could prevent contamination.

This fact has not stopped aggressive enforcement of the GMO industry's intellectual property rights which involves threats and lawsuits designed to intimidate not just those supposedly in violation of crop patents, but the entire farming community even when the cases involve contamination by adjacent farms and passing vehicles containing GMO seeds. Here's the message: To avoid lawsuits that threaten to take away your farming livelihood, you might as well sign up to buy our seeds because contamination by us or our farmer customers will be no defense in court.

In fact, Canadian courts found that contamination is not a permissible legal defense! Lest you think that I am making this up, here is the relevant portion of a trial court finding which was upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada in Monsanto Canada Inc. and Monsanto Company vs Percy Schmeiser and Schmeiser Enterprises Ltd.:

Thus a farmer whose field contains seed or plants originating from seed spilled into them, or blown as seed, in swaths from a neighbour's land or even growing from germination by pollen carried into his field from elsewhere by insects, birds, or by the wind, may own the seed or plants on his land even if he did not set about to plant them. He does not, however, own the right to the use of the patented gene, or of the seed or plant containing the patented gene or cell.

This precedent and the aggressive enforcement behavior by the industry has led organic growers and seed distributors to file a pre-emptive lawsuit to protect themselves from the industry's legal tactics which are designed to force farmers to pay the company penalties even when the farmer is organic and must avoid all genetic contamination to market his or her crops. (Organic standards prohibit genetically engineered crops.)

I am reminded of King Henry's conversation with his counterpart King Philip of France in the play Lion in Winter. Philip is insisting that his sister, Alais, be wedded to Henry's son, as previously agreed by Henry and Philip's father, the now deceased King Louis. It's that or the return of the Vexin, a key county north of Paris given to England in exchange for the betrothal.

Philip: It's their wedding or the Vexin back. Those are the terms you made with Louis.

Henry: True, but academic, lad. The Vexin's mine.

Philip: By what authority?

Henry: It's got my troops all over it. That makes it mine.

Just substitute "crops" for "troops," and you'll see an age-old strategy at work. I am also reminded of Hitler's remilitarization of the Rhineland and the Anschluss, his occupation of Austria. Once his troops were on the ground, nobody wanted to challenge him.

The contamination strategy solves two perceived problems for the industry. First, the industry attempted to include GMO plants as acceptable in the original National Organic Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But the outcry was so great from activists that GMOs were taken out of the standards. One way, however, to overcome this resistance is through contamination. By forcing food regulators to accept GMO contamination in organic food as inevitable, the GMO industry is paving the way for eventual capitulation by the organic community and conventional growers as well. The industry wants to propagate the attitude that nothing can be done to stop it.

Second, although Europe has long had labeling requirements for GMO foods, in the United States the industry has so far been able to prevent enactment of any such requirement. The response from food activists has been to launch a campaign for voluntary labeling of non-GMO foods and that now has the GMO industry on the defensive. But, what better way to undermine such an effort than to contaminate conventional and organic crops?

What would change the calculus of the GMO industry? Perhaps it would change if some of the contamination suits (mostly outside the United States) were to result in huge verdicts, ones large enough to be financially ruinous to the industry. Nothing like that, however, is on the horizon. In the meantime, we can all look forward to the involuntary consumption of genetically modified food ingredients against our will. The GMO industry tells us that they want consumers to have a choice, that GMO foods should "coexist" with conventional and organic foods. Yet, they oppose labeling.

Meanwhile, the equivalent of the GMO industry's panzer corps is moving into our farm fields and from there into our kitchens. We may soon regret this creeping annexation of our dinner tables. Once the invasion of GMO genes around the world is complete, we may find it harder to roll back than Hitler's armies.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Would vested interests starve the world?

In his latest book entitled Bottleneck sociologist and ecologist William Catton Jr. explains in detail why he believes human society is destined for a major dieoff, a "bottleneck" from which few survivors will emerge.

One cause, he says, is an array of vested interests who manipulate the media and the power structure, oblivious to the consequences of their actions. Many would say that this is business-as-usual. After all, what do we expect when governments are thoroughly dominated by the industries they are supposed to regulate? As a result, we may say, a few more people will be maimed or killed or maybe just ripped off than would otherwise be the case. But, would such interests be so crazy as to persist in their manipulations when faced with compelling evidence that suggests their actions could result in widespread starvation?

Apparently the answer is yes. Two examples illustrate this possibility. Many readers may be familiar with the rapid decline in honeybee populations worldwide due to what is now called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). CCD has been attributed to various causes including mite infestations, climate change, cell phones and pesticides. New evidence and observations suggest that the main culprit is a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids--which you might rightly guess are related to nicotine. These pesticides are neurotoxins designed to disorient and paralyze insects. They are not only sprayed, but also applied to seeds and therefore become lodged in the fibers and nectars of plants, killing insects who suck nutrients from such plants. (One of the reasons these pesticides are so popular is that their toxicity to mammals is low.)

France, Germany, Italy, and Slovenia have severely restricted or banned this class of pesticides. Ironically, Germany is home to Bayer, one of the largest manufacturers of neonicotinoids, a company which continues to profit from hefty sales abroad. In the aftermath of the bans and restrictions, bee populations have quickly recovered. Naturally, this is not absolute proof that the bans generated the revival. But as the evidence continued to mount that neonicotinoids are strongly implicated in CCD, these European countries applied the so-called precautionary principle. Better to be safe than sorry when it comes to something as critical as food, and honeybees are pollinators for as much as a third of the world's food supply.

Other nations have been slow to act because of pressure from the agricultural chemicals industry. The industry's hue and cry is that there is no definitive proof that neonicotinoids are a central cause of CCD. But, of course, the industry has the burden of proof backwards. If the industry is going to put one-third of the world's food supply at risk, then it ought to prove that its products are harmless. That would cost money, lots of money, and it would mean that many new chemicals with expensive development costs might never be approved. Naturally, the industry wants the burden of proof to fall on government and university scientists spending public money to prove a pesticide is dangerous. Nice arrangement! For the industry, that is.

A more recent revelation is that glyphosate, the world's most widely used herbicide, may be setting us up for a major crop failure worldwide. Sold primarily under the trade name Roundup, the herbicide has been central to chemical and seed giant Monsanto's strategy to lock-in alfalfa, corn, cotton, canola, soybean, and sugar beet growers who must buy the company's genetically engineered and patent-protected seeds every year from Monsanto if they want to reseed their fields with herbicide-proof crops.

Now a leaked private letter from an agricultural researcher to the secretary of agriculture seeking funds to research possible connections between the herbicide and increased levels of plant and animal disease has called into question the safety of this herbicide. Apparently, glyphosate promotes what is now being called Sudden Death Syndrome in plants by making them more susceptible to soil-borne diseases.

This might not be so urgent an issue if it were relegated to crops that were of minor importance in the food supply or if the size of the genetically engineered crop were small. But neither is the case. Keep in mind that some 80 percent of all calories consumed by humans originate as grains or oilseeds. (A significant portion of these, of course, is used as feed for dairy and meat production.) In 2010 in the United States, the world's major grain and oilseed exporter, 90 percent of the soybean crop was Roundup Ready (i.e. glyphosate-resistant) as was 70 percent of the corn. For the world the numbers were lower but considerable: 77 percent for soybeans and 26 percent for corn. A major decline in yields of these crops could certainly result in sky-high food prices and therefore hunger and starvation for many of the poorest in the world.

One would think that authorities would be rushing to determine whether such dangers exist and how severe they are. But while many agricultural governmental agencies are aware of the concerns, little is being done. Perhaps it will take a major harvest catastrophe to convince policymakers that the dangers are real. By then, of course, it will be too late for many. But, at least the agricultural chemical interests will be pleased that their political and financial muscle extended profits right up to the moment when it became clear to everyone why the harvest failed.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Max Keiser interviews Kurt Cobb on global oil supplies, his novel Prelude and more

In lieu of my weekly piece I'm posting this interview with Max Keiser, host of the financial talk show On the Edge. The interview aired May 6th and is available in two parts from YouTube below.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Can dictators solve our problems?

Recently in my state under the auspices of a new law, a small, financially troubled city was the first to be completely taken over by a so-called emergency financial manager appointed by the governor. The extraordinary powers given to this manager under the law allowed him to strip all governing powers from elected officials and the boards appointed by them. This manager is now the de facto dictator of Benton Harbor, Michigan.

Benton Harbor has a long history of problems which are fairly easy to discover with a few Internet searches. Still, I am reminded of Winston Churchill's saying that "democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried." How many managers will the governor eventually appoint to run various school districts and cities? Some 300 trainees were admitted to a recent training session for such managers. One person I know who attended said the only qualification for receiving the training was providing a credit card number to which the seminar organizers could charge the $175 registration fee, a modest amount for a chance to become a well-paid dictator. (The legislature defeated an amendment that would have capped salaries paid to emergency financial managers at the level currently paid to the governor which is $159,300 annually. The emergency manager salaries are to be paid by the unit of government that is taken over, not by the state.)

This event is not, however, the beginning of a trend toward greater centralization of political, economic and social control. We are, in fact, well along that path which is a response to the inscrutable problems that our complex society faces--a society so complex that no one really knows how to govern it. As Joseph Tainter, author of The Collapse of Complex Societies, explains, complex societies at first find that complexity solves problems such as food storage, transport, border security, and the maintenance of social order. But as those societies become ever more complex, the returns on increased complexity diminish and then finally turn negative.

Many thinkers have noticed that our society may have already passed the point of diminishing returns and that we are now experiencing negative returns on complexity. Economist Herman Daly says we long ago reached the point of "uneconomic growth." (PDF) The costs of growth now exceed the benefits. William Catton Jr. said much the same thing in his ecological classic entitled Overshoot. Human society now consumes resources at a rate far beyond the Earth's long-term carrying capacity.

A recent dramatic example of the impenetrable complexity we live with was the financial crash of 2008, an event that policymakers seemed helpless to halt. Their response was to ask for extraordinary powers to inject money into the banking system, to take over large enterprises, and to run huge fiscal deficits to boost the world's economy. Central banks engaged in what some people believe is illegal activity to shore up flagging financial firms. Give us dictatorial powers, government officials said, or everything will fall apart. When there wasn't time to get authorization, those government officials simply did what they thought was necessary to stop the financial haemorrhaging.

I don't want to rehash the wisdom of these acts of financial desperation. What I'm interested in is the notion the world has become too complex and fast-moving for democratic governance. Tainter explains that increased complexity calls for increasingly complex systems of people and machines to manage that complexity.

The United States and its allies have given a highly complex and powerful military the task of winning the so-called "War on Terror." Setting aside the fact that terror is a tactic, not a defined enemy, consider whether that military has made progress in that multi-front conflict in the decade since it was announced by President George W. Bush. Today, Afghanistan remains a lawless and corrupt state. Pakistan has become a haven for those who oppose American power. Iraq--which was never a haven for terrorists--has now become one, full of rebels who are largely an indigenous religious minority dissatisfied with the outcome of the war. And, the persistent request from George Bush and now his successor, Barack Obama, more less amounts to this: "Give me extraordinary powers to detain people and fight wars. Too much interference from elected officials will hamper our efforts. Basic constitutional protections against search and seizure and against imprisonment without trial need to be overridden."

But the so-called "War on Terror" is really many conflicts involving local grievances in countries which have strategic importance to the United States and its allies for resource or geopolitical reasons. Lax oversight by elected officials and concentration of power in the hands of generals and civilian managers has not resolved these conflicts.

When the usual processes of democracy fail often enough to resolve perceived difficulties, people sometimes choose to relinquish their voice in society's decisions in exchange for order and stability. We may, however, be approaching an era where no such tradeoff exists. A dictator running an ungovernable system may be no better at achieving stability than a democratically elected body with all its messy procedures.

There is an alternative. Simplify the systems we live under. That, of course, means challenging the existing power structure. Energy constraints may soon do the challenging for us and force us to simplify systems that will have trouble surviving declines in energy inputs such as multi-national corporations and large centralized states.

I saw Tainter in person not too long ago at a conference. He was asked if any complex society has ever voluntarily reduced its complexity, meaning before events forced it to. He couldn't think of any. That tells me we can look forward to more governments claiming the need for additional extraordinary powers to deal with seemingly intractable problems that, in all likelihood, cannot be solved by continuing with the hypercomplex arrangements that now govern our world.

As our difficulties increase, a new crop of dictators or quasi-dictators in various realms of our society will emerge, offering to solve our problems. Increasingly, I think we will let them try.