As Thomas Selfridge lay with his skull fractured, dying, Orville Wright was not only witnessing the death of his dear friend but the birth of a new, unintended invention – the airplane crash. The flying machine experiment that moments before soared above an eager crowd had lost power and turned head-first to the ground. The damaged propeller of the fatal crash is kept on display at the National Museum of the United States Airforce, perhaps as a small reminder of unintended consequences.
What if reality is not composed of substances but of events? The creation of the airplane being the event that gave birth not just to the first plane crash, but to all plane crashes since, to international romance, to backpackers, to backpacker bars, to tables with nonslip tread for backpackers to dance on top of. What could be ordinarily conceived of as one single thing could also be described as a continuum of overlapping events. Perhaps relationships are not secondary to a thing, but are what the thing is.
In 1994, after eight years and twenty million dollars of development, the world’s first genetically engineered plant was brought to market; the Flavr Savr tomato. The test tube tomato was a huge hit, selling for twice the price of ordinary tomatoes and had to be rationed at certain grocers. The Flavr Savr, or CGN-89564-2 as it is known in the biotech product database, was labeled to address public concerns as to its test tube origins, along with complimentary in-store brochures and even a dedicated helpline.
The Flavr Savr tomato was soon adopted as the mascot for a new movement against GMO technology. In their approval of the Flavr Savr, the United States Food and Drug Administration created, as a precedent, the default assumption that transgenic plants are safe for consumption. One of the key lessons of the Flavr Savr tomato was that the technology was being sold to the wrong market – that the benefits of GM crops would have greater appeal to farmers with the promise of more yield for every acre.
It was the promise of higher yields that led to the Green Revolution, some decades earlier. New technologies in agriculture, such as the use of synthetic fertilisers derived from fossil fuels, pesticides, the development of high-yield cereal grains, the expansion of irrigation infrastructure, and modernised management techniques were credited for saving over a billion people from starvation.
Norman Borlaug won a Nobel peace prize for his role in championing the Green Revolution. Borlaug had witnessed as a young man the desperation of people in real hunger, seeing grown men starve on the streets of Minnesota during the great depression. He made it his life’s work to redress the world’s hunger.
But the high yield crops of Borlaug’s revolution monopolised all other crops, disrupting the natural diversity nurtured by small-scale self-sufficient farmers. Uniformity of industrial agriculture created single points of failure. Soils depleted of organic matter demanded greater amounts of water, resulting in ground water crisis in places such as Punjab. The reliance on external chemical inputs to sustain industrial farming methods made farmers ever more reliant on the companies that owned and manufactured the chemicals.
The monopolies of new crops inevitably created new corporate monopolies. In order for farmers to supply the water to their crops, they resorted to drilling up groundwater. As the water table dropped ever deeper, farmers needed to buy more expensive pumps to extract the water, to use more petrol to run those pumps. Increasing costs trapped the farmers in a cycle of debt. Intensive farming methods absorb all nutrients from the soil. As soil quality depletes, ever-increasing amounts of fertiliser are required. And so it goes.
The Monarch butterfly, the wanderer, with its distinctive orange and black pattern, is known to drift through cemeteries. The appearance of the Monarchs is celebrated on the Day of the Dead. According to traditional belief, the Monarchs are the souls of ancestors returning to Earth to visit their loved ones.
To food scientists developing genetically modified maize, Monarchs are non-target Lepidoptera. GM Maize is the second most widely grown transgenic crop in America. The maize is designed to express the genes for various insecticidal protein endotoxins, to kill pests responsible for billions of dollars in crop losses. In 1999, a paper published in Nature raised concerns that the endotoxins expressed in GM Maize were inadvertently killing off the Monarch butterfly. The paper launched the Monarch butterfly as as the cause célèbre for environmentalists opposed to biotechnology.
If the biotech industry was searching for its own mascot, they found it in Golden Rice, the crop heralded as a miracle cure for the malnutrition suffered by hundreds of millions of people. The concept of improving the content of missing micronutrients in major staple crops was a holy grail of GM science. Golden Rice was engineered to produce such a micronutrient, vitamin A, with genes from Daffodils lending its yellow ‘pissed on’ colour.
Dr Ingo Potrykus, who developed the crop over many years, shared similar childhood memories of hunger and starvation as Borlaug before him. He shared a similar zeal; “In fighting against Golden Rice reaching the poor in developing countries, GMO opposition has to be held responsible for the foreseeable unnecessary death and blindness of millions of poor every year”.
Critics claim that there are cheaper, more water prudent alternatives to Golden Rice – crops naturally rich in vitamin A that would conserve biodiversity. They also suggest that Golden Rice is attempting to address the very problems the Green Revolution created by eliminating natural biodiversity. AstraZeneca, despite giving the crop away on a royalty-free basis, own the rights to the patent underlying Golden Rice. Potrykus even acknowledges that it was a desire for good PR that led to companies such as Monsanto to agree to release the interlocking patents related to the Golden Rice project.
Critics accuse golden rice of being a trojan horse, designed to advance the corporate takeover of nature.
The enclosure of the commons was essential for the Industrial Revolution that preceded the Green Revolution. Commons became commodities. Self-sufficient farmers were displaced from their traditional lands becoming the waged labour that would staff the factories of burgeoning industry. Colonisers would give letters to their colonial subjects to sign away their traditional lands. Legal fictions were enforced through violence and terror. In the mind of the coloniser, the land is a passive entity to be adapted, used up, bent to their will. The attempt to transform commons to commodities continues with the patenting of nature.
According to an ancient Indian text, the Ishopanishad: ‘A selfish man over-utilising the resources of nature to satisfy his own ever increasing needs is nothing but a thief because using resources beyond one’s needs would result in the utilisation of resources over which others have a right.’
Perhaps, all these events can be traced back to the events of a much earlier time, to a time when Prometheus gave fire to the first humans. John Moriarty, the Irish philosopher, was raised in the institutions of the Enlightenment, a scholar of universities. Moriarty recalls the moment when, sensing that something was deeply wrong with his way of thinking, he wept into the wild grasses and heathers of the bog, wishing to rebuild his mind from the simple sensations of nature. Moriarty emptied his mind out in an attempt to listen.
Observing the dolphin, Moriarty heard the dolphin say to nature ‘Shape me to suit you’, where we, with our god-stolen fire, told nature that we would shape it; and have ever since shaped nature to suit us. The Gods punished Prometheus for his deed; chaining him to a rock by a mountain where the eagle tears away at his liver, for eternity.
I was first struck by the enormity of our hubris when I came across Beneforte TM, the ‘better-for-you’ broccoli. Beneforte is a broccoli hybrid that takes conventionally grown broccoli and crosses it with a wild broccoli. The ‘better-for-you’ broccoli was developed by Seminis, a subsidiary of Monsanto (it is not genetically modified). Sold in pre-sliced packets Beneforte claims to contain two to three more glucoraphin than regular broccoli, which may reduce the risk of cancer. Apparently it’s better for you.
Monsanto has filed a patent for Beneforte, which would set a new precedent whereby nature is patentable. A patent is a set of rights granted in exchange for disclosing an invention. Monsanto claim to have invented a new Broccoli. To invent means to come into; to create from nothing. Man claims to create Nature.
Have we manipulated nature for so long that we now believe we can create it?
And can the shovel that dug the hole be used to un-dig it? The appointed experts on sustainability; who jet from conference to conference, business-class, to trot out their techno-epiphany to crowds of ‘really smart people’ with some new variant on the claim that we can use our tools to hammer nature back into shape. It will be ok. We’re humans, we can do that.
Meanwhile the genuine experts on sustainability cannot be contacted by phone or email. They are walking the earth living off the land and in harmony with it. Maybe we ignore those experts because if we listened to them we’d have to shake off our claim over nature, to live radically different lives.
Dolphins, in their naiveté, make surprisingly adept navy personnel. Presently, we humans have conscripted dolphins to participate in war games in the Black Sea. Our Navies have taught the dolphins how to defend from intruders. Of course, dolphins have no concept of an intruder – they are playing along in our peculiar game. We have taught them how to find bombs using their innate and powerful echolocation. Special dolphin armour has been developed at the University of Hawaii. According to official denials, rumours of an attack fleet of dolphins that can fight and kill an enemy, are mere rumours. If the rest of it is true, we can presume that they tried but that the dolphins simply refused to fight.
Is Moriarty right, are our minds gone mad? Are our minds broken?
Initially written for The Plant Hunter