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Agriculture's deal with the dark side

  • Article by: BONNIE BLODGETT
  • November 23, 2013 - 4:46 PM

My first job was in public relations, promoting the University of Minnesota’s land-grant research role to state legislators. Job-creating tech start-ups like Control Data (which would shortly go bust) were the big story back then. I never ventured over to the St. Paul ag campus, where followers of a U-educated plant pathologist named Norman Borlaug were quietly engaged in the Green Revolution.

Borlaug himself had long since left his alma mater. In the early 1940s, he’d done war work for DuPont, which offered to double his pay when the war was over. Borlaug had other plans. His high-yield wheat hybrids won him a Nobel Peace Prize and helped quadruple world population. It also produced enduring alliances between land-grant universities and corporations, whose executives saw early on that there was serious money in agriculture.

In 1996, Monsanto patented a new type of weed-resistant corn and soybean immune to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup. The gene for the worm-killing bacteria Bt was woven into corn’s DNA next. Traditional breeding breakthroughs that kept on coming sent transgenic crop yields through the roof. Over three decades ending in 2000, the U.S. diet saw a 25 percent spike in added sugars. Then came ethanol. Improved soybeans found their way into everything from home insulation to eco-friendly cosmetics.

As genetically modified (GM) crops proliferated, the companies involved consolidated. Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer and Syngenta now cooperate to ward off regulation and litigate against all comers who would challenge their control. Anyway, that’s how Iowa State University’s Dennis Keeney sees it. A professor emeritus in agronomy, at age 76 he remembers a different time. “I knew Norman Borlaug,” Keeney says. “He appreciated the need for technologies adapted to local needs [but] not the blanket injection of biotech seeds into developing agriculture as is so passionately argued currently by industrial agriculture supporters, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”

Before GM seeds invaded the Third World, the Green Revolution devastated rural communities in the United States. Land stewardship and other virtues embedded in a system of relatively small, biodiverse family farms were put on the shelf as vast tracts planted in a single annual crop, corn or soybeans, came to symbolize the new economies of scale. Farmers who survived the shakeout rallied to the grow-or-die mantra. Increased yields allowed them to service debt for expensive machinery and “chemical inputs” that destroyed the soil’s capacity to renew itself. All this left little time to worry about water quality, weather or wildlife.

University scientists working in agronomy and plant genomics answered to agribusiness first, farmers second. When problems arose, these highly trained experts were instructed to keep quiet. U of M entomologist Ken Ostlie told the New York Times in 2009 that his corporate sponsor threatened to pull its funding after he and 26 colleagues complained to the Environmental Protection Agency that seed products were inadequately tested before going to market.

Corporate reprisals, or just the threat of them, hardly encouraged scientists dependent on industry to take similar risks. Tension arose between scientists working for industry and those working independently on issues like bee colony collapse, clean water, and the effect of climate change on forests.

In 2005, a University of Wisconsin survey of researchers warned of a chilling effect in the disproportionate private-sector sponsorship of land-grant research. Food and Water Watch, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group, confirmed that “[b]etween 1970 and 2006, the latest years for which data are available, total private agricultural research expenditures … nearly tripled from $2.6 billion to $7.4 billion, in inflation-adjusted 2010 dollars. Over the same period, total public funding … grew less quickly, rising from $2.9 billion to $5.7 billion.” Research on “environmental, public health and food safety risks related to industrial agriculture” as well as “alternatives to the dominant agricultural model” weren’t supported at all.

FWW analyst Tim Schwab noticed another troubling trend: corporations fund work whose “public good” seems dubious. Given the nutritional issues involved in cancer and diabetes, why is the University of Minnesota squandering its “tremendous resources” on improving breakfast cereal’s mouth feel? (Schwab was referring to the U’s Flavor Research and Education Center Taste Institute.) The tendency of research universities to turn a blind eye to their own conflict-of-interest policies aggravates the “biasing effect of industry money on science,” the FWW study concluded.

What Norman Borlaug is to agronomy, Aldo Leopold is to ecology. Like Borlaug an Iowa native, Leopold wrote in “The Sand County Almanac” that people like him — a minority of people, he admitted — “see a law of diminishing returns in progress.” Leopold admired scientists’ ability to “disclose the drama” of the natural world, to manipulate the habits of a wild goose so as to “assure us a good breakfast.” He also believed science and “the wild things” were on a collision course.

A bungled Iowa State University hiring process shows how administrators are caught in the crossfire between the two sides, technology vs. ecology. One side represents a decidedly human-centric worldview and the other a belief that all species have purpose in an ecosystem composed of interdependent living things.

Ames, Iowa (ISU’s hometown) would be an ideal setting if the debate were given a fair hearing. No other land-grant university is so dependent on Big Ag — yet fewer than 10 percent of Iowans work in that sector. A tiny fraction even own farmland.

ISU bigwigs had gathered to hear the man regarded as a shoo-in to become the next director of its Aldo Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture when the candidate made an unfortunate gaffe. He let it slip that cattle had evolved to eat grass. While grass-fed is widely regarded as the most sustainable way to fatten a cow, Iowa beef are raised on corn. An appealing byproduct is the meat’s luscious texture; downsides are that cornfed beef isn’t a healthy choice for anyone with a cholesterol problem, and it takes a lot of antibiotics to offset corn-related digestive complaints.

In explaining why the candidate didn’t get the job, ISU’s president said the center’s director must “walk the middle ground.”

This disheartening episode reminded me of a talk I attended recently. After a truly riveting recital of threats to human life posed by industrial agriculture, Jonathan Foley, who runs the U of M’s Institute on the Environment, closed with what sounded oddly like a hopeful “word from our sponsors.” He suggested, in essence, that progress got us into this and progress will get us out.

Someone asked, “So Cargill isn’t the devil?” Foley grinned, then told us about a project aimed at curbing deforestation in Brazil that he’d been working on with Cargill’s public affairs vice president.

I remember looking around the room for someone braver than me who might follow up with a question about Cargill’s recent purchase of 130,000 acres of barren farmland in Colombia. If the land will be used to feed the local population, as Cargill claims, why is the company rumored to be planning to build coastal ports? The environmental group Oxfam believes Cargill plans to export the very crops Brazil is criticized for planting in the deforested Amazon jungle — corn and soybeans. But there’s no explanation beyond the company’s brief news release disputing Oxfam’s charges.

Despite such developments, or maybe because of them, World Wildlife Fund vice president Jason Clay places himself in the Borlaug (technology) camp. He does not dispute that the planet may be heading off a cliff, but if he had to bet on what could prevent that, he’d put his money on the private sector. “Lord knows government isn’t doing it,” he jokes.

Here’s the rub: WWF’s situation is similar to that of the land grants. Its corporate partners Starbucks and Coca-Cola were the stars of Clay’s talk at a food conference in Oregon. Mars, the candy company, came in for special praise for its eco-friendly initiatives and because it’s privately held (this allows it to pursue its goals with little government interference or public scrutiny). Cargill is private, too, but apparently hasn’t sought Clay’s advice. Maybe that’s because he believes farmer ownership of land is essential if developing nations are to eventually prosper, and Cargill seems to be taking land away from farmers.

The Economist magazine recently mentioned WWF as among several trendy new “conscience consultants” to giant multinationals, calling them “environmental charities.” Citing evidence of disenchantment for the model stemming from, among other incidents, their failure to broker a carbon-trading deal, the Economist nonetheless endorsed “partnerships of opposites” as a way to counter the threat of “worldwide centralized planning.”

The present arrangement — “100 corporations … selling roughly a quarter of the world’s food” — makes this a foregone conclusion, it seems to me.

The trouble, of course, is that old bugaboo, accountability. Shareholders don’t provide that. Governments do. In a democracy, you have checks and balances. You have voters. Planning doesn’t have to be centralized to be effective and fair. Secretiveness combined with contempt for old-fashioned constraints on corporations’ increasingly centralized power effectively derails discussion of how the for-profit conglomerates are going to look after the needs of ordinary people and the planet. But even more effective is to characterize all criticism, whatever the content, as not fact-based and motivated by … well, that’s just it. Can a man like Wes Jackson seriously be motivated by money?

Jackson is the founder of the Land Institute in Salina, Kan. He grows perennials, and lots of them. As every gardener knows, perennials go dormant in winter and die back, but return year after year — the ultimate no-till solution to soil erosion and everything else Jackson says is wrong with modern agriculture. He plants his improved grain crops in biodiverse “mixtures” so productive, resilient, high-calorie and low-maintenance that the New York Times food writer Mark Bittman traveled to Salina to see them firsthand.

About industrial agriculture, Jackson told Bittman: “We don’t have to slay Goliath with a pebble. We just have to quit using so much fertilizer and so many pesticides to shrink him to manageable proportions.” On the progress-or-perish issue, he placed his bet decades ago. He’s invested his whole life — all 77 years — in plants.

 

Bonnie Blodgett is a writer in St. Paul. Reach her at bonnie@gardenletter.com.

 

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