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Pyle: Nature abhors uniformity

Published June 21, 2013 6:11 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Suppose you like chocolate. I mean, really, really like chocolate. Suppose you are offered two tables set with food.

On one table, there is chocolate. That's all, just chocolate. On the other table, there is also chocolate. Just as much chocolate as there is on the first. But there are also other things. Cauliflower. Liver. Tofu. Rotten eggs. Dirty diapers. Which table are you going to eat from?

Now, suppose you are a weevil or worm or a bacteria, and that you like a particular kind of plant, leaf, root or seed. You like it so much that that may be all you eat. Maybe all you can eat.

If so, then modern agriculture is made for you, my little friend. Most of what we eat comes from acre upon acre of genetically identical crops, mostly corn, either milled into a variety of ingredients for processed foods or fed to cows, pigs and chickens on its way to becoming our lunch.

To an evolutionary biologist, this is madness. And, deep down, farmers and crop scientists also think it is crazy.

Whole states full of uniform crops are a Darwinian signal for the copious reproduction of pests — winged, multi-legged, no-legged and microscopic — that eat those crops.

But, instead of copying nature and drawing our foods from an infinite polyculture of plants and animals, humans have doubled down on the idea of the farming monoculture and invented all kinds of new ways to pretend that it works.

Prime among these tools of denial is the genetically modified organism, or GMO. It is the industrial mindset applied to a biological process, one that understands industry a lot better than it does biology.

While there have long been promises of GMOs that allow crops to be grown in bad soil, with little water or scant amounts of fertilizer, there are really only two kinds of GMO crops that have been grown on a wide scale.

One is a wicked little number that oozes its own nature-mimicking pesticide, something called Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt to its friends. And Bt has a lot of friends, particularly corn farmers who go pale at the very mention of the European corn borer.

The other is a kind of crop that doesn't make a pesticide, but that can stand up to a particular kind — usually Monsanto's Roundup brand — so that farmers can douse a field with Roundup to kill pesky weeds without the otherwise considerable risk of damaging the crop in the process.

These concoctions have been in widespread use in the United States for decades, long enough that if there was anything about them that would hurt people — glowing in the dark, growing a third eye — it would be well known by now.

But the risk is not to the diner so much as to the fields and the farmer. GMOs cost more to grow and carry demands that farmers not save seed or anything else to loosen Monsanto's grip on the process. GMOs financially benefit their creators, not their users.

And yet another study on sustainablity has shown that farm yields in nations that use GMO crops — mostly the U.S. — are no better than in those that don't — especially the European Union, where GMOs are widely denounced as "Frankenfoods."

Meanwhile, Nature, in its infinite adaptability, will produce bugs that are immune to Bt and weeds that laugh at Roundup.

Meanwhile, Congress, in its infinite obedience to big money, has treated us to what critics call the Monsanto Protection Act, a provision slipped into an unrelated bill that allows new versions of genetically modified plants to go into production even before they've been reviewed by the USDA.

At the same time, the big farm bills in Congress — the version the Senate approved and the version the House defeated — would do nothing to boost the true sustainability of our agriculture.

So enjoy that chocolate. While you can.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, once existed on Spam and 7-Up, so don't listen to him.