ORGANIC INTEGRITY: Mark Kastel of The Cornucopia Institute discusses organic standards at the 2011 PASA conference. (Photo: Chris Tittle)
In 1962, a marine biologist and nature writer named Rachel Carson wrote a devastating critique of the chemical industry and warned of the near-universal pollution of the environment from chemical pesticides. That book, "Silent Spring," is widely credited with helping to launch the modern environmental movement.
In many ways, the threat to our environment posed by chemical pesticides and herbicides has grown since Carson's time, with the introduction and proliferation of new genetically-modified crops. Such GM crops, including recently approved GM alfalfa and GM sugar beets, are engineered to withstand large doses of these chemicals — ensuring that chemicals will be spread over more area and in more toxic forms than ever before. One estimate by the Center for Food Safety says that commercial planting of GM alfalfa alone could result in increased use of herbicides of up to 23 million pounds per year.
According to Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, this is part of a deliberate strategy by the biotech industry. Planned obsolescence, along with certain biological realities, ensures a vicious cycle where "pests" and weeds eventually become resistant to the chemicals employed by Monsanto, thus creating a need for stronger chemicals to respond to stronger pests. And as more and more farmers become dependent on these Roundup Ready crops, Monsanto expands their market for the next round of pesticides and Roundup Ready crops currently being developed.
What Kimbrell is talking about is no less than an organized assault on our democracy. It is part of the corporate consolidation of not just agriculture, but our social, political and economic institutions, as well. Why did the recent USDA rulings on GM alfalfa and sugar beets contradict numerous court findings and widespread agreement among scientists about near-certain contamination of organic crops? Multi-million dollar lobbying efforts by these corporations, as well as industry-backed restrictions on independent research to explore the health and environmental risks posed by GMOs.
In an information age, those that control access to information hold disproportionate power.
Some, however, see progress being made to protect these institutions despite recent setbacks. Mark Kastel of The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group and corporate/government watchdog, is working to mount a significant challenge to corporate interest and protect the integrity of the organic market.
While alleging gross corruption in the USDA under the Bush administration and large-scale violations of organic standards by many companies, he sees positive changes taking place under Obama. Despite continued influence by the biotech industry, he cites "radically improved transparency" and a more collaborative approach from the current USDA as reasons for optimism.
Ultimately, both Kastel and Kimbrell have faith in the power of consumers to counteract corporate influence. Alongside campaigns from organizations like PASA representing the interests of small farmers, consumer pressure has had measurable impacts in the past. As a result, biotech companies like Monsanto are worried about the growth of the sustainable agriculture movement. And according to Kastel, there is still hope because today "people are finding more meaning in their food."
That is certainly the place to start, but is it enough? Institutional changes are clearly needed and the forthcoming debate over the Farm Bill offers a huge, if unlikely, opportunity for change. Until then, we are left with legal challenges, consumer pressure and the legacy of those like Rachel Carson who dedicated her life to celebrating nature and bringing truth to light.
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