Corporate biotech critic Chapela coming to Dance Palace


October 8, 2009
West Marin Citizen


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Norman Borlaug, known widely as the “father” of the Green Revolution, died last week. If you happened to read an obituary, then you probably got a paean to his work. The Green Revolution, with its heavy use of fertilizer and pesticides in the Third World, was portrayed as savior to the masses; and environmentalists as quibblers who don’t really care about the poor.

It was like watching a conventional wisdom finally harden into concrete. Yet the problems are real, for the hungry even more than for the elite. I’ve seen this first hand on my father-in-law’s rice farm in the Philippines. Fish used to be abundant in the local streams, for example. As a girl my wife could catch them in her hands. Since the Green Revolution however the fish have become scarce, and people now have to pay precious pesos for what they used to get for free.

Rice output increased, but a local protein source diminished. The chemicals migrate from the fields in other ways as well. I was horrified to learn that my father-in-law spreads the pesticides around the base of the house, to stop the red ants in the rainy season. This is understandable, in a way. The red ants are brutal, and a bamboo house provides easy entry. But this is where the chickens and goats run about, and where the grandchildren play.

It’s something you don’t like to even think about. On top of all this, there is still hunger in my wife’s village. She went to school with kids from squatter families who lived right at the edge of the fields where the Green Revolution was in progress. Still, they sometimes were faint with hunger. How could this be – hunger literally inches from the revolution that was supposed to end hunger?

And how could it be that my father-in-law is no better off financially than he was back in the 1960s when the Green Revolution started? Input costs have cancelled out the early gains in yields; oil and chemical companies get the benefit instead of himself.

This case is not unique. Something is missing from the glib assumptions that global corporations and high-tech ag can save the world’s hungry. Yet Green Revolution 2.0 — or perhaps 3.0 — is hard upon us; and the cementing of the praise for the first version will propel it even more.

I’m talking of course about genetically engineered seeds. These supposedly address the environmental problems of the first Green Revolution: design the pest resistance right into the rice plant and you don’t need to douse it with pesticides. The problem is, the new genetic material itself becomes an environmental agent, and interacts with other organisms – including those that eat it – in ways that can’t always be foreseen.

Nature can be unpredictable, which is why it’s best not to mess with it too much. (The environmental impulse is conservative in the most basic sense.) Then too, there’s a grim economic fact. What makes these genetically engineered seeds so attractive to corporations such as Monsanto is that they get to patent the genetic code. The corporation owns the life in the seeds even when the seeds are in the farmer’s field. Farmers no longer can save seeds from one harvest to plant the next, as they have been doing for ages. Instead they have to go back year after year to the figurative company store.

Here in the U.S., Monsanto has sent spies into fields, and has filed hundreds of lawsuits against farmers who allegedly saved seeds or planted them without a license. The seeds might have blown over from another field, or off a truck. The farmer gets sued anyway. I don’t think my father-in-law, or small farmers like him, will prosper in this new corporate regime.

Yet the promotional machinery grinds on. Feed the hungry. Save the world. Ignacio Chapela, now an associate professor at Berkeley, learned what happens to those who get in the way. Chapela discovered that material from genetically-engineered corn, had migrated to Mexico where it is supposed to be banned. His study was published in Nature; and there was such an uproar – at least some of which was fomented by the biotech industry – that the magazine took the unusual step of retracting the article. (A later study later confirmed it.)

Then Chapela became a vocal opponent of the influence of biotech companies at Berkeley itself. Who would raise questions about the re-engineering of life if the people qualified to do so had been bought off? The university tried to deny Chapela tenure, but eventually backed down. He has remained a critic, and he’s coming to the Dance Palace tomorrow.