“Sorcerers are convinced that all of us are a bunch of nincompoops. We can never relinquish our crummy control voluntarily, thus we have to be tricked.”
Carlos Castaneda

Tales of Power

Evil Smelling Slime

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Control

Monoculture is the single most powerful simplification of modern agriculture, the key move in reconfiguring nature as a machine, yet nothing else in agriculture is so poorly fitted to the way nature seems to work. Very simply, a vast field of identical plants will always be exquisitely vulnerable to insects, weeds, and disease – to all the vicissitudes of nature. Monoculture is at the root of virtually every problem that bedevils the modern farmer, and from which every agricultural product is designed to deliver him.

…This, of course, is where biotechnology comes in …  Monoculture is in crisis. The pesticides that make it possible are rapidly being lost, either to resistance or to worries about their dangers. As the fertility of the soil has declined under the onslaught of chemicals, so too in many places have crop yields … yet a new silver bullet is not the same thing as a new paradigm. Rather, it’s something that will allow the old paradigm to survive. That paradigm will always construe the problem … [of potatoes] as a Colorado beetle problem, rather than what it is: a problem of potato monoculture.

the problem of monoculture may itself be as much a problem of culture as it is of agriculture. Which is to say, it’s a problem in which all of us are implicated, not just farmers and companies like Monsanto … our desire for control and uniformity … that perfect McDonald’s french fry at the eating end of the food chain.

… slender golden rectangles long enough to overshoot their trim red containers like a bouquet … To look at them is to appreciate that these aren’t just french fries: they’re Platonic ideals of french fries, the image and the food rolled into one, and available anywhere in the world for around a dollar a bag. You can’t beat it.

What is that if not a control thing? … this expectation can’t be fulfilled unless McDonald’s has seen to it that millions of acres of Russet Burbanks are planted all over the world. The global desire can’t be gratified without the global monoculture, and that global monoculture now depends on technologies like genetic engineering. It just may be that we can’t have the one without the other.

… Whether in evolutionary terms a monoculture really represents long-term success for a species is an open question. The Lumper, Ireland’s favorite potato before the famine, was once nearly as dominant as the Russet Burbank; today, its genes are as hard to find as the dodo’s.

… the Idea of Fries in my head, that is, an idea that McDonald’s has successfully planted in the heads of a few billion other people around the world. Here, then, is a whole other meaning of the word monoculture. Like the agricultural practice that goes by that name, this one too – the monoculture of global taste – is about uniformity and control.”

Disaster

“The arrival of blight was announced by the stench of rotting potatoes, a stench that became general in Ireland late in the summer of 1845, then again in ’46 and ’48. Its spores carried on the wind, the fungus would appear in a field literally overnight: a black spotting of the leaves followed by a gangrenous stain spreading down the plant’s stem; then the blackened tubers would turn to evil-smelling slime. It took but a few days for the fungus to scorch a green field black; even potatoes in storage succumbed.

The potato blight visited all of Europe, but only in Ireland did it produce catastrophe. Elsewhere, people could turn to other staple foods when a crop failed, but Ireland’s poor, subsisting on potatoes and exiled from the cash economy, had no alternative …

The potato famine was the worst catastrophe to befall Europe since the Black Death of 1348. Ireland’s population was literally decimated: one in every three Irishmen – a million people – died of starvation in three years; thousands of others went blind or insane for lack of the vitamins potatoes had supplied. Because the poor laws made anyone who owned more than a quarter acre of land ineligible for aid, millions of Irish were forced to give up their farms in order to eat; uprooted and desperate, the ones with the energy and wherewithal emigrated to America. Within a decade, Ireland’s population was halved and the composition of America’s population permanently altered.

The causes of Ireland’s calamity were complex and manifold, involving such things as the distribution of land, brutal economic exploitation by the English, and a relief effort by turns heartless and hapless, as well as the usual accidents of climate, geography, and cultural habit. Yet this whole edifice of contingency rested at bottom upon a plant – or, more precisely, upon the relationship between a plant and a people. For it was not the potato so much as potato monoculture that sowed the seeds of Ireland’s disaster.

Indeed, Ireland’s was surely the biggest experiment in monoculture ever attempted and surely the most convincing proof of its folly. Not only did the agriculture an ddiet of the Irish come to depend utterly on the potato, but they depended almost completely on one kind of potato: the Lumper … all of them descended from a single plant that just happened to have no resistance to Phytophthora infestans. The Incas too built a civilization atop the potato, but they cultivated such a polyculture of potatoes that no one fungus could ever have toppled it. In fact, it was to South America that, in the aftermath of the famine, breeders when to look for potatoes that could resist the blight. And there, in a potato called the Garnet Chile, they found it.

Monoculture is where the logical of nature collides with the logic of economics; which logic will ultimately prevail can never be in doubt.

And yet …

“In March 1998, patent number 5,723,765, describing a novel method for the “control of plant gene expression”, was granted jointly to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a cottonseed company called Delta & Pine Land. The bland language of the patent obscures a radical new genetic technology: introduced into any pant, the gene in question causes the seeds that plant makes to become sterile – to no longer do what seeds have always done. With the “Terminator”, as the new technique quickly became known, genetic engineers have discovered how to stop on command the most elemental of nature’s processes, the plant-seed-plant-seed cycle by which plants reproduce and evolve. The ancient logic of the seed … has yielded to the modern logic of capitalism. Now viable seeds will come not from plants but from corporations.

… Legally, it’s been possible to patent a plant for several years now, but biologically, these patents have been almost impossible to enforce. Genetic engineering has come a long way toward solving this problem, since it allows Monsanto to test the potato plants growing on a farm to prove they’re the company’s intellectual property. The contracts farmers must sign to buy Monsanto seeds grant the company the right to perform such tests at will, even in future years. To catch farmers violating its patent rights, Monsanto has reportedly paid informants and hired Pinkertons to track down gene thieves; it has already sued hundreds of farmers for patent infringement. With technology as the Terminator, the company will no longer have to go to all that trouble.

The Terminator allows companies like Monsanto to enclose one of the last great commons in nature: the genetics of the crop plants that civilization has developed over the past ten thousand years.

from: The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan

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