I just finished reading a book titled Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teaching of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
Her writing is beautiful. Trained as a plant scientist, Dr. Kimmerer combines her scientific expertise of biological processes with her cultural understanding of interspecies relationships. Through these efforts, she builds a rich, multi-faceted perspective through which to see the natural world. Kimmerer shares her powerful sense of responsibility for the Earth, and feeling of fellowship with the world’s creatures. She has a magnificent familiarity and sense of place within this planet’s wild spaces, and intertwines in every story she writes the traditions, beliefs, and thanksgiving ceremonies passed down to her from her Potawatomi family. Utilizing both the results of her own scientific work and the wisdom of her heritage, Kimmerer calls for greater environmental stewardship and appreciation of the land and all its gifts in the way of an impassioned poet.
Her writing moved me, I think perhaps partly because growing up in Iowa, I have spent most of my life watching industrial agriculture wreck havoc on the land. Since college, I’ve spent most of my life working on organic farms and fighting the spread of conventional farming practices.
When Kimmerer spoke of the emotional and spiritual aspects of working in the dirt, of paying attention to living beings, of realizing the importance of reciprocity and our interdependence with plants (and the natural world as a whole), I knew the magic she was describing. I had lived it—seeded, watered, and eaten it.
This year, I’ve been living in Costa Rica studying the barriers facing sustainable food production. I opened my computer a few days ago to read that about Senate’s move to vote to ban state GMO labeling in the United States (the motion did not pass). It was the same day that I finished Kimmerer’s book.
I sat overlooking the jungle that afternoon, far from where this new political battle played out. I looked down at the book in my hand. It has a message, and I suppose my life’s work (so far) does too. In that moment it felt suddenly more urgent. We have to change. We do. And we need to do so quickly.
Kimmerer writes, after looking out over the homogenous, ordered cornfields neighboring her property that, “The truth of our relationship with the soil is written more clearly on the land than in any book. I read across that hill a story about people who value uniformity and the efficiency it yields, a story in which the land is shaped for the convenience of machines and the demands of the market.”
The lack of biodiversity of her neighbors’ fields must have seemed stark indeed next to Kimmerer’s own summer fields, which she fills with dozens of different species. It also probably looked sparse, almost alien in nature, in comparison to the abundance of food filling nearly every available inch of her home’s growing space. Kimmerer takes advantage of the fact that many crops grow symbiotically with each other, perhaps most famously a trio known as the Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash. In fact, she dedicated an entire chapter in her book to the intriguing tale of these three crops.
For thousands of years, Native peoples of the Americas have revered the Three Sisters. Planted together, corn, squash, and beans grow much better than they would separately. The corn plant grows up first, shooting up towards the sky and providing a trellis upon which the slower-growing bean vine may grow. Meanwhile, the squash plant, the slowest of the three to germinate, stretches out below the other two, branching out sideways. Thick, broad squash leaves protect the soil from the sun, and prevent weeds from competing with the group. Meanwhile, the beans contribute to the effort by helping to feed the trio. Beans house nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their roots, organisms adept at trapping and transforming atmospheric nitrogen into chemical forms that plants can absorb.
With plentiful nitrogen, moist, UV-protected soil, little competition from weeds, and the protection that biodiversity offers from pests, the Three Sisters grow well without synthetic fertilizers, insecticides, or herbicides. Their gift-giving attributes and reciprocity with each other ensure the success of all three.
Of course, there also used to exist thousands of different breeds of corn and squash and beans, helping also to ensure that those diseases or pests adapted to a particular species never made it far. Native Americans adapted their crops to the specific environment and climatic conditions in which they lived to improve yields further. Even here in Costa Rica, people as young as 30 years old tell me that they remember when there many different colors of corn growing here—a rainbow of diversity. To find these seeds now is nearly impossible. What changed?
Kimmerer writes, “In indigenous agriculture, the practice is to modify the plants to fit the land. As a result, there are many varieties domesticated by our ancestors, all adapted to grow in many different places. Modern agriculture, with its big engines and fossil fuels, took the opposite approach: modify the land to fit the plants, which are frighteningly similar to clones.”
To create clones and to place them in rows makes seeding and harvesting much more efficient—row after row of a single organism enables the development and use of massive seeding and harvesting machinery to do the work of farm hands. However, this monoculture system appears ultimately ecologically unsustainable—as it is one dependent on chemical herbicides and insecticides, synthetic fertilizers, and fossil-fueled machinery.
This is a game of time. Erosion plagues fields farmed with conventional agricultural techniques as well. The combination of tilling, poor soil coverage, sun exposure and chemical application (which kills soil microbial life), coupled with summer storms, creates soil runoff. Unfortunately, contaminated sediment, as it is carried down rivers and streams, poisons the water supply from here all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. This is the same story spreading around the world now.
Given this, it appears that if we are going to continue to be able to grow food on this planet, then we need to begin paying attention to nature once again—relearning how to mimic her in order to provide for future generations.
Natural systems contain a variety of species, filling different ecological niches to protect the soil and retain precious water. Biodiversity also creates habitat for beneficial insects, keeping pests under control. And there is little room for chemical use. The repercussions of our chemical warfare on the land are too large to continue to be ignored—the consequences of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides much too far-reaching and severe to justify their ubiquitous use (just ask any of the citizens living near Lake Erie last year).
To move towards a food secure future, I believe, involves preserving genetic diversity within species, and creating greater biodiversity within our fields as a whole to assist with pest control, water retention, UV protection, and overall soil health. As plants with different root lengths help to give the soil structure, and provide habitat for microbial life, we can again begin to regain the health of our fields. Leaves of different shapes, and stems of different lengths ensure greater soil coverage, and keep the ground cooler, holding in moisture (which is particularly important in water-scarce areas). We can use biodiversity and habitat building as a way to promote beneficial bird and insect species. Nitrogen fixing plants and compost may eliminate the need for synthetic fertilizers.The best systems occur when plants can work together symbiotically, such as the Three Sisters.
So now the question becomes, can GMOs fit into this picture?
Unfortunately, GMOs have so far been used as the enablers of a destructive system—industrial agriculture. While I don’t believe GMOs to be necessarily bad in and of their own right, they have so far been bred (with a few exceptions) with the intention of facilitating conventional monoculture and chemical-driven practices (rather than providing drought resistance, for example).
The problem with monoculture production, (besides erosion, poor soil health, and the loss of ecosystem services, which foolishly we so far seem content to ignore) is that when you plant row after row of corn or soybeans, there is little preventing a massive influx of weeds, or sweeping devastation from a pest species. This is where GMO crops have stepped in to help. In order to enable our assembly-line style of farming, we’ve designed everything from Bt-corn, which creates its own chemical insecticide, to herbicide (such as Round-Up Ready) resistant species.
In conventional farming, the farmer buys patented GMO hybrid seeds every year from big companies such as Monsanto, and then applies the appropriate chemicals (usually also bought from a company such as Monsanto). While the weeds (and most other creatures in the fields) die, the crop species continues to thrive.
If you’ve ever walked through a cornfield in Iowa, the silence and rigid conformity surrounding you can be eerie—the sameness everywhere you look creates the sensation of walking through a maze. But the yields are high, and in this capitalistic system, that means money (negative externalities aside).
Of course, the continued capacity of these GMO species to allow farmers to keep pests and weeds at bay, and keep the fields churning out product, depends on stemming the evolution of herbicide resistant weeds or Bt-resistant bugs (a battle that unfortunately has already been lost).
As a result, soon the next GMOs must be designed, and new chemicals rolled out. The process repeats itself. Meanwhile, the Earth and her creatures groan.
Amphibians disappear first. Algae blooms on once clear ponds. The hypoxic zone in the Gulf widens. Old varieties of seeds, no longer cultivated or saved, are lost to the past.
We must remember: as pieces of the world go, so we go.
In only the past 50 years we have severely reduced the biodiversity of our major crop species, setting us up for a decimated harvest should resistant pests spread quickly or a disease strike (think the Irish potato famine). We continue to lose traditional varieties that may have helped us respond to climate change as well. We have chemically killed our soil, and polluted our streams, lakes, rivers, and oceans. Each year, we watch millions of tons of arable land flow down to the sea.
In addition, through GMOs, which have been the cornerstone upon which this system currently stands, we have also not only enabled monoculture on a massive scale, we have put our food supply in the hands of corporations who hold the patents to these species.
For me, as a result GMO labeling has become a battle against a system and a methodology that I believe is wrong. It has become a battle to bring knowledge and control of food and our world out of the hands of corporations, and back to the people. Perhaps labeling would finally allow consumers to choose whether to be a part of this madness or not. With a shift in buying habits, it might even begin to level the playing field, and shift the industry in favor of more sustainably-minded farmers using traditional seeds and more ecological farming practices.
Of course, not all GMOs need be developed and used in ecologically destructive ways. I’d be happy to see many different labels, even—which company designed the seed, what GMO variety exists within the contents of the box, and for what purpose. Convince me that it is something that I would want to buy and eat. I believe that we always have the right to know what is in our food, irrespective if it is dangerous to our health not. We have a right to know where it comes from, and who produced it. It is essential to understand what we are putting into our bodies, because inevitably what we eat becomes what we are. It is also important to understand how it is produced and for what end, as this drives the world in which we live.
I desire to know the origin and content of our food, and reserve the right to remove myself from a system that I feel that I can no longer be complicit in. I will protest the violence that we are inflicting on this Earth, and ultimately ourselves, with my buying power if nothing else, no longer consuming products produced that are part of system that I believe if left unchecked will leave this world unlivable for my grandchildren.
This is not without the sacrifice of time and money, of course. And that will be the next battle: how to make ecologically-sustainable and healthy food accessible to all.
For now, I’ll be growing my own, gathering, participating in CSAs, buying from local organic farms, and visiting every farmers’ market I can find.
In the end, it comes down to the fact that nature is not an assembly line. Nature is delicate, and she requires that we put in as much as we take out. Mother Earth will not stand to be exploited. And as a result, our entire existence is delicate, and depends on us paying attention to the signs. Signs that we have been ignoring for quite some time now.
So this is my plea—help the knowledge keepers, the seed savers, the stewards of the land, and those ready to consume consciously…label, please. Give the people the choice to leverage their buying power in support of systems that they feel that they can support.
Beyond that, it’s time to bring back heirloom varieties. It’s time to rediscover old practices, to innovate new permaculture and organic systems. And it’s time for a lot more of us to start growing food (and teaching others how to do so as well).
It is time to say no to chemicals that are stripping the life from this land and tainting our water, an increasingly precious resource. It is time to hold the soil as dearly as it deserves. It is time to realize the interdependent nature of Planet Earth, of which we are an undeniable part. It is time to acknowledge the little lives that matter the most—especially bacteria and insects. It is time to rediscover the magic and challenge of growing food. It’s time to reconnect to our past, so that we can move into the future. If labeling is an important step in enabling people to make choices that change the market, and are willing to be a part of that change, then that is the direction I believe we should head.