One of the great “promises” associated with genetically-modified crops was the ability to design plants that would not be killed by herbicides and pesticides. Spray on, kill everything else, but get a healthy plant. This in theory would increase yield and even save soil from erosion, by minimizing the amount of tilling farmers would have to use.

But what has actually happened? According to a recent article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, really disturbing things.

Fifteen years ago, genetically engineered seeds promised to reduce the amount of poisons used on the land, but today they are forcing farmers to use more — and sometimes more toxic — chemicals to protect their crops. Why? Because pests have done what nature always does — adapt. Just as some bacteria have become resistant to antibiotic drugs, a growing number of superweeds and superbugs in the nation’s farm fields are proving invulnerable to the tons of pesticides that go hand in hand with genetically modified seeds.

….To combat the growing wave of resistant weeds and bugs, biotech companies like Monsanto and Dow Chemical Company are poised to launch a whole new arsenal of genetically modified seeds that will accelerate the chemical warfare. Some are designed for use with older, more toxic herbicides that scientists say pose an even greater risk to the environment and human health. The biotech companies say they will educate farmers and extension agents on how to minimize the health and environmental risks, and that the multiple genetic weapons contained in the new seeds will make it impossible for pests to develop resistance. “We believe this can be managed,” said Rick Cole, a weed management technical lead for Monsanto.

Let’s look at this situation: in less than two decades, Nature has evolved to resist our magical weaponry… so our response is to increase the weaponry, having rendered our more docile weapons useless. But be assured, “this can be managed.” After all, the big ag companies make tons of money selling both their proprietary GMO seed AND the chemicals to go with it. And remember, there is no alternative if we are to “feed the world,” the favorite slogan for defending big ag.

The falsehoods here are shocking. Because there is obviously an alternative. The alternative is to farm differently and eat differently… and plenty of people already do this routinely. It’s better for everyone: for small farmers, for consumers, for keeping farmland and watersheds healthy and productively indefinitely. Oh, except it is not better for the big ag companies and for the diets many people actually eat: too much meat, and too much gas in the car.

Pope Benedict, in Caritas in Veritate, brilliantly discusses the environmental problem by suggesting that nature has a “grammar” (no. 48), that we can learn to speak and work with this grammar… but we are in trouble when we try to alter it to suit our disordered wills. Nothing could represent such an alternation better than what we have done in these massive monocultures:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that per-acre use of pesticides on corn, soybeans and cotton declined by several million pounds per year, and soil tillage declined, as well. … But the genetic breakthroughs brought sweeping changes across the landscape. Today, a third of Minnesota is planted with just two genetically modified species — corn and soybeans — and in some other states, it’s far more.

In short, Midwestern agriculture quickly evolved into a vast, efficient system that is much easier to farm but is “biologically simple,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, and a specialist on biotech agriculture. “But the problem is,” he added, “it’s a perfect storm for resistance.” Adaptation is as old as evolution itself. First, the few weeds or bugs that just happen to be immune to the pesticide survive. Then, in a biologically simple environment devoid of competition or threats, they flourish. Farmers encountered pesticide resistance many times before Roundup and genetically modified crops came along.

But the revolution in agriculture has become a victim of its own success. In recent years, scientists have identified an estimated 23 weeds around the world that no longer die when doused with Roundup. Many are the most prolific and two, giant ragweed and water hemp, are a bane to Minnesota farmers.  … “I lost $25,000 in yield,” said Charles Sandager, a farmer from Hills in the southwest corner of the state. “They are going to outsmart us, them bugs.”

But will they? They will outsmart this kind of “dumb” farming over and over again, but as the article concludes, one simple, time-honored technique – crop rotation! – controls this problem in neighboring farms. But farmers that actually care for their land in sustainable ways, diversifying their crops, absolutely need one thing more than anything else: they need consumer support. They need people to buy their food… and not buy this other stuff, most of which is bought “indirectly,” in any and all foods with processed corn, and especially in standard, industrial-farmed meat, milk, and eggs.

Climate change gets all the press sometimes. But what is compelling and urgent about environmental ethics is the recognition we ought to have that fossil fuel overuse is only one symptom of a far larger problem, of a lifestyle which at every turn in wildly out of sync with the order of creation. And again, it doesn’t have to be. The alternatives are out there, available, and increasing. The Local Harvest website will direct you to them. And with the new (church) year upon us, what a good resolution to make!