Saturday, August 28, 2010

How NAFTA Imperils the Corn Genome


                  In the July 5th issue of Nation Magazine is an article by Peter Canby entitled “Retreat to Subsistence,” which lays out in detail how NAFTA is destroying Mexico’s indigenous corn farmers, and also destroying the genetic diversity of the corn genome which these farmers are preserving.                    According to Canby, corn worldwide now produces more food than any other crop. About 9,000 years ago, Indians in the highlands of southern Mexico began deliberately selectively breeding a wild grass called teosinte, and over several millennia coaxed it into the plant we call corn (maize) today. 
                   Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Guerrero are where corn was domesticated, and where its wild ancestors still survive. The Indians who accomplished this feat, mostly Zapotecs and Mixtecs, still live there and still practice the plant science of their ancestors.  Farming tiny family plots by hand, their standard of living has never been high, but until NAFTA, the Mexican government subsidized them.
                  But in the 1990s, the Government of Carlos Salinas De Gortari decided to slash the safety net and throw Mexico open to free trade. The thinking was partly economic and partly anti-indigenous politics. They asked, “Why should the rest of Mexican society support Indians in a life of primitive agriculture that will never really free them from poverty?”  So they deliberately pulled the rug out from under these people, first by ending all subsidies, and then allowing imported corn from the U.S. , under NAFTA, to undermine the price of local corn.  The idea was to force peasants off their tiny plots of land and into the cities where they would all be employed in the bonanza of industrial jobs which NAFTA would provide.  But it didn’t work.
                  A few maquiladora plants were built by corporations who then abandoned them for China. Even if these jobs had stayed in Mexico, it is unlikely that the jobs created could have fed the 15 million people forced off the land, and the Mexican government surely knew this. What happened is that 500,000 Mexicans per year illegally entered the U.S., and that may have been part of the plan.  David Barkin, author of Sin Mais, no Hay Pais, an essay critical of NAFTA, at that time spoke to a political scientist specializing in Mexico, and was told, “They have no clear idea where all these people will go.  My guess is they’re thinking Los Angeles.” The government figured, “Who cares?  Once they’re out of Mexico, they’re somebody else’s problem.”  
                  But as peasants flowed out of Mexico, corn flowed in—including hybrid, genetically modified corn.   Though intended as animal food, some of this corn was planted all over Mexico, including areas where corn originated, and where the plant’s only reservoir of genetic diversity is preserved.  Major Goodman, professor of plant science at U. of North Carolina and a leading expert in corn genetics, says that there is very little genetic diversity in commercial corn. He says, “We’re basically looking at about seven in-bred lines and the derivatives of those lines.”   He believes we are with corn about where the Irish were with potatoes, just before the famine.
                   As climate changes, changing moisture conditions will give rise to all kinds of new blights and fungus assaults, and none of our commercial varieties will have any resistance to them.  We will need to crossbreed our corn with strains that confer resistance, and only one place on Earth has a storehouse of genetic diversity broad enough to be of any use.  That place is the highlands of south Mexico where corn originally grew wild, and where traditional farmers still preserve 59 distinct cultivars, (landraces.)
                  But the Mexican government deliberately encouraged farmers to abandon traditional cultivars and plant modern hybrids. Even those who refused now have neighbors planting these imports, so the pollen mixes these genes into their corn anyway. The studies done in the United States on keeping GMO corn isolated really do not apply to the kind of corn farming done by the Zapotecs. Here, we plant hybrids, and next year, we plant more hybrids. Any mistake, even a disastrous one, only has effects which last one plant-harvest cycle.   But the Indians plant open pollinated corn and save seed for next year’s planting. A Zapotec farmer is not a seed company customer; he is a highly skilled plant breeder, and an heir to a 9,000 year culture of plant breeding.
                    A Zapotec farmer examines his whole crop—plant by plant—ear by ear—to identify those plants with superior qualities.  He not only saves seed, but exchanges it with neighboring farms.  So any foreign genes which invade a single field can become permanently and irremovably intermixed with the corn genome of the entire region.
                  In the late 1990s, Zapotec farmers asked Ignacio Chapela and David Quist, of the University of California at Berkeley, to test their corn for GMOs.  The tests were not only positive, but indicated that the inserted genes were not stable but had fragmented and were migrating to different parts of the genome than where they had originally been inserted. Chapela and Quist published a paper in Nature, and a firestorm ensued.  And the fact that the department which employed them had accepted millions of dollars from Novartis did not help matters.
                  As more studies began to confirm Chapell and Quist’s findings, Mexican environmental groups petitioned The Commission for Environmental Cooperation to study the matter. The CEC’s report; Maize and Biodiversity: The Effects of Transgenic Maize in Mexico appeared in 2004, along with 10 beautifully written background chapters.  This background material examined the social, political, and ecological value of Mexico’s indigenous cornfields, and how genetically modified genes might flow through those fields.  Timothy Wise, of Tufts University says this study “….is the best study of gene flow to date.”
                  The report said that we really don’t know what might happen, but that it could easily be a catastrophe for the genetic diversity of the world’s corn.  The commission recommended that, as a precaution, all corn entering Mexico should be ground at the border, but this has never been implemented.  The Bush administration was furious with this report.  Judith Ayers, a Bush appointee at the EPA appended her own negative comments to the report, and completely suppressed the background chapters.  However, the article in Nation provides a URL where this information can be seen.
                  Since NAFTA, to the surprise of the government planners, many indigenous farmers have elected to withdraw from the economy, stop buying fertilizer, and subsist on corn grown for their own table and bartering. But this retreat into subsistence will leave them in absolute poverty.  In 2003, the World Bank said that 40% of Mexicans live in poverty, but that in Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Guerrero, 70% live in extreme poverty.  Now, with the U.S. economy in deep recession, some displaced farmers who came illegally to the U.S. are returning home.  Yet with no subsidy and the price of corn still depressed by cheap imports, subsistence is the only kind of farming they can go back to.  Life was never easy for these people.   But NAFTA has managed to make it worse.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Peak Potassium: The Next Resource War

            According to an article in Aug 19, Wall Street Journal, this week saw a hostile 38 billion dollar takeover bid by Anglo-Australian mining giant BHP-Billiton for control of Potash Corp of Saskatchewan.   This shocked investors around the world, because this event might be the opening gun of the next global “resource war.”
            In his 2001 book, Hubbert’s Peak, Geologist Ken Deffeyes points out that peak oil is merely the first of many resource peaks.  He observed that in the future, many vital commodities will see production peak and then enter a long, slow, irreversible decline as consumers across the globe scramble to grab their share of a diminishing supply.  He cited potassium as the next commodity in line after oil.
            We will not actually run out of potassium---it’s fairly plentiful.   What we will run out of are deposits that are sufficiently concentrated that they can be mined efficiently.    The richest such deposit is in Saskatchewan.  According to Deffeyes, the known reserves worldwide could last up to 200 years at the present rate of extraction.  However, as world population expands and as the “green revolution” replaces traditional agriculture, the amount of potassium fertilizer consumed will not remain constant—it will expand exponentially.
            And a potassium shortage will be much more serious than an oil shortage. We can develop substitute strategies for energy, but potassium is a part of our bodies, and part of the plant tissues that feed our bodies.  The next time some moron tells you that we needn’t worry about running out of our natural resources because we humans are infinitely clever and can find a substitute for anything,  ask him how he will maintain the electrolytic balance in the tissues of his body (essentially, the sodium/potassium balance) without potassium.  Without this mineral, we die.   Modern commercial farmers add nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, (and calcium in the form of ag-lime) to their fields.  No modern food crop is possible without them.
            About the same time as I was reading Hubbert’s Peak, I came across something by Dr. Joel Wallach, a naturopathic physician who had written a series of lectures about the mineral-deficient American diet, and the probable health consequences of this mineral insufficiency.  Wallach is a controversial figure with an interesting background.  Before getting a license to practice medicine he was a very successful veterinarian.  As part of an environmental study, he performed autopsies on thousands of zoo animals who had died for no apparent reason.  He discovered, to his horror, that in almost every case, the cause of death was a diet insufficient in some critical mineral.  But the animals were being fed unsold produce from the local supermarkets.  They were eating what we were eating—and it was killing them.
            Before Dr. Wallach had become a veterinarian, he had been an agronomist, specializing in soil fertility. This gave Wallach a better perspective on the causes of the decline in the mineral content of our diet. Wallach explains, “Every plant is a little mining machine.”  Its roots suck minerals out of the soil and send them to the rest of the plant.  If the plant is then eaten by animals whose droppings fall back to the soil and whose bodies decay into the soil, then the minerals remain in place.  If the ground is farmed by subsistence farmers who live on the land and consume everything they grow, and who spread both human and animal wastes on the fields, then the result is the same. The minerals never leave the farm. But with the rise of urbanization, crops are consumed far from where they are grown.  Sewage is treated and then flows into rivers, and to the ocean--and the cycle is broken. 
            Wallach says that you only have to farm the same field for about 15 years before most of the minerals are gone.  Most American crop and grazing land has now been used for over 100 years, and some land has been used nearly 400 years.  Farmers add nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and lime---and that seems to make the plants grow.  But according to Wallach, we need at least a couple dozen other minerals for optimum health.   Dr. Wallach cites a government document (U. S. Senate Document # 264, 74th Congress, 2nd session, 1936) which warned even in 1936 that all of our crop and grazing land was seriously depleted in minerals.    It concluded that eventually every American would need to take a multi-mineral supplement every day, or we would suffer an epidemic of mineral deficiency diseases.  But this study was forgotten, and no action was ever taken.  What of the predicted epidemic?  Wallach says it’s here.   He cites the growing problem with type II diabetes and obesity as an example.  He says chromium and vanadium are needed to properly metabolize carbohydrates.  Without adequate chrome, the body has to make additional insulin, which eventually triggers insulin resistance.  He points out that farm animals also get type II diabetes, but about 30 years ago we began adding chrome and vanadium to their feed, and the problem completely disappeared.
            But even if we take our multi-mineral pills, we will still need to grow plants to produce carbohydrate and protein--and massive amounts of potassium will be needed to do this.  As world supplies become radically more expensive, third world farmers will be priced out of the market, and will have to retreat back into subsistence agriculture. Unfortunately, these countries have allowed their population to expand far beyond the numbers that this kind of agriculture and its low yields can support.
            Minerals are the currency of life.  When can we expect the final struggle for these life-sustaining elements to begin?  Apparently, it already has.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Tall Ships and Too Much Food

            I visit Wisconsin whenever I please,
            But there’s way too much food-- and too much cheese.

            I don’t live in Wisconsin, but I frequently visit there--and I can tell you this:  You can approach Wisconsin from any direction and as soon as you cross the border, the food is better, the portions are larger, and the service is friendlier.  And it doesn’t cost any more.
            My friends and I have argued for years as to why this should be true.  The state was settled mostly by the same mix of Germans, Irish, Scandinavians, Czechs, and Poles that settled the rest of the Midwest. They should have about the same food culture, but they really don’t.  The real mystery is why the tastiest local beer in the state should be brewed in New Glarus.  New Glarus was settled by Swiss Calvinists.  You’d think a really tasty beer would be brewed by Hedonists from New Orleans—not Calvinists from New Glarus.  After all, wouldn’t a beer which is that delicious tempt us to drink too much and lapse into sin?  Go figure.  Since I developed gout a few years back, I’ve quit drinking beer almost entirely for fear that a single glass might trigger an attack.  (Alcohol does not cause gout; in my case it’s caused by the blood pressure medication I take. Yet alcohol can aggravate gout.)   But for a draught of Spotted Cow, I’ll take the risk.
            Last weekend I attended a tall ship festival in Green Bay, WI, sponsored by Baylake Bank and others.   A large flotilla of sailing ships is visiting all major Great Lakes ports this summer, and last weekend it was Green Bay’s turn to host the watery hoard.  I live closer to Green Bay than to any of the other cities hosting the ships, and Wisconsin is a good place to vacation.  The festival was a roaring success and a boon to Green Bay.
            For me it was a mix of delights and disappointments.  Months in advance, we had booked tickets for a one hour ride on one of the ships, the Roseway.  But at the appointed hour, the captain canceled, citing unfavorable winds and currents.    Our money was refunded, and I still got some photos, but only of ships moored at the dock with all sails furled.  I had hoped to get a few close-up shots of ships under sail.  But we boarded several ships, talked with the crew members, so we still had an interesting experience.
            The Europa is the largest and oldest vessel-- a steel hulled barque from the Netherlands built in 1911.  Most of the rest were built since WWII, most are made of wood, and most are accurate historical reproductions of early 19th Century vessels.  Four are replicas of ships used in the War of 1812.  And of course The Bounty, built in 1962 for a movie, is a replica of the original Bounty.  These 13 ships represent nine different kinds of rigging and vary in sparred length from 64 ft to 198 ft.  Some of the 1812 replicas had masts tilted back nearly 20 degrees from vertical.  I was told that this design allows tacking closer to the direction of the wind, and also allows better speed in light winds. 
   In the foreground of the above photo is the Niagra, a replica of the ship with which Oliver Hazard Perry won the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813.  It has a sparred length of 198 ft, a beam of 32.6 ft, draws 11 ft, and was built of wood in 1988.  It is brig rigged and its home port is Erie PA.
            I asked one captain, “What is it like to own a big sailing ship?”  He replied, “Just sit in a damp cellar and tear up hundred dollar bills."

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Norwegians in a Cold Climate

   Yesterday, just for the heck of it, I read Gisli Sursson's Saga.  It's a wonderful read, which is why it's still popular after 900 years.   Then, just after finishing Gisli, I watched "Fargo," my very favorite "cop"movie of all time.  It was quite an evening--all mindless killings and treachery, all done by people who originally came from Norway,  and who have lived in a cold, desolate place since.   In Iceland, they write a Saga about it--in Minnesota they make a movie about it.
   So,  what is it about Norwegians in a cold place?
(Actually, two of my great grandparents were born is Scandinavia,  and they farmed in Northern Minnesota, just across the river from Fargo.   So, is this genetic?  And why am I attracted to wood chippers?)