Against Mono-cropping, both Agricultural and Cultural

Did you know that there are more living organisms in a cup of healthy soil than there are humans on this blessed planet of ours?

This week I’ve been reading Judith Schwartz’s book Cows Save the Planet with my classes (“Women Write the World” and “Writing for Social and Environmental Justice”); the book makes a strong case for the importance of maintaining biodiversity not just in the plants and animals we can see (big ones like trees and polar bears) but also in all the infinitesimal life that crowds into every square inch of our Tierra Madre, Mother Earth.

As I think about the teeming life in a teaspoon of soil, what really strikes me is how biological loss of diversity is a mirror of cultural diversity loss.

Human beings are relentlessly narrowing the sphere of possibility for many life forms on the planet.  And at the same time, our global culture is becoming more homogenous and limited.

Take the consolidation of the media, whether it be in publishing, TV and radio channels, or newspapers.  Where a thousand different voices used to sound, now there are only the monolithic behemoths: Comcast, TimeWarner, Random House, Bloomberg.

UnknownWhere there used to be a thousand different ideals of female beauty, now there is just this.

How different is this from the reduction of thousands of different varieties of corn, rice, wheat and other seeds, to just the One Great GMO Variety?

Well, as hard as the intellectual property lawyers try to clamp down on diversity, the unauthorized weeds spring up anew.

I feel like the work I’m doing to create the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers is part of the resistance to cultural mono-cropping.

Instead of bowing to conventional celebrity culture, where the only important voices are the ones that have been anointed by the media gatekeepers, the Festival insists that every woman who writes from the heart has a story to tell that matters.

Conventional media dictates that anyone who gets a microphone must be media-pretty, articulate under pressure, and non-threatening to the political and cultural status quo.

Those who don’t fit this mold are consigned to the margins.

At the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers, the margins come to the center, with spectacular results!

The Festival aims to provide platforms for those would not otherwise be heard—teenage women alongside older women, women who have never published before alongside seasoned published authors in a wide variety of genres.


Festival presenter Amber Chand

While few of the 150 women presenting in the Festival have celebrity status or “name recognition,” they have something more special: they are women who write and present from their hearts, not for financial gain but for the pleasure and the power of sharing their perspectives and ideas with others.

The Festival aims to change the world one woman at a time by shifting from a celebrity-based mono-crop cultural landscape dominated by centralized media, to a diverse, vibrant, locally grown environment in which women are celebrated not for how they look but for what they think and write about the most important issues of our time.

Could it be that as more women speak from outside the mold of popular culture, the external world will change as well?

A true agricultural revolution has NOTHING to do with genetic engineering!

When I hear the term “genetic engineering” I cringe.

Could anything good come out of tweaking the DNA of plants and animals, and maybe someday humans too?

Is it safe—is it wise—for humans to play with evolutionary fire?

A recent New York Times  op-ed by a professor of agricultural economics and a physician from the Hoover Foundation warns that humans would be fools not to try to engineer wheat and other crops in order to tailor them to our rapidly changing environment.

Given that drought is going to be more common in the future, as aquifers are depleted and erratic weather patterns take hold, why not tweak the DNA of wheat and other crops essential for human survival, so that they are more likely to withstand the harsh conditions that will become the new normal?

I don’t want to be a knee-jerk Luddite, but really now—can we be sure that it will be safe to alter the genes of a plant that took thousands, if not millions of years to reach its present incarnation?

I actually think it might be possible to do genetic engineering of food crops in a safe and sustainable way.  But as long as Monsanto remains in control of agricultural genetic engineering, I cannot be trusting.  The track record of that company is just too abysmal.

According to the NYT op-ed, “Monsanto recently said that it had made significant progress in the development of herbicide-tolerant wheat,” which “will enable farmers to use more environmentally benign herbicides.”

Is there such a thing as an environmentally benign herbicide?

Monsanto, along with its henchmen in government, academia and think tanks, is still stuck in the old 20th century idea of unlimited growth.


In that mind-set, we have to grow as much wheat as we possibly can to feed our burgeoning population.  No matter how many birds, butterflies or bats have to die under the plow of “progress.”  No matter if natural biodiversity is chemically poisoned to make way for the mono-crop.


What if Monsanto had its way and all the wheat planted was drought-resistant.  And what if that year it never stopped raining?  Where would we be then?

We are fortunate to have seed-saving champions like Vandana Shiva who are working hard to make sure that our human heritage of genetically diverse, tried-and-true seeds are not totally lost in the rapacious maw of Monsanto.

What we need is a true agricultural revolution that has nothing to do with genetic engineering and everything to do with returning to local, regional food production.

To withstand the crazy weather that lies in our future we need more biodiversity, not techno-modified mono-cropping.

Or if we’re going to tweak those genes, just because we can, let’s do it in ways that tailor crops to small regional environments, and forget about the herbicides!


Late-night thoughts on human hubris

It’s 7 a.m.

Do you know where the songbirds are?

I have been struck by the silence of the woods as I take my daily walks.

Once in a while a chickadee will call in a high hemlock.

More rarely, I’ll see a nuthatch making its way sideways up a tree trunk.



But for the most part, the forest is eerily silent, and even at my bird feeder the once lively ranks of brightly colored birds—goldfinches, purple finches, blue jays, cardinals, woodpeckers, juncos, titmice—have thinned.

It’s not an illusion, and it’s not an anomaly.

The Silent Spring predicted by Rachel Carson 50 years ago is well on its way to becoming a reality.

And the emptiness of the air is being mirrored in the waters.

Last week, over the protests of commercial fisherman, New England fishery management officials voted to sharply reduce the catch limits on cod, in the hope of saving this iconic Atlantic fish from extinction.

Cod was once the passenger pigeon of the sea, so numerous it was used as farm fertilizer and treated as if it were in endless supply.


After just a few years of commercial trawling—a blink of the eye in relation to cod’s million-year history on the planet—the cod, along with so many other fish species, is almost gone.

“The United States has watched the near total collapse of cod stocks in Canada,” reports The New York Times. “The demise of the fish populations was hastened by the widespread use of big trawlers equipped with radar and sonar systems that enhanced the ability to catch the fish. They expanded the area and depths that could be fished and sped up the process, diminishing the ability of the remaining fish stocks to replenish themselves.

“The big trawlers also swept up other fish that had little commercial value but played important predator-prey roles in maintaining the ecological balance of the species. Today the cod stock in the Gulf of Maine is at 18 percent of what scientists deem to be a healthy population; in Georges Bank, it is 7 percent.”

I well remember my sons’ disappointment when they threw some fishing lines into the glistening ocean off the coast of Nova Scotia.  Not a fish was to be had, and when we asked local people about it, they just shook their heads sadly.

The fish are gone.

Because we don’t eat songbirds, there is no “management agency” keeping track of their populations.

At best, there are conservationists and wildlife biologists trying to sound the alarm.

But the truth is that the collapse of biodiversity is too huge a problem for any one agency to deal with.  In the ocean it’s about greedy, reckless trawling; on land it’s about the relentless destruction of the forests and the poisoning of farmland and fresh water.

It’s about the continuing reliance on dirty fossil fuels, despite the robust evidence of the impact of climate change on planetary health.

It’s about the hubris of human beings, thinking that we alone can survive the biodiversity collapse we have engineered.

buffalofThe saddest story I’ve read in a long time is about the bison in Montana.

You remember, the ones that were shot and left to rot by the hundreds of thousands in the late 19th century?

The ones that were a hairs-breath from extinction, but were painstakingly brought back by breeders, and now roam “free” in national parks?

Well, the Montana legislature is proposing to restore the 19th century practice of shooting bison on sight, treating any who dare to stray onto private property as “vermin.”

The once noble buffalo herds that thundered across the open prairies and mountain valleys of North America, reduced to a tiny fraction of their original population, are now to be shot for daring to step across an invisible property boundary to eat the green grass on the other side.

In the 1980s and 1990s, reports The New York Times, “Department of Livestock officials gunned down hundreds of famished Yellowstone bison that migrated into Montana in search of forage.”

Now a group of landowners and ranchers in Montana wants their state Legislature to make this practice law.

If Americans cared about the demise of the innocent creatures of the natural world a fraction as much as they care about their oh-so-beloved Superbowl, we would find the will and the way to solve the slow-motion nightmare of extinction.

We would figure out how to live sustainably on the magnificent planet that has enabled our remarkable rise as a species.

The truth is that human beings are the ultimate invasive species.

We are over-populating to the point where everything else is being crowded out beneath our monolithic spread.

What will happen when there are no more coral reefs, no more fish, no more forests, no more birds?

I’d like to give myself some comfort by saying I won’t live to see that day.

But realistically I have to face the fact that that day is just around the corner.

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