Today, while listening to the news on the radio, I suddenly found myself thinking of Demeter, the ancient Greek goddess of the harvest and almighty mistress of the earth’s fertility; a huge, majestic Great Mother, on the whole benevolent, but terrifying when offended or bereaved. At such times she simply switches off Nature, stops the growth of plants and the sprouting of seeds, all of which quickly plunges humanity into deepest famine.
What has that got to do with the Today programme on BBC Radio 4? Well, some of the news items that keep cropping up day after day would certainly make Demeter angry. Countless tonnes of fertile soil, her basic raw material, are lost annually all round the globe, with no hope of replacement. The largely man-made climate change is wreaking havoc with the seasons and the life-cycle of crops. Overpopulation is bringing on the risk of famine, and there seem to be no quick ways to feed the billowing billions. And last but not least, and for Demeter probably most importantly, there is the fate of seeds. which some powerful corporations attempt to patent and turn into their intellectual property.
In other words, it’s Goddess versus GMO. More precisely, Goddess against the world power often called Monsatan. It’s twenty-five years since Monsanto began to work hard to control the world’s food supply through artificial biotechnology, and in the process has been using violent bullying methods against its opponents that, at the end of 2014, in a competition run by a global on-line reformist group, earned it the title of Most Evil Company of the Year. That dishonour notwithstanding, for a long time the growth of its power and influence has seemed unstoppable, forcing onto farmers its Terminator seeds, which produce only one harvest, interrupting the sacred continuity of life itself, and its Roundup herbicide that only GM crops can tolerate, or, in other words, survive. All other plants perish, taking biodiversity with them, but that doesn’t bother the makers of Roundup. And as official bodies, ranging from the EU to the American FDA, favour large corporations against small interests, the future for all other areas of agriculture has been looking grim.
But now the tide seems to turn. Last year Monsanto’s profits dropped by 34%, as farmers in the US and South America stopped planting GM seeds, because – and this is what really matters – Nature is proving stronger than biotechnology. Pests are developing resistance to GM-engineered pesticides, indeed seem to thrive on them, while Roundup is losing out to superweeds of great tenacity. Adding more toxins to both products would stem the process only for a while, and besides the extra poisons might wipe out the animals and eventually the people who feed on GM crops – hardly a good way to secure millions of consumers. There is also the fact that GM seeds are expensive while their yield is lower than that of the ordinary varieties. In the UK Scotland and Wales won’t grow GM crops, and there are clear signals from Russia, China, and a number of European countries that GM-dominated agriculture is not for them. They prefer Nature,
This is not the first time that Nature is having the last word. Between 1940 and the late 1960s the development of high yielding cereal grains introduced the Green Revolution, which greatly increased agricultural production, especially in developing countries. It took a while to add up the cost of the extra yield in terms of big chemical inputs, dangerous water scarcity and great vulnerability to pests. Moreover, one achievement, the development of cereals with short stalks – long stalks having been deemed Nature’s wasteful luxury – turned into a disaster, because the short stalks impeded the necessary ventilation of the fields and the crop became mouldy. Obviously Nature knew exactly what length stalks were needed for the air to circulate among the plants, but nobody listened to it.
My favourite example of human arrogance coming unstuck when confronted with Nature concerns the researchers at the University of Connecticut who many years ago tried to breed featherless, oven-ready chickens. Feathers, they declared, were unnecessary and only added to the cost of preparing the birds for market. And indeed they managed to breed naked chickens. Unfortunately the marble-smooth birds kept shivering even in a heated hen-house, which required extra fuel input, they gobbled up additional food just to keep warm, and eventually became so miserable that many of them just sat down and died. Even the survivors were doomed to extinction, because the featherless cockerels couldn’t keep their balance in the mating position and keeled over every time they tried to perpetuate their nude race. The thing, a spokesman said, simply wasn’t a commercial proposition. Once again, Nature had the last word.
And now there is a great return to Nature, appropriately enough starting from the grass roots. All over Britain and in many areas of the Continent farmers and growers club together to grow, develop, share and disseminate open-pollinated seeds. They organise seed libraries and workshops and oppose EU laws that grant commercial plant breeders legal monopoly on seeds. And an international coalition, based in Germany, has “No Patents on Seeds” as its motto. All these new initiatives will probably face strong official opposition, but as they stand for sanity and common sense, I feel sure they’ll have the last word.
And Demeter may stop being angry.