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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

The state legislature here in Maine is considering legislation that would make farmers who raise genetically modified crops liable for any damages caused to neighboring farms by the spread of those products or genes. This post is likely to be a long one and it will have nothing to do with math or education, so some of you may want to tune out and others of you may want to take a quick trip to the bathroom because this is going to take a while. Ready? Here we go.

Regular readers will notice a curious amalgam of political ideologies spewing forth from my lips. I am generally a pragmatist, and I tend toward the center of the spectrum. I have friends who would happily play golf with Karl Rove and ones who will start showering again when Tibet is free. I am fiscally conservative and socially liberal, but I would just as soon get rid of states and take orders from Washington, so I can't be a libertarian. It all makes sense to me, even if it seems confusing or arbitrary to some. I mention of of this to establish some background for my opinions on genetic modification.

This past year, I thru-hiked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. It was a wonderful experience and a life-long dream. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys being outdoors and wants to find out just how much they are capable of. While I was hiking, I spent some time with a guy known to me only as Cantaloupe. (We use nicknames only on the Trail.) He was trained in horticulture and it was common to see him reach down and scoop up a handful of trailside flora as a snack. He ate leeks, mushrooms, blueberries, bunchberries, snozzberries, and myriad other things. Each time he did it, part of me would cringe in fear. You see despite spending a good portion of my life in the outdoors and being an Eagle Scout, I had been taught from birth never to eat any wild berries, mushrooms, etc. After the novelty of it wore off, I started to think. I am an intelligent, capable grown-man. I have a college degree and am about to return to school for two more. But none of that makes up for this one atrociously humbling fact. I am incapable of distinguishing food for non-food. That makes me dumber than every animal on the planet.

Oh I can pick out a steak if it's wrapped in cellophane or chow down on a box of Cheez-Its, but if it isn't boxed, bagged, homogenized, pasteurized, pumped full of chemicals, and marketed to me during prime-time TV, it is not recognizable to my brain as being edible. Once I have a realization like that, I am not the kind of person to allow the situation to stand. I immediately embarked a quest to discover the origins of my food, and to decide if I really wanted to be eating it. I read several books, including Fast-Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma. I watched several documentaries, including one called The Future of Food about genetic modification. After much deliberation, I decided to stop eating all the the processed crap that had constituted most of my diet. No more Coca-Cola, no more Doritos, no more corn-fed beef. I am trying to eat organic and local.

I do not consider myself a hippie. I bathe regularly and find the scent of petulie to be downright loathsome. In most other ways, I am a thriving Capitalist. I will happily save money at Wal-Mart. I am not making this change for health reasons, although I expect it to be a pleasant by-product. I am doing it because I feel that we have unnecessarily complicated to process of digestion and in doing so have developed an entrenched and thoroughly unsustainable system of agriculture that cannot be allowed to continue. Because I tend to look at things from a systemic perspective, I prefer to think of things as part of a whole. A cow is a machine for turning grass into meat. It is a highly efficient machine at that, and microbes in its gut allow it to get energy from cellulose that is useless to us. So energy originally from the sun is transfered to us through this process, and until we can teach ourselves to photosynthesize, we have to eat. Like all machines, what you get out of it depends on what you put in. Say you only a gigantic, gas-guzzling Hummer and your tank is empty. Assuming you have that kind of cash, the current oil prices probably don't concern you. Given the choice, do you put cheap low octane gas in your tank or spring for the high-test? That's what I thought. Well feeding a cow a diet of corn instead of grass is the biological equivalent of pouring some sugar into the tank along with that crappy gasoline. They weren't designed for it, and the meat suffers. They require more antibiotics to stay healthy and growth-hormone to achieve desired size. Feeding them this surplus corn allows you to raise more cows for less money, but if the food you are producing is lower quality and provides less energy, maybe there is a better solution.

There are many example of why I think we can raise food more efficiently and achieve better results from organic philosophies than from current commercial practices, but this post started with genetically modified crops at I'd better get back there. I don't have a problem with gene-splicing. I love technology and science, and I think that if our learned astronomers think they can build a better tomato, well then they should have at it. I do think that much more testing and evaluation needs to go into it, though. The current industry is propelled by profits and concealed by the same cultural compartmentalization that caused me to fear wild berries. Companies like Monsanto are allowed to grow their modified crops right next to other non-altered ones and then sue their neighbors when patented genes are found in adjacent fields. Those crops ought to be contained, and that's going to be tough, not to mention costly. If you have a dog who craps on your neighbor's lawn, is it your responsibility to fence your dog in or your neighbor's to fence him out? I believe the responsibility lies with the dog-owner just as it lies with the farmers raising Round-Up ready corn.

I understand that laws like this will throw up huge barriers to the agriculture industry and I am fully aware of all the commercial arguments against them. Still, I will quote a local organic farmer here in Maine.
"You grow what you want to grow, and let me grow what I want to grow."

Good fences make good neighbors.

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