A Humanist Easter Homily

Today is Easter Sunday, the day when Christians celebrate Jesus’ supposed resurrection from the tomb. But though they believe this holiday commemorates a unique and singular event, their timing is suspicious. As you may have noticed, Easter is very close (making some allowances for calendrical drift) to the vernal equinox, the first day of spring.

This strongly suggests that the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is another offshoot of the ancient harvest myth: the story of resurrection invented by primitive people who watched in wonder as seeds were buried in the earth, seemingly consigned to oblivion as if they were dead bodies, only to burst forth into new life. In the ancient world, a pantheon of dying-and-rising savior gods sprang from this belief. The New Testament unintentionally testifies to the origin of its own mythology when it has Jesus incorrectly state, “I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

It’s not just Christianity that unknowingly beats in time to these ancient agricultural rhythms. I attended a Passover seder earlier this week with my wife’s extended family. Throughout the service, I was contemplating how the litany that observant Jews recite every year claims that this holiday is observed to commemorate the Jewish people’s ancient deliverance from Egypt. But archaeological evidence shows that the whole story is a pious fiction: they were never enslaved there in the first place. There was no exodus, no wandering in the desert, no genocidal conquest of the promised land; the people we call the Israelites always lived there, they were always neighbors to the Canaanites whom their holy writings despise. It seems more likely that Passover, too, began as a spring festival whose real origins were gradually forgotten as it was pressed into the cause of serving a nationalistic myth.

I think that part of the reason this isn’t more obvious to everyone is that modern society is suffering from agricultural estrangement. As the world becomes increasingly urbanized, billions of people spend their lives in cities where they have little, if any, direct contact with nature unless they make a specific effort to seek it out. Agriculture, meanwhile, has become an industrialized endeavor where a few varieties of food crops are grown in enormous monoculture.

But nature in all its tangled complexity can’t be treated with the logic of a factory, and our society is paying the price for it: soil erosion and depletion, loss of genetic diversity, extreme vulnerability to changing climate, and a never-ending struggle against fast-evolving pests. I recently read in Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire how modern potato farmers, to protect against late blight – the same fungus that caused the catastrophic Irish famine – spray their crops with an organophosphate fungicide that’s so toxic they won’t step into the field for any reason for almost a week after spraying.

This battle has already been lost on some fronts. For example, the Gros Michel, once the most popular variety of banana in the world, was wiped out by a fungal disease, and the current favorite, the Cavendish, may be next. In nature, the genetic diversity naturally present in every population usually ensures that at least some individuals will resist any disease or pest; but industrial agriculture, which prefers that every plant be a uniform and genetically perfect clone of every other, makes no allowance for this.

If we had a more decentralized, more diverse agricultural system – one that more closely approximated an ecosystem, rather than an assembly line – we wouldn’t be nearly as vulnerable. That’s why it makes me glad to see the growing prominence of urban farming, like this organic farm in the Battery district of lower Manhattan, the prevalence of community gardens, or small farms on urban green roofs. Shrinking cities like Detroit have also been experimenting with large-scale urban agriculture, partly to remedy the chronic lack of fresh, healthy produce (Detroit, incredibly, has no major chain supermarkets).

Granted, no major city is likely to ever be fully self-sufficient. It probably doesn’t make economic sense for cities to grow all their own food, even with fanciful ideas like vertical farms – essentially, glass skyscrapers turned into giant greenhouses. There will always be economic incentives to grow crops in rural land that’s not in as much demand for living space.

But the benefits of decentralized agriculture, including urban farming, would be more than purely economic. It would restore that ancient biophilic connection with nature that so many millions of people have lost, and it would give us a greater sense of where our food comes from and how dependent we are on the earth – that sense of time and space, of season and climate, without which we feel adrift and rootless. The psychological benefits of a green environment are considerable, and it’s even possible that it might give more people a rational insight into where some of our species’ most popular myths first came from.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    Cavendish bananas are a fascinating example of continuous population engineering. They’re sterile and wouldn’t reproduce at all in nature, but through mass cloning we grow tens of millions of them every year. Some people probably never noticed that bananas lack the typical variations in size, shape, and color that other fruit clearly possess. It’s not coincidence.

    So-called “plantains” are typically varieties of bananas not subject to nearly the same degree of artificial selection. The seeds in these varieties tend to be quite noticeable, compared to the practically non-existent specks in the Cavendish. The presence of seeds, the differences in texture, and the rather large difference in sweetness mostly explains the popularity gap.

    Panama disease, caused by Fusarium oxysporum, is an especially difficult fungus to deal with. It strikes at the root of plant, stifling growth from very early on. There aren’t any effective fungicides or other chemicals which will destroy it while allowing the plant to grow properly.

    One potential strategy to protecting plantations from fungi may be to pre-colonize the crop with a competing (but harmless) fungus. Not all (or even most) of the variants of Fusarium oxysporum damage crops. Some are even thought to provide natural disease resistance.

    The better long-term plan, though, is to develop and maintain strains that reproduce sexually in order to make good use of both selective breeding and natural selection’s tendency to gradually eliminate the less resilient strains. It’s unlikely that major investment in such a project will proceed unless the Cavendish King starts to suffer dramatically, though.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Speaking from experience, I don’t see what the big deal is about a little variability in our crops. Fried plantains are delicious, and I fry a mean plantain. :) Naturally, most of it is the fault of industries that have trained consumers to think all their produce should be uniform and perfect, like ball-bearings turned out by an assembly line. Nature just isn’t that neat and tidy – which is something more people would know if they grew anything of their own to eat, another good reason to encourage that practice.

    Something else surprising I learned from Pollan’s book is that most popular varieties of apples are also clones, propagated by grafting. I wonder if there are any kinds of apples that have been decimated by parasites the way the Gros Michel was. If not, it’s only a matter of time.

  • Chad

    I too have noticed the disconnect so many people have with the food they consume. Of course, cheap, highly processed food products don’t help the situation. I have found that a connection to the soil, as you mentioned, has provided many benefits to me. There’s now little I like more than a warm day to tend to the yard, flower beds, or garden–somehow the fruits of manual labour are all the sweeter to me. Watching the seasons change in my yard also gave me a bit of perspective when dealing with the prospect of aging/dying after having left Christianity behind, with no ephemeral Forever Land to ignore death’s finality. Perhaps seeing oneself as a part of the ubiquitous life cycle on Earth is comforting.

  • Entomologista

    In nature, the genetic diversity naturally present in every population usually ensures that at least some individuals will resist any disease or pest; but industrial agriculture, which prefers that every plant be a uniform and genetically perfect clone of every other, makes no allowance for this.

    Why is agricultural science always the weak spot? Why do so-called skeptics who claim to love science swallow every idiot thing Michael Pollan says without a shred of doubt? It’s incredibly irritating. Do you understand what plant breeders do? That’s a rhetorical question, since the answer is obviously no. Landraces tend to have good resistance traits to local pests, this is true. But they often don’t have good agronomic qualities and they may not breed true. Plant breeders take landraces and breed them with other cultivars to get plants that are resistant to pests and also have other traits that farmers want. Resistance traits can be improved and combined with other traits. We can even discover which genes confer resistance, the mode of action, and predict how fast an insect population is likely to develop resistance to the gene. Then we can engage in insect resistance management to use the resistance gene(s) as long as possible. A lot of scientists have dedicated a lot of time to solving these kinds of problems. But according to you what we really need to do is scrap everything agricultural science has achieved in favor of landraces and small-scale farming?

    You don’t understand how small-scale farming works in most of the world. In the US it’s a nice hobby that we call gardening and can reasonably supplement diets in “food deserts” in inner cities. In the rest of the world it’s your life. It’s miserable, back-breaking labor. African women can spend up to 80% of their waking hours weeding. Why? Because weeds alone can cause up to 30% yield loss in cereals. That 30% doesn’t count insects, fungus, viruses, bacteria, nematodes, rats, and weather. Guess what? Many of those farmers use landraces. And you want America to farm this way? Instead of getting bad information from fear-mongers you should get accurate information from university extension publications and peer-reviewed literature.

  • Chet

    It would restore that ancient biophilic connection with nature that so many millions of people have lost, and it would give us a greater sense of where our food comes from and how dependent we are on the earth – that sense of time and space, of season and climate, without which we feel adrift and rootless.

    That’s an argument for hobby gardening, for those who are so inclined; it’s not an argument for the massive waste of human capital and land associated with non-industrial farming. Farming is one of the most destructive things you can do to the environment, it’s devastating to the land, especially if you follow pre-industrial practice and control weed carryover by tillage instead of by herbicides – tillage sends entire acres of soil washing down into watersheds and contributing to eutrophication of lakes and rivers. As a result of industrial farming practice we now feed more people with American farms than we did after WWII, on about 25% less land surface.

    The back-breaking labor associated with hand weeding and planting – your only options if you’re philosophically opposed to gas-guzzling tractors and herbicides – continue to result in short, painful lives for those involved. Chinese rice farmers (who must weed and plant by hand) and Mexican crop pickers continue to experience ongoing health crises associated with their occupations, which pay almost nothing and therefore leave them with little of their own wealth on which to retire, assuming they live that long.

    Farming isn’t about a soulful harmony with nature, or whatever. Only soft city people can maintain that delusion. Farming is such a physically intensive, harmful thing for humans to do that the dawn of human agriculture is an paleontologically-detectible event: human cranial capacity decreased by as much as 10% in response to the spread of the practice.

    It’s no surprise that the rise of human civilization is tied to the decrease in the number of people involved in agricultural practice; almost every aspect of modernity you enjoy is the result of the massive surplus in human capital freed up by industrial agriculture. “Biophilia” is nonsense; it’s a luxury Michael Pollen and his ilk can afford, because they know that under no circumstances are they going to be asked to exchange highly-paid knowledge work for poorly-paid, backbreaking agricultural labor. But people like him never seem to acknowledge the incredible human costs underlying their “reforms.” It’s unconscionable and I’m dismayed that you’ve fallen for it.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Ahem. I don’t mind criticism, but can I at least be criticized for things I actually said? I never claimed that we could feed the entire human race through urban farms or hobby gardening. I explicitly said the opposite:

    Granted, no major city is likely to ever be fully self-sufficient. It probably doesn’t make economic sense for cities to grow all their own food… There will always be economic incentives to grow crops in rural land that’s not in as much demand for living space.

    I have no objection to industrial agriculture per se. I object to the way it’s currently practiced: vast monocultures of genetically identical individuals, sustained by massive inputs of fossil fuel-derived fertilizer, with pests controlled by regular preemptive sprayings of extraordinarily toxic chemicals. This is unsustainable in the long run, and whatever the drawbacks of other approaches are, they all have to take a back seat to that fact.

    Genetic modification is a little different. There’s great promise in work to insert genes for drought resistance, for tolerance of salinity, or to make food crops more nutritious, but when it comes to genes that make crops produce their own pesticides, I think there’s rational cause for concern. Forget about the incredibly litigious multinationals and their draconian schemes forbidding farmers from saving and planting their own crop’s seed. What will the effect be if these genes start spreading into wild relatives? Will they kill off beneficial pollinators like honeybees? Will our use of them, in contexts that all but guarantee their targets will evolve resistance, disrupt existing ecological balances? It seems to me that this has destructive potential only a little less than the introduction of invasive alien species. It’s not fear-mongering to observe that all these considerations have so far been subordinated to corporate profit, and that most of the science we’d need to answer these questions hasn’t been done yet.

    I’m not claiming to know the ultimate solution, only that what we’re currently doing isn’t it. One big step would be to rid consumers of the advertising-produced expectation that every fruit or vegetable of a given species should look and taste identical. We can’t count on always staying a step ahead on the resistance treadmill. If farmers around the world could profitably plant many different varieties of a crop, rather than the sea of clones that commodity traders demand, we’d maintain a buffer of genetic diversity that’s a critical defense against pests, climate change, and unforeseen black-swan events.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Something else to point out:

    The back-breaking labor associated with hand weeding and planting… continue to result in short, painful lives for those involved. Chinese rice farmers (who must weed and plant by hand) and Mexican crop pickers continue to experience ongoing health crises associated with their occupations, which pay almost nothing and therefore leave them with little of their own wealth on which to retire, assuming they live that long.

    Yes, Chet, I’m aware of that. Has it occurred to you that this is an argument against your position, not mine? If we continue to rely exclusively on massive industrial monocultures, there will always be demand for low-skilled manual labor to harvest them. This is especially true if we continue to treat crops as commodities, in which case the only thing that matters is how cheaply a given region can produce them, creating strong downward pressure on wages and even stronger incentives to exploit workers by demanding they submit to ever-more arduous and risky working conditions.

    If urban dwellers produce their own food, even if they only produce 5% or 10% of their own food, the need for people to work exclusively as farm laborers and endure those conditions is correspondingly reduced. It would also be likely to make everyone else more sympathetic toward those who continue to do that work, and to support better wages and living conditions for them. Until we invent robots that can harvest crops for us, that’s my position.

  • Entomologista

    pests controlled by regular preemptive sprayings of extraordinarily toxic chemicals.

    This is not how pests are controlled. For whatever reason, the general public assumes entomologists are screw-ups who just spray pesticides willy-nilly. It was actually entomologists who realized that just spraying pesticides is a bad idea, and therefore came up with the concept of IPM. Spraying is not done preemptively, in agriculture it is done in response to economic thresholds. Your characterization of pesticides is also hyperbolic. The pesticides we use today have to meet several standards, including lack of toxicity to fish, lack of toxicity to mammals, and rapid degradation in the environment. There are also regulations regarding pre-harvest intervals, protective gear, etc. Several pesticides are are actually a type of bacteria. Pesticides are just one of many tools farmers use to control insects. Resistant cultivars, modified planting dates, crop rotation, mating disruption, trapping, and natural enemies are all used.

    More later, bed now.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    I’m going to address Entomologista and Chet’s points mixed together.

    But according to you what we really need to do is scrap everything agricultural science has achieved in favor of landraces and small-scale farming?

    My, the reading comprehension meter is at -3. I didn’t even know this thing could go below zero.

    Farming is one of the most destructive things you can do to the environment, it’s devastating to the land, especially if you follow pre-industrial practice and control weed carryover by tillage instead of by herbicides – tillage sends entire acres of soil washing down into watersheds and contributing to eutrophication of lakes and rivers. As a result of industrial farming practice we now feed more people with American farms than we did after WWII, on about 25% less land surface.

    Where did you get the idea that tilling vanished with industrial farming? Tilling is common practice even today, because it simultaneously provides for weed elimination and carefully structured seed rows for planting. Large industrial farms have dramatically increased use of till-free agriculture since the 1980s, but that wasn’t traditionally the case. Before the Dust Bowl, till-free systems had very low prevalence in industrial agriculture.

    Herbicides are not the only way to control weeds, either, even excluding tilling. Crop rotation and the planting of the right type of light cover crop during the off-season help regulate weed growth. One may also use solarization (concentrated EM radiation) or controlled burns to kill off particularly stubborn weeds.

    Eutrophication is an issue precisely due to extensive use of fertilizers and pesticides. It is a serious problem for the local fish and animal populations. The mass growth of algae and plankton is not especially pretty, either.

    The back-breaking labor associated with hand weeding and planting – your only options if you’re philosophically opposed to gas-guzzling tractors and herbicides …

    Who proposed hand-weeding and planting should replace all industry? By the way, one can build a tractor that doesn’t use fossil fuels. There was this invention a while back…I believe they call it a “battery”.

    Herbicides are not the be-all and end-all of weed control. More importantly, waging an arms race with herbicides and insecticides against evolving populations is ultimately doomed. If you lose, you’ve created pests that can’t be reasonably controlled. If you win, you destabilized the local ecology by decimating the relevant populations.

    Farming isn’t about a soulful harmony with nature, or whatever. Only soft city people can maintain that delusion.

    An atheist proposing soulful harmony with nature? Are you even trying? No one is under any delusions about the tremendous work involved in farming.

    The pesticides we use today have to meet several standards, including lack of toxicity to fish, lack of toxicity to mammals, and rapid degradation in the environment.

    One can argue about whether they are “extraordinarily” toxic, but most pesticides and herbicides are known to have harmful long-term impacts on fish, mammals, or both, in concentrations not difficult to find in the real world.

    The EPA does not perform the level of strict regulation you’re implying they do. To provide one example, in 2007 they approved the use of methyl iodide. This compound is described as a carcinogen by at least one USDA publication, with “moderate to high acute toxicity for inhalation and ingestion”. Several other studies have made similar finds. The median lethal dose in rats is 76 milligrams per kilogram. None of this addresses the full scope of chronic or long-term risks posed, because there hasn’t been sufficient time to even conduct such studies.

  • Chet

    Has it occurred to you that this is an argument against your position, not mine? If we continue to rely exclusively on massive industrial monocultures, there will always be demand for low-skilled manual labor to harvest them.

    Will all due respect, the position this speaks against is your vision of wide-spread hand gardening, not mechanized industrial agriculture, for the very simple reason that mechanized agriculture replaces human labor with machines. That’s what “mechanized” means. If you find any support for your vision of hand-farming in what I wrote it can only be because you didn’t understand the point.

    Your reply is a non-sequitur – genetic monocultures are no more or less likely to have to be harvested by hand or machine; that comes down to the specific species of crop. Of course, plants that tend towards uniformity are going to be more amenable to mechanized harvest; that’s just a function of how machines are designed. Rice in China has to be sewn, weeded, and harvested by hand because it’s rice, not because its a monoculture. (Which, anyway, it isn’t.)

    If urban dwellers produce their own food, even if they only produce 5% or 10% of their own food, the need for people to work exclusively as farm laborers and endure those conditions is correspondingly reduced.

    Well, no. The need for farm labor has only been shifted, not reduced – you’ve simply moved the need into the city, and convinced programmers and yoga teachers to do it for free. That’s supposed to be better?

    This is especially true if we continue to treat crops as commodities

    Treating crops as commodities is why you can get a pound of nutritious beans for under a dollar nearly everywhere. That has immense positive externalities for human culture that you simply ignore. Making food require a dramatically higher investment in human capital means that food becomes dramatically more expensive, and in a nation where it’s still the case that one in five children face poverty-related food insecurity, that’s monstrous. Michael Pollen wants to make food more expensive, but he doesn’t seem to countenance the fact that doing so puts more and more foods out of the reach of the poor. Your solution is to have people grow food for free and give it away. Well, great, but don’t you think pretty much all the people who are willing to do that already do? It’s not like nobody’s ever heard of gardening before.

    Forget about the incredibly litigious multinationals and their draconian schemes forbidding farmers from saving and planting their own crop’s seed.

    Come on, Ebon. You can’t be this naive about farming and genetics. Farmers don’t save seeds because the F2 generation doesn’t exhibit heterosis. I mean that’s 9th-grade genetics. I know you’ve heard a lot of scare stories about the big seed companies. Most of it is FUD created by a significant and profitable food-scare industry.

  • Chet

    Where did you get the idea that tilling vanished with industrial farming?

    By knowing what I’m talking about, Kagerato. By examining the practices of farmers. By talking with them and working with them. How many of the rest of you have even been on a farm? Not some organic chicken-tractor hobby farm, but a real working farm?

    No-till farming is more cost-effective, better for the environment, and produces better yields than traditional till-farming. That’s why it’s largely supplanted till-farming – except in organic farming, where they can’t use the herbicides they’d need to clear weeds.

    Before the Dust Bowl, till-free systems had very low prevalence in industrial agriculture.

    And after the Dust Bowl, their prevalence increased. That’s sort of the point, here.

    Eutrophication is an issue precisely due to extensive use of fertilizers and pesticides.

    Surely it’s a self-evident error to claim that pesticides are eutrophic.

    By the way, one can build a tractor that doesn’t use fossil fuels. There was this invention a while back…I believe they call it a “battery”.

    Absolutely true. My suspicion is that tractors, with their need for low-speed torque and their massive wheelbase, could be an even better platform for electrification than passenger cars. I’ve never claimed that we couldn’t make improvements to industrial agriculture, or that fossil fuels are a necessary part of the equation. I’ve absolutely never claimed that. But, manifestly, the world where diesel planters, tractors, and combines enable the production of more food on less land with less tillage is a better world than one where human labor replaces mechanization.

    No one is under any delusions about the tremendous work involved in farming.

    Ebon seems to be, since it’s his position that the only thing preventing perhaps thousands of people in engaging in that tremendous work, for free, is a conspiracy by Monsanto to keep us hooked on corn.

    Gardening for a few tomatoes in your salad is one thing. But the idea that any significant amount of crop could be replaced by legions of urban farmers working for free is lunacy. Urban gardening is just gardening. If you want to make a dent in the traditional food supply, you’re talking about farming and there’s no evidence that there’s this vast groundswell of volunteer urban farming waiting to happen.

    More importantly, waging an arms race with herbicides and insecticides against evolving populations is ultimately doomed. If you lose, you’ve created pests that can’t be reasonably controlled.

    Another genetics ignorant, I guess. You’re apparently not aware that in any species – bacteria, plants, insects – resistance genes carry an enormous cost that is untenable for survival in any environment except the one where the antigen is present. Why do you think you only find MRSA in hospitals? Because in any environment where antibiotics aren’t present, MRSA can’t compete with wild-type Staph aureus.

    The same is true of plants. Control isn’t an arms race; resistance is something you can manage, and is managed. When resistance emerges, you shelve the herbicide until resistance abates, and then you can use it again. Evolution doesn’t plan ahead.

    One can argue about whether they are “extraordinarily” toxic, but most pesticides and herbicides are known to have harmful long-term impacts on fish, mammals, or both, in concentrations not difficult to find in the real world.

    Most? Cite your source. Remember the alar scare? Brought to you by the same people who complain about “frankenfoods” and claim HFCS is worse for you than sucrose.

    To provide one example, in 2007 they approved the use of methyl iodide.

    Approved for what, at what concentration, by what application mechanism?

    Did you even know to ask? I doubt it.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Will all due respect, the position this speaks against is your vision of wide-spread hand gardening…

    The fact that you’re still saying things like this can only mean you’re not making a serious effort to comprehend my position.

    Making food require a dramatically higher investment in human capital means that food becomes dramatically more expensive, and in a nation where it’s still the case that one in five children face poverty-related food insecurity, that’s monstrous.

    This problem, while not to be dismissed lightly, has an entirely different cause than you seem to think. The root problem is that U.S. government policy is to subsidize the least healthy foods – generally, packaged foods derived from corn-based sugars, which contain lots of empty calories and little else – rather than fresh produce, because packaged foods are backed by corporate lobbies and fruits and vegetables generally aren’t. This has given rise to a sick joke of a situation where we’ve managed to make both food insecurity and obesity epidemic problems among the poor. If the government stopped subsidizing high-fructose corn syrup and put that money towards more nutritious food, the situation would be much different. And again, which one of us is advocating urban agriculture to bring healthy, affordable produce to people who currently live in food deserts?

    Michael Pollen wants to make food more expensive…

    Food produced by present industrial methods is not “less expensive”. It just disguises the costs by offloading them as externalities to be borne by others: climate change caused by fossil fuel overuse, the evolution of more virulent and resistant pests which will have to be dealt with down the line, barren rivers and seas caused by fertilizer runoff and algae blooms, and so on. And the lion’s share of these costs inevitably falls on the poor people whom you’re overridingly concerned about.

    If urban dwellers produce their own food, even if they only produce 5% or 10% of their own food, the need for people to work exclusively as farm laborers and endure those conditions is correspondingly reduced.

    Well, no. The need for farm labor has only been shifted, not reduced…

    Hence my use of the word “exclusively”.

    Come on, Ebon. You can’t be this naive about farming and genetics. Farmers don’t save seeds because the F2 generation doesn’t exhibit heterosis.

    Yes, you’re absolutely right. I must be imagining those millions of dollars that companies like Monsanto invested into developing terminator genes that cause their crops to produce sterile seeds, and the elaborate legal agreements they require farmers to sign forcing them to agree not to save or replant seeds, and their practice of suing farmers whose crops are accidentally pollinated by wind-blown GM pollen from neighboring fields, for “patent infringement”.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Another genetics ignorant, I guess. You’re apparently not aware that in any species – bacteria, plants, insects – resistance genes carry an enormous cost that is untenable for survival in any environment except the one where the antigen is present. Why do you think you only find MRSA in hospitals?

    I’m afraid you’re the genetics ignorant. MRSA is increasingly being found outside hospitals:

    Drug-resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus, a bacteria linked to a wide range of human diseases, are present in meat and poultry from U.S. grocery stores at unexpectedly high rates…

    Nearly half of the meat and poultry samples — 47 percent — were contaminated with S. aureus, and more than half of those bacteria — 52 percent — were resistant to at least three classes of antibiotics, according to the study published April 15 in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. (source)

    “The problem with invasive MRSA infections is very real and is now moving from the hospital setting to the community,” said George Allen, an assistant professor in the OSU College of Pharmacy. “The community-based strain in some ways is even more apt to cause serious problems than those most often acquired in hospitals, and increasing quite dramatically in prevalence. (source)

    “I think you’d be hard-pressed right now to find a college athletic department that has not seen it in some shape or form with some of their athletes,” said Ron Courson, the athletic trainer for the University of Georgia football team. Eight players on his team had MRSA infections this season. (source – note, this story was from 2003)

    It’s not always the case that antibiotic-resistant strains are less fit than the wild type. Some mutations which lead to antibiotic resistance also confer increased virulence, depending on the mechanism of resistance.

  • Chet

    The fact that you’re still saying things like this can only mean you’re not making a serious effort to comprehend my position.

    I’m genuinely trying as hard as I can. But when you portray the intense human labor involved in Chinese rice agricultural practices that haven’t changed in 2000 years as a weakness of modern industrial farming, it’s really hard to understand what you could possibly mean. Do you think rural Chinese farmers are using Roundup and John Deere tractors?

    This problem, while not to be dismissed lightly, has an entirely different cause than you seem to think. The root problem is that U.S. government policy is to subsidize the least healthy foods – generally, packaged foods derived from corn-based sugars, which contain lots of empty calories and little else – rather than fresh produce, because packaged foods are backed by corporate lobbies and fruits and vegetables generally aren’t.

    Since fresh produce isn’t typically stocked by inner-city grocers, subsidizing fresh produce would simply subsidize the eating habits of the middle class and the affluent, not put food in reach of the poor. I know how corn subsidies distort the marketplace, but Pollen doesn’t suggest workable alternatives. He simply suggests making food much more labor-intensive and much more expensive, regardless of the effect that would have on the poor.

    And again, which one of us is advocating urban agriculture to bring healthy, affordable produce to people who currently live in food deserts?

    You might as well be advocating thrice-daily apple delivery by unicorns, for all the practicality of your plan to have thousands of people work on farms for free.

    Food produced by present industrial methods is not “less expensive”.

    Food produced by intensive human labor has externalities, as well – increased health care needs and earlier retirement resulting from a life of hard labor, increased injuries, increased exposure to soil diseases, loss of labor for more productive knowledge-based employment, and so on. We feed more people, with less impact on the environment, because of mechanized farming. Going back to gardening would be an environmental disaster. Your suggestion of 10% of New York’s food supply produced by urban farming would require 2 million tons of food be produced in the Five Boroughs every year; that would require an arable surface of around 70,000 acres.

    That’s a lot of gardens, and it makes me think you’ve simply swallowed Pollen’s book whole without applying even the most basic skepticism. It’s amazing – Bjorn Lomborg writes a book that puts him squarely opposed to climate scientists, and you have no problem sifting the bullshit. But Michael Pollen writes a book that puts him squarely opposed to agroscientists, and you don’t even bother to pay attention to their response. Why is that? Why do you consider a journalist authoritative in this regard, over what you’re being told by agronomists?

  • Chet

    MRSA is increasingly being found outside hospitals:

    Right – in places where antibiotics are being used.

    That was kind of my point. How did you miss it so completely?

    Some mutations which lead to antibiotic resistance also confer increased virulence, depending on the mechanism of resistance.

    No, virulence genes and resistance genes are separate genes, because virulence and resistance are separate MeSH characteristics.

    I must be imagining those millions of dollars that companies like Monsanto invested into developing terminator genes that cause their crops to produce sterile seeds, and the elaborate legal agreements they require farmers to sign forcing them to agree not to save or replant seeds, and their practice of suing farmers whose crops are accidentally pollinated by wind-blown GM pollen from neighboring fields, for “patent infringement”.

    No, you’ve just been misinformed by the food-scare industry. Terminator genes were developed by the USDA and intended to prevent unintended seed malting and allay the concerns of people like you, who worried about horizontal gene flow into wild-type species. But due to a widespread, ignorant outcry, GURT genes never made it into any market products. How ironic!

    As for suing farmers – you’ve only been told one side of the story, I’m afraid. Farmers have attempted to violate legal licensing agreements in order to capture valuable gene technologies, and companies like Monsanto are well within their rights to sue. You may believe that’s unfair, but you should know – farmer license agreements are the only tool companies like Monsanto have to enforce pest refuge planting requirements, which prevent precisely the pest resistance development you expressed concern about.

    But you won’t hear that from Michael Pollen.

  • Chet

    And, what, Ebon? I’m lying to you about heterosis? “F1″ is just something I made up? Jesus, this stuff goes back to Mendel. You’ve never heard of “hybrid corn”? What did you think that meant?

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Since I’m preparing for my talk tomorrow, I’ll have to revisit this thread later, but one more quick comment for tonight:

    No, virulence genes and resistance genes are separate genes, because virulence and resistance are separate MeSH characteristics.

    You’d better tell these guys that, because they seem to have a different opinion:

    S. aureus is known to exchange antibiotic resistance and virulence determinants between different strains, thereby spreading the capacity to cause serious infections in the S. aureus population. The genetic information for these determinants is usually found on so-called mobile genetic elements. It has been noted that such exchangeable elements carry genes for either virulence or antibiotic resistance, but not both. Here, we identified and characterized a potent toxin, whose gene is located within an element that encodes resistance to the important antibiotic methicillin. The toxin had strong capacity to kill human white and red blood cells and significantly affected the capacity of MRSA to cause disease. Our study shows that acquisition of methicillin resistance may be combined with gaining possession of potent toxins by a single event of genetic exchange, which likely represents an important feature accelerating the evolution of MRSA virulence.

  • Chet

    You’d better tell these guys that, because they seem to have a different opinion:

    Elementary genetics, Ebon. Bacterial plasmids and mobile genetic elements can contain genes for resistance and genes for virulence – all manner of genes, including metabolic function – but that doesn’t make the genes the same. Your “guys” certainly don’t make that claim.

    Look – I’ll never convince you. That’s clear. All I’m asking is, get another side to the picture. Do some legwork. Talk to the agronomists at your local university – they’re scientists, honest! And unlike Michael Pollen they have both actual expertise and real in-the-field experience. There’s a reason that farmers and agroscientists aren’t taking Pollen seriously, and it’s because he’s spreading pernicious myths in service of a food-scare agenda.

    Check it out. That’s all I’m asking.

  • Entomologista

    What will the effect be if these genes start spreading into wild relatives? Will they kill off beneficial pollinators like honeybees? Will our use of them, in contexts that all but guarantee their targets will evolve resistance, disrupt existing ecological balances? It seems to me that this has destructive potential only a little less than the introduction of invasive alien species. It’s not fear-mongering to observe that all these considerations have so far been subordinated to corporate profit, and that most of the science we’d need to answer these questions hasn’t been done yet.

    Whether or not there is concern that any particular gene will spread depends on the crop. Maize, for example, doesn’t have any close relatives. Teosinte is the closest relative, and if you want to cross maize and teosinte you have to hand pollinate, perform embryo recapture, and at the end of all that you only get a 5-10% germination rate anyway. On the other hand, canola has many weedy relatives because it is in the genus Brassica. Therefore, it is a valid concern that genes from canola could cross into weeds. The genes we’re concerned about are glyphosate and insect resistance genes. But the thing about genetics is that there are rules. Gene flow between the two species would have to be ongoing and fairly significant in order for a resistance allele to become common in the wild mustard population. Alleles also only become common or fixed in a population when they are advantageous, and whether they are advantageous depends on the environment. If weeds aren’t being sprayed with glyphosate, there is no selection pressure for glyphosate-resistance. Bt is fairly species specific, so if the weed isn’t experiencing herbivory specifically by something like Diabrotica spp., there is no selection pressure that will keep the insect-resistance gene in the population.

    Actually, quite a bit of science has been done. There isn’t any evidence that Bt has a negative impact on bees (Duan et al. 2007. A meta-analysis of effects of Bt crops on honey bees. PLOS ONE 3(1)). You’ll notice the joint authorship between industry and the public sector on this paper – that’s because universities do a lot of efficacy and safety trials. This is necessary because it is the purpose of Land Grant institutions to provide information to farmers and also because companies need an outside source to either confirm or deny the efficacy and safety of their products for regulatory reasons.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    Treating crops as commodities is why you can get a pound of nutritious beans for under a dollar nearly everywhere. That has immense positive externalities for human culture that you simply ignore.

    Ebon’s point in that statement was most probably that we should not treat crops only as commodities, because doing so has substantial health and environmental risks. We eat this stuff, after all. You seem to have willfully ignored this interpretation.

    Making food require a dramatically higher investment in human capital means that food becomes dramatically more expensive, and in a nation where it’s still the case that one in five children face poverty-related food insecurity, that’s monstrous.

    No one here suggested dramatic increases in labor, and most certainly not the abandonment of machinery or mass production. Your cost claims are likewise unsupported, and I would note that it’s extremely typical of any major industry to claim that changing practices would be accompanied by massive cost increases. Take a look at what coal, oil, and automobile companies have said in the past. Though they are by no means the only good examples.

    I would also like to note that many professional farmers originally thought that no-till agriculture would not work, precisely because it would be too expensive given their (incorrect) expectations of the yields. Yet it wasn’t just some hippie’s pipe dream; it was merely a matter of correct execution and methods.

    Michael Pollen wants to make food more expensive, …

    Citation needed.

    Your solution is to have people grow food for free and give it away.

    People can certainly sell products from their garden. I have no idea why you impose these assumptions…

    Farmers don’t save seeds because the F2 generation doesn’t exhibit heterosis.

    Whether any particular member of any particular generation exhibits heterosis is a matter of probabilities. Though selective breeding is typically controlled during the F1 generation, it can be continued through as many generations as desired.

    In any case, what you said is neither accurate nor relevant. Seeds are always saved from some generation; it’s merely a matter of selection. The vast majority of the world’s farmers and farms historically did save their own seeds. The transition to buying one’s seeds off an international market is a major shift that does have very significant implications on genetic diversity and self-sufficiency.

    By examining the practices of farmers. By talking with them and working with them. How many of the rest of you have even been on a farm? Not some organic chicken-tractor hobby farm, but a real working farm?

    Your taunting is duly noted. Unfortunately, anecdotes and personal claims do not constitute data and are not statistically valid. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has published several papers on the topic of conservation agriculture. The most recent one appears to be “The spread of Conservation Agriculture: Justification, sustainability, and uptake” by Kassam, Friedrich, Shaxson, and Pretty in 2009. Table 4 of the paper makes it clear that conservation agriculture techniques, including no-till, still occupy a minority niche in most countries. The strongest adopter is Argentina, with 58.8% of crop area managed by CA techniques. The United States is at 15.3%. The same table also makes it very obvious that the reduction in tilling is a very recent phenomenon that began in earnest in the 1980s.

    The adoption of no-till is still relatively modest. It has made almost no inroads into Africa or Asia, instead being pretty well confined to North and South America plus Australia. The exclusion of Asia is very significant considering the majority of the world’s farms are there.

    Your claim that no-till has “largely supplanted” tilling is laughably wrong and I expect you to admit the facts.

    Surely it’s a self-evident error to claim that pesticides are eutrophic.

    You would apparently be surprised to know what algae, plankton, and aquatic bacteria can eat, particularly in the presence of sunlight.

    I’ve never claimed that we couldn’t make improvements to industrial agriculture, or that fossil fuels are a necessary part of the equation. I’ve absolutely never claimed that. But, manifestly, the world where diesel planters, tractors, and combines enable the production of more food on less land with less tillage is a better world than one where human labor replaces mechanization.

    You did and are still claiming that Ebon and others want to eliminate industrial agriculture, which is false. Retracting this claim would be wise.

    Ebon seems to be, since it’s his position that the only thing preventing perhaps thousands of people in engaging in that tremendous work, for free, is a conspiracy by Monsanto to keep us hooked on corn.

    Again with this ‘free’. I don’t think people really expect to get paid for hobby gardening, but it is honestly no barrier to them trying to sell their work. You’re imposing this idea on others that hobby gardens will be commercially competitive with large-scale farming. Yet you do not quote anyone who said that.

    You’re apparently not aware that in any species – bacteria, plants, insects – resistance genes carry an enormous cost that is untenable for survival in any environment except the one where the antigen is present.

    Enormous cost? It’s a slight cost, actually, in producing the resistive agent — typically a protein. Even modest costs add up over several generations, though, and resistant populations will become rarer over time when you remove the agent performing artificial selection.

    All that means is that competitors more fit for the current environment tend to prosper. You don’t seem to have considered what happens when a competitor that both has resistance and is more fit generally emerges. Given sufficient time, novel strains do evolve and they will incorporate whichever properties are most effective at their general overall reproduction.

    There are also organisms in nature which have environmentally triggered resistance; it activates and deactivates in the same population according to the presence of more or more deleterious substances. The mild cost of resistance in the previous case is reduced to almost nothing in this one.

    The same is true of plants. Control isn’t an arms race; resistance is something you can manage, and is managed. When resistance emerges, you shelve the herbicide until resistance abates, and then you can use it again. Evolution doesn’t plan ahead.

    Considering the relatively large number of catastrophically destructive events in the Earth’s past, and the fact that some subset of organisms have always managed to adapt and survive every one of them so far, I would suggest that the assumption we will necessarily stay ahead of nature is naive.

    Most? Cite your source.

    As the number of pesticides and herbicides currently in use is quite large, collecting the data to show a literal majority would be prohibitive work. Instead, I’ll present a much simpler counter-point: show any three pesticides and herbicides which are known via epidemiological studies to have no notable chronic health impacts.

    Brought to you by the same people who complain about “frankenfoods” and claim HFCS is worse for you than sucrose.

    I don’t agree with people who oppose genetic engineering on principle, as I don’t think they have a sound case drawing a line in the sand between direct gene manipulation and indirect manipulations through selective breeding.

    However, it is entirely prudent to demand that any genetically modified organism be studied in depth before being released into the wild, where it may very well out-compete and even erase its wild competitors. We shouldn’t dismiss proper ecological study merely because it’s difficult and expensive — it’s also necessary.

    Oh, and as to high fructose corn syrup: it’s true that fructose is just a bonded pair of glucose and sucrose, such that the same amounts of fructose and sucrose are likely to have similar health impacts. However, diets high in sugar are known to have negative health impact over the course of many years. Furthermore, the lack of the glucose input in fructose-based foods and drinks prevents the normal “fullness” one feels when eating sucrose-heavy items. (That fullness, and eventual sick feeling, is actually hyperglycemia.) This allows the individual to continue eating beyond the point at which it would be wise to stop, and allows excessive sugar intake.

    Unfortunately, sucrose is “more expensive” and comes from those evil communists, the Cubans. Therefore, long live King Fructose!

    Approved for what, at what concentration, by what application mechanism?

    The main intent appears to be as a fumigant for strawberry fields. It’s meant to replace methyl bromide. I don’t see how the application mechanism is actually relevant to anything, but I imagine they intend to use machine spraying in most cases.

    As to concentrations, the relevant pesticide fact sheet lists 175 lbs per acre as the maximum. 175 pounds is roughly 80 kilograms, and an acre is about 4,050 square meters. So we’re looking at around 20 grams in a square meter.

    Probably not an acute toxicity issue, unless you eat an entire square meter’s worth of strawberries in one day. However, the problem is that there is so little information on, and so little interest in investigating, the long-term impacts.

    Reading the EPA fact sheet carefully, you run several interesting statements.

    (*) Only a single short-term carcinogenic study is referenced.
    (*) “A rat metabolism study comparing absorption after oral and inhalation administration indicated that iodomethane is quickly absorbed through both routes of exposure.” Monitoring with C-14 labelled iodomethane, the terminal half life is four to five days.
    (*) “Iodomethane has been classified as a non-food use pesticide.” The purpose is to apply it to food, but it’s a non-food use pesticide. Yes, that makes much sense.
    (*) “Plant metabolism studies on strawberries and tomatoes showed that iodomethane is extensively metabolized and incorporated into plant constituents, primarily carbohydrates.” This doesn’t have much impact on the overall iodide level in the plants, though I don’t know why anyone would expect that. This section also explains that “pre-plant fumigant application of iodomethane is considered to be a non-food use and tolerances are not needed”. Says you.

    The substance hasn’t yet come into significant use. The EPA’s approval didn’t bring it into active use; the states still have to allow it. It took several years before California, the main target state, did so in late 2010.

    Due diligence has not been done investigating this substance, most especially in investigating the long-term health risk. It may turn out to be safe, or at least relatively safe compared to common alternatives. However, one doesn’t know that without proper epidemiological studies, and they require years, sometimes decades.

    Since fresh produce isn’t typically stocked by inner-city grocers, subsidizing fresh produce would simply subsidize the eating habits of the middle class and the affluent, not put food in reach of the poor.

    The poor will eat whatever is cheapest and most widely available. If subsidies cause that to be fresh produce, so shall it be.

    But when you portray the intense human labor involved in Chinese rice agricultural practices that haven’t changed in 2000 years as a weakness of modern industrial farming, it’s really hard to understand what you could possibly mean. Do you think rural Chinese farmers are using Roundup and John Deere tractors?

    We feed more people, with less impact on the environment, because of mechanized farming. Going back to gardening would be an environmental disaster.

    No, you’ve just been misinformed by the food-scare industry.

    How many crows live on these straw men you’ve put up?

    Terminator genes were developed by the USDA and intended to prevent unintended seed malting and allay the concerns of people like you, who worried about horizontal gene flow into wild-type species.

    Let’s play the “which is more likely” game.

    Option 1: Large corporation highly dependent on seed sales and IP licenses adds special and otherwise unnecessary features to its product out of the goodness of its heart, merely to “allay the concerns” of the public.

    Option 2: Large corporation wants to increase profits by promoting dependency of its customers on its products.

    Bacterial plasmids and mobile genetic elements can contain genes for resistance and genes for virulence – all manner of genes, including metabolic function – but that doesn’t make the genes the same. Your “guys” certainly don’t make that claim.

    The fact that two genes are independent has no impact at all on the point that the two can, and have clear mechanisms for, becoming prevalent in the same organism(s).

    All I’m asking is, get another side to the picture. Do some legwork. Talk to the agronomists at your local university – they’re scientists, honest!

    I have a couple suggestions for you. First, consider for just a couple minutes that badly — and repeatedly even after correction — misinterpreting someone’s position is not a good way to convince anyone of anything. Second, even modest changes have been reflexively and adamantly opposed, despite later becoming over the course of years and decades common (and even obvious) policy.

  • Chet

    Ebon’s point in that statement was most probably that we should not treat crops only as commodities, because doing so has substantial health and environmental risks

    Maybe, but that’s not obvious. How else would we treat crops except as commodities? Hand-crafted masterworks?

    No one here suggested dramatic increases in labor,

    Well, but Ebon has. That was the point of his “homily” – a lot more people should be involved in farming. That’s certainly Pollen’s point as well.

    People can certainly sell products from their garden.

    Well, ok, so now you’re talking about selling boutique produce at a profit, farmed on some of the world’s most expensive land by people with masters degrees, and that’s supposed to ease food burdens on the poor? How does that work?

    Look, I’m open to these suggestions but there’s no evidence you’ve thought through any of them. Like Ebon’s suggestion to replace 10% of a major city’s food supply with local urban farms. Well, ok, but he clearly hasn’t thought about urban population density; to farm 10% of New York’s food within the city, you’d have to convert almost a quarter of its land surface to farms. Does that sound realistic? Even with “vertical farming” technologies that don’t yet exist?

    You did and are still claiming that Ebon and others want to eliminate industrial agriculture, which is false.

    I’ve not ever claimed that; you’re grappling with a strawman.

    Instead, I’ll present a much simpler counter-point: show any three pesticides and herbicides which are known via epidemiological studies to have no notable chronic health impacts.

    1) Glyphosate
    2) Bt toxin
    3) Pyrethrum

    and that’s without even looking it up. I realize there’s an entire industry devoted to scaring you about your food, but you didn’t even know about pyrethrum? Used as a pesticide for centuries?

    Furthermore, the lack of the glucose input in fructose-based foods and drinks prevents the normal “fullness” one feels when eating sucrose-heavy items.

    HFCS isn’t pure fructose – that’s a common mistake – it’s typically 52-55% fructose, with the balance glucose, so it’s not at all clear why you think there’s any “lack of glucose input” when you consume foods or drinks sweetened with HFCS, or why you think satiety is based on glucose signalling, when it’s more commonly known to be a function of dietary fats.

    Large corporation wants to increase profits by promoting dependency of its customers on its products.

    Well, but again – farmers don’t save seeds, because of the yield loss in the F2. So there’s no greater “dependency” to be had. Farmers, of course, remain perfectly free to buy true-breeding crop seeds, but these are primarily used not for planting, but to set up P lines for hybridization. The vast majority of farmers don’t breed their own seeds, though, and it’s not because Monsanto somehow shut down the practice; it’s because it’s not as cost-effective as simply purchasing hybrids from the local seed breeder.

    As I keep saying, heterosis isn’t something I made up. It’s 9th-grade genetics but I’ve yet to encounter a single mention of it among you various Pollenites.

    Second, even modest changes have been reflexively and adamantly opposed, despite later becoming over the course of years and decades common (and even obvious) policy.

    And some changes were never adopted because they never made economic or environmental sense. This is nothing more than the “they laughed at Einstein” defense. Are farmers a conservative lot? Yes, that’s certainly true. They don’t spend the capital to jump on new trends unless the compelling economic case can be made. And anything that doesn’t make economic sense, by definition, makes food more expensive. And simply as a matter of humanitarianism, I’m opposed to more expensive food.

  • monkeymind

    Since fresh produce isn’t typically stocked by inner-city grocers, subsidizing fresh produce would simply subsidize the eating habits of the middle class and the affluent, not put food in reach of the poor.

    head-desk

    Also, some news from the coal face:


    Prenatal pesticide exposure tied to lower IQ in children

  • ildi

    Interesting… the U.C. Berkeley News Center article says the UC Berkeley study focused on children living in Salinas, an agricultural center in Monterey County, California.

    More accurately, the study abstract says:

    Methods: We conducted a birth-cohort study (CHAMACOS) among predominantly Latino farmworker families from an agricultural community in California.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    I encourage anyone interested in more information on this topic to check out the report “GM Soy: Sustainable? Responsible?”. The full text is available online.

    It summarizes a great deal of the published evidence for many of the points discussed here, including the toxic effects of glyphosate (and derivative mixtures), the imperfections in the genetic engineering process, the scope of existing research, the failure of GM crops to meet claims of increased yields over the long term, the substantial development of glyphosate-resistant weeds, the subsequent year-over-year increases in herbicide use outpacing the land area growth of agriculture, the limitations on no-till farming, and more.

    There are many citations, so the paper also makes a good jumping-off point for further investigation.

  • Syn

    Commenting on the original article – Yes, Easter is a spring festival, the most potent evidence for which is that it is named for Eostre, the West Germanic goddess of the spring. And we’re in Eostur-monath, the Anglo-Saxon lunar month in which Easter occurs. The Christians couldn’t change the name, and it’s pretty obvious what the eggs & bunnies are about (not that they have anything to do with agriculture).

    People love gardening! It makes us happy! It also produces alot of food & could produce more yet. This should be obvious.
    At this point in our history, we are capable of a huge variety of solutions to problems. Small farming will always involve alot of labor, but we have more technologies and techniques all the time to make it more productive. Many of these do not involve genetic engineering or anything high tech. Chet seems to know alot about industrial agriculture, but I suspect that he’s so proud of having that specialized knowledge that he isn’t looking honestly at the critiques of it.
    The peasants-dying-in-the-field scenario, besides being due to natural vagaries of disease and weather, population increase, lots getting smaller, etc. had alot to do with peasants in (China, Europe, your civilization here) having to support a parasitic upper class. During the Irish potato famine, Ireland was exporting wheat.

    Purely “economic” incentives do not result in rational or sustainable courses of action. Colorado loses a huge amount of topsoil from growing corn by industrial methods on land that is designed by nature to grow grass and bison. The Ogallala aquifer is being depleted. Laboratory studies may show individual chemicals to be ok-sorta – but know one knows how they interact with each other in the environment. Round-up sucks, per kagerato’s last comment. It is outrageous that Round-up ready alfalfa got approved.

    One last thing – battery operated tractors are only as fossil-fuel free as the power source they get plugged into. If your electricity comes from a coal-fired power plant, your electric vehicle runs on coal, though more efficiently than an internal combustion engine. However, there is a programmable, bio-fueled power source that runs entirely on unprocessed or dried grass and grain, emits fertilizer (and some methane), and which has been shown to be quite sufficient for working a small farming operation. It can even reproduce itself!

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Since we touched on this point earlier, here’s another article about monocultures’ susceptibility to pathogens – in this case, the Australian pistachio crop, which is being decimated by anthracnose.

  • Chet

    Somehow I missed a large portion of kagerato’s enormous post.

    Whether any particular member of any particular generation exhibits heterosis is a matter of probabilities.

    Given differing genotypes in P, the probability of heterosis in F1 is 100%. The probability of heterosis in F2 is 50%.

    Again this is elementary genetics, and it’s why farmers don’t “save seeds” anymore. It has nothing to do with genetic engineering or license agreements or corporate profits.

    The transition to buying one’s seeds off an international market is a major shift that does have very significant implications on genetic diversity and self-sufficiency.

    Farmers can’t be “self-sufficient” unless they’re practicing subsistence agriculture, which is an incredibly destructive and anti-egalitarian practice. If a farmer is engaged in economic farming they need at least a market to bring their crops to!

    Placing diversity management into the hands of expert seed breeders and out of the hands of farmers has a net positive effect on crop diversity, maintenance of heirloom varieties, and yields.

    The same table also makes it very obvious that the reduction in tilling is a very recent phenomenon that began in earnest in the 1980s.

    Who cares when it started? I’m struggling to see the relevance of these claims.

    You’re imposing this idea on others that hobby gardens will be commercially competitive with large-scale farming. Yet you do not quote anyone who said that.

    Well, you’re saying that. There’s only two possibilities here – either urban hobby farming marketed to the inner city can’t compete on price with industrial farming – which will increase the price of food in the inner city; or it can compete on price with industrial farming, but neither you nor Ebon give any reasonable explanation for how that can be the case. Indeed, you seem to agree with me that it’s not a realistic possibility.

    Which means you’re talking about a shift in agriculture that will raise the price of food. Full stop. I think that’s monstrous.

  • Chet

    I encourage anyone interested in more information on this topic to check out the report “GM Soy: Sustainable? Responsible?”. The full text is available online.

    From “The Non-GMO Project”? That doesn’t sound like a credible or balanced source, it sounds like another food-scare cult. Further, they claim that the only studies of GMO safety have been performed by GMO producers, and that’s simply not the case.

    I can’t trust a source that has falsehoods right on the front page.

  • Chet

    head-desk

    It’s not prices that put fresh produce out of the reach of inner-city grocers, it’s supply-chain issues – fresh produce comes in on refrigerated semis that can’t navigate inner city streets or unload product to stores.

    Changing the subsidy structure isn’t going to suddenly make it possible to put an 18-wheeler in downtown Brooklyn.

  • Chet

    Chet seems to know alot about industrial agriculture, but I suspect that he’s so proud of having that specialized knowledge that he isn’t looking honestly at the critiques of it.

    I’m perfectly willing to look at critiques of industrial agriculture that are predicated on good science and accurate information about farming practice. But most food-scare propaganda is little better than agricultural creationism. There’s no need to “look honestly” at polemics and propaganda from motivated interest groups (like the “Non-GMO Project”) or individuals for whom food production issues are a function of spirituality (“biophilia”) instead of fact.

    One last thing – battery operated tractors are only as fossil-fuel free as the power source they get plugged into. If your electricity comes from a coal-fired power plant, your electric vehicle runs on coal, though more efficiently than an internal combustion engine.

    This is often put forth as a refutation of EV’s but if you think about it you’ll see that it’s not much of an issue. Moving fleets to EV means that you can improve carbon footprint by changes to a single plant, instead of having to replace hundreds of thousands of vehicles or drivetrains every time you want to realize an improvement in efficiency. Sure, power is usually generated by coal now. It still makes sense to move to EV’s because it’s easier to replace a coal plant with nuclear or wind or solar, than to replace hundreds of thousands of individual engines.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    Everyone has biases, Chet. There are no living, meaningful entities without values, purposes, or goals.

    Dismissing other people’s sources out of hand, failing to acknowledge your own mistakes and misstatements, and repeatedly reiterating tangential yet irrelevant points does far more to discredit you than anything I can say.

    (As an aside, the Non-GMO Project only republished the paper. It was originally published by a German organization, and composed by a set of scientists of varying nationalities and specialties.)

  • Entomologista

    Whether farmers save seeds, again, depends on the crop. Most of you seem to believe that farmers are innocent bumpkins being taken advantage of by nefarious corporate interests. Farmers are businesspeople who often have extensive education in agricultural science and economics. Fortunately, farmers know far more than you all about the genetics of crops. Wheat, for example, selfs. That means farmers can keep desired traits from generation to generation fairly easily. That means they save seeds. Maize cross pollinates and also exhibits hybrid vigor. It’s not economical for each individual farmer to keep several inbred lines of maize going so that they can produce the hybrids they want every season. Instead, companies do that and then farmers buy the seeds. They would buy hybrid seeds even if there wasn’t any GMO technology.

  • Chet

    There are no living, meaningful entities without values, purposes, or goals.

    Tu quoque is still a fallacy, kagerato, and you’ve utterly failed to substantiate your points.

    But, you’ve highlighted the amazing circularity of anti-GMO propaganda; first, you get the EU to ban GMO imports on trade protectionism grounds; then you use the ban as proof that GMO’s aren’t safe, even though that wasn’t the basis of the ban. I’m sorry but I can’t accept a source willing to trade in that kind of fundamental dishonesty. (Your “German organization” has since been debunked, incidentally. Their research on Bt exposure has never been able to be replicated and has since been found to be the result of fraud.)

  • Syn

    Chet, I actually am pro-EV, I just pointed out the electric source issue because I’ve heard it ignored so much in the past. Your point about moving to do it now was a good one.
    I would just like to say that ecosystems are so complicated and so little understood scientifically that some conservatism with regards to new technologies would probably behoove us. While I doubt that GMO’s at present have much effect on human health, the same can’t be said for their effect on ecosystems. If you know alot about plants, you know that they are promiscuous and that plant genetics can be very weird.

  • Chet

    I would just like to say that ecosystems are so complicated and so little understood scientifically that some conservatism with regards to new technologies would probably behoove us.

    Ok, but caution has its costs, too. When we turn away from technologies with no apparent downside, that have passed every test – like GMO technologies – out of fear of unspecified consequences, that has consequences too. Reduced yields mean more land surface and environmental destruction needed for farming. Reduced pest resistance means more applications of potentially harmful pesticides. And, I mean, we’re coming up on the 30th year of GMO crops in the food stream. Is there even a single example of an individual who has been harmed as a result of ingestion? At what point can baseless concerns about their effects be set aside?

    I’m much more worried about eutrophication of rivers and lakes than I am about glyphosate-resistant weeds. You can manage resistance. You can’t manage runoff except by prevention. Opponents of GMO farming need to understand that all the alternatives, including the status quo, have ample costs and risks as well. You can’t just assume that doing nothing is safe.

    If you know alot about plants, you know that they are promiscuous and that plant genetics can be very weird.

    If you know a lot about living things, you know that they’re constantly mutating even without our help. Evolution is constantly happening; species aren’t in stasis. And it’s almost always the case that the agronomic qualities we put in crops are harmful to survival in any environment except the extremely artificial environment of cultivation. Crops don’t outcompete weeds – exactly the reverse is true.

  • monkeymind

    “It’s not prices that put fresh produce out of the reach of inner-city grocers, it’s supply-chain issues – fresh produce comes in on refrigerated semis that can’t navigate inner city streets or unload product to stores.”

    1.Those supply-chain issues are part of the discussion among people who care about this kind of stuff. No one is ignoring them.

    2. I call BS on “Oh dear, we just can’t get our truck to your store!” You can find quality fresh produce in Manhattan, downtown San Francisco, Paris, and in pedestrian zones of European cities where the streets are the same width they were in 1500. It is about the prices.

    I’m finding this discussion extremely painful. I see a lot of misinformation on what I would call “my” side, but it is nowhere near the false portrait you are painting of the sustainable ag community. And FYI, yes I have personal experience with farming. About 1/4 of my college was paid for by a windfall my grandpa made in soybeans, right before Butz and “get big or get out”, which he distributed among his kids and which my parents invested for me. No family farmer in the Midwest is making those kinds of profits these days, believe me. I’m currently married to an agro-ecologist and work for a university with a large sustainable ag program. Discussions about the kind of research I linked to above is the continuous background noise of my life right now.

  • Chet

    You can find quality fresh produce in Manhattan, downtown San Francisco, Paris, and in pedestrian zones of European cities where the streets are the same width they were in 1500. It is about the prices.

    And, what, it gets there by magic? Did you even think to wonder? The prices are high because of scarcity, and the scarcity is the result of logistics, not subsidy issues. You could transfer corn subsidies to tomato farmers, and that’s not going to put more tomatoes in the corner bodega, it’s going to subsidize the diets of middle class and rich Americans who can load up the SUV at Walmart.

    I’m currently married to an agro-ecologist and work for a university with a large sustainable ag program.

    Then you understand how crucial it is for the critique of modern agriculture to be based on sound science, and not on food-scare propaganda.

  • monkeymind

    “And, what, it gets there by magic? Did you even think to wonder? The prices are high because of scarcity, and the scarcity is the result of logistics, not subsidy issues”

    Thanks for the gratuitous insult. You’re mighty generous with those, I’ve noticed. You can’t address production without addressing access of growers to markets.
    Government usually plays a huge role in facilitating access to markets. Grain sales to the Soviets in the middle of the cold war, hello???

    “Then you understand how crucial it is for the critique of modern agriculture to be based on sound science, and not on food-scare propaganda.”

    What, like insinuating that urban community gardens and modest subsidies to farmers’ markets will cause widespread starvation and the collapse of modern agriculture?

    Food stamps, by the way, are an agricultural subsidy- run out of the USDA. So the idea of a demand-side subsidy should not be completely alien to you, if you are as conversant with ag policy as you claim to be.

    I don’t think that, say, tweaking the food stamp system such that most of the 5% now spent on high fructose drinks instead gets spent at farmers markets will cause big ag to implode.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I saw this story today about urban farming via roof greenhouses, and just had to share this part:

    New York has 14,000 acres of unused rooftop space, according to Laurie Schoeman, director of New York Sun Works, a nonprofit group that promotes the use of rooftop greenhouses. Rooftop gardens abound in New York, but without an enclosed greenhouse, the growing season is limited. Ms. Schoeman said that if all of these unshaded rooftops installed greenhouses, the resulting produce could feed as many as 20 million people in the New York metropolitan area.

    Since New York City’s metropolitan area has just under 19 million people, it seems there’s a lot more potential for self-sufficiency here than some commenters were arguing upthread. This is a limiting case, since not everyone in New York is going to tend a garden on their roof, but it still demonstrates the point that even major cities can feed themselves to a greater extent than most people realize.

  • http://kagerato.net kagerato

    One other important fact is that most of the yield of several crops is used primarily for feeding livestock. Another chunk of certain crops is also taken for bio-fuels. Reducing meat consumption and reliance on bio-fuels with a poor energy return on energy invested provides significant potential for efficiency gains, if your main concern is simply feeding people.