The Breakfast Table

Seeds of Disaster

Dear dreamer,

I think you ate too much gumbo z’herbes for dinner. OK, so I have a heavy hand with the cayenne. But four servings? After that, you’d get bad dreams from a plant catalogue.

Actually, scratch that: Recently, plant catalogues have been giving me bad dreams. All this genetic tinkering–splicing pest-killing genes into corn that then kills beneficial insects, for example–makes me think we are staggering greedily into a possible ecological disaster.

There’s an interesting piece in April’s Harper’s on how Monsanto is prosecuting farmers for saving soybean seeds. Monsanto owns the patent on varieties it develops, making it illegal to follow the millennial tradition of setting aside your best seed for the following season, the way humans have improved their crops ever since we got kicked out of Eden.

Monsanto’s patented soybeans are resistant to a weedkiller named Roundup, also made by Monsanto. The company has reportedly been sending private detectives out to find illegal seed-savers by spraying the weedkiller on a plant or two at the edges of folks’ fields. If the plants aren’t dead in a few days, it’s a gotcha! (Seems to me the folks whose plants are dead might just have a case against Monsanto …) The company also encourages farmers to rat on neighbors by providing an 800 number. When you call, it warns you not to use a cell phone because they’re easily scanned. So far the company has investigated about 500 farmers.

This, mind you, from the company named by the Environmental Protection Agency as “a potentially responsible party” at 48 Superfund sites.

The hideous thing to me is that if it wasn’t for companies like Monsanto, farmers wouldn’t be so dependent on herbicide or herbicide-resistant plant varieties in the first place. I’m sure the company will say that American agribusiness feeds the world’s hungry. Well, that’d be great, except it’s a lie. The world’s hungry can’t afford the expensive food Americans grow.

While you were off book-touring last week I took Natty and the dog up to Anne and Donald’s farm in Highland County. They leave the fence lines messy to provide a little wildlife habitat and cut their hay after the ground-nesting birds have fledged. Most years the farm nets a few thousand dollars less than the minimum wage. We sat by the wood stove reading Wendell Berry’s new poetry collection, A Timbered Choir, and ate venison dressed with peach salsa from last summer’s overabundant harvest. The peaches are small–you’d never find them in a supermarket. They come from an orchard that has been yielding tasty harvests since long before Anne and Donald bought the farm. Monsanto, they are proud to report, had nothing to do with it.

Sometimes I wonder if these issues seem more vivid to me since we moved out here to the country and got to know more farmers. Anyway, I’m glad Natty is growing up in a place where, when the general store is closed for a few minutes, the sign on the door says “Feeding Sheep.”

Yours, earthily,