By Elena Day
May is my favorite month. Fields turn green and flowers delight the eye. One anticipates the abundance of summer. I think of Beltane, the ancient Irish May Day celebration when bonfires were lit, fertility was celebrated and cattle were moved to lush green summer pastures.
It hurts my heart that in more recent years more and more fields in Central Virginia green up and then just as quickly turn yellow and brown. Today’s agriculturalists spray glyphosate herbicide (Monsanto’s Roundup)* to deaden growth in order to monocrop Roundup-resistant corn and soybeans. These in turn are fed to our cattle and pigs and chickens. U.S. (and South American) corn and soybeans travel as far as China and Southeast Asia to feed their industrial meat production facilities. Energy efficiency and sustainability in such a system of intercontinental food transport were deep-sixed decades ago.
Recently I read in an issue of The Progressive Farmer about the 2013 world record corn yield per acre winner right here in Tidewater Virginia. Mr. Hula’s no-till fields are “Rounded-Up” and planted with Roundup-resistant corn. Mr. Hula listed applications of germination stimulants, products to protect against cutworms and wireworms, additions of products from a company called Biovante that provides BioRed—soil microorganisms-and feeds these with complex sugars with product names like BioMate and Assist 45. Fertilizer is regularly added by “fertigation,” the application of nutrients via irrigation. And finally, at brown silk stage Mr. Hula orders two helicopter applications of what he calls Kritter’s Kryptonite, which includes more fertilizer, amino acids, BioMate, Headline AMP (fungicide) and Tombstone insecticide.
All this occurs on Curles Neck Farm or Plantation (east of Richmond on the James River), which dates back to 1635. Industrial farming has come a long way from small plots of hills of corn fertilized with fish heads and companion plantings of squash, pumpkins and beans.
The Progressive Farmer has lots of information about pesticides and herbicides and fungicides. I cannot say it is happy bedtime reading.
Atrazine is now routinely used to control marestail, which has developed glyphosate or Roundup resistance, in corn and soybean fields. Atrazine is one of the most widely used weed killers in the U.S. and its highest use is on Midwest corn. Ninety-four percent of drinking water tested by the USDA has been found to be contaminated with Atrazine. Higher contamination levels occur from April to July. It has been banned in Germany and Italy since 1991, and in the European Union since 2004. Although studies have linked Atrazine to adverse effects on amphibians and fish and to birth defects in humans, EPA remains adamant regarding its regulatory safeguards.
I recently read the May 2014 National Geographic issue “The New Food Revolution.” The author is trying mightily to make the case for a new agricultural model combining modern industrial farming and organic methods. Within this article this particular subtext has stayed with me: “Though small farms tend to lag behind industrial farms in yields, they often deliver more food that actually ends up feeding people.” Once again, “small is beautiful.”
In the end we may pay heavily for the environmental degradation resulting from an agricultural system that currently showcases giant combines in Kansas harvesting wheat at 25 acres an hour. Note the disappearance of Monarch butterflies (an indicator species) from the vast farm fields of the Midwest as most milkweed on which these insects feed has been wiped out by herbicides that are integral to this method of feeding the world’s growing population.
Last week Vermont passed a GMO labeling bill and Governor Peter Shumlin has promised to sign it. The bill includes funds to fight the challenge that will likely be brought by the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association (GMA). Pepsi, Coke, Kraft, Kellogg’s, Monsanto, etc. all are GMA members. Although GMO-labeling initiatives were defeated in California and Washington, efforts to pass “right to know” what you eat legislation continue in both states as well as in Oregon, Minnesota, Massachusetts, New York, and Colorado.
Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo (R) is sponsoring GMA’s dream legislation, The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014.” H.R. 4432 allows for “voluntary” GMO labeling and prohibits states from passing mandatory GMO labeling laws. Food manufacturers could continue to use the word “natural” on products that contain GMO’s.
A couple of weeks ago there appeared a long article in the Washington Post about Monsanto developing new seeds that are not genetically engineered. I figured it was an attempt to get some good PR. (Monsanto is forever buying full-page ads in the Post about its achievements feeding the world its “chemically challenged” food.) Monsanto and other chemical companies are calling “mutagenesis” plant breeding the old fashioned way in the greenhouse. Mutagenesis subjects plants to radiation and chemical baths to scramble genes to produce traits suitable to industrial agriculture. The USDA Organic certification allows for mutagenesis although it disallows irradiation of food. Clarification is necessary.
Don’t forget, the Crozet Farmers Market opens May 3.
*A study released early in April found glyphosate in mothers’ breast milk as well as at levels 10 times higher than in Europe