In the mid-1980s when I was studying history in college, “containment” – as in stopping the spread of communism – was a ubiquitous topic. The threat of communism has long-since waned, but the theme of containment has resurfaced albeit in a different, but tragically visceral guise. The ongoing calamity in the Gulf is quite literally a failure of containment. BP gambled with a risky technology. The government was sloppy in its due diligence. And both otherwise powerful entities have proved to be virtually powerless to stop the hell they’ve unleashed. Late last month Bob Herbert of the New York Times likened “the oil gushing furiously from the bowels of earth” to “a warning from Hades.”
There are instructive parallels between the uncontained oil catastrophe and genetically engineered technology. Like the oil companies, the bio-technology companies pushing genetic engineering (GE) are gambling with the fundamental integrity of our ecosystems. Bio-tech gambling, however, is taking place at the molecular level largely out of public view and mostly without our knowledge or consent.
On April 27, 2010 the Supreme Court heard its first ever case addressing genetic engineering — Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms. Monsanto was appealing a Federal court decision that USDA failed to abide by environmental protection laws when it approved “Roundup Ready Alfalfa” for commercial sale. Roundup Ready Alfalfa (RRA) has been genetically altered to be resistant to glyphosate the active ingredient in Monsanto’s flagship Roundup herbicide. The justices’decision on the case was announced on Monday (June 21). In a 7- to-1 decision, with Justice John Paul Stevens dissenting, the Supreme Court ruled that the lower court judge had gone too far in imposing a national ban on RRA. Both sides immediately started claiming victory. But, before we consider the implications of the high court’s decision, let’s back up a moment and ask why we should care about a seemingly obscure legal case in the first place?
Hay is the third largest crop grown in the United States. And, in this country the primary hay crop is alfalfa. Most alfalfa is fed to dairy cows. Dairy cows produce dairy products including milk.
In 2007 the Federal court held that the USDA had failed to abide by environmental protection laws when it approved RRA for commercial sale. Citing its potential to contaminate organic and conventional crops, the court halted any further planting and sale of Monsanto’s RRA. The Federal court granted an injunction banning all plantings of the GE alfalfa until USDA fully complied with environmental laws and rigorously assessed the crops’ impacts. Monsanto already controls corn and soy, the two largest crops, and would like to add alfalfa to its impressive roster. Unsatisfied with Federal court ruling the company took the case to the Supreme Court.
During the oral argument on April 27, Justice Scalia stated that, “This isn’t the contamination of the New York City water supply. It really isn’t.” With all due respect to Justice Scalia, it isn’t, but he was close. It could be the potential, irreversible, genetic contamination of the food supply.
Some question how a Roundup Ready Alfalfa plant could contaminate a conventional or an organic plant. The answer is pollination. Alfalfa is an open-pollinated crop. Bees, wind, and other pollinators can carry pollen at a distance of several miles from the genetically engineered Roundup Ready plants and cross-pollinate the non-Roundup Ready Alfalfa plants. Pollination has the potential to wreak havoc by spreading patented, foreign DNA that is proprietary to Monsanto. And, like BP and its infamous Deepwater Horizon well, the Monsanto Corporation and the government will be utterly powerless to contain the damage it unleashes on the commons.
In Greek mythology Zeus was angry with Man because, with the help of Prometheus, Man had stolen fire from the gods. Zeus planned his revenge on the mortals by giving Pandora a box or a jar. He told her that the box contained ‘special gifts’ but that she must never, under any circumstances, open it. One day Pandora’s curiosity got the best of her and she lifted the lid slightly. Out flew disease, despair, hunger, poverty, war, sickness, death, old age, greed and violence. Frightened by what she saw, Pandora tried desperately to close the vessel but, her efforts were in vain and only hope remained. Like a big, bad oil slick, the evils oozed all over the earth and have plagued us ever since.
At first glance it looks like Monsanto has won, but the decision isn’t so black and white. The Supreme Court did not make a decision on the safety of RRA and left the lower court ban in place. In sum, the ban on planting Roundup Ready Alfalfa still stands. The lid is still on the jar. If we have learned to stop gambling with too-big-to-fail technologies that once unleashed cannot be contained, we will keep it firmly in place.
Diana Donlon is a philanthropic consultant to foundations in the Bay Area. Her area of specialty is the food system.