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The Arrest of the Seed Balls-or What Universe Are We Living In?
A Tale from the Sacramento Mobilization Against Biotech and the WTO
June 20-25, 2003
Early in the morning of June 21st, a phone call awakened those of us
staying in the organizers' house for the Sacramento protests against the
conference organized by Anne Veneman and the USDA to promote biotech and
industrial agriculture to ministers from WTO countries, in the run-up to the
Cancun ministerial scheduled for September.
"They're raiding the Welcome Center!" a frantic voice told us. "There's
a dozen cops, and a paddy wagon...come down!"
Three of us, myself, Lisa, and Bernadette, had our clothes on in minutes
and were in the car racing to downtown Sacramento. We arrived at the
Welcome Center, a warehouse with a large parking lot next to it, to find
masses of police and a huge paddy wagon circling. The police, it turned
out, had not actually obtained a search warrant or entered the center. They
were entirely occupied with the dangerous materials they found in the
parking lot: a bucket of nails and two buckets of seed balls made in the
permaculture workshop the day before.
Seed balls are a technique for planting on abandoned and inhospitable
ground. You take a variety of seeds, designed to create a "guild," a
self-sustaining mini-community of plants, roll them up in mud containing a
high degree of clay, and then just strew them over the ground you want to
plant. The mud and clay protect the seeds from being eaten by birds, and
when the rains come, the clay helps hold moisture so the seeds germinate.
These particular seed balls had been made the day before in a workshop
led by Erik Ohlsen and openly attended by the public and the media. They
contained a mixture of legumes, members of the bean and pea family that fix
nitrogen and provide fertility; and mustards and daikon radish, to
build biomass and to put deep roots into the ground and retrieve nutrients that have
leached deep below. All the seeds were organic.
Bernadette and I tried to explain this to the officers on the scene, but
it was clear to me that we weren't getting through. In part, we faced the
same difficulty with the police that we do with the general public around
issues of biotech and agriculture: a lack of understanding of the basic
principles of ecology. More than that -- the whole biotech industry and the
larger system of corporate industrial agriculture it is part of is based on
a different model of the world than the one that inspired the making of the
Industrial agriculture comes out of a mechanistic model. A plant is
seen as a product, needing specific inputs of various chemicals and soil as
a stabilizing base to hold it up. Anything in that soil that is not the
desired product is seen as competition, to be eliminated. Bugs and pests
and diseases should also be attacked and eliminated. It's a worldview of
simple causes and effects: Bug A eats your plant, kill it and your plant
will grow. Weeds compete with your corn: kill them and everything else in
the soil and your plant will grow better. If what you want is corn, plant
as much of it as you can, choosing the one variety that will produce the
highest yield, so that you can maximize your true crop -- profit.
This model extends to the way we view the genetic heritage of the
planet. One cause produces one effect: one gene produces one trait.
Therefore why not insert the gene from a flounder, say, into a tomato, to
increase its levels of protein? Why not alter soybeans to withstand
herbicides so you can plant them and conveniently kill everything else?
The mechanistic model assumes that the world is knowable and controllable.
Unintended consequences of an action are seen as anomalies, not "real"
consequences, and therefore often go unseen, unacknowledged, and
unaccounted. "Proof" is the drawing of a clear line of simple cause and
effect. This has great advantages for corporations bent on making profit.
A large corporation can clearcut a hillside and spray on the
exposed ground herbicides that get into the water supply: the
landslides below, the cancers that arise in the community who lives nearby, the loss of the salmon
who once spawned in the stream, go unaccounted for. They are
"externalities," unintended consequences. Monsanto can release genetically
modified corn that pollutes an organic farmer's fields with its pollen, but
Monsanto does not have add that cost to its accounts.
This model is being widely sold to us as "science." It's high tech,
it's post-modern, it's the cutting edge, it will feed the world, and anyone
who objects to it is accused of clinging to some romantic past.
But in reality, this model is nineteenth-century science. Science
itself began to move beyond it somewhere back in the 1920s, when Heisenberg
discovered the uncertainty principle and Einstein began cooking up his
theories. Actually, many nineteenth-century scientists, Darwin for one,
were already far beyond this kind of thinking.
And the unintended consequences of applying this model to agriculture
have already been devastating. The "Green Revolution" of the seventies
destroyed the biodiversity of crops in the third world, encouraged debt for
the farmers, and led to hunger and poverty in places where subsistence
farming had once met the community's needs. Insect damage to crops in the
U.S. is now double what it was in the 1940s, before we started using
synthetic pesticides. We currently lose tons of topsoil for every ton of
food produced in the Midwest. Current agricultural practices have destroyed
farming communities from Iowa to India, driving small farmers off the land
and consolidating land and food production in corporate hands.
The model represented by the seed balls comes out of the world view
being articulated by twenty-first-century science. Systems, complexity,
chaos, and Gaia theories are some of its manifestations, but it is also much
older, akin to the way indigenous peoples have always experienced the Earth.
This view sees the world as a complex and dynamic web of relationships.
There are no simple causes and effects: any change in the web will
reverberate and affect the whole. Small changes can become amplified to
have large effects that cannot be predicted: this is sometimes called the
"Butterfly Effect" of chaos theory, from the analogy that a butterfly
flapping its wings in China could produce a hurricane in the Pacific.
In this model, a plant is part of a living community of relationships,
that includes billions of soil micro-organisms, worms, insects, other
plants, birds, predators, and humans, all of which interact together to
create a network of dynamic interactions. A crop can't be seen in
isolation -- it is part of the web. So our seedballs contained not just one
kind of seed, but the nucleus of a group of plants that could coexist in
beneficial relationships with each other that would also benefit the health
of the soil and provide conditions for increasing diversity and complexity.
This model looks at systems, not isolated elements. If bugs are eating your
plants, it's a sign that something is out of balance in the overall
community. If your plants are diseased, look to the health of the soil.
In the dynamic web model of the world, we understand that every action or
change has a myriad of effects, intended and unintended. The world is not
completely knowable or controllable -- it's filled with complexities that go
beyond our comprehension, with wonder and mystery. And because it is
complex, because causes and effects are linked in networks not simple lines,
the same act will not always produce the same effect. In making changes,
therefore, we need to be responsible for their reverberations and careful
not to produce large-scale damaging and/or irreversible effects.
From the dynamic world view, genetic engineering as currently practiced is a
travesties on many counts. First, genetically modifying our food plants
risks unintended and irreversible consequences on a staggering, global
scale. Already in Southern Mexico the wild stands of teocinte, the ancestor
of corn, are polluted with bioengineered genes. We simply have no way of
knowing what this might mean in the long run. A precious source of
biodiversity, of potential change and evolution, has been affected
In a worldview of simple cause and effect, we test for "safety" by testing
for the effects we can anticipate or predict. But we cannot test for the
safety of effects we haven't anticipated.
In an ominous case, a German biotech company engineered a common soil
bacterium, Klebsiella planticola, to break down wood and plant wastes and
produce ethanol. It passed all its safety tests -- until Michael Holmes, a
graduate student at Oregon State University, decided to test it in living
soil, and discovered that all the plants sprouted in that soil died. Worse,
it persisted in the soil, as do other genetically modified bacteria. Had it
been released for use, it might have spread and, according to geneticist
David Suzuki, could conceivably have wiped out all plant life on the
With truly dangerous organisms like that floating around, it was somewhat
surprising to see the level of fear and alarm our innocent, organic
seedballs generated in the police. They decided, after consultation with
their superiors, that we could keep our bucket of nails, as we appeared to
be engaged in some building projects and not evidently producing bombs or
planning to hijack airplanes with them. However, they insisted on
confiscating the seedballs as "projectile weapons."
It was clear to me that the police basically didn't understand the
seedballs, and therefore were afraid of them. They had no category in their
minds for, "Way of planting complex community of beneficial relationships,"
whereas they did have a category for small, round objects that could be
thrown. In fact, they were looking for weapons, eager to find something
that could justify the millions of dollars and massive deployment of
personnel, the collection of stun guns, tear gas guns, pepper spray guns,
rubber bullet guns, M16s, horses, clubs, and armored personnel carriers with
which they intended to protect the city from our hordes of puppet carriers
and potentially illegal gardeners.
Looking for weapons, they found our seedballs and perceived them as weapons.
They then spent quite a bit of the day back at the station testing their
capabilities, for the evening news featured cops throwing seedballs at walls
and commenting on how they "exploded on contact."
We, on the other hand, had clearly not thought of our seedballs as weapons,
or we wouldn't have left them out in plain sight in the parking lot to dry.
So in a sense the police action expanded our thinking. In permaculture, we
try to get multiple uses for each element in a system. Sometimes that's
difficult -- a rose, for example, looks pretty and its thorns might discourage
intruders from an area, but aside from that most hybrids are not greatly
useful in the garden. However, if I think about them as potential
weapons -- the prickly stalks could be used to attack unarmed civilians, the
thorns could be inserted into the tires of police cars, the hips lobbed with
slingshots at the windows of McDonald's…and think about the lethal
potential of something bigger, say, an apple tree!
Ironically, the empty boxes the police had brought to load up the seedballs
were marked "Explosives," "Pepper Spray Balls," "Rubber Bullets." Since
they turned our seeds into weapons, I felt it would only be fair to do the
reverse. But I've tried it and it doesn't work. No matter how many pepper
spray balls you bury, you won't get a single chile pepper, and planting
rubber bullets will not grow any rubber trees.
Copyright (c) 2003 by Starhawk. All rights reserved.
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