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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

By Starhawk

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 seed balls.

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 irreversibly.

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 continent.

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.
This copyright protects Starhawk's right to future publication of her work. Nonprofit, activist, and educational groups may circulate this essay (forward it, reprint it, translate it, post it, or reproduce it) for nonprofit uses. Please do not change any part of it without permission. Please keep this notice with it. Readers are invited to visit the web site: www.starhawk.org.


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