"Unkindness to anything means an injustice to that thing." — George Washington Carver
In 1896, the soil conservationist George Washington Carver joined the faculty of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Carver was determined to regenerate agricultural soil that had been depleted by intense cotton production under the plantation system. Carver developed a system of compost manure — the collection and composting of materials found readily in the Alabama landscape, often overlooked as waste, such as cotton stalks, leaves, pond and swamp muck — that offered an alternative to the adoption of chemical fertilizers. He advocated for the cultivation of leguminous crops like sweet potatoes, cowpeas and peanuts, both for their power to regenerate soil and because they were consumable and marketable as well. As a scientist, Carver recognized the power of technological advances such as machinery and chemical fertilizers, while as a naturalist, he grew skeptical of the "unquestioned good" of those advances, considering them a waste of natural resources and inaccessible to many due to the cost. Given the complex social, economic and racial forces at work in the South at that time, Carver's work to develop organic alternatives were guided largely by the need for self-sufficiency and freedom from the crushing debt that primarily Black farmers faced under the sharecropping system. To this end, Carver made impressive progress through the distribution of informational bulletins and by conducting in-person demonstrations in Alabama's Black Belt. His 1914 publication, Being Kind to the Soil, outlines his philosophy for moral conduct, between people and the natural world:
"Unkindness to anything means an injustice to that thing. If I am unkind to you I do you an injustice, or wrong you in some way. On the other hand, if I try to assist you in every way that I can to make a better citizen and in every way to do my very best for you, I am kind to you. The above principles apply with equal force to the soil. The farmer whose soil produces less every year, is unkind to it in some way; that is, he is not doing by it what he should; he is robbing it of some substance it must have, and he becomes, therefore, a soil robber rather than a progressive farmer."
Carver's legacy, however, diminished as the First World War took his attention elsewhere. Into that vacuum came agrochemical companies and extension agents with a vested interest in the widespread adoption of inorganic chemical fertilizers. A great opportunity was missed here, one in which the organic matter of the soil was recognized as being just as important as its chemical makeup, and when the whole of the natural world was included in the vision for a sustainable and equitable agricultural future. George Washington Carver was so ahead of his time that his work on soil health was overshadowed by his work with peanuts until the regenerative movement of the late 20th century finally caught up with him.
The degradation of agricultural soils is, sadly, not a new phenomenon. People have been stripping soil for centuries, and — like anything we practice — we've gotten very good at it. Technological advances are powerful things, accelerating the impacts of our actions. When those impacts are positive, that's quite a win. When they do harm, though, as current agricultural practices harm soil health, those negative impacts are accelerated, too.
In Part 1 of this blog, we looked at a few of the mind-blowing facts about the world beneath our feet. All the plants we rely upon depend on the health and welfare of billions of organisms that live underground. The vast majority of GMO crops are engineered to withstand the application of herbicides — most commonly glyphosate-based formulations — which we examined in the first installment. But there is another trait that is engineered into GMO cotton and corn, and it also impacts the world beneath our feet.
This is Your Soil on Bt
One of the green-washiest of biotech boondoggles is the development of GMOs that produce insecticide within the plant. The idea behind this is simple: by embedding an insecticide inside the plant's tissues, theoretically there would be little — if any — need to spray insecticides externally, over the whole field. Insect pests that snack on the crop die, and proponents cry out that pesticides have been reduced, let joy be unconfined, and so on. But this assessment is misleading.
By integrating insecticide into the structure of the plant, that insecticide has significant impacts. It cannot be washed off, for one thing, and remains within the harvested crop as it enters the food supply. It also, in true short-sighted biotech form, turns an effective agricultural tool into a bit of a time bomb: The insecticide that is engineered into GMO crops like cotton and corn is called Bacillus thuringiensis, "Bt" for short, and it comes from a natural soil-dwelling bacteria. In its natural form, the bacteria is used as an insecticidal spray in both conventional and organic farming. It's very useful: effective at controlling target insects, and breaking down quickly in sunlight so it doesn't harm beneficials, animals or humans. It's gone before the crop hits the food supply. However, in GMO crops, that bacteria can change during the process of genetic engineering. The bacteria that grows within the plant is not the same as the naturally-occuring form.
There's a lot of fancy footwork — or fancy lab-work, as the case may be — needed to get a plant to accept genetic material from a selected bacteria. It's like unsolicited match-making with reluctant subjects. They value their autonomy and — let's face it — are a little commitment-phobic. Bringing them together requires changes to what they are and how they behave. And there's a lot less happily-ever-after in the world of GMOs. When prospective crops are introduced to a bacteria, in the hopes of producing generations of insecticidal offspring, the bacteria changes from being a selective, effective, and organic agricultural tool to a fearsome mamma-tiger of insecticidal wrath. It is everywhere, in each cell of the plant, always ready to strike. It does not dissipate in the sunlight like a gentle dewdrop, but persists in the crop residue for months, expanding its domain to that great universe of soil organisms.
And what does it do when it gets there? Nothin' good. As the genetically altered bacteria slowly degrades, it disturbs the mycorrhizal fungi in the soil, suppressing the soil's ability to "breathe" and limiting the diversity of the soil organisms. Remember the mycorrhizae, that super-highway of connections and nutrients we talked about in Part 1? The mycorrhizae provides plants with the nutrients they need to grow, but once that network starts to break apart, the plant loses out on nutrients, leading to less robust crops that are more susceptible to insects and diseases. (You may notice, dear reader, the potential for some seriously circular logic here, as chemicals applied to a crop affect the soil, the crop loses vigour making it more susceptible to insects and diseases, in turn making it that much more likely that a new genetically modified variety will be marketed to address that problem. As we have seen since the emergence of glyphosate-resistant superweeds, newer GMO crops are engineered to withstand ever more toxic herbicides, offering a short-term "solution" to the very problem glyphosate-resistant GMOs caused in the first place.)
"Feed the soil, not the plant."
The recognition of soil's profound impact has inspired the adage, "Feed the soil, not the plant," urging farmers and gardeners alike to care for the soil. The details of soil care and regeneration vary greatly depending on region, resources and climate, but the fundamental math of not taking out more than you put in applies everywhere. With extractive methods of agriculture, that equation is ignored, or reversed, with consistent "withdrawals" taken from the soil and little, if any, "deposits."
The bottom line is that choices involve trade-offs and costs. Before running full-tilt into the arms of an uncertain future it is worth examining what those costs are, and who will be paying them. Will it be the farmer, met with an endless line of costly specialized and patented products? Will it be the soil — a cost that will inevitably come back around to us, through crop loss, nutrient loss, erosion and, in the worst of all cases, irreversible desertification? That is too high a price for us, or the planet, to pay.
Chemical warfare against nature is a losing proposition.
Mark D. Hersey, My Work is That of Conservation: An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver, 2011.
Steven M. Druker, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth: : How the Venture to Genetically Engineer Our Food Has Subverted Science, Corrupted Government, and Systematically Deceived the Public, 2015.
John Fagan et al., GMO Myths and Truths, second edition, 2014.