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
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.