Ceres and the Battle Over GMOs

December 2014

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Ceres is primarily known as an agricultural goddess – associated by both Greek (as Demeter) and Romans particularly with grain, and in general with the fertility of the Earth. It was this boon that Demeter withdrew when her daughter Kore was abducted into the Underworld. Kore herself is associated with the fertility of the Earth in its purest, wildest, most inviolable state – that is to say, uncontaminated by the hand of human intervention.

Agriculture is, of course, human intervention, but in its original form – first practiced as an extension of hunting and gathering during the Neolithic Revolution about 12,000 years ago – it was a symbiotic relationship between humans, plants and animals that benefited all species, and through which humans participated in the natural rhythms of the Earth.

Sadly, agriculture has not been that for quite some time. Innovations in growing technique such as irrigation, crop rotation, and the application of fertilizers (mostly manures), as well as food storage systems, and a parallel division of labor that made food production more efficient arose from the very beginning. The rape of Kore can, in fact, be understood as the beginning of (Plutonic) human intervention and interference with the natural rhythms of the Earth. Proceeding slowly at first, the process began accelerating after the discovery of the asteroid Ceres at the beginning of the 19th century.

By the mid 19th century, additional innovations in agriculture made possible by mechanization, new methods of selective breeding and superior systems of crop rotation raised productivity from subsistence levels to surplus. A gasoline-powered tractor was invented just after the turn of the 20th century, and by the mid 1920s, fossil-fuel-driven machines began to replace draft animals. During World War I, the wartime production of nitric acid – used in the production of explosives like TNT, and later rocket fuel – created large quantities of the waste product sodium nitrate, which eventually found application as the first synthetic fertilizer, and also greatly increased agricultural production. By the time Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962, warning of the dangers of DDT, agriculture had become a deadly industrial scale business – energy-intensive, heavily dependent on toxic chemicals for sustainable yields, and highly exploitative of human labor – the very antithesis of what it was when it began.

As horrendous as this slow evolution has been, it has taken a further turn down the underworld spiral in the last 30 years. Although scientists have known since 1946 that DNA could be transferred from one organism to another, the first genetically modified plant – an antibiotic-resistant form of tobacco – wasn’t field tested until 1986 (1). Fast-forward to 2013, and 174 million hectares around the world are planted in genetically modified (GMO) crops – 79% of all soybeans; 32% of all corn; 24% of all rapeseed; and 95% of all sugar beets – with 11 countries having planted more than 1 million hectares each (2). A wide range of additional genetically modified fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds, as well as animals are either in or slated for commercial production (3).

While proponents tout the potential for more reliable food production in the face of increasing population, GMOs represent a radical departure from selective breeding practices of the past (4), have potentially troubling long term health effects on humans and the environment (5), require increased applications of increasingly potent pesticides and herbicides to combat superweeds and insects immune to less toxic alternatives (6), and increasingly place control of scientific information about food safety in the hands of a few corporations (7).

Throughout the decade surrounding the promotion of Ceres to dwarf planet status, opposition to GMOs around the world has grown, even as the presence of GMO organisms in the environment has proliferated. Currently 64 countries – including the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, China and India – require GMO labeling. In the US, there is no federal mandatory labeling, but in 2013, Connecticut and Maine passed the first labeling laws; currently there are labeling laws pending in 20 other states. The American Medical Association opposes labeling; the American Public Health Association supports it (8).

The issues are complex, and it is hard to find unbiased information – even that produced by so-called scientific studies – since the user agreements of biotech companies such as Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta have explicitly forbidden the use of their seeds for any independent research on health or environmental impacts, and only those studies approved by the seed companies themselves ever see the light of a peer-review (9). Studies non-flattering to the industry are often blocked from publication. Meanwhile, regulatory bodies like the FDA are routinely manned by industry spokespeople like Michael R. Taylor, a former Monsanto lobbyist, who became Deputy Commissioner for Foods – responsible for food safety – at the FDA in 2010 (10). A lawsuit filed by the US, Canada, and Argentina in the World Trade Organization Court in 2003 – reaching preliminary settlement in 2009 – has opened the door for wider distribution of GMO agriculture throughout the previously resistant European Union (11).

Regardless of which side in the battle you take, it is clear that the intensification of the debate over the future of our food supply is reflective of agricultural goddess Ceres’ astronomical promotion in 2006. Despite widespread global resistance, GMOs are becoming so thoroughly integrated into the food system now – and would be so difficult to remove – that even were labeling laws to succeed worldwide, they may be too late to alter the reality of a radically re-engineered food supply. If “we are what we eat,” then our very identity as a species is being changed in unknown ways by the current revolution in agriculture, blurring genetic boundaries through artificially induced trans-species mutation between bacteria, plant, animal and human.

Is this part of Demeter’s revenge for the rape of her daughter by Plutonic (read corporate) forces? Time will tell.

The next post in this series is Ceres, Bees and Colony Collapse Disorder.

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