Historic Pivot Point for Food Democracy

April 24, 2014
Dr. Vandana Shiva. Photo by Dominik Hundhammer, from Wikimedia Commons.

Dr. Vandana Shiva. Photo by Dominik Hundhammer, Wikimedia Commons.

“Something is happening at this point in history,” Katherine Kelly said as she brought to conclusion an April 17 lecture by international farm activist Dr. Vandana Shiva. “We are at a point in time where we can make an important change. Dr. Shiva is helping to lead the way. The rest is up to us.”

Kelly, the Executive Director of Cultivate Kansas City, articulated an overarching context for Shiva’s acute critique of the food system as well as her inspirational entreaties.

The context of Shiva’s presentation was further framed by three signal events. National Geographic had just published a cover story focused on the increasingly pertinent “New Food Revolution.” Meanwhile, more significantly, US merchandizing behemoth Walmart announced a program to create an industrialized organic food production system that they intend to use to “drive down the price of organic food.” The same week merchandizing rival Target Corp. also announced it was increasing its offerings of “natural, organic and sustainable” food.

Love Window CROPPED and STRAIGHTENEDIn counterpoint to these industrial-scale, profit-focused initiatives, when Dr. Shiva took the stage at Unity Temple in Kansas City, she swept her arm back, gesturing to a stained-glass window with a star burst and the word love spelled out. “That’s it,” she said. “Love. Love is the altar. It’s all about love, about bestowing attention, fostering, cherishing, honoring, tending, guarding, and loving the Earth which provides our food. The only way we can cultivate that essential ingredient of love is with community and diversity.”

The 61-year-old physicist, ecologist and author from Delhi, India then served up a penetrating deconstruction of the mechanistic mindset and the industrial food system it has spawned. This is the same mindset Walmart and Target now intend to apply to organic food.

“For a short time,” Shiva said, “the mechanistic mind has projected onto the world the false idea that food production is and must be of necessity an industrial activity. That’s a world view that is in profound error.”

“When food becomes a commodity it loses its quality, its taste, and its capacity to provide true nutrition,” she said. Industrial agriculture turns the earth into units of production, farmers into high-tech sharecroppers, and is the single biggest contributor to our declining environment. She said industrial agriculture distorts the proper relationship between humans and the natural world.

* * * * * * * *

A physicist by training, Dr. Shiva became an activist for small-scale, decentralized sustainable agriculture in 1987. That’s when she acquired insight into the motivation behind industrial farming and genetic engineering. She attended a conference on biotechnology and heard representatives of chemical corporations say that they must do genetic engineering on crops because it is a way to start claiming ownership over life.

“If we can claim ownership,” the corporate representatives reasoned according to Shiva, “then we can then collect rent or royalties on the seeds’ capacity to reproduce themselves.”

Shiva argued that it is absurd that corporations are allowed to codify life as a patentable and profitable form. “GMO,” she said, “has come to mean ‘God Move Over.’ It violates the rights of the Earth, the rights of the farmers, and the rights of the people who need to eat food to live. The patenting of life violates every principle of law and ethics and morality.”

278187This kind of one-dimensional, profit-based thinking is the core of what Shiva wrote about in her seminal 1993 book, Monocultures of the Mind. Coming at the subject from her mastery of particle physics and her understanding of the fundamental inseparability of all facets of life, she concluded that “issues about environment, economics and politics are inter-related through the way humans interact with their surroundings and with each other.”

Shiva argues in her book and in her lectures that a mechanical monocultural mindset has led to vicious circle of injurious impacts in the realms of farms, food and the environment.

“A monoculture of the mind in the economic system is what has led to corporate globalization,” she said in her Kansas City talk. “A monoculture of the mind makes it appear as if the only market that there is, is the globalized market controlled by the global giants, whereas the real market, and the real economy, are the economies of nature. That is where local food movements and systems are becoming the solution to the multiple crises created by the monoculture monopoly system.”

Our mainstream food system is designed by corporate entities having a responsibility to shareholders, investors, and private owners, she said. The bottom line is the almighty dollar. But in maximizing certain kinds of production, we are systematically ‘weeding out’ other kinds of life.

Through the monoculture of the mind we have been establishing what Shiva termed an “Empire of Man” over the earth and lesser creatures (which for people immersed in the monoculture of the mind also includes women and indigenous peoples). It constitutes an attempt at a mechanistic takeover of the universe.

“Diversity has everything to do with food,” Shiva said. “In fact, any system that is not a diversified agriculture system is something else. It’s an industrial system that is producing non-food, food that is unworthy of being eaten and that is creating huge problems in health. Real food provides the diversity of nutrients that our body needs – the trace elements, the micronutrients…Diversity creates decentralization, and decentralization creates democracy.”

Having greater diversity of seeds and of local, smaller-scale farms and food processing operations creates a wealth of options, Shiva said. “We need to intensify diversity and biology, and we can do that only through love.”

Diversity loves diversity, because it is freedom. This, she has said, is a political act, a kind of revolution. To further that revolution, and to save seeds in her home nation of India, Shiva founded Navdanya, a nonprofit organization named for the nine crops that provide food security in India.

* * * * * * * *

With Dr. Shiva’s analysis in mind, one cannot help but question the impact and outcome of Walmart’s and Target’s announced intentions to aggressively exploit what Wall Street financial analysts have branded as “the hot organic market.”

Doubtless some good will arise from increasing the number of farms using chemical-free growing practices, and the wider availability of food with decreased chemical contaminants. But the entry of such large-scale corporate players into a traditionally modest-scale and decentralized endeavor is a game changer. It’s also representative of the industrial mindset that Vandana Shiva – and advocates of food democracy – regard as profoundly troubling.

The burgeoning interest of people in clean, local food, and the accelerated entry of Walmart and Target into the realm of organic food and sustainable agriculture, establishes a critical pivot point for the food democracy movement.

As farmer John Peterson of Angelic Organics recently explained to me, farmers get beat in to the ground when they work for prices set by wholesalers, and must struggle to make their mortgage, equipment and labor payments and all the rest.

When retailers and wholesalers are in command – as they are in industrial-scale operations – efficiency and profitability become the dominant values. Farmers are contracted under these values and thereby relegated to the role of corporate vassals, laboring in servitude to fulfill the terms of contract on quantity, quality, timing, and pricing – all factors that have little to do with nature or with the rising spirit of the food democracy movement.

“You cannot have the stewards of the land struggling under that much pressure,” farmer Peterson told me. “A farm is not just an economic unit to produce food. It’s also a living social, environmental and educational organism. It cannot be thought of as just a unit of economic production. That just commodifies the farms and farmers, as food is commodified also.”

Cultivate KC Director Katherine Kelly and Dr. Shiva.

Cultivate KC Director Katherine Kelly and Dr. Shiva.

This is one of the key points Vandana Shiva strove to get across in her Kansas City visit. We have arrived at a pivot point for the food democracy movement. We need a fundamental transformation in the way we regard and relate to farms and food. An industrial-scale monoculture of the mind, and a monoculture of putative organic farms and food, are unlikely to fulfill this ideal. Instead they present a complex range of potentially corrupting possibilities.

“We need to cultivate freedom, to cultivate hope, to cultivate diversity,” Shiva told the Kansas City audience. “We need to build the direct relationship between those who grow the food and those who eat it. Care for people has to be the guiding force for how we produce, process, and distribute our food.”

“We need to shift the paradigm of economics to measure the well being of people,” she said, “not the profits of the oligarchs.”

Shiva spoke about the drastic climate changes underway, and also the corporate hegemony at work around the world. “Our responses must be quick, but not desperate, and also simple,” she said. “Simplicity is the highest order – the simplicity of good food, safe food, and food produced and consumed in love. This can only come out of community. Cultivate compassion, love and food democracy. Food democracy is about action, changing the way we eat every time we take a bite. It’s about people learning, engaging and acting in our food systems.”

“Every movement for human freedom throughout history has needed people to lead, people who stand for love and for higher law. That’s the challenge we face now,” Shiva said. “That is what we need.”

The Kansas City audience of about 1,200 people gave Dr. Shiva a standing ovation.

The Kansas City audience of about 1,200 people gave Dr. Shiva a standing ovation.


Bowl of BioPhotons or Crock of Corporate Life Forms?

April 20, 2013

cherrykirilian

What would you like for breakfast: a bowl of fresh, clean organic food naturally radiating the golden goodness of the Sun (aka biophotons), or a crock bulging with lab-engineered, genetically-modified, profit-patented, corporately-owned, food product (aka “novel life forms”)?

Unbidden, this queer question came to the forefront for me last week when two stories arrived all but simultaneously in my email in-box. One story was about novel genetically engineered life forms, and the other was about biophotons. I found the distinctions starkly dismaying.

First I read news from The Cornucopia Institute that Monsanto and DSM Nutritional Products are soon likely to be constructing even more “novel life forms” such as genetically engineered algae, processed with synthetic petrochemical-based solvents, then incorporating these substances, more or less surreptitiously, into “food products.”

If they follow what has so far been their standard corporate operating procedure, these concocted substances will be disseminated without labels or any other way for people to understand what they are ingesting.

In this unsettling, unknowable manner is the industrial food chain being relentlessly infiltrated with “novel life forms” generated in laboratories away from the light of the sun, and owned not by nature, but by corporations. For this I have no appetite.

Then I read about biophotons. Turns out that’s a word for describing the smallest known units of light. Biophotons are sparks of life within biological systems, and best explained by quantum mechanics: subatomic phenomena that exhibit properties of both waves and particles.

Biophotons are used by and stored in all organisms, including the food we eat, the water we drink, and our bodies. When our food is vibrant with high-quality life energy (biophotons), that energy – not just the material substance of vitamins and minerals — is absorbed into our bodies.

The existence and the importance of this basic life force has been known for centuries in China where it is spoken of as chi, in Japan where it is known as ki, in India where the ancient Sanskrit term is prana, and by various terms among many of the native peoples of the Americas.

In recent decades, the reality of the animating life force has been increasingly recognized in Western science. Physicist Fritz-Albert Popp, Ph.D., of Marburg University, researched and named this phenomenon as biophotons – particles of light that infuse life.

Dr. Popp was among the first Western investigators to indicate that this light must come, at least in part, from the foods we eat. The more light a food is able to store, the more nutritious it is.

plant-kirilianNaturally grown fresh fruits and vegetables, for example, are rich in biophotons. It’s obvious. You need not be a mystic who can see auras to understand. The reality of light waves, or biophoton energy, is obvious to any receptive and discerning eye.

Biophotons elevate the organism – such as your physical body – to a higher oscillation. As I read that, basically, if you eat fresh, clean food grown on healthy natural land, you support your body at a higher, healthier vibe.

Our bodies are made up not just of organs, tissue, and blood vessels, but are also composed of light. Biophotons enliven, order and regulate living organisms.

The greater your supply of light force from fresh, clean foods, the greater the vitality of your overall electromagnetic field (aura), and consequently the more energy available for maintaining optimal health. In matters biophotonic, quality as much as quantity is key.

Physicist Popp theorizes that the biophoton light emissions of healthy people follow biological rhythms, and that those rhythms are connected to the measureable biorhythms of the earth. There is a direct correlation and an active resonance amidst land, food, and people.

Clean, healthy land tended organically or Biodynamically gives rise to clean healthy food rich in biophotons (chi, ki, prana, life energy). It’s that simple. Starkly simple.


The Roots of Good Health Are Anchored in the Land

March 2, 2013

grass-roots

“Let food be thy medicine,
and medicine be thy food.” -
 Hippocrates

Healthy land is the key to healthy food; thus, inevitably it’s also the key to healthy human beings.

The famous Greek physician of antiquity, Hippocrates – often called the father of western medicine – drew attention to this health key over 2,000 years ago when he authored On Airs, Waters, and Places.

Hippocrates argued that disease was not a punishment inflicted by the gods but rather the product of environmental factors: diet, habits, and the land where you live.

As observation over time shows, clean, vibrant land that is intelligently, organically cultivated constitutes an oasis of health on the face of the earth. The land’s health radiates to everything around, as well as everything that banquets from the land’s bounty arising. Conversely, unhealthy, polluted, chemically saturated land — and  the food raised from it — trend health on a numbing downward spiral.

roots-silhouetteIn a time of increasing impact from climate instability and swiftly rising food prices, we can no longer leave the care of the land that sustains us, and the production from it of our food  – to less than 1% of the population. That’s how few of us are active farmers — the human beings who serve as ambassadors to the earth for all of us.  They touch the land on our behalf. Depending on how we have invested our money to secure our food, the ambassadors work either great good or great harm upon the land.

The land is calling out with thunder as we approach planting season 2013. We are called to listen now and to respond creatively by establishing thousands more networked oases of clean, organically cultivated land, or by directly and actively supporting the farmer ambassadors touching the land for us via the many thousands of 21st Century agrarian initiatives already at work to sink the roots of good health deep into the land.


Cereal Crimes: the Bottom of the Breakfast Bowl

October 18, 2011

Parents, children, anyone who routinely sits down to eat a bowl of breakfast cereal, will want to take a look at the new report on ‘Cereal Crimes‘ released by the Cornucopia Institute.

The report makes plain the sharp and important difference between cereals that are actually grown and produced with clean, sustainable, organic methods and materials, and those cereals marketed with the vague and often misleading label ‘natural.’

The term ‘natural’ on a food product should, at this point, simply raise questions for consumers, who will want to read the product label more carefully. What is really in it?

In the USA there are no restrictions whatsoever for foods labeled “natural.” According to Cornucopia, the term often denotes little more than marketing hype from companies seeking to exploit consumer desire for clean food produced in a genuinely sustainable manner. So called ‘natural’ products may well be grown with chemicals and include genetically engineered grains or other ingredients.

If you eat cereal, or if your children do, you will want to check Cornucopia’s online Cereal Scorecard to see how your favorite brands have been rated.


The Dangerously Deranged Ethics of Biotech Ag

September 3, 2011

My unease about genetically engineered crops and animals dates back to the beginning. I had immediate concerns in the late 1980s and early 90s as I began to learn about the technology and associated marketplace machinations. Over the following decades as more and more facts emerged my concerns deepened.

Then just a couple of weeks ago my misgivings were rudely provoked to the forefront when I read an op-ed column by Nina Federoff, published in The New York Times. Her column amounted to a fact-deficient apologia for the GMO industry, and an exhortation to charge heedlessly forward with genetically engineered food. For me, and for millions of other people, this is a massively deranged and dangerous proposition.

So many factors are coming to a head now. Widespread famine, a global land grab, soaring food prices, a horde of profit-mad speculators, drought on the scale of the Dust Bowl, a host of other wildly wobbling environmental events, and a huge, well-organized, well-funded propaganda push by corporate industrial agriculture to claim that the only sensible way forward is with genetic engineering and its allied cauldron of petrochemical-based herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides. But it’s not the only way forward. It is, instead, a profoundly perilous pathway encouraged by what I regard as dangerously deranged ethics.

After the Times published Federoff’s column, well-reasoned rebuttals came swiftly from Anna Lappe writing for Civil Eats, from Tom Philpott in Grist, and from Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, Senior Scientist, Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA). Individually and collectively, their articles constitute a convincing, fact-backed refutation of Federoff’s claims for GMO safety and suitability. They effectively assert the case for a global 21st century agrarian vision of human-scale organic sustainable farms and food.

Their responses to the Times column deepened my understanding of why it’s fundamentally important to advance clean natural organic practices and products. They also impelled me to consider again my anxiety about the deranged ethics evidenced in the GMO industry: utter disregard of the baseline Precautionary Principle, repeated roughshod override of human free will, and a radically impudent abnegation of the Seventh Generation teaching.

Seventh Generation Teaching

Tipi for the Prayer Vigil for the Earth at the Washington Monument. All people of all traditions are welcome. This year the Vigil is set for September 30 - October 2, 2011 in Washington, DC. Photo courtesy of The Circle.

In the market-driven rush to bring GMO crops into the fields and thence into the people, I see forces and institutions fundamentally averse to the common sense teaching of the Seventh Generation. That precept — native to North America — holds that leaders are responsible for considering the impact of their decisions on the seventh generation yet to come.

Most memorably, I heard the seven generations teaching expounded by Leon Shenandoah, the late elder and chief in service to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Six Nations).  I shook hands and spoke with Leon in 1995 in a ring of tipis set up for the annual, ecumenical Prayer Vigil for the Earth at the base of the Washington Monument in our U.S. capital city.

“Look behind you,” Grandfather Leon said. “See your sons and your daughters. They are your future. Look farther and see your sons’ and your daughters’ children and their children’s children even unto the Seventh Generation. That’s the way we were taught. Think about it: you yourself are a Seventh Generation.”

Another Six Nations elder, Oren Lyons, has commented, “As a general injunction to live responsibly and respectfully, and as a practical guide to specific moral decision-making, the seventh generation principle may be without equal.”

I agree. I look around and I see that just one generation has passed since the widespread introduction of GMO crops. Already potentially catastrophic problems have begun to arise by the bushel. These are amply documented in the rebuttals to Federoff’s column.

Free Will

A second troubling realm of GMO industry ethics and practices involves the ongoing violation of human free will. From the outset, the industry has insisted and aggressively lobbied to make sure there are never any identifying labels on GMO products.

The American public does not, and never has had, any way to actively choose, or actively avoid GMO food. The real nature of the food is hidden, and consumers have no opportunity whatsoever for informed consent about the nature of the food they feed themselves and their children.

Out of respect for the sacrosanct nature of human free will, we should be able to know the truth of the food that is set before us. But we do not know this in 2011, nor can we. There are no identifying labels to let people know they are eating genetically engineered food. Our free will, thus, is continually disregarded and disrespected.

In response to this abuse, many citizens and organizations are actively advocating the labeling of all genetically engineered foods: to restore for consumers a free-will choice in the marketplace. You can begin to learn about the burgeoning movement for labeling GMO foods at the Non-GMO Project, and at the Truth in Labeling project.

Precautionary Principle

The Precautionary Principle is a simple and sensible ethical guideline. It holds that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those promoting the product or action. In other words, you must establish that your action or product will not cause harm before you promulgate it and actually cause irreversible harm to human beings or to the natural world essential to life.

This common-sense principle is a statutory requirement in the law of the European Union, but not in the USA. The USA has, in fact, lobbied actively and secretly — without citizen knowledge or approval — to pressure European governments to ease or overlook legitimate objections to genetically engineered food.

Mounting Evidence

The evidence continues to mount that GMO technologies and practices are causing profound harm. Respected agricultural researchers are repeatedly raising serious concerns.

In mid-August Robert Kremer, a microbiologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, told a Kansas City audience that repeated use of the chemical glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup herbicide, adversely impacts plant roots.

He said also that fifteen years of research indicates that the chemical is causing harmful changes in soil, and potentially reducing yields of the genetically modified crops that dominate vast acreage in North America and elsewhere around the world.

Research shows that genetically engineered crops do not, in fact, yield more than conventional crops, he said. Nutrient deficiencies tied to the root disease problems are likely a limiting factor for crop yield, as is the burgeoning plague of poison-resistant Superweeds unleashed by the overuse of chemical herbicides used on GMO crops. Further and alarmingly, news reports revealed this week that researchers are now finding significant levels of the poison widely infesting both the water and the air of farm states.

Meanwhile, Michael McNeill, an agronomist who owns Ag Advisory Ltd. in Algona, Iowa, has pointed out that scientists are seeing new, alarming patterns in plants and animals due to increased use of glyphosate on GMO crops. “When you spray glyphosate on a plant, ” McNeill has said, “it’s like giving it AIDS.”

McNeill reports that he and his colleagues are seeing a higher incidence of infertility and early-term abortion in cattle and hogs that are fed on GM crops. He adds that poultry fed on the suspect crops have been exhibiting reduced fertility rates.

Ominously, the warnings of these scientists echo what Purdue University professor emeritus Don Huber has been saying: “I believe the threat we are facing from this pathogen (nurtured in the context of GMO crops and glyphosate) is unique and of a high-risk status…it should be treated as an emergency.”

Huber said he sees the GMO-glyphosate industrial ag complex as having led to an increase in cancers of the liver, thyroid, kidneys, and skin melanomas, as well as sharp increases in allergic reactions in general,  and an increase on an epidemic-scale in the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Ethos and Mythos

Corporations, universities, and governments are racing blithely forward as if the benefits and safety of GMO technology are above question. But for anyone paying attention now, that is clearly not so. A comprehensive 2011 literature review documents the reality that nothing is settled. The GMO debate is still wide open.

The authors of the literature review reported that most studies claiming that GM foods are as nutritional and as safe as those obtained by conventional breeding, have been performed by biotechnology companies or associates. They conclude: “the controversial debate on GMOs…remains completely open at all levels.”  That conclusion should raise ethical red flags for everyone.

The words ethos and ethics derive from the Greek root ethikos, meaning moral, and it’s the root of our modern term for moral competence. While ethics may be individual, ethos is communal and arises out of common experience and insight. It denotes a characteristic spirit—the guiding beliefs and values of a team, a company, a tribe, or a nation.

As we confront radically changing circumstances in our economy, energy supply, and food chain, we have an opportunity to change and reconstitute our ethos and the way we live with the land.  The corporate, university, and government institutions that comprise industrial biotech agriculture have embraced an ethos of speed, efficiency, and profit and as a consequence created an environmental behemoth of threatening mien. Yet we have potential to make a deliberate shift to embrace a conservative but enlightened ethos not just out of necessity, but also out of wisdom. Perhaps mythos will be a factor in bringing about this urgently necessary shift.

Forty years ago a small group of citizens — seeing profound harm being inflicted upon the natural world that supports human life, and impelled by their shared ethos — formed the nucleus of Greenpeace.

While the actions of that seed group were mandated by immediate realities, much of their inspiration came from the realm of mythos — specifically, the legend of the rainbow warriors. The myth tells of how in a time of great peril, people of all colors and faiths — in response to ominous degradation and disturbance of the natural world that supports us all — band together peacefully and give birth to a clean world based on principles of respect. That modern myth is so powerful and offers so much hope that as a journalist I’ve been drawn to write about it repeatedly in several nonfiction books: Legend of the Rainbow Warriors, Odyssey of the 8th Fire, and most recently in Tales of the Whirling Rainbow.

Greenpeace long ago embraced a life-preserving ethos including the Precautionary Principle, respect for human free will, and the teaching of the Seventh Generation. The orrganization has called for a ban on all genetically engineered crop field trials in Australia and elsewhere.

A new report from Greenpeace and GM Freeze analyzes almost 200 independent and peer-reviewed scientific studies. Those studies show that the culture of genetically engineered food and its chemical supplements has serious problems, and is linked with upsurges in rates of cancer, birth defects and neurological illnesses including Parkinson’s. This study also echoes resoundingly the sharp warnings of Don M. Huber.

As The Wall Street Journal noted in a recent article about Greenpeace, an emerging consensus among eco-activists is that environmentalism is now a matter of life and death. It is in this alarming context that new executive director Kumi Naidoo and all of Greenpeace are preparing this month to mark their 40anniversary with the launch of Rainbow Warrior III, a successor to the group’s famous flagship sunk by the French government in 1985.

Perhaps the new ship —  a visible manifestation of the mythos and a powerful action-oriented expression of a wisdom-based ethos — will help spark and encourage a necessary moral evolution in citizens, governments, universities and corporations.

The new Rainbow Warrior III will be launched this month to mark the 40th anniversary of Greenpeace, fusing mythos and ethos.


Sacred Tobacco Teachings Illuminate Bee Colony Collapse Catastrophe

April 23, 2011

© 2011 – by Steven McFadden

Poster by Meghan Stratham for a screening of 'Queen of the Sun' - Ross Theater, Lincoln, Nebraska.

In bleakly immense numbers, billions of bees, birds and bats continue to perish. These massive, mysterious pollinator exterminations are steadily stinging our food supply and the whole of the natural world.

One out of every three bites of food that we consume is directly linked to pollinators. Thus, as the bees go, so go we.

While the precise cause of bee colony collapse is still argued, clues continue to emerge. Suspects still include mites, viruses, funguses, chemicals, genetically modified plants and associated pathogens, as well as EMF radiation from wireless technology.

According to a widely noted paper in the journal PLoS One, an active part of the problem is a tag-team consisting of a virus and a fungus. Exactly how these micro-entities kill bees remains uncertain. However, researchers did confirm that both the virus and the fungus have their impact in the bee gut. Somehow, the bees’ guts are being rendered vulnerable; then the virus and fungus have their fatal impact.

As for beekeepers, they are increasingly convinced that an underlying cause of this gut-weakening, global death plague is a family of insecticides called neonicotinoids. They are chemicals which mimic the form and function of nicotine, the naturally occurring alkaloid in tobacco. In synthetic, chemical form the neonicotinoids are sprayed on seeds or crops to keep them clear of marauding insects.

By now the neonicotinoids, in combination with a ‘chemical soup‘ of other substances, are widely believed to be a major player in losses being described collectively as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). (See recent comments on this from the USDA top bee scientist.)

Note well the tobacco aspect of this story. It may prove key to a multitude of mysteries. For thousands of years tobacco has been recognized in native North America as chief of the plant world. It is the first and most important plant.

As chief of the plant realm, tobacco can be employed for great good, or for great harm. This has been understood for generations. In this context, the widespread, commercial use of manufactured, synthetic, chemical tobacco — a substance reduced to a base material form — appears as a matter of resounding agricultural and spiritual significance.

Subtle Mysteries

Mystery lives in the hive. Bees emerging from the hexagonal form of their homes, guided by the position of the Sun, are drawn into engagement with life via the colors and fragrances of flowers. From the exquisite forms of the flowers they draw the dew-moistened essences of nectar and pollen. This they refine within their bodies into the warming, golden, hive-filling elixir that is honey, a sublime food.

Queen of the Sun, a new film opening May 13 in Lincoln — and on other dates around North America this spring — explores the bee, hive, honey, and pollination mysteries with art and intelligence. The film is being widely praised for its nature cinematography, and for serving up insights both scientific and esoteric.

Queen of the Sun explores how our natural, rhythmic relationship with bees has been fundamentally altered by mechanized, chemicalized, and edgily efficient industrial practices. The film explores also the possibilities and pathways of human beings responding intelligently and helpfully to the death murmurings of the bees by restoring our lands to full, natural, organic health and vitality, while also reorienting bee-keeping practices.

The bee mysteries explored in the film, in combination with the suspected role of neonicotinoids in the collapse of the bees, put me strongly in mind of traditional Native teachings about tobacco. Having traveled and studied with Native elders for nearly 40 years, I am aware of some of the core cultural and spiritual understandings about tobacco, and I regard them as significant.

Because tobacco is understood to play such a key role in the natural world and in human life, and because the derangement and collapse of the bee colonies is so important to our survival, the subject merits both physical and metaphysical study.

The Four Sacred Medicines

As held in the millennia-old teachings of Turtle Island (North America), tobacco is appreciated as the first plant that Creator gave to the human beings. Tobacco, part of the nightshade family of plants, has a special role, and is chief among the plants — the most significant medicine. Three other plants, sage, cedar and sweetgrass, follow tobacco. Together, since antiquity, they have been spoken of as the four sacred medicines.

As the ancient teachings maintain, tobacco was given to human beings so people could communicate with the spirit world. Said to be powerful beyond contemporary reckoning, tobacco opens the portal allowing that communication to take place in a safe, conscious, and wholesome manner. Traditional people say “always through tobacco.” Tobacco is always first, used as an offering for most everything and in every ceremony.

Tobacco has been used for many generations as offerings of gratitude, for planting, for harvesting, for healings and for acknowledgments. Tobacco pathways streaming prayerful thoughts have characteristic qualities of respect, protection and healing. Tobacco is Big Medicine, Chief Medicine, the main activator of all the plant relatives.

In the past, the naturally occurring alkaloid of nicotine from the tobacco plant was used as an insecticide. In our era a synthetic form of nicotine — the neonicotinoid family of chemical insecticides — has come into wide use. Those commercially sold nicotine analogs bear names such as clothianidin, imidacloprid, nitenpyram, and thiamethoxam.

Using tobacco with wisdom brings protection and communication; using tobacco without wisdom is exceedingly dangerous. Most people are aware of how habitually smoking and inhaling the plant leads to acute health problems, often to cancerous death.

Correspondingly, using a reductionist synthetic form of tobacco as an agricultural or backyard insecticide can lead — and many beekeepers believe is leading — to sickness and death for our essential bee relatives.

Correspondences

Queen Bee

Queen of the Sun notes that the pollinator catastrophe of today was foreseen as early as 1923. That’s when, in a series of lectures entitled “The Bees,” Rudolf Steiner stated that within 80 to 100 years we would see the consequences of our tendency to mechanize the hive forces that had previously operated organically.

Born in Austria (1861–1925), Steiner made his mark as a literary and philosophical scholar credited with dozens of important observations and initiatives. He gave the starting impulse for the biodynamic approach to agriculture. He indicated that as a consequence of meddling with hives, manipulating the queen bees (Queens of the Sun), and a generally mechanistic approach to the otherwise healthy, natural rhythms of the colonies, we would create conditions causing the mass disappearance of the bees. So it has come to pass.

One of Steiner’s related ideas was that an essential spiritual requirement of the modern age is to be aware of the increasingly powerful influence of regressive, materialistic impulses which tend to numb or deaden the living spirit. He cautioned that if mechanical strategies of efficiency were imposed upon the hives, they would wither and fail. With the widespread  use of chemicals, and mechanistic processes such as interrupting brood production, artificial insemination of queens, and clipping queens’ wings, the complex masterpiece of the hive has been tamed into its modern condition.

In metaphysics, the doctrine of analogy and correspondence is the classic approach for exploring the relationship between natural and spiritual realms. The doctrine posits that as the whole of existence is one, all parts are in relationship with all other parts, and different levels (realms or worlds) have correspondences. The parts of the whole are in relationship with one another, and we can learn something about a given realm by examining the corresponding part in another realm.

The ancient Hermetic teachings expressed this doctrine of correspondence in the familiar maxim, “As above, so below; as below, so above.”

In this context, consider the synthetic forms of nicotine-tobacco, the neonicotinoids. They are created in a manufacturing plant as a chemical that mimics some of the properties of natural, sacred tobacco, and then used to protect plants by killing insects.

Head - Hive

Neonicotinoids act as neurotoxins. Bees exposed to them — especially in the context of the modern day ‘chemical soup’ in the environment — exhibit symptoms similar to humans afflicted with neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. They become deranged: normal mind and body functions are disturbed. Derangement leads to progressive paralysis which leads to death.

As derangement and colony collapse surge in the realm of the bees, we can meanwhile observe a corresponding surge – of staggering proportions — in the realm of human beings afflicted with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

As with the bees being negatively impacted by chemicals, a mounting list of studies shows the connection between other chemicals and the soaring rates of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

These observations stand as no absolute, physical scientific proof of a connection. But as apparent correspondences, they absolutely merit metaphysical consideration.

Stark Realities

The whole picture of bee colony collapse was cast in the light of stark reality on March 11. That’s when the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published a report entitled Global Honey Bee Colony Disorders and Other Threats to Insects. According to that report, “The increasing use of chemicals in agriculture, including systemic insecticides and those used to coat seeds, is being found to be damaging or toxic to bees.”

This decline of bee populations, the UNEP report adds, has serious consequences for global food security. Beekeeper Gunther Hauk, who is featured in Queen of the Sun, observes that “colony collapse disorder and the decline of the honeybee is more important even than global warming. Without pollinators doing their tireless work, we wouldn’t have our flowering world, nor 40% of the food we eat and drink.”

Despite numerous red flags, the droning rattle of bee death may grow louder yet this year as farm fields are planted in North America. Despite UN warnings, despite outright bans in Europe, and despite beekeeper protests in the USA, the EPA is again allowing the use of neonicotinoids in 2011.

Late in 2010, thanks to an internal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) memo that came to light via Wikileaks, beekeepers learned that EPA scientists were reporting that a crucial study for the insecticide clothianidin — one of the most widely used neonicotinoids — had been downgraded from “acceptable” to “supplemental.”

The memo stated: “[S]tudies to honey bees show that clothianidin is highly toxic on both a contact and an oral basis….When bees consume guttation (dew drops) collected from plants grown from neonicotinoid-coated seeds they encounter death within a few minutes.”

The leaked EPA memo recommended that a new field study be undertaken along with at least one other study to ensure that the clothianidin, now widely used on crops in the country’s agricultural centers, is not harmful to pollinators.

The memo also made it apparent that the EPA had allowed the neonicotinoid to stay on the market while the crucial study on the subject had been deemed inadequate. Of note, that study had been submitted to the EPA by Bayer, the multinational corporation that is both the maker and the marketer of the insecticide.

In December, right after the leak of the EPA memo, a coalition of beekeeping groups sent a letter urging the agency to issue a stop use order immediately. “Our nation cannot afford, and the environment cannot tolerate, another growing season of clothianidin use,” the letter read.

The letter to the EPA was signed by a host of heavy hitters from the realm of the bees: the National Honey Bee Advisory Board, American Honey Producers Association, American Beekeeping Federation, Pesticide Action Network of North America, Center for Biological Diversity, and Beyond Pesticides.

The groups received the EPA response to their letter on February 18, 2011. Basically, the EPA asserted that “insufficient data exists” to make a conclusive case. “Based on the EPA’s thorough review of the scientific information,” the letter reads, “EPA does not intend at this time to initiate suspension or cancellation actions against the registered used of clothianidin.”

The letter went on to say that “given the concern about the neonicotinoid class of pesticides and protection of bees, the Agency has also accelerated scheduling the comprehensive re-valuation of these pesticides…”

The die is cast for 2011 in North America. Throughout the growing season across the land, the synthetic tobacco that has aroused so much concern – even among EPA scientists — will be in full and widespread use.

Our Cumulative Power

“Who knows what losses the earth has suffered? One who, with sounds that nonetheless praise, can sing the heart born into the whole. “ – Rainer Maria Rilke

As suggested poetically by Rilke and as taught by Steiner, a first step in addressing the realm of nature is to deepen our understanding of the whole, and the web of corresponding relationships that constitute the whole. We have much to gain from penetrating the mysteries via science and intuition, and much to contribute in response if we authentically engage the call of the bees as one key chorus in the overall call of the land.

In this matter as in so many others that characterize our era, it appears that individuals of good conscience must make their own determinations, set their will, and take their own positive actions.

Toward that end, here are some suggestions for steps one might take on the path toward penetrating the mysteries and establishing conditions which allow the bees and other pollinators to prosper in good health, that we human beings may in turn prosper in good health.

  • Educate yourself about bees and the food chain. Read a book or see the film Queen of the Sun.
  • Provide habitat by planting bee-friendly flowers in your yard such as Black-Eyed Susan, Buttercups, Clematis, and Dhalias. Gardens with 10 or more bee-friendly plants support the most apian visitors.
  • Respect plants typically identified as ‘weeds.’ Plants such as dandelions and clover are popular with bees. Consider letting some of these weeds come to flower, then pull them up after they’ve gone to seed.
  • Reduce or eliminate lawn chemicals. Many lawn and garden chemicals are lethal to bees, while others may weaken their immune systems. Consider switching to integrated pest management for lawns, or using natural, organic fertilizers and biological controls.

  • Join the community of beekeepers in urging the EPA to fulfill it’s core responsibilities to protect us against toxins, derangement, and death and thereby to safeguard the nation.  Sign the petition for a National Honey Bee Day. You can print out copies of the petition if you want to seek further signatures at local garden clubs, coops, farmers markets, CSAs, and so forth.
  • Support local organic farms. They are oases of environmental health and thus sanctuaries for bees. Support local beekeepers by buying their honey.
  • Consider becoming a beekeeper yourself.  As a simple search will reveal, the Net is loaded with resources for learning.
  • Grow a tobacco plant (Nicotiana rustica)  in your yard or in a pot.  Contemplate the plant’s form and qualities
  • Offer a pinch of dried tobacco leaf to the land if it meshes with your spiritual practice. Offer, then relax and listen. Tobacco is said to help to open a path of communication, but it is not a one-way path for broadcasting thoughts and desires. We have with this practice a chance to listen to the call of the land and the creatures such as the bees, and thereby to be informed on a necessary level of relationship.
  • Check out the resources on the links page for The Call of the Land. Some of the models listed there may help you find a way to add some positive energy in response to the diminishing buzz of the bees and other pollinators.

These may all appear to be small, insignificant steps. They are not. Consider how small is the packet of pollen and nectar that an individual bee carries to the hive. In combination with the efforts of all the other bees, quarts of golden honey flow forth. Likewise, the individual and shared efforts of people to heal our relationship with the land and the hives brings a cumulative, healing power more fully into the world.

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Flurry of Articles on GM Farms & Foods

April 2, 2011

In the the days following the story published on this blog — Latter-day Luther Nails Troubling Thesis to GM Farm & Food Citadels) — the national press has demonstrated re-vitalized interest in the controversy surrounding Dr. Don M. Huber and his hypotheses on Genetically Modified (GM) crops and the herbicide glyphosate used in conjunction with those crops.

AP sent out a story primarily focused on critics of Don M. Huber, Ph.D. and his hypotheses about how genetically modified crops and  glyphosate may be causing a critically problematic pathogen to spread through the food chain, resulting in heath problems for plants, animals, and people.

Los Angeles Times reporter P.J. Huffstutter offered a balanced, comprehensive, insightful report today on this  controversy in an article headlined: Plant Disease Raises Questions on Modified CropsThe Times reported: “Though the science behind Huber’s claims is far from settled — and Huber has refused to make public any evidence of his claims — his letter has intensified the battle between those who believe technology is the only way to feed a ballooning global population and those who are increasingly fearful that biotechnology is resulting in food that is nutritionally lacking and environmentally dangerous.

The Idaho Statesman also weighed in on the subject today. Huber told the paper that the soil and pathogen data his critics are seeking is being prepared for publication. It will be presented for wide-open scientific scrutiny “within a very few months,” the paper quoted Huber as saying.

Meanwhile, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), arguing that the agency’s recent unrestricted approval of genetically engineered (GE), “Roundup Ready” Alfalfa was unlawful.  The GE crop is engineered to be immune to the herbicide glyphosate, which Monsanto markets as Roundup. The plaintiffs include a diverse coalition of conventional and organic farmers, dairies and agricultural associations, and environmental and consumer groups.

A new paper published in Environmental Sciences Europe reviews 19 studies of mammals fed GM soybean and corn as well as raw data from another one on rats. The paper comes to a red-flag conclusion: GM crops disrupt animals’ livers & kidneys. More independent study is needed, the paper argues.


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