The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Rootworms vs. the Modern Mindset
A conflict in the corn fields of the American mid-west involves powerful forces and high stakes. Farmers trying to raise corn crops (most of the world calls it maize) are battling insects that eat the plants.
New technologies a decade ago gave an advantage to the farmers, but the resilience of the bugs is swinging the odds back toward the so-called "pests." The shifting ground of the agricultural battle is interesting and significant in its own right, but it also is a case study with important revelations about a modern mind-set, our economic system, and the ancient wisdom of Sabbath ethics.
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I was updated on the ever-changing dynamics of insects and corn when I heard a report on NPR's Morning Edition 10 days ago. The big news this summer is that "Insecticide Use Surges In Corn Belt". Use of those chemicals is up "50 or even 100 percent over the last two years."
There's nothing new about the wide-spread use of insecticides on corn fields. I lived in Iowa for 10 years (1978-1988), and TV stations across the state carried countless ads for products like Bigfoot Lorsban -- so pervasively that more than 25 years later I still remember the brand name. For decades, fields were doused with chemicals in a never-ending struggle to hold down the numbers of critters like corn rootworm. The name given to the insect is remarkably clear about why there is a conflict. The worm eats the roots of corn plants.
Starting in 2003, biotechnology brought a big change in the way farmers fought the bugs. Genetically engineered plants were developed that produce Bt bacteria -- making the whole corn plant poisonous to rootworms. That new strain of corn allowed farmers to dramatically reduce their application of other insecticides.
(There are heated and complicated debates about the safety of Bacillus thuringiensis when it is produced systemically within plants. Many studies have concluded that Bt is "safe for use in the environment and with mammals." Other studies raise questions about long term human health impacts. I won't try to sort out that debate today!)
The reality of natural selection and evolution quickly became apparent, though. Within less than a decade, the rootworms that were most resistant to the Bt bacteria out-reproduced their more sensitive relatives, and fields with the Bt corn have started to have renewed problems with chewed-up roots. Even with the genetically engineered crops, farmers are going back to high-dosages of highly toxic insecticides as they try to stomp out the root munching bugs. (The NPR story has a powerful segment about the human health impacts of those insecticides. A crop consultant who was often out in sprayed fields talks about how "we'd kind of puke in the middle of the day. Well, I think we were low-dosing poison on ourselves!")
Any discussion of the problem that farmers are having with rootworms has to address the way corn is grown these days. In states like Iowa and Nebraska, vast areas are planted with monocultures of identical corn strains. Mile after mile, year after year, the same kind of plants are grown. It is remarkably easy for corn-eating bugs to flourish when they are provided with such a consistent spread of food.
The kind-of-puking crop consultant recommends breaking up that monoculture as the best way to control rootworms. NPR reports that he advises his clients to starve the rootworms,. Just switch that field to another crop. "One rotation can do a lot of good," he says. "Go to beans, wheat, oats. It's the No. 1 right thing to do." But the farmers keep planting corn, and using more chemicals.
In the biblical book of Exodus (23:10-12), there is wise advice for farmers: "For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard." (This text, by the way, is another Earth-aware passage that is never found in the Revised Common Lectionary -- as with Psalm 104 that I wrote about last week.)
The Bible wasn't talking about strategies for battling corn rootworm, but the Sabbatical laws do recognize that the land, and the whole community, are maintained in health when they are not pushed into constant production. Shifting a corn field over to a year of soybean production isn't a real Sabbath for that land, but it does provide something of a break from the exhausting and destabilizing demands of monoculture.
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Rotating crops could put a big dent in the rootworm problem, but that generally does not happen. Why not?
A simple and rather crass answer has to do with money. Agribusiness doesn't reap a lot of profits when corn fields are given a year or two of rest. The companies that produce pesticides and GMO crops do lots of business when monocultures make it easy for rootworms to thrive. The don't sell as much of their high-profit products if rotations of conventional crops keep the rootworms under control. The sort of seeds and sprays that are marketed to farmers -- and the sort of research that is funded into agricultural technologies -- are profoundly shaped by where the money is. That is a vivid illustration of the common truth that profits and community health don't always align.
Another factor at play has to do with a mind-set, a worldview, that is strong among farmers and agribusiness, as well as legislators and the rest of society. This modern mind-set believes that we are doing things right when we set out to control nature. We humans -- the thinking goes -- are separate from the rest of creation, and it is our calling to have power over the natural world. Thus, we're doing The Right Thing by applying human ingenuity and technological power to battle those pesky rootworms. The use of puke-inducing chemical sprays and the propagation of genetically engineered crops fits comfortably with a worldview that celebrates human control and technological progress.
The simple and time-honored practice of crop rotation -- a practice that easily and economically tamps down rootworm populations -- might be seen as "giving in" to nature. Using every high-powered weapon in the agricultural arsenal to fight nature, even at high economic and health costs, is attractive to many farmers, as well as the businesses that produce those weapons of biological warfare.
Nature has proven to be remarkably adaptable and resilient in the face of high-powered agricultural technologies. Weeds and bugs evolve quickly. The once-powerful Roundup herbicide can't kill many of the weeds that it easily controlled not long ago. The presence of Bt in crops only worked well for a decade.
We'll all be healthier -- with our physical health, our economic health, and the health of ecological communities -- when we remember ancient wisdom that respects the working of nature. Simple and practical strategies work better than high-powered attempts to dominate and control nature.
Making wide-spread changes in the way crops are grown will also require changes in our collective self-understanding, and in our economic system. Our faith tradition has great wisdom that can provide a workable alternative to mindsets of domination, and the pursuit of profit above all else. May our churches be assertive in proclaiming that transformational good news!
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