RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen
Cordially yours, the Elderberry
Some years are good for damson plums. Others are good for elderberries.
1998 has been an elderberry year--a year which by its existence illustrates
that for reward you must face peril.
Elderberries are free, but valuable. Getting to a wild elderberry patch
can be risky.
At our place, you make your way through the deep woods and across the creek,
keeping an eye out for quicksand, pits, thorns, burrs, ticks, snakes and
hornet nests. And that's not the worst of it.
Picking elderberries this year, I came upon something really scary. Our
neighbor's Roundup-Ready Soybean field.
It lies just over the fence. Square miles of soybean plants, all the same
size, all the same color, bobbing in the wind. Monoculture, the scientists
And, on our side of the fence, diversity. Polyculture. You can't count the
varieties--ash, birch, blackberry, cedar, cherry, daisy, elderberry, elm,
and droves of ferns, fungi and flowers. Grape, hickory, locust, maple, oak,
osage orange, persimmon and so on to yarrow, yucca and Zizia aptera, the
meadow parsnip. These wild things bloom and fruit when the time is right,
sustaining a diversity of critters.
I have watched my neighbor's soybeans. In early spring, the tiny sprouts
barely showed under a canopy of weedy foxtail and fescue. I thought he had
forgotten to plant.
Then he drove a truck across the field, loaded with tanks of Monsanto's
Roundup, a chemical that could reduce our woods and its diversity to desert.
He drenched the field.
A week later, the weeds withered and the tiny soybean plants showed themselves,
just a leaf and a stem, but resistant to Roundup. Scientists have cracked
the code and pulled out a couple of soybean genes, putting in something
Weeks later, the weeds made a comeback. There was plenty of rain, so they
grew quickly. Foxtail and binder weed soon reached higher than the soybeans.
At this point, in the past, farmers hired groups of high school and college
kids to "walk the beans" and pull out weeds. It was the hard summer
job kids hated--hot and mindless, made bearable by adequate pay, good friends,
frequent water breaks and lots of joking around.
In some parts of the world, kids still walk beans, but here, my neighbor
and his truck made another pass. He sprayed the field, the weeds turned
brown, and the soybeans popped up bright green.
The weeds were defeated. The soybeans bloomed and set fruit.
Unlike beans of the past, these seeds cannot be saved and re-planted. Their
genetic code is patented. If he saves them, the farmer will be sued by corporate
lawyers for patent infringement.
Easy-growing Roundup-Ready soybeans have taken over American fields. Some
estimates are as high as 60% in 1998. And, due to perfect weather, this
will be a record soybean year. Supply will be so great that prices will
fall. And farmers now have bigger-than-ever bills for chemical and seed.
For consumers, the R-R phenomenon means that after this harvest, genetically
altered beans will dominate soy products used in American processed foods
from salad dressing to ice cream to baby formula.
And, as a byproduct, gallons of Roundup have drifted into ditches, creeks,
and ponds. Birdwatchers worry that, without wild seeds to eat, songbirds
will go hungry. And, already, some weeds have shown resistance to Roundup,
suggesting that the chemical companies will hustle more powerful herbicides
as time goes on.
Monsanto, the company that makes Roundup. For farmers, the main perk is
the smug feeling of being cutting edge. For consumers--well, unless consumers
know the farmers they buy from, Americans have no idea what they eat.
U.S.D.A. insists there is no difference between genetically altered soybeans
and the old kind. Since there is no difference, says U.S.D.A., it would
just be a nuisance to label biotech foods. By refusing to label, U.S.D.A.
guarantees that shoppers won't know whether food contains genetically engineered
It's the same old ring-around-the-rosy between government and business,
and now there are three in the game. Universities, always strapped for cash,
have joined the party. Big time.
The University of Missouri has accepted 80 million dollars from St. Louis-based
Monsanto to build a plant science center. In August, Missouri Governor Mel
Carnahan promised his State Fair breakfast audience that Missouri's agricultural
future in biotech will be like Silicon Valley in the computer industry.
Genetically altered tomatoes and corn have already found their way to American
processors. This means that the fast and easy foods--soups, pasta sauces,
sweets including chocolate, vegetable oils, and cereals--may or may not
contain genetically-altered ingredients.
While Americans choose fast and easy without thinking what our food choices
mean, the rest of the world is grappling with the implications.
A Japanese consumer network representing 260,000 Tokyo families sent members
to St. Louis to protest Roundup-Ready crops. The coalition vowed to boycott.
In France, 14 randomly chosen consumers met with Monsanto reps and French
Parliament members in July. "You're very interested in selling your
products," one woman told Monsanto, "But what about getting advice
from our doctors first?" A dentist added, "The problem is that
you're putting genes on plots of land that can spread all over the world."
Laboratory tests raise other questions. In August, Rowett Research Institute
in Aberdeen (Scotland) disputed the safety of potatoes that include a protein
from a South American bean. After feeding the potatoes to lab rats for 100
days, the subjects "suffered stunted growth and damage to their immune
systems," according to British newspaper, The Guardian August
British Conservative health spokesman Alan Duncan spoke of "massive
consumer suspicion." Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Norman
Baker commented "we have become the guinea pigs in a gigantic experiment."
Labour leader Ian Gibson suggested a moratorium on the sale of genetically
Jeff Rooker, British Food Minister, refused to call a moratorium or agree
to labeling. Instead, he said that the Government would have an "ultra-cautionary
approach." This is not reassuring from a government which from 1986
to 1996 erroneously denied that mad cow disease could get into hamburger
and kill people.
In 1998, my elderberry bushes bent to the ground with fruit. In a half hour,
I harvested a grocery sack full, leaving plenty on the bushes to re-seed
for the future.
Cooked with honey, elderberries make a good glaze for ham and turkey. Add
apples, and you end up with jelly. One of my neighbors takes elderberry
tea when she feels a cold coming on. Another recommends a wee sip of elderberry
cordial to cure insomnia.
Knowledge of the elderberry was once shared by the community. Wild food!
Wild drink! Free. Like pawpaws, persimmons, hickory nuts and lotus root.
Replaced by foods patented and sold. But easy.
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton,
Mo. Email: email@example.com
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