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 call it.

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 else.

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.

Who benefits?

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 ingredients.

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 11, 1998.

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 modified products.

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:

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