RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

The Ragtag Uprisers

A couple of months ago this column talked about "The Biotech Defenders," those scientists who have been pressed into industrial service to try to convince us that genetically-altered foods will save the world and feed all the hungry. This in spite of the fact that the only result so far for genetically-altered crops is to increase farmer demand for expensive chemicals.

The "Biotech Defenders" column was inspired by a December 6, 2000, Wall Street Journal op-ed signed by botanist Norman Borlaug and titled "We Need Biotech to Feed the World," promoting the myth that our farmers can export their way to prosperity.

Borlaug was born in 1914 in Cresco, Iowa, and won the Nobel Prize for wheat hybrids developed at the Mexican government's National Promotion Agency for Seeds, funded by the Ford Foundation. Borlaug's hybrids were exported to governments that convinced themselves that the new methods were a modern improvement over traditional crops. Governments persuaded, even coerced, farmers to plant the new hybrids. Farmers abandoned traditional farming methods, which relied on animal and human labor and caring for native plants selected over generations.

Borlaug's work increased demand for tractors, petroleum and chemicals. Some believe that the same chemicals, applied to traditional crops, would have resulted in the same increase as the new seeds.

Borlaug's industrial coup, or "Green Revolution" made it necessary for farmers to farm larger fields to pay for their machinery, seed, and chemical. The labor of many rural people became unnecessary, and younger generations went to work for industry.

Because it is based on seasons and economics, the culture of the countryside became redundant and meaningless in the city. Even backwards. Without culture, the displaced people become redundant and meaningless.

In 1966, the Indian government replaced seed for local rice with miracle-yield hybrid wheat and wiped out an estimated 12,000 rice varieties cultivated over centuries. Thirty-four years later, Indian city people are still starving.

It gets worse. The chemicals have recently raised questions about the safety of foods on the grocery-store shelf. But, even with the Starlink controversy, there is no labelling required.

In "Biotech Defenders," I repeatedly referred to "scientists,"as if they were all one lump. I lumped together "scientists" 13 times, in fact.

A few days after the column appeared, I got e-mails from two scientists saying they agreed with me but pointing out, as one said, that "saying, 'scientists agree' implies that there is a consensus in the relevant scientific communities such as biology, genetics, and so forth. There is not."

I should have known better, and I apologize.

One reader referred me to the web page for the Union of Concerned Scientists. It's a great site. Among other things, they've posted a menu mockup for the "Transgenic Cafe." The satirical fare features "Potato Leek Soup -- Looks, smells and tastes as if it were made with pure potatoes!" and "Grilled Atlantic Salmon -- Supernaturally good fish, fresh from the lab. Serves two." and "Baked Polenta -- The Italian classic. Made with our own blend of killer corn!" And, the menu has a disclaimer: "The Transgenic Cafe reserves the right to withhold gene sources. We are not responsible for allergic reactions."

The menu conveys a chilling truth. Grocery stores and restaurants already sell Bt potatoes, GE salmon, and Roundup-Ready corn meal. But when we are allergic and suffer from headaches, rashes, stomach aches, runny noses and other allergic reactions, we can't prove it's the genetically altered food that's making us sick.

So what are we to do?

There's only one answer: Know your source. Buy from people you trust. Meet your local farmers and buy from them.

While the food business has brought more and more brand names under the umbrella of monster corporations, a number of consumers have supported the locals. Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA), the brainchild of farmers who wanted to provide food directly to consumers and who sold shares of their farms, have popped up in all markets.

Excellent restaurants have gotten on board. Vegetarian restaurants featuring organic foods are thriving.

Here in mid-Missouri, a wonderful, revolutionary thing is happening. A few baby-boomer farmers, remembering the farms of the last generation, started businesses that rely entirely on local support. We have managed to build a system so that consumers can eat meat, cheese, breads, fruits, veggies, and sauces all raised and processed by small businesses within a few miles of our homes.

The bad news is that most grocery stores are tied into industry and can't, or won't, handle local foods, but a few stores and restaurants still buy local. And we have a strong network of farmer's markets.

And here's the best part: Young people are coming back to the countryside. They see potential and a pleasant, but hard, way of life. Where our industrial farmers go broke raising acres of biotech corn and soybeans for industry to feed in Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), the new farmers are raising food for local consumers. The new farmers are not driving Lincolns, but these Generation Y -- or Why Not? -- kids have figured it out.

By supporting each other, the network of young entrepreneurs have opened restaurants, a bakery called "Uprise", a grocery store, and a movie theatre called "Ragtag" that serves local foods and shows non-Hollywood, "alternative" movies. I've watched the businesses take their baby steps, under the guidance of twenty-somethings that paint the walls, lay the tile floors, build the cabinets, make cloths for the tables. At the movie theatre, the owners introduce every program and serve customers local baked goods and wine during intermissions.

The new business owners bring to work a joy and vigor that "greeters" in the box stores will never duplicate. For more about the fledgling businesses, web surfers can look at and

Will they make it? Only if consumers choose them instead of the industrial products raised in faraway places under appalling conditions and shipped by our petroleum-hogging transportation system.

This morning, I was tying up the vines on my grape arbor when the fumes from the hog CAFO half a mile away interrupted me and I had to go inside. These hogs, after they've lived their sad lives, will be slaughtered and the meat will be exported, earning Cargill a nice taxpayer-subsidy in the futile effort to balance our foreign trade deficit.

A week ago, the industrial farmer behind our place drove a truck across the field and dumped out Roundup, a chemical that kills every green thing except the biotech soybeans he's planted. The baby bean plants popped up like that horror-movie alien, green and vigorous in the dead, brown field. Spooky? You bet.

But, we don't have to play that game. We can support our local communities and they will thrive.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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