RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

‘Obvious’ Reforms Take Long, Hard Work

Game on. The lawmakers are meeting for their 2011 session. And, to paraphrase Molly Ivins, every village has lost its idiot. If you’re working on a progressive issue, or even just a sensible issue, keep your eyes on the prize. The voices of progressivism and reason are hardly acknowledged in the halls of shrill sky-is-falling insistence.

Don’t expect to quickly win the battle for healthy food in the schools, for example, or labeling of genetically altered products in the market, or normal legal protections of same-sex couples. As always, the big money of the corporations works toward its own ends, and sometimes that only means confusing the issues to the point that nobody can argue up or down.

Reflecting on the big issues of the last legislative session, I was surprised at how many times agriculture and regulation came into the news. USDA held a comment-gathering period for regulating alfalfa, a crop that is America’s fourth-largest agricultural export. Regulating alfalfa is smart if we want to keep our trade partners happy. And it happens that most US trade partners don’t want genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds coming into their lands.

GMOs, also called genetically engineered crops, or transgenic, are still too new to be considered safe by anyone except the inventors that profit from them. They’re usually created to resist some bug, which means every cell of the GMO plant has a poison in it, which, by the way, hasn’t been tested on household pets or people. So we don’t know how those poisons affect us. Do they move through our system into the waste water? Do they hide out in our livers? Do they attach themselves to our stomachs or change our blood? It’s anyone’s guess.

Another reason to create a GMO is to make a living thing that resists poison. That way, you can poison everything else and the surviving plant gets all the nutrients. A producer does this when she wants to save on nutrients and still grow a good crop. Unfortunately, that plan isn’t really working out, but the patent owners don’t tell buyers that the seeds underperform regular seeds and that they create super weeds that can’t be killed by normal poisons. Imagine that! Something that resists a killer as potent as Agent Orange, the famous jungle defoliant.

So, yes, GMO alfalfa could be a problem if it’s released into the farming world. Sugar beets were another hot-button issue. Surprising to hear, Monsanto says there are nearly a million acres of GMO sugar beets in the ground, even though the crop hasn’t had USDA approval. A federal judge, ordering the growers to pull up a few acres of the illegal stuff, has been under attack. Looks to me like he’s just trying to uphold the law.

And, finally, there is the pending application to grow GMO salmon that grow twice as fast as regular salmon. For some reason nobody can explain, this beastie is regulated by FDA rather than USDA, but no matter. If it escapes its confinement into the wild (like those feral hogs running crazy in Texas) it will devastate the habitat for the real critters, but corporations have a sort of “real critters be damned” attitude. Real critters are like litter in the path of progress.

But, even spookier, if the frankenfish are approved it will be the first time consumers encounter GMO animals in the grocery store. Obviously, there will be a rush to produce hogs that grow twice as fast, Superchickens, Biotechlambs, and so forth. If the corporate growers can raise things twice as fast, using animals that are patented and not owned by traditional farmers, well, think of the temptation!

All these things should be labeled, of course, and in a world that ran on practical, sensible rails, they would be labeled so consumers could see what we’re buying. In some nations, labeling is discussed or even pursued. In the United States? Not so much.

In 1920, when women were finally able to vote in the presidential election, suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt estimated that, in their 70 years of working for the vote, women had worked on 56 referendum campaigns, 480 legislative campaigns, 47 campaigns for constitutional conventions, 277 state party conventions, 30 national conventions and 19 campaigns with 19 US congresses. It finally became so obvious that there was no reason to withhold it that the press, the parties and voters stopped trying to publicize the injustice. The attitude became, “Just get it done, already!”

The Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s was sort of the same thing. Up in the north, people were surprised that blacks in the south were being kept from the polls.

So, if you’re working on a campaign to achieve something reasonable in the political process, you’ll do well to reflect on the labors of those who have gone before.

Margot McMillen farms and teaches English in Fulton, Mo. Email her at

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2011

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