Blue Dogs and Pesticides

Unlike the mystery of the blue-dyed dogs of Mumbai, there's no easy way of figuring out whether new pesticides and GMOs are safe for people, plants, and animals.

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In India, homeless dogs roam free. Most of the time they’re fed and cared for by the public. The reason people care what happens to the dogs was illustrated in 2014 when part of the Constitution of India was interpreted by their Supreme Court to include certain life protections for animals similar to those for humans.

That’s because live-and-let-live Indians view animals as an important part of a healthy human environment.

Pollution isn’t legal in India any more than it is here, and like the United States, enforcement against industrial offenders is not always aggressive unless something shines a spotlight on wrongdoers.

People knew there was a problem when the dogs of Mumbai turned blue.

The culprit turned out to be a carelessly run dye factory where dogs liked to hang out. Puddles of dye stained water on the grounds and industrial discharge into a nearby river colored the canines and made them ill, while another polluted river drew public attention when it was flooded with acid that burned at least one dog trapped in its flow.

Except for our biggest cities, America lacks a crush of humanity like that experienced in parts of Asia. Here, we don’t tolerate wild dogs roaming free. The lucky ones here are scooped up by not-for-profits who are willing to feed and care for them. Others face flip-of-the-coin adoption or capital punishment.

In that case pet shoppers looking for a unique bargain might find an uncommon blue American dog irresistible. And, once in a blue moon, voters send a blue dog Democrat to Congress.

Large swaths of rural America where row crops are as common as dogs in Mumbai are affected these days by a conundrum: should we embrace powerful pesticides and gene editing at any cost, or have we reached the point they have in India, where negative impacts on the quality of life for all living things must be considered detrimental to all people?

This is not a new conversation. For as long as there have been pesticides there has been concern about their effects on human health. Over the years, many thought modern miracles like DDT, heptachlor, and malathion have been withdrawn when the true cost to animal and aquatic life came to light. Many more farm crop pesticides are suspect, like atrazine or glyphosate, but conflicting research results backed by industry make the worst claims about them seem ambiguous.

In other words, the jury is still out.

Over the last two years, genetically modified soybeans created to tolerate a previously existing and relatively little used herbicide called dicamba have created controversy across parts of the Midwest where soybeans are grown. No one knows what the ultimate long-term impact of such widespread dicamba use will be. Ultimately we may find weeds becoming resistant to it much the same way they became resistant to Monsanto’s glyphosate called Roundup. But the short-term impact of dicamba has been thousands of acres of damage of off-target crops, trees, and ornamentals, reaffirming what three generations of farmers already knew, that dicamba recognizes no boundaries beyond its own shelf life.

In evaluating pesticide safety, it would be so much easier if bad ones turned everything blue like the dogs of Mumbai. Now, the six biggest seed and chemical corporations have engaged in synergistic deal making that consolidates them down to three.

Farming, and life, is all about reproduction. Cells that divide and multiply. One becomes two, two become four, 16, 256, on and on and on. You don’t grow more corn, or more farmers, by making fewer of them. But in corporate life the rule is not of division and steady multiplication, but Velcro.

They just keep throwing them together as long as they stick.

Modern governments seem to view antitrust enforcement as they would three dogs in Mumbai. As long as there are two to fight over the other, competition flourishes. We must presume that only when we’re down to the one does competition cease. That seems to be where we’re headed in agriculture, where many have become few.

When we’re down to one seed and chemical giant, will competition, imagination, and cost cutting efficiency come from within or will it be like every other bloated oligarchy the world has known where few profit heavily from many?

We’ve already seen some of that. Instead of new innovation through modern chemistry, agriculture clings to much that has been around for decades. That’s why the biggest news for soybean production came from a recycled 50-year-old chemistry. The one piece of sound science we still utilize here is plant breeding. That accounts for most yield gains since Dad grew 60 bushel per acre of open pollinated corn during the 30’s. Yesterday’s 60 has become today’s slow but steady 175, 200, 225. That was first made possible by start up seed company entrepreneurs who succeeded through the natural process of cell division and multiplication and later on by a better understanding that plants, like dogs, must be fed in order to be at their best.

We have learned that lesson well. Farms continue to pile up surpluses not even free trade or ethanol can consume. Our crops multiply in the face of world poverty and hunger, but the cost of growing them surpasses the ability of multitudes to pay. Farmers are told if we grow it, they (buyers) will come. Carrot-on-a-stick markets are dangled in front of us as everyone ignores the growing monopolies by suppliers of farm machinery, fertilizer, pesticides, and seeds whose goods we need if we are to continue. We have no choice but to pay what they ask.

And when we sell we have no choice but to accept what is offered. Like the poor beggars of Mumbai, neither of us gets to set the price. Worse yet, no one in government ever seems to notice.

At least in Mumbai, when dogs turn blue, everyone can see it.

Richard Oswald, a fifth-generation farmer and president of the Missouri Farmers Union, lives in Langdon, Missouri.


Topics: Ag and Trade

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