Toilet in a fieldYou’ve gotta be shitting me. I’ve long argued that chemical-intensive commodity agriculture could never flourish without the right to pollute freely and stomp on surrounding communities and landscapes. Evidently, Big Ag’s greatest champions agree with me.

Take the Chesapeake Bay. Once one of the nation’s most productive sources of wild food, the area has become a virtual wasteland after decades of serving as a “toilet” (as the environmental NGO Waterkeepers puts it) for the poultry industry, which has unconscionably concentrated itself right in the Chesapeake watershed.

Finally, after years of bumbling inaction, the EPA has belatedly come up with a set of rules that would force vast chicken factories to monitor and — gasp! — limit the amount of algae-friendly, heavy metal-laden chicken “litter” (that is, shit, feathers, and bedding) that ends up in the Bay.

According to the industry, cramming hundreds of millions of chickens into houses right along the Bay is an environmentally benign activity; so presumably, the new rules won’t have much impact. Right? Except, the industry is shrieking like an abused hen over the new rules. Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau and a bare-knuckled warrior on behalf of the few companies who dominate the U.S. food industry, issued this statement in response to the EPA’s Chesapeake move:

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

EPA likes to call the new regulations a pollution diet, but this diet threatens to starve agriculture out of the entire 64,000 square-mile Chesapeake Bay watershed, and this new approach will not end with the bay. EPA has already revealed its plan to take similar action in other watersheds across the nation, including the Mississippi River watershed. [Emphasis mine.]

Never one to just bark and not bite, Stallman soon after announced that the Farm Bureau was suing the EPA to block the new rules. (The Farm Bureau proclaims itself the “Voice of Agriculture,” but it really only speaks for corporate-dominated industrial agriculture, as this recent Food & Water Watch paper shows.)

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

To me, this is a bald admission that the Chesapeake Bay must be sacrificed in order to keep Americans on cheap and limitless chicken nuggets. And the bit about the Mississippi River watershed is clearly a reference to the annual “dead zone” that blooms in the Gulf of Mexico, fed by Corn Belt agricultural runoff. The Gulf’s glorious fishery, one of the globe’s prime wild-food assets, too must pay the price so that Big Ag can do its thing unimpeded.

The “get out of our way, world” message is also being sounded loud and clear by the genetically modified (GM) seed industry, particularly in the case of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa. The industry is demanding that the USDA allow unrestricted planting of the alfalfa, which mainly serves as feed for cows. Alfalfa represents a lucrative opportunity for Monsanto, because it’s a massive crop, covering about 20 million acres, about 7 percent of U.S. cropland.

Yet there are a couple of glaring problems. Alfalfa is a prolific pollinator, meaning that GM alfalfa can easily cross-breed with non-GM alfalfa. If organic producers find their crop contaminated with GM material, they risk losing their organic certification and, likely, their livelihoods. The organic dairy industry, which relies on a steady supply of organic alfalfa, would also be imperiled.

The second problem is so-called “superweeds” — weeds that develop resistance to Roundup, Monsanto’s flagship herbicide. Such weeds are already rampant in the South, where Monsanto’s Roundup Ready cotton holds sway, and are moving into the Corn Belt, which is blanketed by the tens of millions of acres with the agrichemical giant’s corn and soy seeds. The rise of superweeds is unleashing a virtual monsoon of dodgy poison cocktails onto affected farmland.

Do we really want to subject organic growers and dairies to possible contamination and loss of their livelihoods, plus risk unleashing superweeds on another 20 million acres? Oh but we simply must, according the the agrichemical industry and its allies, including the above-mentioned Farm Bureau. The USDA is considering breaking its long-term tradition of minimally regulating GM crop plantings by placing restrictions on GM alfalfa — and the industry is furious at the insolence.  

Here’s Des Moines Register Washington correspondent Philip Brasher:

“The implications of moving forward in that direction are huge,” said Sharon Bomer Lauritsen, executive vice president of food and agriculture for the Biotechnology Industry Organization. “Long term we are looking at upending the U.S. regulatory process, which has implications for investment and research.”

“[U]pending the U.S. regulatory process,” huh? Interesting phrase, given that when it comes to transgenic crops, there essentially isn’t a regulatory process. What this industry rep is saying, in essence, is that industry needs a permanent green light to thrive — the health of the environment and the right of organic growers be damned.

Never one to remain silent when the interests of industrial agriculture are in question, the Farm Bureau has weighed in on alfalfa, too. Joining forces with a few other Big Ag groups, the Farm Bureau issued a letter to USDA chief Tom Vilsack bitterly deploring the idea of even considering curbs on GM alfalfa.

Of course, back here on Planet Earth, I can think of no compelling reason to allow the planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa at all. If it’s anything like Roundup Ready corn, soy, and cotton, Monsanto’s alfalfa seed won’t increase yields but will vastly up the application of pesticides (contrary to what its billion-dollar marketing campaigns say). The USDA should go beyond restrictions and ban it outright.

In both the case of the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s vast chicken factories and that of GM alfalfa, industrial agriculture is admitting that it needs to trash its neighbors and the surrounding landscape to thrive. It wants us to believe that there are no alternatives if we want to feed ourselves plentifully. That’s a hollow claim.

Get off your ass alert: Food & Water Watch has a petition urging President Obama and Secretary Vilsack to ban GM alfalfa outright.