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As we sow, so shall we seep 

This week a friend referred me to an article in the journal Nature about genetically modified corn. Recent research indicates that it is poisoning our topsoil. But business-as-usual reports in the media have slipped the news safely beneath the public radar.

If you've been sleeping in class for the last 10 years you may have missed the invasion of genetically modified crops that have taken over American agriculture and are spreading around the globe. BT feed-corn is leading the mutant army, although it is theoretically banned for direct human consumption due to the fact that the protein does not break down easily in the human digestive system, is heat resistant, and could prove allergenic.

BT, better known to its chums as Bacillus thuringiensis, has been marketed as a natural insecticide for decades, and some bright light in a lab coat decided that splicing it into plants would solve the world's pest problems.

Nice try. A year or so ago there was a lepidopteran flap about Monarch butterfly larvae which only feed on milkweed plants. The caterpillars died when they ate milkweed dusted with BT corn pollen. Since corn is a wind-pollinated species in which pollen is conveyed from male to female flowers by the breeze, corn pollen has evolved to blow like mad.

Of course, the world can survive just fine without Monarch butterflies, so only a few weirdos were upset about the prospect of extinction.

Next, organic farmers complained. Because of wind pollination, no field is safe from genetic pollution and BT DNA has gone helter-skelter. This spring, it was noted by researchers in remote areas of Mexico -- the region where corn was first domesticated from its wild form -- that no wild corn can be found that has not been genetically invaded by the BT strains. It is literally everywhere. (Along the way the mad corporate scientists have gaily inserted BT genes into potatoes as well. They just can't get enough of that sweet stuff, I guess.)

Now comes word that the mutant plants leak. Well, peel me from the topsoil, I am just so surprised. For those of us who have actually sown plants in the real world, in real dirt, the vast root system of even a single clump of grass makes it completely obvious that there is no clear line between plants and soil.

In fact the central lesson of ecology is that everything affects everything. Dr. Guenther Stozky of New York University's laboratory of microbial ecology, dryly reported, "The fact that the toxin is released from the roots was unexpected." Duh.

Well, OK. I guess to an honest scientist effects aren't proven until they are proved, but Hello? How did you think transpiration worked, anyway?

Stozky believes that more research is necessary to determine whether or not the BT is harming soil life. Fine. Let's take a good look at soil. Unfortunately we don't know how soil works. This may come as a surprise to folks who don't read much science, but it is true. Despite all of our study devoted to living systems, we have yet to adequately describe the life processes in a single cubic foot of soil.

Think about that. The most knowledgeable ecologists tell us that we really don't understand plain old dirt, how it processes nutrients, how the tens of thousands of resident species interact, how plants derive their sustenance.

In any cubic foot of soil, anywhere, there are abundant species that still haven't been identified. In order to have some kind of notion what the BT might be doing to soil life, it seems pretty basic that we should know what was happening beforehand. We don't.

Yet we are injecting a toxic substance into soil worldwide simply because it appears to save a few bucks on this year's crop.

Folks, all higher life-forms on Earth depend on topsoil. This isn't the opinion of a crazed tree hugger. This is the rock bottom fact of life as we know it.

The food we eat, the air we breathe, the nutrients that wash into rivers and support life in the oceans -- everything. And we are poisoning it all. All. Everywhere on the planet, without any idea what the result might be.

They aren't just throwing their dice on one life. On your life. On mine. It is the whole system that is at stake. But they say it's good for business.

I guess that means we should just roll over. And play dead.

Bothwell is author of The Icarus Glitch: Another Duck Soup Reader, and associate editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone.

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