Police Save Sacramento from Seed-Ball Terrorists
- Police Save Sacramento from Seed-Ball Terrorists
Early in the morning of June 21st, a phone call awakened those of us
staying in the organizers' house for the Sacramento protests against the
conference organized by Anne Veneman and the USDA to promote biotech and
industrial agriculture to ministers from WTO countries, in the run-up to
the Cancun ministerial scheduled for September.
"They're raiding the Welcome Center!" a frantic voice told us. "There's
a dozen cops, and a paddy wagon...come down!"
Three of us, myself, Lisa, and Bernadette, had our clothes on in minutes
and were in the car racing to downtown Sacramento. We arrived at the
Welcome Center, a warehouse with a large parking lot next to it, to find
masses of police and a huge paddy wagon circling. The police, it turned
out, had not actually obtained a search warrant or entered the center.
They were entirely occupied with the dangerous materials they found in
the parking lot: a bucket of nails and two buckets of seed balls made in
the permaculture workshop the day before.
Seed balls are a technique for planting on abandoned and inhospitable
ground. You take a variety of seeds, designed to create a "guild," a
self-sustaining mini-community of plants, roll them up in mud containing
a high degree of clay, and then just strew them over the ground you want
to plant. The mud and clay protect the seeds from being eaten by birds,
and when the rains come, the clay helps hold moisture so the seeds
These particular seed balls had been made the day before in a workshop
led by Erik Ohlsen and openly attended by the public and the media. They
contained a mixture of legumes, members of the bean and pea family that
fix nitrogen and provide fertility; and mustards and daikon radish, to
build biomass and to put deep roots into the ground and retrieve
nutrients that have leached deep below. All the seeds were organic.
Bernadette and I tried to explain this to the officers on the scene, but
it was clear to me that we weren't getting through. In part, we faced
the same difficulty with the police that we do with the general public
around issues of biotech and agriculture: a lack of understanding of the
basic principles of ecology. More than that -- the whole biotech
industry and the larger system of corporate industrial agriculture it is
part of is based on a different model of the world than the one that
inspired the making of the seed balls.
Industrial agriculture comes out of a mechanistic model. A plant is seen
as a product, needing specific inputs of various chemicals and soil as a
stabilizing base to hold it up. Anything in that soil that is not the
desired product is seen as competition, to be eliminated. Bugs and pests
and diseases should also be attacked and eliminated. It's a worldview of
simple causes and effects: Bug A eats your plant, kill it and your plant
will grow. Weeds compete with your corn: kill them and everything else
in the soil and your plant will grow better. If what you want is corn,
plant as much of it as you can, choosing the one variety that will
produce the highest yield, so that you can maximize your true crop --
This model extends to the way we view the genetic heritage of the
planet. One cause produces one effect: one gene produces one trait.
Therefore why not insert the gene from a flounder, say, into a tomato,
to increase its levels of protein? Why not alter soybeans to withstand
herbicides so you can plant them and conveniently kill everything else?
The mechanistic model assumes that the world is knowable and
controllable. Unintended consequences of an action are seen as
anomalies, not "real" consequences, and therefore often go unseen,
unacknowledged, and unaccounted. "Proof" is the drawing of a clear line
of simple cause and effect. This has great advantages for corporations
bent on making profit. A large corporation can clearcut a hillside and
spray on the exposed ground herbicides that get into the water supply:
the landslides below, the cancers that arise in the community who lives
nearby, the loss of the salmon who once spawned in the stream, go
unaccounted for. They are "externalities," unintended consequences.
Monsanto can release genetically modified corn that pollutes an organic
farmer's fields with its pollen, but Monsanto does not have add that
cost to its accounts.
This model is being widely sold to us as "science." It's high tech, it's
post-modern, it's the cutting edge, it will feed the world, and anyone
who objects to it is accused of clinging to some romantic past.
But in reality, this model is nineteenth-century science. Science itself
began to move beyond it somewhere back in the 1920s, when Heisenberg
discovered the uncertainty principle and Einstein began cooking up his
theories. Actually, many nineteenth-century scientists, Darwin for one,
were already far beyond this kind of thinking.
And the unintended consequences of applying this model to agriculture
have already been devastating. The "Green Revolution" of the seventies
destroyed the biodiversity of crops in the third world, encouraged debt
for the farmers, and led to hunger and poverty in places where
subsistence farming had once met the community's needs. Insect damage to
crops in the U.S. is now double what it was in the 1940s, before we
started using synthetic pesticides. We currently lose tons of topsoil
for every ton of food produced in the Midwest. Current agricultural
practices have destroyed farming communities from Iowa to India, driving
small farmers off the land and consolidating land and food production in
The model represented by the seed balls comes out of the world view
being articulated by twenty-first-century science. Systems, complexity,
chaos, and Gaia theories are some of its manifestations, but it is also
much older, akin to the way indigenous peoples have always experienced
the Earth. This view sees the world as a complex and dynamic web of
relationships. There are no simple causes and effects: any change in the
web will reverberate and affect the whole. Small changes can become
amplified to have large effects that cannot be predicted: this is
sometimes called the "Butterfly Effect" of chaos theory, from the
analogy that a butterfly flapping its wings in China could produce a
hurricane in the Pacific.
In this model, a plant is part of a living community of relationships,
that includes billions of soil micro-organisms, worms, insects, other
plants, birds, predators, and humans, all of which interact together to
create a network of dynamic interactions. A crop can't be seen in
isolation -- it is part of the web. So our seedballs contained not just
one kind of seed, but the nucleus of a group of plants that could
coexist in beneficial relationships with each other that would also
benefit the health of the soil and provide conditions for increasing
diversity and complexity. This model looks at systems, not isolated
elements. If bugs are eating your plants, it's a sign that something is
out of balance in the overall community. If your plants are diseased,
look to the health of the soil. In the dynamic web model of the world,
we understand that every action or change has a myriad of effects,
intended and unintended. The world is not completely knowable or
controllable -- it's filled with complexities that go beyond our
comprehension, with wonder and mystery. And because it is complex,
because causes and effects are linked in networks not simple lines, the
same act will not always produce the same effect. In making changes,
therefore, we need to be responsible for their reverberations and
careful not to produce large-scale damaging and/or irreversible effects.
>From the dynamic world view, genetic engineering as currently practicedis a travesties on many counts. First, genetically modifying our food
plants risks unintended and irreversible consequences on a staggering,
global scale. Already in Southern Mexico the wild stands of teocinte,
the ancestor of corn, are polluted with bioengineered genes. We simply
have no way of knowing what this might mean in the long run. A precious
source of biodiversity, of potential change and evolution, has been
In a worldview of simple cause and effect, we test for "safety" by
testing for the effects we can anticipate or predict. But we cannot test
for the safety of effects we haven't anticipated.
In an ominous case, a German biotech company engineered a common soil
bacterium, Klebsiella planticola, to break down wood and plant wastes
and produce ethanol. It passed all its safety tests -- until Michael
Holmes, a graduate student at Oregon State University, decided to test
it in living soil, and discovered that all the plants sprouted in that
soil died. Worse, it persisted in the soil, as do other genetically
modified bacteria. Had it been released for use, it might have spread
and, according to geneticist David Suzuki, could conceivably have wiped
out all plant life on the continent.
With truly dangerous organisms like that floating around, it was
somewhat surprising to see the level of fear and alarm our innocent,
organic seedballs generated in the police. They decided, after
consultation with their superiors, that we could keep our bucket of
nails, as we appeared to be engaged in some building projects and not
evidently producing bombs or planning to hijack airplanes with them.
However, they insisted on confiscating the seedballs as "projectile
It was clear to me that the police basically didn't understand the
seedballs, and therefore were afraid of them. They had no category in
their minds for, "Way of planting complex community of beneficial
relationships," whereas they did have a category for small, round
objects that could be thrown. In fact, they were looking for weapons,
eager to find something that could justify the millions of dollars and
massive deployment of personnel, the collection of stun guns, tear gas
guns, pepper spray guns, rubber bullet guns, M16s, horses, clubs, and
armored personnel carriers with which they intended to protect the city
from our hordes of puppet carriers and potentially illegal gardeners.
Looking for weapons, they found our seedballs and perceived them as
weapons. They then spent quite a bit of the day back at the station
testing their capabilities, for the evening news featured cops throwing
seedballs at walls and commenting on how they "exploded on contact."
We, on the other hand, had clearly not thought of our seedballs as
weapons, or we wouldn't have left them out in plain sight in the parking
lot to dry. So in a sense the police action expanded our thinking. In
permaculture, we try to get multiple uses for each element in a system.
Sometimes that's difficult -- a rose, for example, looks pretty and its
thorns might discourage intruders from an area, but aside from that most
hybrids are not greatly useful in the garden. However, if I think about
them as potential weapons -- the prickly stalks could be used to attack
unarmed civilians, the thorns could be inserted into the tires of police
cars, the hips lobbed with slingshots at the windows of McDonald's.and
think about the lethal potential of something bigger, say, an apple
Ironically, the empty boxes the police had brought to load up the
seedballs were marked "Explosives," "Pepper Spray Balls," "Rubber
Bullets." Since they turned our seeds into weapons, I felt it would only
be fair to do the reverse. But I've tried it and it doesn't work. No
matter how many pepper spray balls you bury, you won't get a single
chile pepper, and planting rubber bullets will not grow any rubber
© 2003 by Starhawk. All rights reserved.
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