The More E.B. White I Read, the More I Like Him.

This from January 25, 1936.


“The Plant-Patent Business is taking right hold, apparently.  We know a man who received a birthday present of a nice little azalea.  Tied around the azalea’s stem, like a chastity belt, was a metal tag from Bobbink & Atkins, reading, “Asexual reproduction of this plant is illegal under the Plant Patent Act.” It was Number 147.  Our friend, a man of loose personal habits, ripped the tag off angrily, fed it to his dachshund puppy, and sent the plant to a friend in Connecticut with instructions to bed it down warmly next to an old buck hydrangea.”

I can’t think of a more civil example of civil disobedience.

E.B., while maybe a little unclear on the distinction between sexual and asexual reproduction, knew something was coming and that it just-wasn’t-right.

Genetically engineered plants and seeds — today’s equivalent of the “patented” plants of E.B.’s time — are clever. It takes a special thought process to think of splicing fish DNA into a strawberry plant in order that the fish’s  naturally occuring antifreeze might offer protection against frost to the plant.  I wonder what E.B.’s friend of loose personal habits would have thought had he been instructed to plant the strawberry next to an aquarium in hopes that something squishy might happen with the resident arctic char.

Why do we need to engineer plants? What good comes from interspecies transfer of genetic material? What I’m talking about doesn’t happen in nature and has nothing to do with hybridization or Gregor Mendel. In the final analysis, most of us would, if we were thinking about it, get worn out by the mental gymnastics required to think this is a good idea.

If we examine our needs, we may discover we really have a list of wants.  Genetic manipulators might think it neat, and it is clever, and profitable, to have a frost resistant strawberry, but do we really need a strawberry when it frosts? Or might that be a “want?” I’m suspecting that a strawberry that won’t freeze will likely taste like a tomato that comes in a cellophane wrapper in December. In December I enjoy the thought of an August tomato far more than the ingestion of a pinkish imposter from the store shelf.

I save seeds.   I think it is important. I avoid GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) and defend the efficiency of organic principles and the role farmers can play in the creation of stronger communities. I am tempted to join the protesters on Wall St., not because I think rich people are bad. No, nor do I think the protesters are moochers looking for a handout. Unfortunately some of the priorities in our society are unsustainable. The consolidation of power, wealth and influence into fewer and fewer hands is one example. And unfortunately, genetic engineering has the potential to further concentrate food production into fewer and fewer hands as well.  By now the tales of Monsanto suing farmers for seeds that have been contaminated with patented plant pollen are well known.  When food engineers in white coats control all of our seeds we will be, quite simply, in trouble and possibly hungry.

Plants need to be open source. People must have the ability to feed themselves should they choose to do so. It is one thing to voluntarily pay a provider for the service of growing, harvesting and distributing  seeds or for the growing and processing of food, but it is another to be mandated, through the elimination of options, to pay for artificially created forms of life.

I think E.B., writing from his salt marsh farm in Maine, would have been greatly concerned about how far we have come since 1936.


P.S. Here’s an article, not sure about the source, but the content seems fairly straight forward about a legal case re: Monsanto and canola (rapeseed).


Below is a statement developed in 1998 by a group of scientists in the early days of genetic engineering. I wonder what happened?

The Wingspread Consensus Statement on the Precautionary Principle, 1998
The release and use of toxic substances, the exploitation of resources, and physical alterations of the environment have had substantial unintended consequences affecting human health and the environment. Some of these concerns are high rates of learning deficiencies, asthma, cancer, birth defects and species extinctions; along with global climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion and worldwide contamination with toxic substances and nuclear materials.

We believe existing environmental regulations and other decisions, particularly those based on risk assessment, have failed to protect adequately human health and the environment – the larger system of which humans are but a part.

We believe there is compelling evidence that damage to humans and the worldwide environment is of such magnitude and seriousness that new principles for conducting human activities are necessary.

While we realize that human activities may involve hazards, people must proceed more carefully than has been the case in recent history. Corporations, government entities, organizations, communities, scientists and other individuals must adopt a precautionary approach to all human endeavors.

Therefore, it is necessary to implement the Precautionary Principle: When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.


The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.




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