Listen to David’s recording of the piece here:
Nightmares of organic networks
Over the decades, the resistance to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in the environment, and especially our food, has been one of the flagship issues in the wider environmental movement, along with opposition to chemical toxins, old growth forest logging and nuclear power, even if in recent years carbon emissions has eclipsed these other undesirables. For organic farmers, the potential free spread of GMOs is seen as an existential threat as organic certification is dependent on being GMO free.
I believe energy descent futures are already unfolding as lived experience.1I have written extensively on energy descent see holmgren.com.au/writings and filter by topic ‘Energy descent’. What I want to do here is develop a tale about past and current events that reflects the worst fears of organic growers, consumers and the wider environmental movement about GMOs in relation to energy descent futures. This scenario invites those committed to the values behind the fight against GMOs to reflect on and reframe current events.
In this version of history and the future, genetically engineered technology is a real response to the global predicament most clearly portrayed 50 years ago in the Limits to Growth Report.2Meadows et al 1972 The tale is also intended to inform and inoculate organic, regenerative ag, permaculture and kindred networks against being misled by novel events that emerge from outside conventional assumptions about how the world works (and doesn’t).
Limits to Growth reviewed
The “World3” model of the Limits to Growth Report showed that some sort of collapse of global industrial civilisation would occur over the 21st century as resources depleted (eg peak oil) and pollution rose (eg climate change) in a context of rising and then, as a result of the collapse, falling population. What was so shocking about the model, was that adjusting any of the variables in the model (eg natural resources proving to be double what was then known; doubling industrial efficiency or agricultural productivity; halving population growth etc) all failed to prevent collapse.3See my take on the emergence of the term “collapse” and my preference for the term (energy) “descent” to describe futures of less in my review of How Everything Can Collapse by Servigne and Stevens at holmgren.com.au The report held a glimmer of hope however, as the final run of the model, assuming a world-wide effort to work on all the variables, led to a relatively affluent steady-state global average, out to the limit of the model in 2100.
Limits to Growth (LtG) offended not just the economic managers, politicians, energy industrialists and technologists but even the left and right political fringes that saw it as a bid to suppress the rights of working and global poor or, alternatively, for global government. The oil crises of ‘73 and ‘79 showed how price and constriction in supply of energy resources could throw a spanner in the economic works and thus underlined the potential power of the LtG analysis. Consequently resources for fundamental and applied research, especially into energy solutions, grew rapidly and did yield some results. By the mid-1980s many assumed market forces and technology would solve the longer-term problems. The IT revolution and great expectations for GMOs to increase agriculture production and achieve health miracles, along with unlimited (fusion) power, promised technical workarounds for the LtG. More recently, the speed of the Renewable Energy rollout with hopes for all-electric energy systems has galvanised younger generations to assume that tech will save the day.
The worst fears GMO tale
But let’s suppose that instead of denial at the highest levels (perhaps in the CIA or in loose networks across many of the other three letter agencies4NSA, FBI, DIA, BIR, DHS, OIA, OIC, AMI, ONI, MCI, CGI and of course the international ones such as WEF, WHO, IMF etc etc of the so called “Intelligence Community”) there has been continuous “blue sky planning” to work out strategic responses to the LtG over the last 50 years. Let’s accept that these agencies and other permanent bureaucracies constitute a “Deep State” able to generate and maintain longstanding strategic objectives and plans that, at least to some extent, have outlived any elected administration. Let’s assume that those parties would want to make sure that any breakthroughs in technology could be controlled to cement the power of US led “free world.” Let’s further recognise that with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consolidation of a unipolar world order, the US-led western world empire morphed into a global governance structure confident about being able to manage China, control Russia, and deal with smaller-scale and more localised threats. Doing so is essential to consolidate seamless global governance systems that are essential to support the level of complexity and systemic risks involved in full spectrum globalised integration5A conclusion reached by geopolitical strategist Peter Zehein in The End of the World Is Just the Beginning (2022), which provides a somewhat complementary but different take on the process of deglobalisation/relocalisation to my Future Scenarios (2008). (for example: highly specialised and global-scale manufacturing where a handful of factories run by AI make essential components used everywhere; globally networked power grids to allow variable renewable energy to provide 24/7/365 reliability; and genetically engineered crops, drugs and vaccines that are always a few steps ahead of nature’s tendency to upset the apple cart and the plans of mice and men).
Second Wave Environmentalism
After the scientific consensus about global warming led to the formation of the IPCC in 1988, ‘Second Wave Environmentalism’ took off culminating in the Rio Earth summit in ‘92. Apart from the ongoing argument in the think tanks about whether Climate Change was real, it seemed that greenies world-wide had been inoculated against the idea that depletion of resources, especially oil, was ever going to stop the demolition of nature and they had put all their efforts on the reductionist carbon emissions metric, mostly by stopping burning fossil fuels. That stopping burning fossil fuels would crash the newly globalised economy and empire was the view of most inside the Deep State tent. There was lots of debate about how to steer global grass roots environmentalism in manageable directions.
The population problem
One of the problems that showed up through the scenario planning exercises back in the 70s was the dependence on natural gas as both a feedstock and a fuel to produce nitrogen fertilisers via the Haber-Bosch process. Over the 20th century, the Haber-Bosch process had been responsible for the massive expansion in livestock and accounts for 40% of the human population biomass. In other words, without industrially manufactured artificial nitrogen fertilisers, nearly half the people and most of the livestock in the world wouldn’t exist. This was just one of the issues that kept the planners coming back to the old problem that there were just too many people on the planet.
This all pushed the focus in the direction of population control. The discussion in the world outside the think tanks focused on too many babies in the Third World and the need for planned parenthood, while inside the Deep State tent many realised it was the comfortable middleclass concentrated in the western world who consumed more, and discussions turned to harsh strategies to curtail consumption, if not numbers.
Genetic engineering and Big Ag solutions
So while the issue of too many people for the system to use, feed and keep happy was bubbling away in other back rooms, the teams focused on how to ensure Big Ag would keep feeding the masses after fossil fuels. The Big Ag advocates kept carrying on about the huge potential to use new tech to massively increase food production; a sort of green revolution on steroids using genetic engineering. All this seemed more useful than the health tech people evangelising about using the same tech to engineer new vaccines to end infectious diseases and solve cancer. If everyone became affluent and lived to 100, how did that help deal with the LtG? It just made it worse with more affluent and unproductive eaters demanding ever more stuff – good for growth but not for the LtG.
The ag experts from the corps said their work on GMO was coming along but so far all they had achieved were very modest gains in productivity and the slightly bizarre use of new Roundup resistant weed genetics to engineer ‘Roundup Ready’ crops so farmers could spray herbicide over food crops. Oh well, when you create disasters, then making money from the disaster is the obvious response, but for the serious long-term thinking informing the Deep State this was just short-sighted, leading to the system eating itself through successive disasters.
Nitrogen fixation: the biotech fix
Returning to the nitrogen problem, it was decided this was a critical path problem and the solutions could involve genetic engineering. In theory, with excess cheap energy, it is possible to bypass the Haber-Bosch process and use an electric arc to ionise the abundant but unavailable nitrogen in the atmosphere, just like nature does intermittently with lightning. However, it had become abundantly clear to planners that excess cheap energy was more than likely not going to eventuate, even if the debates raged back and forth. In any case, artificial nitrogen supply is also part of the problem of pollution (in rivers and seas, and a contributor to climate change and PM2.5 air pollution); all more manifestations of how pollution pathways proliferate like breeding rabbits as you approach LtG.
Ironically, the obvious solution was to focus on the organic strategy of growing more nitrogen-fixing crops such as legumes6Plants in the legume family, such as peas, beans and acacias, work in symbiosis with rhizobia bacteria to transform nitrogen from the air into a form that can be used by life. or even the permaculture idea of nitrogen-fixing silvopasture systems and food forests. Although those approaches looked promising, they would mostly assist farmers to become more independent of inputs controlled by agribusiness and would certainly be no good for full-spectrum global integrated control.
All pathways led back to GMO technology to ramp up nitrogen-fixing because this could be controlled more effectively than the old non-GMO plant patenting approaches. The agribusiness corps’ promise of being able to hack crop and bacteria genes to allow the staple grains of the world (especially corn, wheat and rice) to fix their own nitrogen had been part of the GMO hopes back in the ‘70s, but the problem was too difficult to be left to the market so the Deep State strategists decides that, like weather modification and biowarfare research,7Both areas of intensive, well-funded and secret research over the decades, yielding nothing useful or, alternatively, remaining secret. they’d throw big and dark money at the nitrogen problem through DARPA.8Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research and development agency of the US military.
With undercover partnerships with the agribusiness corps, as well as luring their best and brightest to come under the military funding umbrella, after a decade of intensive work they manage to get nitrogen-fixing grains growing in the lab by the turn of the millennium. However in the field, the crops are useless. After another two decades of plant breeding it seemed nitrogen-fixing grains might be like the joke about Fusion power – always thirty years in the future.
Ready set go GMO
But finally, the field trials at multiple secret locations on military bases in the US, Canada, Chile Philippines, Australia and Ukraine yield results. The grains outyield conventional varieties and require no nitrogen fertiliser to do so. It’s not magic because the plants still need phosphorous to support the bacteria to do their job, but it promises both strategic and commercial advantage to those who control the tech.
However, before they can organise the rollout of the new crops through partnerships with the agribusiness corporations, and of course draconian controls to kill off organic ag and consumer resistance to GMO food, the genes jump from domesticated grains to wild grasses at multiple trial sites around the world. Before long, rampant grass growth is taking over cropland, threatening to collapse world food supply and replace it with something akin the Argentine pampas grasslands on steroids. Mayhem breaks out within the network of military, Big Ag, pharma and other parties involved. Of course there was a lot of “I told you so moments” with the ecologists pointing out how the use of ‘Roundup Ready’ GMO crops, first introduced in 1996, had already led to Roundup resistant weeds requiring more toxic herbicides and return to cultivation to control the GMO weeds.9See for example Wilkerson (2015) ‘Why Roundup Ready crops have lost their allure’ Harvard University
RoundUp Ready created by Mother Nature
While these new weeds were predicted by critics of GMO at the time, the real story behind Roundup Ready crops was only known by Monsanto plant breeders, lawyers and execs as well as the few farmers around the world responsible for Mother Nature’s creation of Roundup Ready weeds. One farmer in northern Victoria recalled that after 15 years of gung-ho use of Roundup in his grain fields he noticed vigorous rye grass plants obviously resistant to the herbicide. He rang up Monsanto with a product complaint: “This is supposed to kill everything”. The Australian office put him onto head office in the US and they told him to leave the plants in place. In very short order he had a visit from four head office men, two plant geneticists who took photos and hermetically sealed samples while the two legal eagles issued him with documents that effectively threated to destroy him if he made any complaints, or even publicly disclosed their visit and interaction. Apparently, the farmer in northern Victoria was not alone in this experience and a few years later Roundup Ready crops hit the market.
Disaster capitalism take 10
There had already been some work done in the lab in case the grain genes escaped into wild grasses. It involves a soil life terminator gene that would need to be spread everywhere to kill off the GMO genes. But this novel, untested soil fumigant technology runs the risk of killing all free-living and legume-hosted nitrogen-fixing bacteria.
The ag tech people pointed out that contribution of these natural sources of nitrogen fixation were already declining across croplands due to what was called “dead dirt syndrome”. In the big broadacre cropping business, only the organic and biodynamic properties still seemed to have abundant nitrogen fixation working. Consequently, if the soil fumigant was mandated it might have the bonus of being the nail in the coffin for the organic standouts of broadacre grain production.
The tree boffins from Australia were concerned the soil fumigant might radically impact Australia’s 500 species of nitrogen-fixing acacias while their colleagues in Ukraine pointed out that killing off or even reducing growth rates of robinia, the dominant farm and forest tree of eastern Europe, was a significant risk. It was assumed Frankia bacteria on the roots of Casuarinas couldn’t be affected but a potential global plague of casuarina trees would be a second order risk.
The corps executives see dollar signs in the roll out of a world-wide solution; a brilliant example of disaster capitalism making money from your own stuff ups. The psyops teams work on how to disable and game public resistance, especially organic farming and anti-GMO consumer groups, as well as scientists who might call it all high-risk madness. They decide they need to work on the existential fear of death; that somehow the new GMO nitrogen-fixing bacteria could kill people. So they plan a range of measures to isolate people from living soil as a mortal threat.
Meanwhile higher-level strategic thinkers in the more informal networks of old capital families, and even more formal ones such as the WEF under the leadership of Klaus Swab, reckon the LtG crisis is so advanced that the world is stuffed anyway. They conclude that the only way forward is a substantial human die-off, draconian controls, and a restructuring after collapse, akin to the way more localised feudal systems rebuilt after the collapse of Rome. They think psyops boffins and nudge units using well-established advertising and propaganda techniques won’t work to control and straightjacket the population, especially in the long-affluent countries where people might turn on the elites responsible for the chaos, ignorant that the chaos was coming anyway due to the non-negotiable LtG factors that couldn’t be managed. Losing faith that the Renewable Energy evangelists could pull rabbits out of a hat was a big factor pushing toward more high-risk responses. They figure it was better to pull down the system in a semi-controlled demolition of the global food supply, so the populace would not just accept the solutions offered, but would plead for them to be implemented.
The study of ecological history by some of these elites suggested copying something such as what happened in Mexico where 90% of the population of 30 million died following Cortez’s dumb luck in pulling down the Aztec empire with the introduction of the diseases of crowding. That left Cortez’s men and their indigenous wives and offspring to set up their haciendas on the spreading grasslands covering the corn fields of the Aztec empire. With horses and cattle, they created a new Mexico of big open spaces, while the silver mines kept the Spanish empire afloat for centuries.
This is a much more attractive solution, they think, than having to eat the new GMO vegan lab meat and bugs to comply with carbon budgets. Anyway holistic rangeland management looks like the simplest biotech to sequester a vast amount of carbon to quickly to avoid catastrophic climate change, which could otherwise put paid to the most resilient backup plans to establish largely autonomous fiefdoms governing a reduced population of mostly fit younger workers from poor countries. So could the regen ag people be recruited to support some parts of the plan? This becomes part of a meta-strategy of different messages for different interests, sectors and subcultures, informed by big data harvested through social media, implementing what is called “Fifth-generation warfare” in the collective mind of society.10 The occult historian and futurist John Michael Greer’s interpretation of the current world suggest this Fifth-generation warfare might be better understood as competing forms of magic battling to control failing industrial civilisation; his definition of magic is “the art and science of changing human consciousness by the force of will.”
Other parts of the Deep State working in the health/pharma space turn out to be critical in getting a globally co-ordinated response. The WHO was particularly important in the messaging about an existential novel pandemic-like threat by rebranding the GMO bacteria as the sort of bugs you get with climate change and destruction of natural habitat.
As the whole mess unfolds, there are huge potential profits for disaster capitalism funded by the public purse, based on printing of money, but the military-industrial guys are feeling left out and there are serious concerns that the fear of the bad nitrogen-fixing bugs is going to wane.
A war may be needed to explain why the economy is in a state of collapse – fear of a human cultural enemy is much more reliable in times of need and greed. But all efforts at planning and conspiracy are also subject to the “Cock-up theory of history” so who knows how it will turn out…
How would we have reacted?
So much for the tale, slightly tongue in cheek, but I believe closer to the way the world works than the fairy stories propagated by the media that rely on a reductionist view where everything is a separate and disconnected event.
So how would organic, regen ag and permaculture people and networks respond to this mess, and the narratives that built on historical precedents to mislead and game populations? Would we accept the idea that the “bug” was a natural outcome of human disturbance of the environment? Maybe we would be more likely to do so than the average punter because of the narrative (and evidence) that we had been following for decades about human damage of nature? How many of us would accept extreme soil hygiene measures enforced on our farms and gardens and, more dramatically still, accept and support blanket soil fumigation produced by Monsado/Slayer in record time, all certified as safe and effective by the US Dept of Ag, the FAO and EU agricultural regulators, but with unlimited liability protection for the corporations?
Is it credible that maybe a third of us would get caught up in the narrative and see it as a solidarity thing to stop the spread before it got into the Third World where people are much more vulnerable to crop failure, and where the capacity to apply the high-tech soil fumigant would be limited? Maybe another third would capitulate with the threat of losing their garden and farms due to possible legal government orders hanging over their heads? Could it be only one third would dig their heals in and not agree to fumigate their land despite threats of compulsory acquisition?
Is it credible that, in the face of a society-wide plan, backed by censored media giving the impression of a scientific consensus, and fracturing of families, organisation and networks, that our networks would be no different from the rest of society? That our theory and practise of working with nature would fall over at the first serious challenge? Maybe.
What about when the evidence started to build that the bug was the result of a GMO project gone wrong and that the soil inoculate that cost the public billions required repeat doses, didn’t work to stop the new supergrasses, and appeared to kill soil life and plant nutrient supply in ways that were similar to and different from the original problem? Would we just want to move on, and get used to the supergrasses? Might we be quicker to realise that the resisters weren’t as dangerous as the media and the authorities said, but see no need to wonder why their plots and paddocks were in no worse shape, and in some cases seemed to be thriving?
Or would the gradually rising death toll from the knock-on effects of the whole mess lead us back to the narrative that the problem would have been much worse without Slayer’s GMO magic? Would we make sure we register for our supply of GMO seeds and fumigants for the next growing season, having ditched our heirloom varieties as lacking evidence of utility as we shift our practices to following the redefining of organics to include GMO crops and livestock?
Would we be primed to accept the most extreme top-down response to the climate emergency that includes farmland consolidation of horizon-to-horizon grasslands of GMO supergrasses with every household getting a 100m2 plot to grow their fresh GMO food because this grand plan included elements that looked like permaculture? Would we become new woke warriors, promoting the plan as permaculture adapting to a changing world? Were my youthful fears of permaculture contributing to dystopian eco-fascist futures valid after all?11See my autobiographical piece ‘The Long View’ in Permaculture Pioneers Melliodora Publishing (2011)