by Edward Esko
The Visitor's Center at Lake Oroville sits high above the Sacramento Valley in the foothills of the Sierras. Like most days in the Valley, the weather is bright, sunny, and warm. Perfect weather for growing rice. The Sacramento Valley, which stretches off toward the West, is the leading producer of organic brown rice in the United States. Alex Jack and I stand on the upper deck of the observation tower and trace the pattern of rivers flowing down from the Sierras. The panorama is breathtaking. Streams and rivers flow steadily downward from the mountains toward the Valley. Their energy gathers several hundred feet below us in Lake Oroville, an enormous man-made body of water.
Lake Oroville was created following construction of Oroville Dam in 1968. Made of earth, the dam rises seven hundred feet above the bed of the Feather River. Rice cultivation requires a steady supply of water. Lake Oroville is the source of water for the rice fields in the Sacramento Valley.
Sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the Pacific Coastal Range to the West, and the Sierra Nevada's to the East, the Sacramento Valley is charged by natural energy. To the North lie Mount Shasta and the Cascades. Like Japan, California experiences periodic eruptions of natural energy in the form of earthquakes.
Mountain ranges are the earth's energy meridians. They are formed by the strong upward push of energy generated by the earth's rotation. Earth's energy gathers in the mountains and flows into the valleys in the form of streams and rivers. Rivers are the ley lines that channel energy from the mountains. Farmers in the Sacramento Valley further channel this energy through a vast network of canals that crisscross the Valley and irrigate the rice fields. The successful channeling of this high mountain energy has made California an agricultural powerhouse, both for conventional and organic farming.
This is my second visit to Northern California since the beginning of the year. The reason for the visit is to lecture at the Vega Study Center. Herman and Cornellia Aihara started Vega many years ago in Oroville. Following Herman's death in 1998, Cornellia has been continuing macrobiotic education at Vega. Marc Van Cauwenberghe and I have been visiting from time to time to help her with programs.
Another reason for the trip is to meet with organic rice farmers to discuss the status of genetically altered rice in the Sacramento Valley. Alex Jack and I are planning to meet with Grant Lundberg, the C.E.O. of Lundberg Family Farms. The Lundberg family has been growing rice since 1937, and today, Lundberg Farms is the largest distributor of organic brown rice in the U.S. They have a reputation for growing some of the highest quality natural and organic rice in America.
There are currently a dozen varieties of genetically modified (GM) rice in development around the world. If GM rice comes into the Sacramento Valley, there is the real danger of genetic pollution caused by GM pollen drifting into the organic fields and contaminating the conventional and organic crops. The organic crop could be ruined. America could lose its primary source of organic brown rice. Heirloom rice that has nourished humanity for thousands of years could vanish.
On the following day, we set out for our meeting. On the fifteen-minute drive from Oroville to Richvale, the home of Lundberg Farms, there are rice fields as far as the eye can see. In the distance are metal silos used for storing the rice crop. It is early summer, and the rice resembles tall green grass. Unlike rice paddies in Asia, which are small and have spaces between the parallel rows of rice, the rice fields in California are vast. The rice is as dense as lawn grass. The vast California fields are seeded by airplane and harvested by machine. We stop the car and get out. Surrounding the fields are irrigation ditches in which cattails grow. Dragonflies swarm above. The ecology is that of a freshwater marsh. Although not visible to the eye, water lies just below the green rice plants.
We resume our journey, and spot the huge silos that mark Lundberg Farms. We locate Grant Lundberg's office in a small shed next to the main office building. After shaking hands, Grant leads us into his office. We begin by introducing ourselves and thanking the Lundbergs for their pioneering efforts in developing and promoting organic rice over the past thirty-five years. Alex then outlines the coming scenario in which at least a dozen varieties of GM rice are introduced around the world over the next several years. Grant is well aware of the plans for GM rice. He obviously shares our concerns. We then ask how California rice farmers plan to deal with this potential threat.
Grant explains that many farmers in California are wary of GMOs (genetically modified organisms.) Some, like the Lundbergs, are opposed to GMOs due to philosophical reasons. Others are concerned about the practical economic implications of GMOs. Rice farmers know that many American consumers are wary of GMOs, and that most consumers favor labeling. Forty percent of the annual rice crop in the Sacramento Valley is exported, the majority to Japan. The Japanese are planning a new labeling law for imported foods that will require the labeling of GMOs.
These concerns prompted the California rice farmers to work with legislators in Sacramento (the seat of California state government) to draft a "seed certification bill." If the bill becomes law, GM rice would be carefully segregated from conventional and organic crops, in order to avoid contamination of non-GM rice. We hope it works.
The first two varieties of GM rice set for introduction over the next several years are the herbicide tolerant varieties "Liberty Link" rice developed by AgrEvo and "Roundup Ready" rice developed by Monsanto. These herbicide tolerant rices are genetically engineered to accept high levels of "Liberty," the herbicide marketed by AgrEvo and "Roundup," the herbicide developed by Monsanto.
Grant then contrasts the Lundberg method of organic weed control with the use of Roundup and other toxic herbicides. During the summer, the Lundbergs drain the water from their organic fields. The bright sun shines down on both weeds and rice plants. The weeds dry up but the rice flourishes. The fields are again flooded and the rice continues growing without competing weeds. A totally natural method of weed control.
Alex and I explain that we are ready to begin a campaign to save natural and organic rice. Like the other cereal grains, rice is the center of the human evolutionary spiral. More than half the world's population consumes rice as their principal food. Our campaign will involve three aspects. First, we plan to meet with farmers to explain the negative environmental and health consequences of GMOs while encouraging them to stay with natural and organic crops.
Second, we plan to meet with manufacturers who use rice and other cereals in their products and encourage them to keep their products free of GMOs. Third, we plan a campaign to educate consumers about the hazards of GMOs and the benefits of natural and organic foods.
The meeting ends with Grant expressing his wish that our efforts will preserve natural strains of rice for thousands of years. Each of us expresses our desire to work toward this common goal.
Several days later, after returning to Massachusetts, I notice the latest edition of Time Magazine. The cover features a photo of a Swiss Professor named Ingo Potrykus with his beta-carotene-enriched rice. The headline states boldly, "This Rice Could Save a Million Kids a Year.... But protesters believe such genetically modified foods are bad for us and our planet." So-called "golden rice," an unnatural transgenic "food," contains beta-carotene-producing genes from daffodils and a certain type of bacteria. It seems that for many years Potrykus has been waging a one-man campaign against brown rice; mistakenly claiming it is nutritionally deficient. (Beta carotene is present in the outer coat of brown rice; the part that is removed when it is milled into white rice. Most of the beta carotene deficiencies that occur in underdeveloped countries occur because people eat white, rather than brown rice, and not enough green leafy and orange-yellow vegetables.)
Unfortunately, "scientists" such as Potrykus begin from an entirely false premise. They mistakenly believe that nature is imperfect and can be improved upon. Such blindness and arrogance inevitably leads to downfall. Nature is and always will be a perfect system. However, in the case of "golden rice," this blindness is being presented under a humanitarian guise. I hope people are not fooled.
Rice farming in the Sacramento Valley has been going on for over a hundred years. GMOs are simply not needed; they interfere with the natural order and make things unnecessarily complicated. They are more of a problem than a solution. There are far better solutions to the problems of hunger and malnutrition than genetic engineering. GMOs divert attention from the root causes of these problems and make finding solutions more difficult. During our meeting, Grant, Alex, and I agreed that things would be much better if GMOs simply went away.
However, the reality is that they are not going to go away, at least not in the near future. Therefore, we must remain vigilant; we must make our choices and our voices heard. Together we can send a strong message that we wish to see nature and the order of the universe respected on all levels. Human health, happiness, and freedom are found in living together with nature, and not in the arrogant pursuit of human folly.
In macrobiotics, we try to live according to the spirit of "one grain, 10,000 grains." This timeless principle expresses the fact that the earth returns thousands of grains for each one it receives. Nature is forever productive, and infinitely diverse. The teaching of "one grain, ten thousand grains," teaches us to have endless gratitude for what we receive from nature and continually seek to distribute or give away our understanding of life, health, and the universe. Proponents of genetic engineering subscribe to the opposite principle, "from 10,000 grains come one grain." Originally, the heirloom seeds that have sustained and nourished humanity over the centuries cost nothing; they were given freely by the order of the universe. Each genetically engineered seed costs $300 million to bring to market. The contrast between these opposite approaches to life and nature could not be starker. We now face a choice between these completely opposite views of life. The health and happiness of future generations, indeed the health and happiness of all species, could well depend upon which path we choose at this critical time in history.
Edward Esko is on the faculty of the Vega Study Center and author of Healing Planet Earth.