Why Patagonia? Why Now?

by John Sterling
Spring 2001

I once followed a pick-up truck down the dirt road that leads to my favorite fishing hole on the Deschutes River in Oregon. On it was a bumper sticker that read "Cows Kill Salmon." I pictured a bovine predator streamside stalking its salmonid prey. But as I drove on, mulling over the slogan, I made some connections. Cows don't eat salmon. They trample riverside habitat, which muddies precious clean gravel beds that salmon need to lay their eggs. "Cows Kill Salmon" was the message, but the lesson is: everything is connected.

Everything is connected. Patagonia has fought for 25 years to protect wild forests and salmon streams, and to stop pesticide spraying on agricultural lands. Each of these habitats affects the other. Now we face an environmental menace that threatens them all. That menace is genetic engineering: the scientific process of forever altering wild organisms by rewriting their genetic code. Supporters say genetic engineering may cure some diseases and increase farm efficiency, but at what cost? Eminent scientists warn that genetically modified organisms should stay in the laboratory until we know how they will affect human health and the environment. Industry has ignored this warning.

One-third of the corn and half the soybeans grown in the U.S. are genetically modified. Much of the food you buy contains genetically engineered ingredients: sodas, milk, baby food. These products are not labeled, and nobody knows what hidden effect their genetic modifications might have on human beings.

At the same time, nobody knows what will happen when those industrial mutants interact with native wild animals and plants. This unregulated manipulation of nature is a dark threat to the essence of what is wild.

Point: When we started our salmon campaign nearly 10 years ago, we thought the greatest threat to wild salmon was dams. Now The New York Times reports that a Canadian company eagerly awaits approval to sell genetically engineered salmon eggs to U.S. fish farms. These eggs become fish whose growth hormones never stop pumping. They reach "market size" (seven pounds) in 18 months. In a wild salmon this should take three years. The offense to the salmon is agonizing.

First, we domesticate the salmon to produce cheap supermarket fillets. Now, through genetics, we further insult these fish by forcing them to grow twice as fast as wild salmon. And the cheap salmon steaks pose a perilous threat that the fish farmers don't likely consider. What happens when an overgrown mutant salmon escapes its coastal pen and interacts with wild salmon? We don't know. Nobody knows. We do know that escapees from existing fish farms spread sea lice and other diseases throughout wild salmon populations, and compete for spawning grounds with native fish. I don't want to look at a stream in the Pacific Northwest and wonder if its salmon were engineered by a guy in a white coat in a Nova Scotia fish laboratory.

Point: Over the years Patagonia has raised the alarm about the timber industry's clearcuts and pulp mills. Now the same industry is poised to replace native forests with genetically modified tree farms that bear no resemblance to wild forests. Like farm crops, pine, aspen, willow, eucalyptus, fir and cottonwood trees are now being engineered to grow faster and survive heavy doses of chemical pesticides that protect them from insect damage. The timber industry is experimenting with these trees. But a forest is not a crop. What happens if the industry logs native forests and replants them with genetically modified Frankentrees? In the hands of the timber industry, genetic engineering could destroy the complex web of trees and insects, fungus and birds and streams and fish that we call forest. We'd be left with cornrows of fast growing, pesticide-tolerant trees.

Point: A decade ago we learned that farmers used dozens of different pesticides and defoliants to grow the cotton that we used in our sportswear. So, we committed to using only organically grown cotton. But genetically modified crops present a threat more menacing than chemical applications. A Cornell University entomologist recently found that monarch butterfly larvae that ate pollen from genetically engineered corn died within days. As we speak, farmers are growing crops that could kill dependent species. What happens when wind carries toxic corn pollen into neighboring habitat? Nobody knows. Yet the USDA has considered allowing genetically engineered products to be labeled as organic. We cannot allow industry to force genetically engineered products into the market and our environment without knowing what will happen when these altered organisms interact with the wild. Science, says Huston Smith, "only measures those aspects of reality we can control, leaving out all those aspects of reality that are beyond our ability to control." Science cannot measure how genetic engineering will impact uncontrollable wildness. And we desperately need that wildness to keep our hubris in check. When faced with the enormity of Nature, I feel humble.

I feel relieved that I can't understand everything about wild nature, nor should I try. I cannot control Nature, but it is a great honor to seek and find my place in its wild plan. Genetic engineering represents an attempt to cast off humility and to rewrite Nature's plan. This is arrogance of the worst kind.

À propos de l'auteur

John Sterling is a former director of Patagonia's Environmental Initiatives. He and his wife have relocated to Oregon, where he continues to fight for more Wilderness in in the West.