The name Monsanto, Ben Paynter points out in Wired, “is synonymous with Big Ag.” Over the past century, the company has produced saccharine, PCBs, Agent Orange and dioxin; it’s also known for genetically engineering crops that resist its weedkiller Roundup and for patenting their seeds.
Now, Paynter reports, the company is introducing novel strains of familiar foods. Among them: Frescada lettuce, which, Paynter says, “is sweeter and crunchier than romaine.” There’s also BellaFina peppers, which come in single-serving sizes to reduce leftovers, and Beneforte broccoli, which has three times the usual level of an antioxidant-boosting compound.
“But here’s the twist,” Paynter writes. The plants “aren’t genetically modified at all. Monsanto created all these veggies using good old-fashioned crossbreeding.” The company has drawn on its “accumulated scientific know-how to create vegetables that have all the advantages of genetically modified organisms without any of the Frankenfoods’ ick factor.” If you keep them away from pesticides, you could call them organic, Paynter notes. The company, he says, hasn’t changed in one way: It still prohibits farmers from regrowing seeds from its new crops.
Five times in Earth’s history, massive numbers of creatures died off in an extremely short period. The first mass extinction came 444 million years ago, at the end of what is called the Ordovician period: 85 percent of marine species disappeared. The last was about 65 million years ago, when large animals including dinosaurs went extinct after the Earth was hit by an asteroid.
Today, New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert says, humans are the cause of “The Sixth Extinction” — the title of her new book. Combining historical research with field reporting, she powerfully chronicles the extraordinary effect human activities have had on the planet.
You’re familiar with the concept of climate change, but she also makes clear the impact of acidifying oceans, deforesting land and moving species around the world (in cargo ship and airplane holds and on the soles of the shoes you wear home from vacation). She discusses a dozen species that have vanished or are on the verge of doing so. At this point, she writes, humans have engineered a rate of extinction that approaches the previous five catastrophes.
Though she is clearly concerned, the tone of the book is not completely morbid. Kolbert says she is trying to convey “the excitement of what’s being learned as well as the horror of it,” and expresses awe for “the truly extraordinary moment in which we live.”