Saturday, March 26, 2011

How the Government Got in Your Backyard

Cover of How the Government Got in Your Backyard, blue background with a flower pot and the Capitol stuck in it like a plant stickI should have adored Jeff Gillman and Eric Heberlig's How the Government Got in Your Backyard. Food, plants and public policy -- what's not for me to like? But I found it a bit dry, and not as compelling as I thought it would be.

It definitely had its moments, though. Here are a few highlights and facts I didn't know.

Toxicity is not as simple as I thought: The toxicity of substances, such as pesticides, is expressed in milligrams of the poison need per kilogram of an animal's weight to have a 50 percent chance of killing it, abbreviated LD50. The lower the number, the more toxic the chemical. Gillman and Heberlig write: "Most of the pesticides you are likely to encounter on garden center shelves will have LD50s that are quite high. In fact, the caffeine in your morning coffee probably has a lower LD50 than any chemical that you or your fastidious neighbors have ever sprayed on a lawn... one of the most toxic pesticides ever known, the now-banned Black Leaf 40...was based on the insecticide nicotine...which is still legal for you to inhale or put between your cheek and gum" (page 61).

Food crops make for worse biofuel results than I thought: Not only is corn ethanol a bad way to make fuel because it's inefficient (using almost as much or more energy to create than it produces), it costs more too: "researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have calculated that, in 2007, if we were not using ethanol in our gasoline, gas prices would have been 1.4 to 2.4 percent higher. The use of crops for biofuels, however, resulted in the price of soy increasing somewhere between 10 and 20 percent, and the price of corn increasing between 15 and 28 percent" (page 102).

Ethanol corrodes pipelines: The reason ethanol-gasoline mixes are only available near the corn belt states is that ethanol can't flow through normal pipelines. It has to be shipped in relatively small quantities by train, truck or barge (down the Mississippi, I imagine). "One of the ethanol industry's major priorities is lobbying Congress to help pay for special pipelines to transport ethanol" (page 106).

Both political parties are complicit in fighting effective change: "Most economists argue that it is more effective to tax things we don't like (such as pollution) than to subsidize things we like (such as particular kinds of alternative energies). In 1993, the Clinton administration proposed a BTU tax...on energy sources.... This proposal was blocked by a few Democrats in Congress who represented oil-producing states and sought to protect jobs back home in alliance with Republicans who didn't want tax increases.... Raising taxes is unpopular; giving someone a subsidy is popular among its recipients -- and non recipients usually aren't aware of what's going on. Thus, as a nation, we tend to choose the economically less efficient route" (page 108).

The chapter on plant patents was particularly good, explaining the ins and outs of the legal precedents clearly. 1980 was the year when the courts first ruled that living plants could be registered with what's called a "utility patent," the type of patent that is given for other types of invention. (A lesser type of patent had been available for plants and bacteria earlier than this.) Utility patents are the ones that let Monsanto sue farmers whose plants were inadvertently cross-pollinated with patented genetically modified plants growing nearby.

Where has all the clover gone? In a bit of anti-synergy, use of the herbicide 2,4-D led to the increased use of chemical fertilizer. 2,4-D came into wide use at the same time as mass suburbanization, and was popular to contain dandelions and other weeds, but at the same time it killed the clover that used to be a normal part of lawns. "Clover is a plant that collects nitrogen from the air and, when it is cut, provides that much-needed nitrogen to the grass as it grows. Without clover, grass needs fertilizers" (page 186).

Other public policy topics in the book include organic food, genetic engineering, fertilizer runoff, invasive plants, and global warming.

Gillman is a horticulture professor the University of Minnesota and Heberlig is in political science at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, so their varying knowledge bases make for an interesting mix. But the book reads less engagingly than its subtitle -- Superweeds, Frankenfoods, Lawn Wars, and the (Nonpartisan) Truth About Enviromental Policies -- suggests. Still worth checking out, but I'd recommend not judging this book by its cover.

No comments: