This is an excerpt from a zine, “The Troubles of ‘Invasive’ Plants.” Check out the whole project here.
By Nicole Patrice Hill & Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
The story of how the invasive species concept came to such wide public prominence starts in the late 1990’s.
Although invasion biology as a school of thought was inspired by the 1958 publication of Charles S. Elton’s “The Ecology of Invasions by Animals and Plants,” that book did not attract much attention for decades, even among biologists. It would not be scientific interests that would fuel the charge, but commercial motivations.
A watershed moment came on Feb. 3, 1999, with the issuing by President Clinton of Executive Order 13112 , which created the National Invasive Species Council (NISC). The order defines an invasive species as “an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.” Note that “economic” precedes “environmental.” That’s not an accident.
Back up two years to 1997, when the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) set up the “Biodiversity and Ecosystems Panel” to make policy recommendations about a range of environmental issues including invasive species. PCAST’s membership was comprised about half/half of people from academia and the corporate world. From the latter were representatives from Hewlett-Packard, Lockheed Martin (because apparently the military-industrial complex has to be involved in everything), D.E. Shaw & Co. (an investment firm), Glaxo-Wellcome (pharmaceuticals, now GlaxoSmithKline), IBM and… Monsanto.
The panel was chaired by Peter Raven. Raven was a nationally known botanist, the Director of the famous Missouri Botanical Gardens and a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, but it was undoubtedly his ties to Monsanto that gained him his esteemed position on the panel. As reported by journalist Andrew Cockburn, Monsanto and Raven enjoyed a close relationship that included large donations from Monsanto to the Missouri Botanical Garden. In kind, Raven used his academic credibility, good reputation, and extensive network to help sell the public on the idea of genetically modified crops, which were then a recent development (having first been planted commercially in the US in 1996).
Then and now, Monsanto produces GMO crops that are “Round-Up resistant,” meaning they are not harmed by application of the herbicide glyphosate, which Monsanto also manufactures. (No GMO crop to date has been developed for higher yields per se.) As the planting of GMO crops has become more widespread, so has the use of glyphosate and its negative affects on the environment, including steep declines in the populations of the Monarch butterfly, whose host plant has been especially hard hit by the notorious environmental toxin.
In March 1998, the panel issued its report, “Teaming with Life: Investing in Science to Understand and Use America’s Living Capital.” The political message is clear in the first lines: “Over the last few decades, a new paradigm has emerged: Improving and protecting our environment is compatible with growing the Nation’s economy.” As any serious environmentalist knows, that’s a statement of fantasy, not fact. The resources of the planet are finite, while the appetites of an expanding economy are endless. The two are incompatible. Raven, of all people, should know that, having collaborated with Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, back in the day.
There’s a lot of talk in “Teaming with Life” about “sustainable management,” “natural capital,” “biological resources,” “economic incentives to conserve” and the “’next generation’ national biological information infrastructure.” “Ecosystem services” are mentioned no less than 35 times. It’s doublespeak that has nothing to do with true conservation and everything to do with corporate bottom-lines, especially of the industries represented on the panel. Monsanto’s favorite, genetic research, is found under nearly every subject heading in the report. The second recommendation made in the Executive Summary is to “search out America’s biological species, their genetic properties, and their interrelationship” [our emphasis]. For Monsanto, the value of biodiversity is that “with genetic engineering, helpful traits in these wild relatives may be transferred to the crop species.”
Mentions of invasive species are sprinkled throughout the report, including the incredible claim that “at present, approximately one-fourth of annual US agricultural GNP is lost to invasive species and the cost of controlling them” We were unable to confirm or locate this figure anywhere else.
The report recommended “a mechanism to coordinate resources and initiatives to evaluate, control and mitigate the impact of invasive species should be developed across Federal agencies.”
That very outcome came to fruition a little less than a year later with Clinton’s executive order forming the NISC. In hindsight, we can recognize this action as yet another example of the neo-liberal ism that guided Clinton’s governance: the state’s role as regulator was exchanged for that of enabler, and instead of the commons being protect ed , it was divvied up amongst the highest bidders. But all with the right-sounding language, so most people were sold on it.
Cockburn notes that “among the founding members of the council’s advisory committee was Nelroy E. Jackson, a product-development manager and weed scientist for Monsanto who had helped to develop Roundup formulations specifically for ‘habitat-restoration markets’—that is, for eradicating invasives.”
We respectfully suggest that you can have a process of legitimate scientific review and recommendation or you can have a process involving Monsanto every step of the way, but that you can no t have both.
Every political process involves compromise. In this case the compromise was between, on one hand, powerful industries with fat purses , and on the other, academic institutions that seek research funding. So, one unstated but understood element for all participants was financial interest of some kind. Their work cannot be understood clearly without taking that element into account. There is no moral judgment in this observation; it is simply descriptive.
Why does it matter? Because entities like NISC play a significant role in setting both the tone of the discussion and the parameters of action for the issues they cover. That’s the purpose of such public/private partnerships. The “stakeholders” agree what’s important and that’s how policy is dictated and how funds are disbursed. The messaging trickles down through related institutions and reaches the level of the individual with the resonance of distant but respected authority.
Fast-forward to 2016.
The NISC has now existed for seventeen years. Hundreds of government agencies at every level, from city, county and state to federal , are targeting invasive plants in their jurisdictions, taking their cues from above. Glyphosate has become a favorite eradication method across the nation. In 2014, “the federal government spent more than $2 billion to fight the alien invasion, up to half of which was budgeted for glyphosate and other poisons.” Budgets increase d in both 2015 and 2016.
NISC’s “Management Plan, 2016-2018,” approved on July 11, 2016 contains a few interesting nuggets:
- A recommendation to use free trade agreements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership to work with other nations towards “enhancing efforts to assess and address the risks and adverse impacts of invasive species.” Here’s a way to expand markets globally.
- A warning! “ The United States currently lacks the comprehensive authority, or clarity of authority, necessary to effectively prevent, eradicate, and control invasive species that impact the human-built environment (“infrastructure”)… and that cause or transmit wildlife disease.” Thus are identified two more areas for expanding commercial markets.
- By far the most malevolent item , we felt : “ B y altering the genomes of entire populations of wild organisms , genetic editing may improve capacities to prevent, eradicate, and/or control populations of invasive species currently thought to be an indefinite problem” [our emphasis].
The issue of invasives has been receiving increasing attention from the power structure since 1999. Why is that? Let’s assume the issues as stated are real and have worsened since then; even if that’s the case, it’s still doesn’t necessarily answer the question. The climate crisis has increased tremendously since 1999 but there has been no concomitant ramping up of resources to address it, and it’s a bigger one: literally existential for the human race. Other crises have also worsened—over drinking water, affordable housing, and access to healthy food, for example—and none have merited an executive-ordered brain trust. No, the rising level of attention for invasives in officialdom is not about science or ecology or need; it’s simply reflective of the growing opportunities for profit by certain powerful players, most prominently herbicide manufacturers.
If there is a real invasion crisis, they’re not looking to solve it, just like no arms manufacturer wants to see world peace. So if you believe that there is a legitimate invasion crisis—and that’s a subject that deserves serious treatment—then you need to look beyond the conventional wisdom as filtered down to us from above. If we want facts, we need to start from the ground up. And lucky for us, that’s where we all happen to be, isn’t it?
The two of us daily mourn the hurts in the world that need healing. Also, it’s not that we don’t believe in invasions. We know that a very real one happened in 1492 and that forces of domination have occupied the continent since then. We agree that something doesn’t belong here. That’s where we’d like to focus our attention.