Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The seeds of an idea...

 Writers will tell you that one of the questions we get asked the most often is some variation of: "Where do you get your ideas?" My inspirations tend to be character, place and an issue or two that I find particularly compelling. Here's a little of what went into the second of my Ellie McEnroe novels, set in today's China. 

Scenic Yangshuo. How could I not be inspired?
Yangshuo hostel. Like I said, scenic

I was sitting in my hotel room in a converted farmhouse in beautiful Yangshuo, China, web-surfing, when I came across the story that would inspire my third novel, Hour Of The Rat. An American suspected of “eco-terrorism” had been arrested in Dali, in southwest China, for having some thirty pounds of marijuana buried in the back yard of the house he was renting. I found this strange and compelling on many levels. You’re a fugitive wanted by the FBI, you flee to China, of all places, and you get involved with massive quantities of pot?

 Dali, a favored hangout of Chinese and foreign hipsters

Dali is also very scenic! 

At the same time, I wanted to deal with environmental issues in China. It’s no exaggeration to say that China’s natural environment is in crisis, devastated by decades of exploitation and neglect, the recent siege of off-the-chart air pollution in Beijing being just one small example. These problems are so severe that they threaten to undermine both the health of Chinese citizens and China’s “economic miracle”—the astounding 30 years of growth that have propelled China from poverty to the second largest economy in the world. Moreover, they are a source of social unrest. From poor farmers demonstrating against polluting factories that have contaminated their cropland to middle and upper class urban professionals who would like to have breathable air in their cities, Chinese people have protested about environmental problems, on the streets and on social media. The government has taken a somewhat more relaxed view of such protests than it has of others that are more overtly political, but that tolerance only goes so far because environmental issues provoke an increasingly large percentage of China’s “mass incidents,” and they have the potential to bring disparate groups of China’s citizens together.
Protesting a chemical factory

It’s easy to dismiss China’s problems as things that don’t have much affect on us in the US, or at least to keep them at a distance because they aren’t connected to us. But there are consequences and connections if you look.

In plotting this book, I needed that American connection, and I thought that a fugitive “eco-terrorist” might do the trick. But what was he protesting?

I decided to use GMOs – genetically modified organisms. These products, pioneered by American companies like Monsanto and DuPont, are created by a process where unrelated genetic material is inserted into a plant or even an animal to create something with desirable properties that you’d never find in nature. Most commonly they’re designed to resist herbicides, such as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans, or engineered to produce their own pesticide, such as Bt corn.  More than 90% of the soybeans grown in the US are GM, as is 88% of corn and 90% of sugarbeets. As a result, GMOs are in nearly all the processed food we eat—if it doesn’t say “organic,” odds are it’s GM.

Many of the claims made for GMOs– that they produce higher yields, and that they reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides, for example – have been called into question and even refuted. A recent United Nations study pointed to sustainable agriculture as a better way to feed the hungry, promote economic growth and protect the environment. In the case of pesticides and herbicides, their use has created pesticide-resistant pests and herbicide-resistant “Superweeds” – leading to more pesticides and herbicides and plants designed to resist ever more lethal doses of them.

More to the point for writers of conspiracy-minded thrillers, the largest producer of GMOs, Monsanto, has a public reputation only slightly better than Al Qaeda. The company is routinely accused of bullying farmers, suing them unjustly in the States and driving them to suicide in India, and if you Google “Monsanto” and “revolving door,” you’ll find pages dedicated to proving that Monsanto exercises undue influence over the federal regulatory process due to former employees moving over to government positions.

It’s a fact that past Monsanto employees working for the FDA have made positive decisions involving Monsanto products, which in one case prompted calls by members of Congress for a federal investigation. It’s a fact as well that because these products are considered “substantially equivalent” to their natural counterparts by the FDA, they are allowed on the market with a minimum of review, and there has never been a study of their affect on humans.

Even the State Department pushes GM food, lobbying to promote the products, writing trade laws in their favor and preventing labeling laws in other countries. GMOs are not labeled in the US—and corporate agriculture spent millions of dollars to defeat a proposed labeling law in California in November 2012.

Chinese industry is rushing headlong into developing GMO products, both in collaboration with Western companies and on its own, and the Chinese adoption of these products is seen by some biotech champions as a “tipping point” —as China goes, so does the rest of the world. As it stands, China is the world’s largest grower of GMO cotton, and because it imports such a large percentage of its soybeans from the US, where some 90% of soybeans are GMO, these products have already penetrated the Chinese market. Yet the Chinese government has not yet approved of the mass cultivation of GMO food crops, and there is considerable suspicion on the part of Chinese consumers about GMOs – especially when it comes to that Chinese staple, rice.

Rice is so central to Chinese culture that when you ask someone if they’ve eaten yet, “Chi fanle meiyou?” you’re literally asking if they’ve eaten some form of rice. This is also a common way to say, “how are you?” because food is a really big deal in China.

Leftist nationalists in China are suspicious of GMOs in part because of their perceived “foreignness,” and in the case of rice, you are messing with China’s cultural patrimony. But the development of domestic varieties hasn’t calmed consumers’ fears.

When it comes to environmental and food safety, China may have regulations on the books, but the regulatory system itself is underfunded, and regulations are under-enforced and all too frequently ignored. The scandals in China’s food supply are legion. Hardly a day passes without a story about the use of illegal pesticides, hormones and antibiotics, “sewer oil,” adulterated baby milk powder, glow-in-the-dark pigsrat meat masquerading as muttonchickens fed minerals to increase their weightfake eggs and walnuts,  tofu mixed with detergent, not to mention the recent sixteen thousand dead pigs floating down the Huangpu River and into Shanghai’s drinking water supply. With those kinds of systemic problems, mistrust of new, unfamiliar and potentially under-tested genetically modified staples is more than understandable – it’s sensible.

None of which stopped me from eating fish on a  stick in Dali

Which makes what I found with a bit of Googling not all that surprising, but still pretty alarming.

Since about 2005 and again in 2010, unapproved varieties of GM rice have made their way into the food chain, in China. Greenpeace China found GM rice in Hunan, Hubei, Fujian and Guangdong Provinces, on farmlands and in stores. Farmers were offered the seeds at a discount, and in some cases, for free.

 Guizhou Province countryside. Guizhou also is a setting in HotR

A lot of the farming in Guizhou is still done like this

What’s not clear is where, precisely, this rice came from. According to an investigation by the Chinese journal, Economic Observer, the university that had official approval to produce GM rice denied the rice was theirs, yet it held a thirty percent share in one of the three companies found to be selling the seeds – and of those three companies, one of them didn’t even officially exist—it was not registered with the necessary provincial authorities. The rush to move these seeds illegally into the food chain, the journal speculated, had to do with the university’s “safety” permit from the government to produce them—it expires in 2014. It’s the old, “better to beg forgiveness than to ask for permission” approach.
Guizhou village

Further complicating the picture is that genetic material associated with foreign products was found in some of this rice. It seems to be a case of patent infringement, which is not uncommon in China—yet it’s also in foreign companies’ best interest that these products are defacto accepted in the market—all the easier for them to make the argument for their own. And there are also cases where foreign entities are involved with Chinese counterparts, and one side or the other evades regulation and accountability.

For example, in 2012, Tufts University, the USDA and a Chinese university were implicated in an unapproved study involving Chinese children fed “golden rice”— genetically modified rice that is enriched with beta carotene. While the idea behind this rice – preventing Vitamin A deficiency – may be a good one, conducting an experiment on Hunan village kids without their parents’ full informed consent, was not. The lines of responsibility are difficult to determine in this case. So far, three Chinese officials have been sacked, and Tufts is conducting an internal review.

So, in China you have GMO research taking place in an environment with a poor food safety record and an opaque decision-making structure that makes review and accountability difficult. In the US, you have a GMO industry dominated by several large players who have poured millions of dollars into the political system to have the regulatory system written in their favor.

Industry spokespeople tell us that any worries about the safety of these products are unwarranted, even “anti-science.” It is true that there is not a lot of data, precisely because they were released onto the marketplace without any rigorous studies of their effects on humans. But let’s put aside the evidence we do have, that GMOs may not be as nutritious as their natural counterparts, that they may cause allergic reactions in some people, that they may promote tumors and kidney and liver damage in rats. Let’s also put aside any concerns we have about a GM salmon that grows more rapidly and is extremely aggressive getting loose into the wild population, or questions about how an unapproved, experimental GM wheat showed up in farmers’ fields in Oregon. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that GMOs may be as safe and nutritious as their natural counterparts.

We’ve all heard about the dangers of monoculture in food supplies, the Irish potato famine being just one example of a catastrophic crop failure due in part to a lack of genetic diversity. What does it say about our food system that three large companies, two of which are American, control half of the world’s proprietary seed market, and that one of those alone, Monsanto, over one quarter of it? That five huge biotech companies have bought up more than two hundred other seed companies, greatly reducing the number of seeds offered, making commercial access to a greater diversity of crops more difficult for farmers? That the average price of planting an acre of soybeans has risen 325% in less than ten years? Do we really want that kind of “monoculture” controlling what we eat?

By the way, my original inspiration, that American eco-terrorist busted in Dali. What I knew about him from the article I’d read in Yangshuo was that he’d been accused of acts of arson in the Pacific Northwest, including one that destroyed a horticultural center at the University of Washington. There were no details about the motives behind the attacks. It wasn’t until I’d nearly finished writing the first draft of HOUR OF THE RAT that I looked deeper into the case and found out what those were.

He and his group were protesting GMOs.

Lisa…every other Wednesday...