“Too many Ps”? - a reading & conversation at UC Santa Cruz

Personal, Political, Publics and Potatoes - a conversation about the politics of food and kinship and other world-changing matters, at U.C. Santa Cruz on April 5, 2012 from 2 - 5pm. I will be reading from All Over Creation and then will join specialists in the fields of geography, anthropology and agroecology for a conversation hosted by Joan Haran (CESAgen* at Cardiff University), who says, "We will talk about public engagement with agricultural technoscience, genetic modification of crops, non-violent direct action and the creative use of generative metaphors.  We will tease out some relationships between genes, gender and genre along the way." Location and more information to come.

*CESAgen (The Center for the Economic and Social Aspects of Genomics) is a collaborative research centre based at the universities of Lancaster and Cardiff.

op ed

Here is an Op Ed essay that I wrote for the New York Times. I got a very kind email from the editor turning it down on the grounds that the Op Ed page does not currently accept fiction. Oh well.

To the Editor,

I would like to state an opinion in response to the growing debate over genetically modified crops, but before I go any further, I must speak straight and tell the whole truth about myself.

I am a retired potato farmer from Liberty Falls, Idaho, but I am not real. I am a fictional character in a novel. I know that it is unusual (and mighty presumptuous) for a fictional character in a novel to have strong political opinions, never mind to try to contribute one to the country’s “newspaper of record.” However, the fictionalized (as many would call it) nature of our current administration’s claim to office, the steady stream of invention issuing from the press rooms of our nation’s capital, and finally the imaginary characters and dramatized scenes that have recently appeared in the general media and even in these distinguished pages, all lead me to believe that since nobody knows what the truth is anymore, I might as well try my hand at telling it.

So here goes:

1. The argument that GMO crops are necessary to solve world hunger is a fiction designed by corporate PR offices to overcome consumer resistance to transgenic food, sell patented and lucrative seed to skeptical farmers, and further expand and strengthen US trade in developing countries. As such, this argument is unconscionable.

2. There is no shortage of food that could be offered to nations in need. Take potatoes, for example. In 2001, overproduction drove potato prices so low that desperate spud farmers in Idaho chose to dump 410 million pounds of potatoes, plowing them back into the ground to drive up prices and make room to store the next year’s crops. Similar overproduction of corn, wheat, milk, and most of the staples needed to provide nutrition to starving people occurs regularly, and what is not dumped here is dumped abroad. Oxfam, the London-based relief organization, noted last year that the United States has been selling surplus wheat on world markets at prices 46% below the cost of production, and corn at 20% below costs.

3. The evidence that genetically modified crops are of agronomic benefit to anyone, other than the CEO’s and shareholders of the corporations that sell them, is marginal. The premium prices farmers pay for transgenic seed often outweigh the profit that may derive from increase in crop yield or savings in pest or weed control inputs.

4. Plants cross-pollinate and breed. Wherever GMO varieties are planted, there will be some degree of genetic pollution of native species, and the “novel” traits expressed are likely to be unexpected and possibly dangerous to local ecosystems. Gene flow is real, not a science fiction.

5. “Buffer” or containment zones to prevent gene flow are not effective or enforced, nor are the so-called “refuges” aimed at preventing pests from developing immunity to the bacterial pesticides spliced into some GMO crops. According to an article published in your newspaper on June 19, the Center for Science in the Public Interest issued a report stating that the biotech industry has been misreporting farmers’ compliance with E.P.A. standards governing the planting of GMO crops.

6. There have been no long term, government-mandated studies on the human health impact of GMOs, either in this country, or anywhere else.

Hearing me talk like this, you might think I was one of those liberal environmental types, which I’m not. However, I do find it mysterious that those people, who think that this earth and all its wonder was an accident, could treat nature with far more reverence and respect than those of us who believe it is God’s gift and creation.

And if your readers take issue with the idea of a character like me appearing in your newspaper, well, I guess I can understand that. As a fictional character, I have a high regard for reality. Novel creations belong in novels, not in nature, and on the page, not on the dinner plate.

Sincerely yours,
Lloyd Fuller
Potato Farmer (retired), Liberty Fall, Idaho
Character (fictional), “All Over Creation”


These days I’ve been reading USA Today. It’s what shows up in front of my hotel room door every morning, no matter what city I’m in. On April 1, April Fool’s Day, the paper ran an article entitled, "Four-fifths of U.S. soybean crop is now bioengineered.” I had missed this article, but a kind woman in Wichita clipped it for me and gave it to me after the reading. I was glad she did.

In “All Over Creation,” my character Geek, a fervent environmental activist, rails, "Kids, did you know that more than half of the soybeans planted in America are genetically engineered? And a third of the corn too..."

When Geek said this, in 1999, the percentage was about 54%. The USA Today article reports, "A full 80% of this year's U.S. soybean will be planted in bioengineered seed, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey released Monday. Biotech corn plantings now comprise 38% of all corn planted in the USA. Biotech cotton is holding steady at approximately 70%."

As Geek's spokesperson out here in the "real" world, I'm pointing out these increases because he can't, in order to express his concerns and assuage his frustrations. The problem with being a fictional character in a novel is that, once written, you are fixed in time, and you have to rely on your author to stay current—an unsatisfactory situation all around, given how unreliable and out-of-touch writers of fiction can be.

Critics sometimes accuse novelists of putting our opinions into our characters’ mouths. These critics do not understand the creative process at all. As you can see, it is quite the opposite. I speak for Geek, not the other way around. Through me, Geek says things like,

“Genetic engineering is changing the semantics, the meaning of life itself. We’re trying to usurp the plant’s choice. To force alien words into the plant’s poem, but we’ve got a problem. We barely know the root language. Genetic grammar’s a mystery, and our engineers are just once click up the evolutionary ladder from a roomful of monkeys, typing random sonnets on a bank of typewriters.”

I do not believe this. Having spent time with a number of scientists doing this kind of research, I can tell you that they are nothing like a roomful of randomly typing monkeys. They are very smart, very concerned, very impassioned truthseekers, albeit a bit cut off from reality, which is what happens when you are a research scientist working in a lab. I don’t fault them for this. I’m a novelist, and I spend most of my time cut off from reality, too.

The difference between me and them, however, that as a novelist, the sequestration of my work from reality is unbreachable. No one is going to take my ideas, the results of my research, and actually make them manifest in the real world. And as a result, there’s a limit to the amount of damage I can do. There’s no such thing as “applied” fiction.

But wait. Clearly I’m wrong. Look at the Bush administration’s tales regarding Iraq, and the fantastic narratives that have been constructed by White House spin doctors. Isn’t this applied fiction at its most extreme? Apparently there is no limit at all to the damage that can be done.

potato culture

First up, some words of gratitude:

Thanks to Brenda Weber and Doug Slaymaker and all the fine folks at the Kentucky Women’s Writers Festival last weekend. It was great to be part of your company …

Thanks to Harry W. Schwartz Bookstore in Milwaukee, and to the University Bookstore in Madison. I was happy to come back to Wisconsin with a finished book since I did a lot of the research for “All Over Creation” here. More on this below…

In Wichita, thanks to Sarah and Beth and all the very cool people of Watermark Books for such a very warm welcome. I’d been to every one of the United States except for Kansas, so this stop completes the country for me. And thanks to the kind woman who handed me the USA Today article about genetically engineered soybeans. I’ll return to this topic, too.

And finally, thanks to the Boulder Book Store in Boulder, Colorado, and the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver. It’s always wonderful to come back here, and it was especially fun this time because I finally got to meet Donna Gershten, author of the Bellwether Prize winning novel, “Kissing the Virgin’s Mouth.”

Now, back to spuds. During the tour, many people asked me what kind of research I did for "All Over Creation." I did quite a bit of research, but in the end, with a heavy heart, I decided to cut out the more arcane bits of potato trivia from the novel, for fear of sinking it under the sheer weight of my obsession. However, now I see that a weblog is the ideal place to recycle this material, and the more obsessive among you can read it if you'd like.

One of my main stops was Wisconsin. There is a thriving potato culture in the state of Wisconsin, and one of the hotspots is the USDA Potato Introduction Center in Sturgeon Bay, also known as NRSP-6. It is the point of entry for all potato germplasm into the nation’s potato breeding programs and thus into America’s food chain. I often slip up and call it the Potato Induction Center by mistake, because I have this stupid image in my mind of all the little potatoes lined up, saluting, and marching off to enlist.

However, the Introduction Center does not dabble with tubers. Their motto is “Genes, not Genotypes,” and they deal in seed. As a gene bank, their job is to reproduce and keep germplasm alive, to maintain sufficient quantity for distribution, and to keep stock lists of active seeds. When I was there, they were maintaining 4709 collections of potato germplasm.

In order to reproduce the seed, they must do extensive hand pollination, which is very cool. In nature, the bumblebee is the only pollinator of potatoes. It buzzes the flower, causing the anther to vibrate, which knocks off the pollen. Chico, the head gardener at the Center, made a little contraption from a door buzzer, which he uses to simulate the bee and to fool the potato flower into releasing its pollen. I imagine it's very sexy, if you're a male potato plant.

The mandate of station is to seek useful things, collected from the wild, and to disseminate these collections to users. Most users are professional plant breeders and researchers, affiliated with university, and occasionally corporate, breeding programs, but non-affiliated individuals and amateurs can receive germplasm, too.

The Sturgeon Bay station is a part of National Plant Germplasm System. In 1990, it joined Intergene, an international association of genebanks. The operating premise is one of basic co-operation. They share their techniques and the secrets of potato culture in order to create a global potato database.

The Potato Introduction Center, in keeping with NPGS policy, does not to keep patented materials or materials protected as intellectual property. The operating principle seems to be that germplasm is part of our "commons" and that anyone should be able to have free access to it. In a world of increasing privatization, I like this policy a lot.