His chosen topic was the eucalyptus tree and its role in California's ecology and history. The address did not go well.
Eucalyptus is not a native plant but a
Victorian import from Australia. In the eyes of those gathered at
the San Jose DoubleTree, it qualified as "invasive," "exotic,"
"alien" - all dirty words to this crowd, who were therefore
convinced that the tree was dangerously combustible, unfriendly to
birds, and excessively greedy in competing for water with honest
This was a reckless move. A reference to the tree as "indigenously Californian" elicited an abusive roar, as did an observation that without the aromatic import, the state would be like a "home without its mother."
Thereafter, the mild-mannered speaker
was continually interrupted by boos, groans, and exasperated gasps.
Only when he mentioned the longhorn beetle, a species imported
(illegally) from Australia during the 1990s with the specific aim of
killing the eucalyptus, did he earn a resounding cheer.
by Chad Ress
Many of them are influential in local government, and they yearn to restore the treeless "native" grassland that greeted the first European settlers of the Bay Area in 1769. (For centuries, Native Americans had cleared the trees to facilitate hunting.)
Thus the romantic Monterey cypress is a frequent target for the chain saws of the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department - even though two small stands in Monterey, just fifty miles south, are cherished and protected as natives. The cypress is not the only item on the nativist hit list.
Over the next few years, more than
450,000 trees in Oakland, Berkeley, and neighboring areas are due to
be destroyed in the name of "wildfire-risk reduction."
The National Invasive Species Council defines the enemy as,
But the late, great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould dismissed such notions as "romantic drivel."
Natives, he wrote, are simply,
Even so, anti-invasive ideology is prevalent across the country, from university biology departments to wildlife bureaucracies to garden clubs.
In Virginia, where I spend part of my time, a nice lady from the Virginia Native Plant Society told me that her idea of a truly natural landscape was the one viewed by the Jamestown settlers in 1607.
To that end, she sternly urged me to uproot my yellow-blossomed forsythia (of Balkan origin) and replace it with a "good native shrub."
In Texas, George W. Bush used to devote much of his presidential vacation time to destroying the tamarisk trees - reviled Eurasian imports - that grew on his ranch. Many states maintain invasive-plant councils (and sometimes exotic-pest-plant councils) to monitor and eradicate alien invaders.
Last year, the North Carolina
Invasive Plant Council gave its annual Certificate of Excellence
to two forest rangers who had detected a small patch of
- an invasive unwittingly imported from Asia in packing
crates, which the Vietnamese call "American weed," because it spread
on land defoliated by Agent Orange.
The active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup and many other weed killers, glyphosate is the weapon of choice for battling all sorts of invaders. A 2014 study by the California Invasive Plant Council found that more than 90 percent of the state's land managers used the compound, which is particularly recommended as a slayer of eucalyptus trees.
Discussing Phragmites australis, the reed found in wetlands throughout the country, Massachusetts conservation officials similarly tout this "effective" weed killer. Pennsylvania urges glyphosate's deployment against purple loosestrife, while Illinois recommends it for Japanese knotweed.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and
Fisheries prescribes it for cogongrass but warns that "multiple
applications for full control" may be required.
In February, National Invasive Species
Awareness Week was celebrated in Washington, complete with a
reception on Capitol Hill. Last year, 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.
But this number comes from a 2005 report by David Pimentel, an ecologist and scholar at Cornell, whose dislike of aliens apparently extends to the human variety, as evidenced by his public opposition to both legal and illegal immigration. Pimentel extrapolated at least some of his findings from such dubious assumptions as the dollar value of grain consumed by each rat in the United States.
In an earlier paper, he concluded that
cats were costing us $17 billion every year, after calculating that
our furry (and, in his view, non-native) friends kill an annual 568
million birds, and arbitrarily valuing each bird at $30.
by Chad Ress
The supposedly supercombustible eucalyptus, for example, survives fires that consume surrounding plant life - and rather than unfairly appropriating water, the tree actually irrigates soil by absorbing moisture from the coastal fogs through its leaves and funneling it out through its roots. (Though still cited as the prime culprit in the devastating 1991 Oakland firestorm, the eucalyptus was in fact cleared of responsibility in a FEMA report.)
Monarch butterflies belie its reputation
for repelling wildlife, the eucalyptus being their favored wintering
abode in California.
According to Matthew Chew, a historian of biology at Arizona State University, the tree's sorry reputation dates to a ploy during the 1940s by a local mining corporation, whose operations required enormous quantities of river water - which had already been allocated to local farmers and other businesses. The solution was to generate studies demonstrating the heinous quantities consumed by the thirsty tamarisk.
The destruction of the trees would
theoretically free up huge quantities of "new" water in the rivers,
which could then be used by the selfsame mining corporation.
But zebra mussels have successfully
filtered pollution in the notoriously filthy Lake Erie and other
waterways, thus promoting the revival of aquatic plants. The mussel
also feeds a growing population of smallmouth bass and lake
Delaware has responded by spraying and re-spraying on an annual basis a 6,700-acre expanse of the Delaware River estuary with thousands of gallons of glyphosate-based weed killer. In 2013, locals in the Hudson River community of Piermont, New York, discovered a plan to destroy a 200-acre reed marsh fronting the town.
Outraged, they fought back.
The townspeople were especially alarmed
to learn that the state's "toolbox" for eradication included heavy
spraying of herbicides -
glyphosate being the customary choice
- right next to two playgrounds.
Peter Del Tredici, formerly a senior research scientist at Harvard's Arnold Arboretum, points out that the New Jersey Turnpike bears much of the blame: by blocking tidal flows, inimical to phragmites, it has allowed the reed to flourish.
Ripping out the highway would bring back the cordgrass soon enough.
In any case, he said, the very idea of,
Mark Davis, a professor of biology at Macalester College and a frequent critic of anti-invasive hysteria, put it more pungently.
Far from crowding out native species, he argued, invasives tend to move into areas that have been ravaged, or at least disturbed, by human activity.
They are, in other words, a symptom, not
a cause. Cogongrass is one striking example, but the same pattern
recurs with many vilified species. Ailanthus, a salt-friendly
seaside tree from China, spread inland from the East Coast along the
fringes of America's interstates, tracking the salt religiously
spread by highway departments during winter snowstorms.
It's not as though hostility to newly arrived plant species has been a great American tradition.1
1 Overseas, it was another matter, notably in Hitler's Germany. Nazism's view of non-native plants was consistent with its view of non-native humans.
In California, the eucalyptus was once universally cherished for its graceful and colorful appearance in a land often devoid of trees - indeed, during the 1870s, it was planted by the hundreds of thousands.
A century ago, the tamarisk was promoted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as an ideal means to prevent soil erosion in the Southwest.
Even kudzu was once hailed as the "Lord's indulgent gift to Georgians": government nurseries grew millions of seedlings and distributed them to farmers as a restorative for depleted soil.
David Theodoropoulos, a California naturalist and seed merchant and the author of Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience, is blunt about what he sees as a deadly inversion of environmental priorities.
Retracing some recent history may help to answer his question.
During the Reagan era, when environmentalists were still imbued with the spirit of Earth Day, nobody worried about invasive species. Instead, well-organized, militant groups were busy fighting chemical pollution, nuclear power, shale-oil drilling, logging devastation, and other corporate onslaughts.
According to Jeffrey St. Clair, a historian of environmentalism,
By 1992, the movement had a self-appointed standard-bearer in the political arena: Senator Al Gore of Tennessee.
That year he published his best-selling Earth in the Balance, in which he manfully vowed to bear the political costs of his environmental crusading:
These uplifting sentiments were not always matched by actions. Critics noted Gore's championship while in Congress of the $8 billion Clinch River breeder-reactor project, riddled with fraud and bribery.
They also pointed out his legislative maneuvers on behalf of the Tellico Dam, on the Little Tennessee River, a $100 million boondoggle denounced by David Brower, the founder of Friends of the Earth, as,
Following the 1992 election, former Gore staffers moved into key environmental posts at the EPA and elsewhere.
There they would benefit would-be
polluters such as Disney (which had just been fined for dumping
sewage in the Florida wetlands) and food processors (irked by a 1958
ban on carcinogens, soon to be repealed under the 1996 Food Quality
So when Senator Bob Graham of Florida wrote to him in June 1997 about,
In fact, the issue was already on Gore's mind.
A few weeks earlier, he had received a letter signed by a large group of biology professors, including the eminent scholar and ant expert E.O. Wilson, warning that,
Among the ominous examples cited were the zebra mussel and the invasion of San Francisco Bay by a new exotic species,
Gore sprang into action.
He reassured Graham that Clinton's circle of scientific advisers had already established a Biodiversity and Ecosystems Panel, which would,
The panel's chair, he noted
parenthetically, was Peter Raven.
Wade Davis, an ethnobotanist at the University of British Columbia, describes Raven as a,
...Raven was (and is) a hugely
influential figure, with a network that extends through academic,
government, and corporate bureaucracies.
Like Ehrlich, Raven tended to express a gloomy view of the planet's prospects. He regularly lamented the wholesale loss of our biodiversity, brought about by the accelerating extinction of plant and animal species.
Raven's panel set to work and released its report, Teaming with Life: Investing in Science to Understand and Use America's Living Capital, in March 1998.
The report took a bearish view of the ecological future, sounding an apocalyptic note on the first page:
Although the document repeatedly stressed the virtues of biodiversity, it showed little sympathy for,
The zebra mussel, receiving no thanks for its heroic pollution-control efforts, was singled out for obloquy, having,
(A decade later, a careful study by a
team of Cornell scientists assessed zebra-mussel damage at one
twentieth of that amount over fifteen years.)
The Monsanto Company could not have put it better. This was not surprising, since Raven (who retired in 2010) and Monsanto were close, both geographically and financially.
The Missouri Botanical Garden was located just a few miles from Monsanto headquarters in St. Louis, and it owed much of its explosive growth to the beneficence of the corporation, which was in the process of changing its public identity from a chemical manufacturer and purveyor of Agent Orange to a "life sciences company" - one heavily invested in GMOs.
In April 1996, Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro joined Raven to break ground for the Monsanto Center, a four-story structure designed to house the garden's unique collection of botanical books and dried plants.
Monsanto had contributed $2 million toward the center's construction, and had also donated the land and $50 million for the Danforth Plant Science Center, another GMO-intensive research facility.
For his part, Raven spoke publicly about the virtues of GMOs.
The company's grand scheme was to genetically modify crops - particularly corn, soybeans, and cotton - to render them immune to the glyphosate in Roundup. This would allow farmers to spray weeds without killing the crops.
Teaming with Life featured a Monsanto photograph of a flourishing bioengineered plant next to a pathetic non-engineered plant obviously about to expire.
I asked Raven whether his efforts to protect the natural world didn't clash in some way with his support for something very unnatural: GMO technology.
While Monsanto played God during the 1990s, the Clinton Administration had its back - a policy consistent with its corporate-friendly approach to environmental issues.
When, for example, the French balked at allowing GMO corn into their country, the president, the secretary of state, the national-security adviser, and assorted U.S. senators pleaded Monsanto's cause. (The French finally caved when Gore himself phoned the prime minister to lobby on the corporation's behalf.) 2
In addition, Washington's revolving door
whirled many Clinton Administration officials onto the Monsanto
payroll, while the president's committee of science and technology
advisers included Virginia Weldon, the corporation's senior
vice president for public policy.
Within a year, Clinton signed Executive Order 13112, creating the National Invasive Species Council,
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.
Then someone noticed that it destroyed any plant it touched. By the late 1990s, Monsanto's Roundup revenues were growing at 20 percent a year, and the compound was duly revered inside the corporation.
As the former company executive put it to me:
Such divine status was assured by its symbiotic relationship with Monsanto's bioengineered corn and soybeans.
The strategy worked. Farmers were
planting GMO crops in ever-increasing amounts - from just over 4
million acres worldwide in 1996 to 430 million in 2013.
As the rain of glyphosate increased, surpassing 141,000 tons on U.S. crops in 2012, the butterfly's food supply dwindled to the vanishing point.
In 1995, at the dawn of the Roundup
Ready era, a billion monarchs fluttered over America's fields; by
2014, the number had fallen to 35 million, and there was talk of
declaring the butterfly an endangered species.
Those that remain are likely to host other invasive plants, such as garlic mustard, denounced as a,
Meanwhile, the growth curve in glyphosate use has steepened, thanks to a practice that began in 2004.
Late in the season, many farmers are now spraying the compound on crops that are not bioengineered to resist it, in order to kill them off and produce artificially early harvests.
Over the years, there have been repeated allegations that glyphosate is dangerous for humans - charges vehemently denied by Monsanto and its friends in high places.
Rand Beers, George W. Bush's assistant secretary of state for international narcotics, was defending the U.S.-funded spraying of a glyphosate-based compound on millions of acres in Colombia as part of an effort to wipe out coca plantations.
Despite Beers's dutiful denials,
however, the mixture turned out to be a lot more dangerous than baby
shampoo, afflicting the population with painful rashes and other
ailments. It also did a fine job of wiping out the vegetables and
poultry that made up the local food supply, while often failing to
kill the coca plant, its intended target.
In 2013, a French report on the compound's carcinogenic effect on rats was withdrawn in the face of an intense lobbying effort by the company.
Through thick and thin, Monsanto stuck to its mantra: in the words of a company spokesperson,
Then came a massive speed bump.
This past March, seventeen scientists met in Lyon, France, under the auspices of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, to assess the carcinogenic potential of several chemicals. The group was led by Aaron Blair, an internationally renowned epidemiologist and the author of more than 450 scientific papers, who spent thirty years at the National Cancer Institute.
Among the chemicals they evaluated
Absent glyphosate exposure, the tumors,
The studies on human beings, conducted in the United States, Canada, and Sweden, pointed to an equally grim conclusion.
According to Blair, there were good grounds to declare that glyphosate definitely causes cancer.
This did not happen, he said, because,
In other words, while several studies suggested a link, another study, of farmers in Iowa and North Carolina, did not.
Blair pointed out that there had been a
similar inconsistency in human studies of benzene, now universally
acknowledged as a carcinogen. In any case, this solitary glitch in
the data caused the group to list glyphosate as a probable
(instead of a definite) cause of cancer.3
3 When asked about Blair's
report, the Monsanto spokesman reiterated that "glyphosate is not a
carcinogen" and cited a 2013 EPA study that concluded, "Glyphosate
does not pose a cancer risk to humans." He also noted that the
I.A.R.C., in its own words, identifies cancer hazards "even when
risks are very low with known patterns of use or exposure."
GMO Answers, a P.R. website put together by the biotech-food industry, featured a host of derisive posts about the study. Sympathetic journalists went to bat on behalf of the lucrative toxin.
Hugh Grant, Monsanto's chairman and CEO, was curtly dismissive:
As it had on previous occasions, the company demanded a retraction of the report.
When we talked, it didn't sound as if Blair was likely to do any such thing.
The French government agreed, promptly banning the sale of Roundup by garden stores in response to Blair's report.
The Colombian authorities meanwhile
halted the coca-spraying program, over U.S. government protests. The
program had not been a huge success, of course, given the target
plant's remarkable ability to survive the spray.
Although Monsanto scientists had deemed such a development nearly impossible for weeds targeted by the Roundup Ready system, species subjected to prolonged exposure began to adapt and survive even as farmers were harvesting their first bioengineered crops.
It has now become common for farmers to
spray three times a season instead of once, and Charles Benbrook
estimates that the extra doses of herbicide will add up to 75,000
tons in 2015.
But in recent years, farmers have been encountering a new kind of mare's tail: a superweed produced by years of glyphosate treatment.
Not only does it refuse to die when
drenched with four times the recommended dose but it appears to gain
strength from the experience, growing up to eight feet tall, with
stems thick enough, according to one farmer, to "stop a combine in