Exterminating the Amaranth

Amaranth, one of the oldest grains in the world, is at risk from GM technology.

Amaranth grains

Amaranth has the highest iron content among cereal grains, is rich in complex carbohydrates, protein, and calcium, and is nearly 500 percent rcher in carotene than GE "Golden Rice."

Photo by Flickr/orphanjones

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Amaranth is a sacred grain, from the Himalaya to the Andes, for Indian civilization and the civilizations of Meso-America. First cultivated by the Indigenous peoples of the Americas — notably the Aztecs — it is one of the oldest grains in the world. The root word amara, in both Greek and Sanskrit, means “eternal” or “deathless.” Yet today amaranth is under threat from modern agro-industry.

Varieties of amaranth grow all over India. Its leaves contain more iron than spinach and have a more delicate taste. Apart from rice bran, amaranth grain has the highest content of iron amongst cereals. Thus, adding amaranth flour to wheat/rice flour is a cheap and healthy way to prevent nutritional anemia, rather than buying expensive tablets, tonics, health drinks, and so on.

Amaranth is extremely rich in complex carbohydrates and in protein. It has 12–18 percent more protein than other cereals, and is particularly high in lysine, an essential amino acid. Amaranth grain is also one of the richest sources of calcium.

Amaranth greens are incredible edibles that grow uncultivated in our fields. They are a major source of protein, calcium, phosphorus, carotene, vitamin C, magnesium, zinc, sodium, and potassium. Amaranth is nearly 500 percent richer in carotene than the genetically modified “Golden Rice,” which is being promoted as a means of addressing vitamin A deficiency in some of the world’s poorest countries.

In many parts of the world, therefore, the poorest, landless woman and her children have access to nutrition through the generous gift of the amaranth. Yet, just as during the Spanish colonial era cultivating amaranth was made illegal in Mexico, so in our time modern industrial agriculture has treated amaranth greens as “weeds” and tried to kill them with herbicides.

Then came Monsanto, with the company’s “Roundup Ready” crops, genetically engineered to resist Roundup pesticide, so that the GM crop would survive while everything else that was green was killed. A Monsanto spokesman explained this philosophy thus: herbicide-resistant GMOs “prevent the weeds from stealing the

This view is so distorted. First, what are weeds to Monsanto are food and nutrition to the women of the South. Second, the sun shines with abundance for all. Sharing its blessing is a right of all species. In the world of biodiversity and the sun, there is no scarcity: there is abundance. Sharing abundance creates abundance. It is not stealing.

Of course, stealing in this sense is a concept created by Monsanto to protect the intellectual property of its products. When farmers save and share seeds, Monsanto would like to define it as “stealing.” When the sun shines on the earth and plants grow, Monsanto would like to define it as plants “stealing” the sunshine.

This is how seed famine and food famine are engineered, through a worldview that transforms the richness of diversity into monocultures, and abundance into scarcity.

GMOs were supposed to be “precise” and “predictable.” Roundup Ready crops were supposed to control weeds. Instead we now have “superweeds” covering half the farmland of the United States. Ironically, Palmer amaranth, Amaranthus palmeri, also known as pigweed, has emerged as one of these superweeds, its resistance to modern glyphosate herbicides making it a threat to U.S. farmers unaware of its history as a native crop that is both nutritious and highly drought-resistant.

Intelligence requires that we stop and assess why the use of GMOs and other agro-industrial techniques is creating superweeds instead of controlling weeds. Such an assessment is real science. And a scientific assessment would tell us that plants evolve resistance to herbicides that are supposed to kill them because they have intelligence and evolve. Denial of intelligence in life and denial of evolution are unscientific.

The paradigm of genetic engineering is based on genetic determinism and genetic reductionism. It is based on a denial of the self-organized, evolutionary potential of living organisms.

A scientific assessment of the failure of herbicides and GMOs to control weeds, and the success of ecological agriculture in controlling pests and weeds without the use of such violent tools should lead to a paradigm shift from industrial farming to ecological agriculture. Instead, the mechanical mind continues its blind race to control and conquer, and continues to fail.

Instead of seeing the emergence of Palmer amaranth as a superweed as a result of the failure of the misguided approach of herbicide-resistant GMOs, the GMO industry is now rushing to push the amaranth species to extinction through the deployment of the untested tools of gene editing and gene drives.

A recent report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), Gene Drives on the Horizon: Advancing Science, Navigating Uncertainty, and Aligning Research with Public Values, sponsored by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Bill Gates Foundation, states clearly: “One possible goal of release of a gene-drive modified organism is to cause the extinction of the target species or a drastic reduction in its abundance.”

Gene drives have been called “mutagenic chain reactions,” and are to the biological world what chain reactions are to the nuclear world. Kevin Esvelt of MIT has cautioned that “a release anywhere is likely to be a release everywhere.”

The NAS report cites the “potential benefit” of creating gene drives in Palmer amaranth to reduce or eliminate the weed on agricultural fields in the southern United States.

Then it casually admits the potential harm: “Gene drives developed for agricultural purposes could also have adverse effects on human well-being. Transfer of a suppression drive to a non-target wild species could have both adverse environmental outcomes and harmful effects on vegetable crops, for example. Palmer amaranth … is a damaging weed in the United States, but related Amaranthus species are cultivated for food … in Mexico, South America, India, and China.”

The right to food and nutrition of the people outside the U.S., and the right of the amaranth to continue to grow and evolve and nourish people are threatened by powerful people in the U.S. because they have messed up their agriculture and now want to mess up the planet, its biodiversity and our food and agriculture systems with the tool of gene drives to push species to extinction.

As in the case of GMOs, the rush for gene drives and CRISPR-based gene editing is linked to patents. Bill Gates is financing the research that is leading to patents. And, with other billionaires, he has invested $130 million in a company, Editas, to promote these technologies.

Deliberately exterminating species is a crime against Nature and humanity. Developing tools of extermination in the garb of saving the world is a crime we should not allow.

As Kevin Esvelt asks, “Do you really have the right to run an experiment where if you screw up, it affects the whole world?”   

Vandana Shiva is the director of Navdanya. This article was first published in Resurgence & Ecologist (issue 299, November/December 2016). All rights to this article are reserved to The Resurgence Trust. To buy a copy of the magazine, read further articles, or find out about the Trust, visit Resurgence & Ecologist.