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Child of the Earth: Eric Herm on GMO Seeds, organic cotton & the future of farming

Eric Herm is farmer/writer who was raised on a cotton farm in Texas. Straying away from his family’s fourth generation tradition, he attended Abilene Christian University. He graduated with a degree in broadcast journalism and began a career in sports television broadcasting which he soon gave up for a nomadic lifestyle. He traveled across America, Mexico, Europe, and Northern Africa before he returned to his family’s acreage more than a decade. Following a return to his roots, Herm noticed that the agricultural scene had changed.

GMO seeds, herbicides, and pesticides had become commonplace, leading to harmful consequences. Herm realized that the rise of chemical usage caused numerous problems like rapid soil degradation and more weeds and insects. He expressed his frustration into his first book “Son of a Farmer, Child of the Earth.” Specifically, he details an incident where all of his crops were destroyed because the wind had carried over pesticides that had been used in a neighbor’s soil. Herm also provides resources for farmers to revert back to traditional agriculture and make a positive change for themselves and their crops.

Following is the transcript of an interview Eric did for ‘Open Sesame – The Story of Seeds’. There was no way to include all the amazing information he had to share in the film itself, so we decided to make the text available. We have done our best to edit the transcript, but any errors are the mistakes of the filmmaker, not of Eric Herm.

OPEN SESAME: What was your Dad’s reaction when you told him you were going organic?

When I first explained to my dad that I wasn’t going to be planting GMO seeds, he wasn’t exactly thrilled. But everyone has their beliefs, and this was a conscious thing for me because here we were having a negative impact on the environment and potentially ourselves. The cycle of life is involved in agriculture and nature and it took awhile, I mean it really took awhile. After presenting him with lots of information and research that I found, he started to see and continues to see it now with our neighbors. After several years now that the roundup herbicide has lost its effect on the weeds. You know we see super weeds all around us in our neighbor’s fields and they are having a tough time killing their weeds.
While we work harder, it takes a lot more work to do it the way that we are; we take a lot more pride in that. Because we are planting real seed, we are planting seed that is pure and and that way of life, that way of farming, I think is really the only way we can really consciously do this, moving forward.

OPEN SESAME: Can everyone go organic?

Maybe it’s not for everyone. There’s gonna be conventional farming. Then there’s some instances where guys will never go organic. But to me it’s the roundup ready crops, the GM crops, where it’s such an issue. And that’s dominating the commodity crops now; I mean 90% of everything.but yeah I mean I don’t it’s It’s hard to say everyone should be an organic farmer, because I don’t think so. But there certainly needs to be more organic farmers. There needs to be more farmers in general because that’s one thing people don’t ever really talk about. After the baby boom generation leaves we’re gonna have a huge void to fill on the farming scene.

OPEN SESAME: How important are seeds?

Seeds are everything. Seeds are life. That is the beginning and the end of of where all this happens. Every year I’m still really amazed. I mean it’s still a miracle to me where you just take this tiny little thing, and you put it in a little bit of dirt, and hen you come back in a  few days, and  it’s growing and reaching for the sun. It’s nothing short of miraculous to me. I mean every year we plant millions millions of these seeds,but in the same instance we’ve  become so desensitized.Let me say that again. We’ve become so detached from the wonders of nature that seed itself is just treated like any other commodity. It’s just something you  buy, and that’s what’s happened with the GM seeds. It’s just become something you buy for the year. And to me that’s the greatest travesty in all of this. Because here we are taking the greatest symbol of life and putting a patent on it; putting a label on it and saying you have to buy this from me every year.

And we’re forfeiting our rights as farmers and as individuals by going out and buying these GM seeds. And we’re losing so much of our freedom in the process and then we’re just forfeiting this wonder of nature and acting like it’s no big deal. And to me it’s everything because, without the seeds, we got nothing. I mean not just farmers, but everyone.

OPEN SESAME: Do people understand how important seeds are?

No, I don’t think people understand how important seeds are. It’s like everything; we take it for granted. I think that agriculture in general is taken for granted We’re starting to see a lot more attention being paid to it in recent years and we’re moving forward because of the food system. And people are starting to learn more and educate themselves more. That’s where I think we’re doing a disservice to ourselves. We’re not educating ourselves and our kids. I think we need to get into the school systems, reach out, and put seeds in their hands.

And not just a one year project when you’re in first grade and you never do it again. I think it needs to be part of the school curriculum. We need to bring nature back into the schools because it’s easy to say oh well there’s boy scouts or there’s this and that that people can join. But how many people actually get involved in those organizations? But if we can take agriculture and nature, bring those into the school systems, and start educating kids about it then it becomes a part of their lives and then they don’t take it for granted because they know so much more about it.

OPEN SESAME: Are seeds at risk?

I believe that seeds are. Our seed supply is in danger because you look at the contamination that’s involved with the GM crops and you know the cross pollination is a direct threat on healthy seeds, on organic seeds, and on our indigenous seeds supply in general. I mean you look at it, and even in organics you can have up to five percent contamination and still be organic. But if five percent of it is contaminated, that’s too much. And when we’re  surrounded on all sides by GM crops, it’s virtually impossible to keep a pure strain of seed.

OPEN SESAME: Why are organic seeds important?

To me, we need to put more emphasis on creating stronger organic seeds, indigenous seeds. I think that we’ve lost that over the last few years. But you look at USDA, who put in a lot of research, traveled across the world, and found natural indigenous seed that has been grown for 100s of thousands of years because it’s already drought tolerant and resistant to diseases. So to me, the organic seeds are stronger. They’re more vigorous because they’ve been a part of the environment for so many years. And to me the new seeds are not as tough. I mean you can go and look at our crops right next to our neighbors’. The roundup ready crops, the GM, are burning up quicker than ours. And they want to push this stuff as more drought tolerant because you’re not plowing the soil more. I mean it’s false advertising. It’s just more lies that they’re trying to sell to put people at ease and so farmers will continue to buy those seeds.

OPEN SESAME:  What does the future hold for GMOs?

The scary part is that they’re just getting warmed up. These biotech companies continue to bombard the market with the latest and greatest concept, poisonous seed, or whatever they can entice farmers with. I mean you see the roundup ready crops that are becoming less resistant to the weeds. So now they’re coming out with the 24D brand that should be on the market soon. And so here we have a more dangerous herbicide; something that kills all broad leaf plants next to it. It’s gonna impact grass, trees, and everything. The roundup ,a lot of the time, makes our crops sick and they don’t grow for a few weeks.But now, if we encounter something like 24D drift while planting these types of seed, it’s gonna completely wipe out our crops.

OPEN SESAME: What is 24D’s history?

24D, I believe, is part of Agent Orange. 24D was the active ingredient in Agent Orange and it’s still in other herbicides. 24D was basically Agent Orange. It’s the active ingredient, and it’s been marketed and sold in many other different types of poisons. But it is a very dangerous, highly volatile herbicide.

OPEN SESAME: Are GMO Seeds cheaper?

GM Seed is kind of like a twilight zone episode. Have you ever seen the episode where a character bought a bottle of water that she was told would make her look younger? And the first one’s free. Well  the next time he comes back it’s $%0 and the next time it’s a $1000. She’s just got to have this water. That’s kind of what happened with the roundup ready seeds The GM seed, when it first started, they gave everyone a discount price. $60 per bag; $70 per bag. Everyone could afford it. Well now the guys are paying $350 for  50 pounds of seed.

When we grow our own seed, we’ve got less than $30 per bag into it. But indigenous natural seed guys are paying 10 times that for the roundup ready seeds in places like Georgia. They’re paying up to $500 per bag. So they have different prices for different areas knowing what farmers will pay for it. And if you look at those rates, I mean guys are going to be paying $1200  for a 50 pound bag in just a few years. I mean…when is it gonna stop? When are farmers gonna wake up and say we can’t do this anymore? What’s happening is farmers are completely having a skeleton crew on their farm now. They’re cutting back costs on every  other  level. Because all the money is going to the  herbicide and high priced seed.

OPEN SESAME: Seed Patents vs. Chem Patents

Yes, they have their roundup ready seed but then there’s other companies like Dupont. They have  Liberty Link I think as  their  seed. So they have their own herbicide that goes with that. So  each seed has its own gene that has that  particular  herbicide that it’s resistant to. So they basically copied Monsanto’s formula but then added their own type of herbicide.

OPEN SESAME: When will farmers stop?

It’s not hard at all. It’s not hard to stop planting the GM seeds. When we did it, I mean you can’t do it overnight. It took me a few years to. The farmer who had farmed it before had been farming it roundup ready for several years. But it really took me a couple of years to get the weeds under control because it was like there was no poison used the next year.  The weeds came back with a vengeance, like OH YEAH HURRAH! We can do this, we’re growing. But it’s just kinda like a detox in your body.

It takes a little bit of time, but it is possible to do it. The earth is so resilient if we allow it to heal. If we do what it needs, which is rotate in other crops, and treat it with natural organic fertilizers. It’s incredible.

OPEN SESAME: Have politics become a distraction to the issues we’re facing?

Yeah there’s always these distractions. As soon as we start  narrowing down the problem they’ll start bringing in something from the left field.  So we’re constantly trying to look at things with the farm bill or with this issue or that issue. We’re really missing the point that agricultural farmers are threatened by all of this. Whether you’re planting this seed or not, this is a threat to our way of life. Because of the domination of the seed. Because ofwhat it’s doing to our soil. It’slong term effects.

But the problem is that the government is working hand in hand with these companies. If you look at a lot of the legislation that’s been written now, I mean it’s written by these biotech companies. I mean there’s a rider, a Monsanto rider, right now that they’re trying to sneak in. That basically provides them immunity from any judge and, if that’s signed, it doesn’t matter what any judge says They can still go ahead and put any type of GM Seed on the market. No matter what they approve in a lab or how dangerous or harmful it may be. And that’s what’s happening. They’re getting more and more rights.

Yeah. If the Monsanto rider goes through, these biotech companies have complete immunity from any judge’s decision. So if some new seed on the market comes through and it’s proved to be completely dangerous, there’ s nothing that any court can do or say to stop them. I mean the secretary of Agriculture just has to sign the piece of paper and say it’s okay. And if you look at Tom Vilsak, who is the secretary of Agriculture now, he has a long history with these bio tech companies.

OPEN SESAME: What are some of the dangers that GM seeds pose?

With the seed, with the growth of the seed, and the pollination process, it takes all walks of life. You’re looking at insects and wild life that comes through the fields that may graze on the plants. Insects, first and foremost, I see the most danger because of these genes. They have the BT gene or whatever gene it is to kill insects. I mean there are so many different types of insects that get involved. Whether it’s bees or lady bugs all these different, wonderful creatures that it takes to make a crop to produce food ingest it into their bodies. I mean you’re looking at decimating all these little creatures. So, how are we gonna have crops? How are we gonna produce anything if we don’t have the insects to pollinate them. It’s not like these genes are selective in which insects they distort. It’s destructive to all of them if they ingest this. So we’re looking at decimating not only ourselves, but also our soil and the insects. I mean every living creature is impacted by this.

OPEN SESAME: Please list some of the impacts of GMO seeds.

You look at the monarch butterfly. It’s main habitat is the milk weed. We’ll be destroying the milk weed across entire nation. You look at honey bees; you look at any type of wasp that helps. You look at any subsoil worm or creature that is needed to have good, healthy top soil: earthworms and all of these microscopic organisms that we don’t even know the name of. But we know we need them to have healthy soil. I mean we’re killing them. And without those little tiny creatures you don’t have healthy soil, and you’re not going to have a healthy crop.

OPEN SESAME: What are some of the costs of the modernization of agriculture?

To me it’s that we have a bond with nature. Everything is connected. And really in our progression, our pursuit of modernization, we have all this technology and it’s wonderful, but we tend lose a little bit of our magic. Because we refuse to really allow ourselves to make that connection with nature. Everything is a commodity; we gotta buy this and buy that. We look at that crop and we see $ signs. We don’t see life. We don’t see look at this.look at this handful of seeds. We see something that’s gonna make us money. And to deny that is not allowing us to be who we are meant to be. I mean we are a part of nature. We are a part of nature, but when we try to remove ourselves from that equation, that’s when this all gets messy That’s when we start making all these mistakes and we start really disrupting the whole flow of life; the whole flow of energy that’s needed for things to be to be as pure as they should.

OPEN SESAME: How do we reach farmers to educate them?

There’s not gonna be one thing that’s gonna reach everyone. For some it’s gonna be economical; for some it’s gonna be environmental And, maybe for some, it’s the human health aspect. We could present all this information in a neat package and some people may never believe it. Some people may never be reached. But we have to reach enough farmers who realize that we can change this for the better. That we can take back our seeds. We can have those freedoms as farmers again. These seeds don’t belong to us or any company; they belong to the earth. These belong to everyone. And how we go about doing that, that’s the multibillion dollar question. I wish I had the answer but, like I said, I think it’s gonna be different for everyone. Until guys see it harming them, and  their own farms, and maybe their own family, But I hope we don’t get to that point.

OPEN SESAME: How can we regain our connection to seeds?

Good question. I think it’s by realizing that these seeds are life by realizing that this is ME. This is you. This seed is everything we really need. You know, we don’t need all the stuff that we think we do to get by but we gotta have food and we gotta have water.

And I really  think that if we can just take the time to just pause and remove ourselves from the day to day grind, the rat race, we can take those moments to realize: what is it in life that we need? Is all this other stuff gonna make us happy? If we’re completely ruining our own health and contaminating everything in the process to benefit companies? I mean their bottom line is money. What is our bottom line? I mean that’s where we are I think as a species, especially in this country. Everything’s become about money, but where is that taking us? I mean, where are we now? We have so many issues we failed to deal with and we get distracted by the noise and I think we just have to calm the noise and really ask ourselves: What are we in this for?
OPEN SESAME: How do you connect to nature personally?
I have the opportunity every day to just go out into an open field and I can sit there. I can listen to everything. Or I can go out there and I can scream as loud as I want! Some days you need both! Some days you need to scream; some days you just need to go out there and listen. To me, find a lot of the answers just going out there and listening. I stay still and listen to see what nature has to say. And if we’re able to do that we’ll find a lot more solutions. And if we don’t ever take the time to listen then we’ll probably create more problems.

OPEN SESAME: What percentage of Americans are farmers?

Less than 1% of Americans are farmers. I mean, back in the 1860s we were 67%. In the 1930s we were 33%. And here we are just on this steady decline. And, like I said, most of us  take a lot of things for granted. Agriculture and farmers are certainly taken for granted.

OPEN SESAME: What impact has the loss of farmers had?

Well, we don’t need farmers.We don’t need all this production But where are we gonna get that knowledge? Where are we gonna find those people that have been doing this for generations? I mean if you lose that, to me, you lose not just an occupation.You  lose a way of life. You lose a hundred years’ worth of knowledge and information.

I mean there are still things I will go to my dad, my granddad for, or somebody who has been doing this for 30-40-50 years and they’ve seen this type of problem before. It may be the first time I’ve seen it, but somebody else has experienced it. And if you lose farmers you lose a wealth of knowledge. And to me it’s just not something that you could  pass off like ‘oh well you know it’s not like we’re vikings and conquistadors’. It’s not some fad. There haveve always been farmers.  To me, everybody can be a farmer. just by learning how to grow a little bit of  his or her own food. You know, instead of just considering yourself a hobby gardener or whatever. To me we’re all farmers or we need to be.

OPEN SESAME What’s the difference between a farmer and a gardener?

Your perspective. Yeah. I mean the only difference between farmer and gardener is your perspective and what you want to be called. All the time I say that, as farmers, we’re just really big gardeners. Gardeners with a little bit more land. A gardener can look at him or herself f as a farmer. Really, there’s no difference. And I sometimes joke that we’re just a bunch of hicks in the middle of nowhere putting seed in the ground and trying to make it grow.

But now I think gardeners probably have a little more intimate relationship and as farmers we’ve been trained to have more of a disconnect. You know a commodity; our crop is a commodity.  If you’re a gardener that’s your food and you try to maintain that aspect or that concept as a gardener. You know when you walk into that field that’s a piece of you. That’s a piece of me and it’s life. I mean I’m enhancing life; that’s my job: to bring more life to my little corner of the universe. And if I’m just treating it as $ signs then I’m not gonna have that relationship.

OPEN SESAME: What were some of the changes we saw post World War 2?

After World War 2  everything became about producing more. Everything was a big assembly line and agriculture became an extension of that philosophy. And you know we’ve become more mechanized, more reliant on technology, and we’ve lost some of that connection that we used to have. And to me we need to embrace some of the technology, but that can’t be the foundation upon what we’re doing. And with our growing these crops and producing food,  We have to maintain some of the old concepts and incorporate that with some of our technology and not allow just technology alone. We can’t be convinced that that’s what’s going to save us moving forward.

OPEN SESAME: In nature’s economy what is the currency?

In nature’s economy, the currency is seed. It’s life. I keep saying that the seed is a symbol of life and it is. You know we try and it’s so warped and so disturbing because you think that nature’s currency is life; it’s energy. It’s the flow that keeps everything moving forward and completing the circle. And if we’re enhancing life, if we’re trying to invigorate it rather than decimate it, that’s the only way we can really be at ease. I mean if all this is just about creating more money um, I don’t know why we’re bothering. I don’t know what the point is. Because I just feel like we can leave the place better than we found it. That that’s our job as farmers, as well as anyone, in whatever industry that you’re in. To try to learn how to create that balance between what you’re doing and how that enhances the life around you.

OPEN SESAME: What makes a seed grow?

To me a seed is no different than us. I mean you need sunshine, you need water, and you need love. And you need food. And that seed needs food just like you and I do. And it could be summed up easily with nourishment. But if you get sunlight, you’ get water, you get love, you’re gonna be pretty happy.

And that’s you want on your farm. That’s what you want to walk out into. You want to see these plants that are just vibrating with life and pulsating. You can feel it. You can feel the energy there. You don’t want to just walk into a field that’s been turned into a laboratory where it’s completely sterile.

OPEN SESAME: What are the impacts of GMO cotton?

It’s easy to see where cotton is not a big deal, but it’s a part of you. It’s on your body; it’s there every day. When I go out and buy an organic shirt I can feel the difference. It’s just softer. I feel like I can just put it on my body and go. But if I buy something that is not organic I’m gonna wash it. Because when you know all the chemicals that are involved in getting that cotton to you, it’s hard for us to say all that just disappears. Just because it’s on a piece of clothing. And people need to realize that also cotton is cooking oil.

You know it’s very  high nutrition that’s used in a lot of feed for livestock. So it’s not just in clothing; it’s in everything. It’s made of money. Money is made of cotton. It goes into cosmetics. It goes into all sorts of different things and people have no idea.

OPEN SESAME: How serious is the situation with seeds?

I want people to really start understanding what’s going on with the seed supply.What’s  happened  is that it’s been completely hijacked by these corporations. And this isn’t a spiel or a plea  to get sympathy; this is a wake up call. This is a real wake up call.  If we continue to ignore what’s happening, and allow these corporations to just completely dominate our seed supply, we’re gonna wake up one of these days and we’re not going to have anything left that we can call our own. And like I said the seed is life. It’s everything and if we allow them to own the seed then they  really own life itself. And I don’t see how anybody can put a price tag on that. I don’t see how anybody can market that.