Why Worry About Invasive Species?

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Let’s talk about invasive species for a bit. Last Sunday, the New York Times printed a strange op-ed by George Ball, president of the seed and plant company W. Atlee Burpee & Company, which argued that environmentalists—or, in his marvelously neutral language, “botanical xenophobes”—should stop worrying and let his company sell exotic and non-native plans to anyone who wants them:

The horticultural world is having its own debate over immigration, with some environmentalists warning about the dangers of so-called exotic plants from other countries and continents “invading” American gardens. These botanical xenophobes say that a pristine natural state exists in our yards and that to disturb it is both sinful and calamitous. In their view, exotic plants will swallow your garden, your neighbors’ gardens and your neighbors’ neighbors’ gardens until the ecosystem collapses under their rampant suffocating growth.

If anything suffocates us, though, it will be the environmentalists’ narrowmindedness. Like all utopian visions, their dream beckons us into a perfect and rational natural world where nothing ever changes — a world that never existed and never will.

I’m not aware of very many environmentalists trafficking in “utopian visions” these days; most of them are too busy figuring out how to avoid complete ecological disaster. I’d encourage everyone to read Stephen Meyer’s excellent Boston Review piece on the loss of biodiversity around the world today, which notes that over the next century “over half of the Earth’s species, representing a quarter of the planet’s genetic stock, will disappear.” Invasive species are a big reason why. Not only that, but the human costs are steep:

Ecological concerns such as biotic homogenization aside, the economic toll [of doing absolutely nothing about invasive species] would be disastrous. The economic harm caused by the 50,000 non-native invasive plants, animals, and other organisms already in the United States is approaching $140 billion per year. Florida’s government alone spends $45 million annually battling invasive species, which cause some $180 million in agricultural damage.

And $180 million annually is a small price tag compared to what those in the developing world are facing thanks to the introduction “exotic plants” and the resulting damage to the Earth’s biodiversity: According to Hope Shand of the Rural Advancement Foundation International, the poor rely on that biodiversity for “85 to 90% of their livelihood needs.” And crop genetic resources “are disappearing at 1-2% per annum.” Yes, tell us again how environmental “narrowmindedness” is suffocating us.

At any rate, much of Ball’s piece seems like a straw man; for instance this: “Should we deprive ourselves of petunias, begonias, impatiens and hollyhocks—not a one of them ‘native’?” Okay, fine, but I doubt very many horticulturalists, if any, want to see a blanket ban on all exotic plants. There’s plenty of middle ground between letting invasive species run wild and “closing the borders” completely. What exactly are we arguing here?

This also seems like a good time as any for ad hominem attacks. Big seed companies like W. Atlee Burpee, more often than not, tend to be pretty evil. Again, according to the RAFI paper linked above, “20 years ago there were thousands of seed companies, most of which were small and family owned. Today [i.e., 1999], the top 10 global seed companies control 30% of the $23 billion commercial seed trade.”

That means that increasingly, a handful of firms in the private sector—big names like Monsarto, Novartis, Dupont, and Dow—control the genetic diversity of seeds. And those companies can increasingly “patent” their engineered plants, making it illegal for smaller farmers to save and replant patented seeds, instead forcing them to come back and shell out money to a few large seed companies each and every year if they want to keep planting. (And most of them have to come back; many times, after, say, a patented pesticide-resistant strain is planted and doused in pesticides, “native” plants will no longer grow in the area.)

The indentured servitude aspect to all this is bad enough, but the dependency on agribusiness also prevents all of those farmers from breeding and adapting their seeds to changing conditions each season, as they have for hundreds of years. That adversely affects biodiversity, too—a prime example of monopolies stifling competition. At any rate, we’re very far afield from the original, bizarre, Times op-ed, but it’s just to say I’m disinclined to listen to a seed corporate executive rail against “xenophobic” environmentalists, to say the least.

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