Daughter Cells: Biological Contamination and Communal Survival

by: Sarah Combellick-Bidney

“Political mama, ideological mama, influential mama. .dem kill my mama. dem kill my mama, dem kill my mama, dem kill my mama, dem kill my mama.” —Kuti 1979

It is hard to say what ultimately killed my grandmother. Some people say the first shot came from the sweet smelling mist that the government banned but then let the farmers spray until it was used up, hanging in the air at 6 a.m. when she would go on her morning run. (The University of Iowa studied the lymphoma cluster in the area, but stopped one block short of my grandmother’s house.) The second shot came, years later, from the chemotherapy, still early in its development, before doctors had a basis for knowing how to adapt their treatment regimen so as to kill fewer of the non-cancerous cells in the patient’s body.

Among the historical tangles conventionally ennobled by the term “revolution,” the Green Revolution is the only one that channeled most of its attention toward the cells of living bodies. What is commonly called the Green Revolution was a chemical revolutionizing of agriculture in the 1960s and 1970s that amounted to an industry-led coup on traditional agriculture. Scientists of diverse ideological backgrounds were involved in the movement, as the prospect of growing more food for more people united friend and foe. Early on, pilot projects using petrochemical fertilizers and GM seeds in Mexican wheat fields boasted magnificent crop yields and convinced the Rockefeller Foundation and World Bank to fund more extensive ventures in Mexico and India. In Indonesia, the practice of water temples was replaced by monocropping and a vast irrigation system.

The ironic name for the Green Revolution came from one of its leaders, William S. Gaud, who gave a speech about the movement in 1968. He said, “These…developments in the field of agriculture contain the makings of a new revolution. It is not a violent Red Revolution like that of the Soviets, nor is it a White Revolution like that of the Shah of Iran. I call it the Green Revolution.” The term stuck, but it did not unfold the way Gaud and his cohorts had envisioned. It is the unpredictable twists and turns of this so-called revolution that I want to bring into view, highlighting a theme which is rarely at the center of mainstream retrospectives: the creative ways in which organisms contaminate the very chemicals used on and against them, distorting their meaning and purpose with unevenly distributed deaths, costs and countermeasures that render the original instructions unclear.

When it was my mother’s turn—she learned she had four baby cancers in one breast—she responded less quietly than my grandmother had, demanding a copy of the doctor’s notes and tying a home-embroidered prayer cloth around her ankle before she went under the knife. She refused the nurse’s offer of a wheelchair to carry her into the operating room, remarking that her legs still worked. After the surgery, which was successful, she worked constantly on her own to reinhabit her body: rubbing her fingers together, gathering her old familiar foods and herbs, and even once asking the nurse to turn up the speaker attached to the stethoscope so she could listen to the ocean sound of her healthy blood flow. She disobeyed Audre Lorde by opting for a “fake tit,” but insisted it be made of her own trusted flesh and not an implant. She reacted negatively to being in the hospital, and healed quickly so that when it came time she flew out of the place, stopping at home only long enough to pack her bags for a road trip cross-country.

I do not know how to succinctly say what this story is about, but I know human and non-human bodies are together in it. Who were the organisms that resisted the aims of the Green Revolution, and how did rebellious bodies manage to shift the trajectory of the Green Revolution from full-on growth mode to damage control mode? And are these sorts of rebellions still happening?

The Green Revolution

The Green Revolution originally sparked my interest in college, not as a historical event or series of events, but as a pairing of words. It expressed the two major obsessions that preoccupied my friends and many others of my race, gender, and socioeconomic class; and it doubly captured my attention as it was occasionally mentioned in books as the start of something big. With mild curiosity, I did some research on the Green Revolution only to find that it was not the organic food movement I had anticipated, but the wave of agrochemicals that had in part precipitated the food trends with which I was most familiar. It was the wave of scientific fervor that had ushered
industrial chemical agents into fields, homes, and bodies, some of which had voiced their opposition by promoting earlier agricultural methods now called “organic.” It is sometimes framed as the thesis to which the organic food movement was/is the antithesis. But their relationship was always much more than a dialectic. They have converged in many places and at many times. Think of the wide-open landscapes of green tech and agronomy, and how many kinds of conversations and collisions they have seen. All are technologies, and technologies do not behave any more than plants do.

Revolutionary theories derive momentum from focused objectification of pure bodies and perceived contaminants. Used generically, “technology” and “the body” carry almost no meaning at all. Carrying no meaning, they are pure power, potent symbols to be deployed, protected and revered as inviolable political essences. In other words, the rhetorical bedrock of revolution. These imagined objects convey the imagined purity of a country or a land. A pure body, pure technology, pure country; all are imagined places where familiarity, autonomy, and integrity might reside and be embodied. Contaminants, on the other hand, are often evoked in more specific terms; they are the specific, foreign entities which render the privileged body impure. Contaminants are always foreign, and even when inanimate they are imbued with malignant intent. They modify, invade, and occupy the body at their will.

The Green Revolution itself was engineered with two symbols: the cultivated, pure crop and the foreign pest that invades it. Both bodies are characterized by their imagined innate nature, i.e. their genes. Their central act is simply the act of existence, the fulfilling of their genetic nature in a living phenotype. In this, they stand and act alone or in concert with species-kin. They are naturally opposed in a battle of existence, in which the existence of one diminishes the other.

The integrity of this simple narrative has been corrupted by the actions of living bodies. At this point, some might say that the Green Revolution has been achieved: much of the world is left with an agricultural system that is heavily industrialized, with desired plants grouped in monocrop fields and their bodies doused in petroleum-based chemicals. However, widespread distrust of these methods now impedes their (further) proliferation and the succinct message that used to serve as the driving force of the Green Revolution has been complicated into incoherence.

At first, the technologies behaved themselves well enough. The word spread that high-yield grains could double your harvest. With the right organophosphate insecticide, Mexican wheat fields could barely contain themselves, and there was no doubt the technology was working for its intended purpose. The purpose, too, was clear: growing more food and feeding more people. It was a call of
conscience for many scientists, and a life line for others, but it was not difficult to maintain the
conviction that their work was making a massive contribution to a good cause.

What were the first red flags that signaled the revolutionaries’ miscalculations? Flora and fauna in the soil would begin to resist monocropping, fertilizers would lose their potency and biologically
diverse insect and fungi populations would build up resistances to the chemicals used against them. Soils were already visibly altered, and farmers would have no choice but to spend more money on pesticides and fertilizers. The revenue was a joy for U.S. biotech giants at first. But soon enough, murmurs of bitterness among Third World farmers erupted in a cacophony of resistance to biotech prices at the Stockholm conference that established the UN Environmental Program in 1972. Small farmers were especially feisty, as the new techniques favored large farms at their expense. The Green Revolutionaries, so strong and clear in their purpose, were encountering the complexity of the living, agential world. There was a rebellion at hand.

Contaminated bodies

“My definition of modernity is that it is the period of intensified transportation of seeds and genes.”

(Haraway and Goodeve 1999, 88), 88.

As usual, real bodies and technologies did not act as planned. The first crack in the edifice was unevenness: the effects of agrochemical practices did not distribute themselves uniformly in living populations. A certain amount of variation had been anticipated in the models, to be sure, but the
variation of living bodies rapidly outstripped all calculations. Why does one fertilizer work so
differently in three adjacent fields? Why do human populations stubbornly plant seeds in such widely varying and sometimes chaotic patterns? Why does one agricultural worker fall ill when her coworkers show no signs of distress? Trouble-shooting the Green Revolution proved a difficult task with the tools at hand.

Bodily differences and social power played out visibly in the responses to new chemicals. Pests and migrant workers were the first to diverge from the plan, displaying a bewildering amount of individual variation in their compliance with the new agricultural model. In retrospect, it is clear that poor migrant workers’ bodies were placed in the crossfire of ecological havoc in the fields and led the rebellion early on. Meanwhile, workers in chemical plants spoke to each other of exposure and illnesses long before the researchers were called in to investigate. There was no hiding the steadily
climbing rates of breast cancer, and women formed groups to give voice to their suspicions. Migrant agricultural workers who demanded testing revealed that Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) seemed to lodge themselves in the sperm cells of human males. Polycyclic hydrocarbons (an agricultural petrochemical) seemed to prefer the ovaries of females in a variety of mammal species (World Health Organization studies cited in Boston Health Collective 1992,107-111).

Perhaps most alarmingly, some organisms refused to retain their species identity. After a few quiescent growing seasons, farmers would notice unfamiliar hybrid pests infiltrating their fields. These pests were more resistant to chemical treatments than their predecessors, since the treatments had been developed with discrete species of pests in mind. Research revealed that hybrid pests were similar to antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans that evolved to elude extant technologies. The antibiotic (or, in this case, the pesticide) would cause weaker strains to die off, leaving only the most adaptable strains of a given organism. These organisms would survive and elicit rapid change, generation by generation, in the pest population. A few seasons later, their descendants were genetically divergent from the original species in significant ways. News spread of “superweed” versions of horseweed, ragweed and pigweed, and “superbugs” both real and hypothetical. Monsanto’s widely used Roundup pesticide is now linked to a wide range of superweeds that bear its name: farmers say “Roundup-resistant” weeds are the hardest to kill.

Reports about these kinds of rebellions travelled at uneven speeds, but ultimately, these decentralized rebellions created a sort of confusion within the revolution. The original conversations in university labs during their joint ventures with DuPont and Monsanto must not have been easy to replicate after the 1970s. Some scientist had doubts, others were weary of the politicization of their work. At base, resistance among their target population had combined with other unintended cultural changes—the antiwar movement, the women’s movement—to confuse the revolution’s message. The goal was still higher yields, wasn’t it? Or, was it larger farms?

Contamination plagued the proponents of the Green Revolution. Proprietary seeds and genes were mixing with native ones, prompting lawsuits from biotech companies and protests from angry locals. Traditional farmers were mixing with roving bands of transnational activists, who convinced them that patented seeds were not as good as they seemed. Pests emerged every year, resistant to the extant chemicals used against their forbears, spreading bad press and prompting rumors that a Super Bug would eventually vanquish modern agriculture.

In response to certain incidents of contamination, there were vain efforts to reassert purity. The biggest controversies surrounded the definitions themselves. The now-daily news of carcinogens in this and that birthed a generation of hypervigilant parents who sought to buy only what was most “natural” and “safe.” These resistant consumers felt slightly better when they were “out in nature,” in backyard gardens or at suitable outdoor recreation venues, away from the sources of all the bad news. But reports of industrial chemicals in Eskimo breastmilk morphed their way into news outlets in ever more virulent forms: No one is safe, chemicals are invading our bodies, and even racialized “savage” mothers are no longer pure.

Resistant bodies launched protests of GMOs in Africa, Asia, Australia/Aotearoa, the Pacific islands, the U.S., and the European Union, portraying genetically modified organisms as monstrous (“Frankenfoods”) invasions into genetically and culturally sacred environments. The GM foods-as-contaminants discussion sunk its roots most deeply in European soil, where governments were forced to mediate a major public outcry about the pollution of European food heritage. Street protests and board meetings resulted in a 2003 law requiring GM ingredients to be labeled as such, setting precedent as the biggest wholesale opposition to GMOs in their short history.

But even more ominous for the Revolution was the resistance it uncovered in two highly sensitive populations of test subjects: native Hawaiians and the scientific community. Native Hawaiians rejected the University of Hawaii’s patenting of GM taro cultivars pa’akala, pa’lehua,
and pauakea with a slew of claims that cut to the heart of the premise of the Green Revolution, i.e., that new technology was for the public good, and would aid or surpass traditional methods. The Hawaiian petitioners explained the technology was not new, not public, and would be regarded as an attempt to curtail, rather than enhance, traditional methods:

“According to the patents, the female parent of all three patented varieties is ‘Maui Lehua,’ an unpatented cultivar that ‘belongs to the Group Lehua of Hawaiian-Polynesian taros.’ As you know,
Hawaiian-Polynesian taros derive from a few varieties first introduced to Hawaii in the 4th to 5th
century A.D. by the Islands’ earliest settlers. From these few varieties, Hawaiians conducted
extensive breeding over centuries to generate over 300 types of taro suited to differing
microenvironmental and cultivation conditions. These varieties of taro were developed for food as well as ceremonial and medicinal uses. Roughly 63 varieties, including Maui Lehua, are extant. Therefore, the qualities of the patented varieties derive to a considerable extent from Maui Lehua, whose properties are the result of many centuries of breeding efforts by native Hawaiians. Thus, the patent claims for the three patented varieties are invalidated by considerations of prior art…”
(Protest letter to the University of Hawaii, courtesy of HawaiiSeed.Org)

The letter went on to include objections to the draconian regulations the patent would incur on the lives of Hawaiians: signing licensing agreements, allowing inspectors to monitor the seeds for purity, and purchasing seeds for a crop they had traditionally cultivated and shared for free. These schemes were “unbefitting a publicly-funded institution whose mission is to serve rather than police Hawaiian citizens, including its farmers.” Though the native Hawaiians had no corporate lawyers and no formally sanctioned scientific standing, they were able to successfully defend their claims and win the rights to the patent they abhorred. They held a press conference, and ceremoniously tore up the patents. At the event, the vice chancellor of research at the University of Hawaii remarked, “It’s as if the patents were never filed. Anyone throughout the world may now plant them, propagate them, sell them.” (Essoyan 2006)

Hawaiian protesters changed the definitions of purity and contamination in their protests; they revealed that proprietary agriculture was not an onslaught of contamination, but just the opposite: it was an onslaught of purity. The elements of the UH work they rejected were the draconian restriction of agricultural activities and the extraction of royalties for the products of what had begun as a native science; not the alteration of a putatively pure organism. Though they invoked a collective claim, it was not one of ownership.

When local protests would spring up and coalesce into lawsuits, GMO purveyors relied on the scientific community to attest to the safety of their products. Many scientists complied. But some took the critiques of GM foods more seriously, investigating not only the short-term effects of one consumed morsel on one human body, but the social underpinnings of what was happening to agriculture, and the effects of these power-plays on broader ecosystems. Scientists usually expressed their doubts privately or contributed to alternative studies in an effort to boost the body of evidence against GM foods. In an unusually univocal statement of conscience, a group of British scientists called the Institute of Science in Society recently revealed that malnourished children had been used as test subjects in the clinical trials for new strains of GM “golden rice,” and deemed the trials unethical. It is too soon to tell how this pronouncement will be received around the world, but the fact that a scientific body would mount such a campaign is certainly significant.

All told, has the Green Revolution been successful? Agribusinesses still occasionally report record- breaking yields in monocrops; biotech companies still sell GM seeds, petroleum-based fertilizers and organophosphate pesticides to large farms in every hemisphere; and the overall range of food crops is slowly dwindling to a select few. As a technological revolution, the Green Revolution seems to have completed its mission. But as a sociopolitical “revolution,” it suffers from one persistent weakness that does not plague its technological brethren: Unlike the industrial and digital revolutions, the Green Revolution lost its own momentum rather early in its trajectory. The technological products proliferated, but only with the aggressive work of an exclusive vanguard who had to constantly revitalize and purify the message. When plants and publics resisted, it was not only to forestall the inequality that often comes with centralized technology, as was the case with industrial and digital innovations, but as a simple expression of autonomy. The first revolution to target non-humans as its main power base turned out to be somewhat less successful in perpetuating itself than other sorts of technocultural revolutions had been. For a host of reasons that I have suggested above, the world pushed back.

Death counts

Distance is a daunting obstacle in the execution of coordinated rebellion. Proximate bodies act before consulting distant bodies, though distant bodies may figure in their calculations. News of rebellions may travel more swiftly than other kinds of news, but not every bodily undertaking presents itself as a recognizable rebellion for all to see. Death, however, seems to be a bodily experience that translates across distance and species boundaries more easily than most other bodily experiences.

In the Vidarbha region of India, often called India’s “cotton belt,” there are an average of three farmer suicides a day (Robin 2010). The suicides follow a wave of state-sponsored conversion to Monsanto’s Bt cotton in the early 2000s, which tends to fail in the area as it is not well adapted to the soil. The farmer’s devastation has taken a brutally ironic form: many of the poor farmers have committed suicide by drinking the cans of pesticide they would have previously used on their fields.

These deaths attest to the complex causal chains of survival in human-plant-animal ecosystems and the intricate dance of selective killing. Bt cotton is embedded with a toxin that is toxic to cotton bollworms, and is supposed to reduce the need for pesticides. But Monsanto’s version of the seed is not adapted to climatic conditions in monsoon-dependent areas, and to the practices of small farmers who do not drain and irrigate their soil as intensively as larger landholders in the area. In China, the problem with Bt cotton seems to revolve around “secondary pests,” which have lain waste the transgenic crop after seven years of relatively stable output. In the intervening years, bollworms have died according to plan, but other insects have filled the gap and now descend upon the cotton in record numbers. In one study, Chinese farmers had to spray their crops 20 times in one growing season in order to control the new pests. (Lang 2006)

In both China and India, farmers are finding that Bt cotton denudes the soil of its normal microbes, closing off other options for those who want to switch back to traditional crops. In those parts of Asia that have been graced with the transgenic cotton, it is specifically the rural poor who have taken to committing suicide by drinking their own pesticides. Stacks of reports on this phenomenon led two scientists to conclude as early as 2003 that, in “developing countries…the substances most commonly used for self-poisoning are agricultural pesticides.” In Vidharba, the problem has gotten worse since then, and the peasant movement Vidarbha Jan Andolan Samiti (VJAS) has directly accused Monsanto of enabling a “genocide” of Indian farmers. (Robin 2010)

The political environment for pesticides has not always been so tricky. Even as chemical manufacturers sometimes transferred knowledge from agriculture to the development of chemical weapons, the associations between pesticides and human death were unanticipated by the vanguard of the Green Revolution. Agent Orange, the infamous dioxin used as a weapon in Vietnam, was derived from a generative agent, not a destructive one. It began as a plant growth hormone intended to speed up the flowering of soybeans. But it was the use of a later version of the chemical as a biological weapon that planted the seed of its downfall. Arthur W. Galston, the man who had discovered its defoliant property—the mechanism that caused plants to be overwhelmed by the growth agent, losing their leaves and dying—was dismayed when he learned that the U.S. military was using it as a weapon in Vietnam. Specifically, he was not compliant with the military’s effort to rebrand the chemical weapon as a simple tool to increase ‘visibility’ by denuding some plants. He called Agent Orange “chemical warfare,” worked to stop its use, and developed a bioethics course at Yale to discuss the issue with students. (Peterson 2005) Few others knew the chemical as well as Galston, and would not have been so quick to question the military’s rebranding, had it not been for the premature deaths of U.S. soldiers and Vietnamese adults and children who were exposed to Agent Orange during Operation Ranch Hand when the chemical was deployed by air across vast tracts of dense forest in Vietnam and Laos. Birth defects told a visual story of the dioxin’s pathways in the body, and children’s bodies became contested bodies of evidence in courts and news media around the world. One veteran, Paul Sutton, recalls the reaction to his comrade’s effort to show his child’s body in a court of law:

“I remember vividly one fall day in 1983, in Judge Weinstein’s court when a veteran attempted to bring his disabled daughter into the courtroom as ‘an exhibit’. Not only did the judge disallow him doing that, the judge had the veteran and his daughter escorted out of the courthouse by US Marshalls. So, from the get go we’ve had the system against us. Nonetheless, we have to keep trying.” (Quilt of Tears)

In Vietnam, where Agent Orange persists to affect large numbers of people’s bodies to this day, one mother spoke of the unmistakable limb deformities in her children:

“My daughter is dying. My youngest daughter is 11 and she has the same symptoms. What should we do? Their fingers and toes stick together before they drop off. Their hands wear down to stumps. Every day they lose a little more skin. And this is not leprosy. The doctors say it is connected to American chemical weapons we were exposed to during the Vietnam war.” (Scott-Clark and Levy 2003, 1)

The Guardian shared this mother’s story in 2003, long after the Vietnam War had ended and Agent Orange had been banned. No compensation had been given to survivors of Agent Orange, and apparently, their bodies and their children’s bodies were still reacting. The Guardian journalists went on: “[the child] clatters around with disjointed spidery strides which leave her soaked in sweat. When she cannot stop crying, soothing creams and iodine are rubbed into her back…” (Scott-Clark and Levy 2003, 1)

Death, disease, and suffering are powerful utterances that alter the course of revolutions. Species and ecosystems witness and attest to the generative and destructive biopower of agrochemicals in the timing of their lives and deaths, and survival rates and kill rates tend to be objects of investigation both lay and scientific. If an organism is targeted for special scrutiny, its time of death will likely be among its most lasting data points. Even organisms that are off the scientific radar may garner some interest with a sudden die-off of sufficient magnitude. Among very closely-
studied species, such as humans, the unexpected death of even a single individual may be an occasion for inquiry.

Unanticipated plateaus and drops in the yields of targeted crops, as well as hard-to-contain side effects of agrochemicals in surrounding ecosystems, helped lend legitimacy to the nascent discipline of ecology when species-specific diagnostics failed to pinpoint the problems. It was the deaths of both targeted and non-targeted species, along with the activism of survivors, that ultimately put the breaks on production of substances like Agent Orange—herbicides that evolved from Green Revolution fertilizers—and DDT, the pesticide that prompted widespread concern about the death rates of song birds. Rachel Carson, who is often portrayed as acting alone on the issue of DDT spraying, quotes a number of women who wrote spontaneous letters to scientists and newspapers about the “eerie, terrifying” silence that had already replaced springtime birdsong in their neighborhoods. (Carson 1962,104) Carson’s resulting book was not a prediction so much as an observation of what was already happening.

It must be said that there is no direct line from the deaths of non-targeted species to the banning of dangerous chemicals. Proving the link between a legal substance and a given death or wave of deaths is incredibly difficult, legally or scientifically. But news of unexpected death can travel quickly. Deaths, especially those of privileged human bodies or the animal and plant bodies upon which they depend for subsistence, tend to raise concern in an ungovernable way. Once concern is raised in a given community, transnational networks may begin to form with other affected communities and remote households may become wary even without an ad campaign telling them to do so. Deaths, more than other side effects, seem to function as readable data in a wide range of publics.

Should deaths and disease among humans, migratory birds, and marine life be included in the tabulation of resistance, as if these bodies chose to resist chemical onslaughts by allowing their bodies to be annihilated? Clearly, it would be wrong to conflate death with individual resistance which is directed at survival. But when cancer deaths among humans form distinct clusters that raise local controversies around pesticide use and massive “dead zones” spread through the ocean in the paths of agrochemical runoff, the evidence mounts for expanded notions of embodied agency. Death complicates questions of agency, and experiences of death are always central to revolution and resistance. Looking closely, it is clear that the dead and dying act collectively to change the course of revolutions and rebellions long after their individual agency is dead and gone.

Contaminated Meat

“The fantasy of transcending death is opposed to everything I care about.” (Haraway and Goodeve 1999, 113)

Contamination is clearly a source of power, but how can healthy living organisms command the sort of power that dying organisms seem to embody, to contaminate the very substances that are deployed to govern and control them? The generic “body” is bereft of distinguishing features and therefore profoundly unarmed to resist occupation. But actual living organisms have uncountable features that attest to a history, a previous existence, a non-spontaneous generation. Within their vital tissues lies the proof of previous damage and contamination. Immeasurable, but not infinite, the potential for resistance is contained in the heterogeneous tissues of damaged organisms.

Living bodies are provocative and powerful due in part to their exposure and transformation by substances from outside of their physical boundaries. I am speaking here of the sort of contamination that can be dangerous, as well as that which is serendipitous or fortunate for the organism. Humans are vigilant and curious about contamination. When Greenpeace offered to test volunteers’ hair samples for toxic load, the organization was overwhelmed with the response and had to apologize for the long waiting list. People want to know exactly how contaminated they are, in order to take an active role in the story of their ongoing contamination.

Creative acts, in drawing attention to the promise and power of contamination, steadily erode the purity narratives that lie at the center of ill-conceived revolutions. Audre Lorde wore her mastectomy scar proudly not despite, but partially because of its ability to disturb her species-kin into wakefulness. More recently, when the celebrated feminist porn star Annie Sprinkle got breast cancer, she made her lumpectomy into a humorous and erotic performance art piece. She spoofed and celebrated her breasts as the weighty centerpiece(s) of her colorful career, and her cancer as the event that called her to a more transgressive “ecosexuality.”

I have inherited an elevated risk of breast cancer from my mother and grandmother, but in a more immanent, daily sense I know that my history and surroundings have already left chemical marks that pervade my body to its very DNA. I consider this contamination to be my most important connection to what exists beyond my skin, and the wellspring of what Haraway calls “affective contamination”: the love bonds that pull humans into the experiences of certain individuals of other species, as if we cared and they mattered. (Haraway 2003) Even though I am not always able to love or even visualize all the organisms with which I co-constitute my existence, I know that all my cross-contaminators are inseparably a part of my community’s ongoing survival story.

Regenerating Bodies

In the aftermath of the Green Revolution, widespread trans-species collective action produced new forms of life which continue to creatively contaminate each other’s bodies and leave their marks on the landscapes in which they were born. From generation to generation, variously visible bodies (it is a rule that more bodies are affected by such things than are visible to a given observer at a given moment), responded with acts which might be called coordinated, far-reaching, subtle, or ironic, but which ultimately amounted to a substantial noise that confused all attempts to measure the affects of the revolution in terms of its original goals. The revolution and resistance did produce measurable effects, but they did not form a synthesis and there was no endpoint to their

The industry that produced the original tools of the Green Revolution is still as active as ever, but it now faces a changed agricultural landscape. Industrial bioengineers and ‘green tech’ are now grappling with climate change discourse, offering a wide range of solutions to make docile orchards bloom again. For Monsanto and other biotech leaders, climate change is an opportunity to develop seeds that are impervious to climate changes, with an emphasis on stalwart grain staples, livestock and fish. Some are even going so far as to dub their work a second Green Revolution. But distrust has evidently spread far since the first Green Revolution. Presented with a coordinated climate-related public relations campaign on the part of the same companies that had been at the forefront of the original Green Revolution, grassroots organizations dealing with seeds and foodways are citing their previous failures calling them out by name. (e.g., Food First, Organic Consumer Association)

Even in activism, there is a model of constancy and purity versus change and contamination. There is the afflicted activist burdened with knowledge, identifying with nature and taking the damage personally; and the reckless CEO disrespecting bodily boundaries and polluting pristine animal bodies for a quick profit. But feminist activists and academics have, at long last, discredited the purity narrative by steadily eroding the separate, individual subject who experiences and acts alone. Feminist scientists such as Karen Barad and Donna Haraway, in particular, have brought into view a teeming, lively world of intra-actions where agency is not held exclusively by humans. This view has come just in time, as we are facing a contaminated world in which our own diseases and deaths seem relevant enough to make a difference. It is a good time to look around and see how we might use these to our advantage. How do daughters and sons respond to the matricidal revolutions around them? How do tissues cross-contaminate and regenerate, and what is it that turns a benign diversity of cells into a potent incident of contamination?

Like Fela Kuti’s mother, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, who was referenced in the opening quote to this article, my mother is a feminist who works for gender justice on multiple continents. My mother walks with other rebellious bodies in protest, leading her students on foot from New York City’s richest Congressional district to its poorest, and using her university to form alliances with women’s artisan collectives in the Global South. Her constructed breast is doing well, fed with the blood supply that she so enjoyed hearing amplified on the speaker in the hospital room seven years ago. But she decided not to get a nipple. Instead, she stays out in the dressing room of the YMCA when she undresses for the sauna, calmly explaining, “It’s okay for people to see different kinds of bodies.”

I will not invoke the grandiose term “legacy” to describe what we carry of our mothers. I will only say that regeneration never happens the same way twice. It bears the marks of every previous assault or excision, and demands variations on a theme. As bodies dismember themselves to survive, tissues must migrate to cover recent wounds, and significant displacement occurs. Stem cells intercalate and scars take form uniquely in each instance, in each body, and regeneration only becomes evident in the course of changes over time. The resulting new tissues are the daughters and sons of old rebellions, holding together a tough and contaminated organism that will never be the same.