Don't Buy the False Promise of Industrial Agriculture: We Don't Need Genetically Engineered Food, Just Biodiverse Farms
Industrial globalised agriculture is heavily implicated in climate change. It contributes to the three major greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide (CO2) from the use of fossil fuels, nitrogen oxide (N2O) from the use of chemical fertilizers and methane (CH4) from factory farming. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change (IPCC), atmospheric concentration of CO2 has increased from a pre–industrial concentration of about 280 parts per million to 379 parts per million in 2005. The global atmospheric concentration of CH4 has increased from pre–industrial concentration of 715 parts per billion to 1774 parts per billion in 2005. The global atmospheric concentration of N2O, largely due to use of chemical fertilizers in agriculture, increased from about 270 parts per billion to 319 parts per billion in 2005.
Industrial agriculture is also more vulnerable to climate change which is intensifying droughts and floods. Monocultures lead to more frequent crop failure when rainfall does not come in time, or is too much or too little. Chemically fertilized soils have no capacity to withstand a drought. And cyclones and hurricanes make a food system dependent on long distance transport highly vulnerable to disruption.
Genetic engineering is embedded in an industrial model of agriculture based on fossil fuels. It is falsely being offered as a magic bullet for dealing with climate change.
Monsanto claims that Genetically Modified Organisms are a cure for both food insecurity and climate change and has been putting the following advertisement across the world in recent months.
9 billion people to feed.
A changing climate
Improving farmers lives
That’s sustainable agriculture
And that’s what Monsanto is all about.
All the claims this advertisement makes are false.
GM crops do not produce more. While Monsanto claims its GMO Bt cotton gives 1500 Kg/acre, the average is 300–400 Kg/acre.
The claim to increased yield is false because yield, like climate resilience is a multi–genetic trait. Introducing toxins into a plant through herbicide resistance or Bt. Toxin increases the “yield” of toxins, not of food or nutrition.
Even the nutrition argument is manipulated. Golden rice genetically engineered to increase Vitamin A produces 70 times less Vitamin A than available alternatives such as coriander leaves and curry leaves.
The false claim of higher food production has been dislodged by a recent study titled, Failure to Yield by Dr. Doug Gurian Sherman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, who was former biotech specialist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and former adviser on GM to the U.S Food and Drug Administration. Sherman states, “Let us be clear. There are no commercialized GM crops that inherently increase yield. Similarly there are no GM crops on the market that were engineered to resist drought, reduce fertilizer pollution or save soil. Not one.”
There are currently two predominant applications of genetic engineering: one is herbicide resistance, the other is crops with Bt. toxin. Herbicides kill plants. Therefore they reduce return of organic matter to the soil. Herbicide resistant crops, like Round Up Ready Soya and Corn reduce soil carbon, they do not conserve it. This is why Monsanto’s attempt to use the climate negotiations to introduce Round Up and Round Up resistant crops as a climate solution is scientifically and ecologically wrong.
Monsanto’s GMOs, which are either Round Up Ready crops or Bt toxin crops do not conserve resources. They demand more water, they destroy biodiversity and they increase toxics in farming. Pesticide use has increased 13 times as a result of the use Bt cotton seeds in the region of Vidharbha, India.
Monsanto’s GMOs do not improve farmers’ lives. They have pushed farmers to suicide. 200,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide in the last decade. 84% of the suicides in Vidharbha, the region with highest suicides are linked to debt created by Bt–cotton. GMOs are non–renewable, while the open pollinated varieties that farmers have bred are renewable and can be saved year to year. The price of cotton seed was Rs 7/kg. Bt cotton seed price jumped to Rs 1,700/kg.
This is neither ecological nor economic or social sustainability. It is eco–cide and genocide.
Genetic engineering does not “create” climate resilience. In a recent article titled, “GM: Food for Thought” (Deccan Chronicle, August 26, 2009), Dr. M.S. Swaminathan wrote “we can isolate a gene responsible for conferring drought tolerance, introduce that gene into a plant, and make it drought tolerant.”
Drought tolerance is a polygenetic trait. It is therefore scientifically flawed to talk of “isolating a gene for drought tolerance.“ Genetic engineering tools are so far only able to transfer single gene traits. That is why in twenty years only two single gene traits for herbicide resistance and Bt. toxin have been commercialized through genetic engineering.
Navdanya’s recent report titled, “Biopiracy of Climate Resilient Crops: Gene Giants are Stealing farmers’ innovation of drought resistant, flood resistant and salt resistant varieties,” shows that farmers have bred corps that are resistant to climate extremes. And it is these traits which are the result of millennia of farmers’ breeding which are now being patented and pirated by the genetic engineering industry. Using farmers’ varieties as “genetic material,” the biotechnology industry is playing genetic roulette to gamble on which gene complexes are responsible for which trait. This is not done through genetic engineering; it is done through software programs like athlete. As the report states, “Athlete uses vast amounts of available genomic data (mostly public) to rapidly reach a reliable limited list of candidate key genes with high relevance to a target trait of choice. Allegorically, the Athlete platform could be viewed as a ‘machine’ that is able to choose 50–100 lottery tickets from amongst hundreds of thousands of tickets, with the high likelihood that the winning ticket will be included among them.”
Breeding is being replaced by gambling, innovation is giving way to biopiracy, and science is being substituted by propaganda. This cannot be the basis of food security in times of climate vulnerability.
Women for Diversity: One of the campaigns of Navdanya. Photo courtesy Navdanya.
While genetic engineering is a false solution, over the past 20 years, we have built Navdanya, India’s biodiversity and organic farming movement. We are increasingly realizing there is a convergence between objectives of conservation of biodiversity, reduction of climate change impact and alleviation of poverty. Biodiverse, local, organic systems produce more food and higher farm incomes, while they also reduce water use and risks of crop failure due to climate change.
Biodiversity offers resilience to recover from climate disasters. After the Orissa Super Cyclone of 1998, and the Tsunami of 2004, Navdanya distributed seeds of saline resistant rice varieties as “Seeds of Hope” to rejuvenate agriculture in lands reentered saline by the sea. We are now creating seed banks of drought resistant, flood resistant and saline resistant seed varieties to respond to climate extremities.
Navdanya’s work over the past twenty years has shown that we can grow more food and provide higher incomes to farmers without destroying the environment and killing our peasants. Our study on “Biodiversity based organic farming: A new paradigm for Food Security and Food Safety” has established that small biodiverse organic farms produce more food and provide higher incomes to farmers.
Biodiverse organic and local food systems contribute both to mitigation of and adaptation to climate change. Small, biodiverse, organic farms especially in Third World countries are totally fossil fuel free. Energy for farming operations comes from animal energy. Soil fertility is built by feeding soil organisms by recycling organic matter. This reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Biodiverse systems are also more resilient to draughts and floods because they have higher water holding capacity and hence contribute to adaption to climate change. Navdanya’s study on climate change and organic farming has indicated that organic farming increases carbon absorption by upto 55% and water holding capacity by 10% thus contributing to both mitigation and adaptation to climate change.
Biodiverse organic farms produce more food and higher incomes than industrial monocultures. Mitigating climate change, conserving biodiversity and increasing food security can thus go hand in hand.