Food Security and GMO Foods
Over 850 million people are suffering from chronic hunger due to extreme poverty and 2 billion people lack food intermittently due to varying degrees of poverty as published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). This makes the issue of food security a reality for most governments on earth. Finding a solution is thus a priority for any government that wishes to stay in power or who cares about the welfare of their people.
The first and most obvious solution would be to reduce population growth and thus also the demand for food. This would require extensive education and a shift in cultural norms which are entrenched in our society, this approach is long term and would require ongoing reinforcement across all cultures to have a significant impact. Governments simply do not have the time to invest in such long term programmes, regardless of the end result.
It is human nature to find the easy way out and the issue of food security is no different. Through advances in science and technology the problem seemed to be solved by genetically modified foods. Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are created by altering the DNA of an organism, in this case a food producing plant; this is done in order to change the characteristics of the plant. Through this process of genetic engineering (GE) a plant can be made to produce a higher yield, be more resistant to pesticides, require less water and still be fast growing etc. The problem of food security seemed to be solved by producing plants which produce more food and are resistant to pests, so with very little testing and no real case studies and field trials, genetically engineered seeds began to be produced to grow Genetically modified crops.
An American company called Monsanto took the lead and became the largest producer of GM seeds as well as their famous herbicide called ‘Roundup’. Monsanto made the winning combination; a very successful weed killer and their GM seeds, which are tolerant to their herbicide. These ‘Roundup Ready Crops’ are marketed my Monsanto on their website.http://www.monsanto.com/Pages/default.aspx
However, the one question that had yet to be answered was, “what are the long term effects of GMO foods and the extensive use of pesticides?” There are several issues that have come to light as potential hazards to people and the environment due to the production of GMO foods:
· GMO foods are harmful to the Human body, not only is there concern that they will create an environment where bacteria themselves can become drug resistant, thus the creation of super bacteria and viruses, they also increase the risk of cancer and precancerous growths. But here again scientific testing is lacking as the whole GMO process was fast tracked. Tests conducted on rats showed these alarming side effects as published by Dr. Steve Windley, MD, published in www.purehealthMD.com
· Denmark was the first country to ban spraying glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. According to the Denmark and Greenland Geological Research Institute: “The chemical has, against all expectations, been sieving down through the soil and polluting the ground water at a rate five times more than the allowed level for drinking water.”
· GM crops are a threat to wildlife: due to the fact that GM plants are made to be resistant to chemical weed and pest controls, farmers tend to use high doses of these chemicals to control pests, thus increasing the impact on non-target wildlife. Furthermore, the increased use of these chemicals will eventually produce super weeds and pests as they naturally adapt and these life forms become more resistant to the chemical.
· In addition the wide spread application of these chemicals kills naturally occurring insects which are a crucial part of the pollination process for indigenous plant species. Already farmers are noticing a drastic decrease in natural pollinators which is endangering entire ecosystems.
· Herbicide resistant crops could accumulate more toxic substance as the absorption of these chemicals does not necessarily kill the plant. In other words GM plants can remain alive and grow with much higher levels of chemicals present. There has been no study to determine the seriousness of this issue. Bioaccumulation could also occur in animals fed on GM feed, this includes people.
· The most serious of these issues is the fact that farmers cannot harvest seeds from their GM crops, these crops have to be replanted every year.
Monoculture farming (intensive single crop farming) as a whole creates some environmental effects that are worth mentioning. In general, farming practice applies artificial fertilizer to increase yields. These fertilizers contain nutrients for the crops, namely nitrogen and phosphate, through over application and run off, some of these nutrients are washed with rain and ground water into rivers and eventually the ocean. Other factors which increase the nutrient load in water bodies are sewage treatment works and incorrect waste disposal discharged into rivers or oceans, directly. On reaching the sea these nutrients are taken up by algae as food. With this much food available the algae grows rapidly, creating an algal bloom in the water. An algal bloom has very severe environmental impacts on the water body as the algae can be toxic and when the algae dies off the rotting process, which is carried out by bacteria, uses a great deal of oxygen, depleting the available oxygen in the water for other marine life, this process is called Hypoxia. Ultimately hypoxia creates dead zones in the ocean areas where little or no life exists. There are already 405 documented dead zones in the ocean, areas where little or no life exists. These zones occur mostly where major rivers with increased nutrient loads, enter the ocean. For more information on dead zones please see our previous articlehttps://www.earthorganization.org/articles/Library/Why_huge_areas_in_the_oceans_are_dying/default.aspx
In an effort to solve some of the global environmental issues environmentalists and scientists sometimes create long term problems while solving short term pressures. In the haste to solve very public, social, ethical issues; potential solutions are fast tracked and are often not fully investigated. A couple of examples are energy efficient light bulbs (Compact Florescent Lights) and bio-fuel. Energy efficient light bulbs contain a small quantity of mercury and when disposed of incorrectly this mercury is leached out into the environment through rainwater runoff, contaminating ground water and eventually accumulating in the ocean. Testing reveals that many fish species have abnormally high levels of mercury in their tissues and are not safe to eat. Bio-fuels are another example of an ill-conceived plan to solve the issue of peak oil as a non-renewable resource. In an effort to create green energy, science gave us bio-fuel which resulted in the destruction of massive tracts of virgin Malaysian forest to make way for agricultural land to plant palms, which are harvested for their palm oil which is used to create bio-fuel. Although the product seems to be environmentally friendly, the process is not!
This brings us back to GM foods; with very little testing and with the tests that were conducted showing evidence that GMO’s could be harmful to human health, have we created another “quick fix” solution that could come back to haunt mankind?
As mentioned previously, one of the most serious issues other than the potential health risk, is the fact that farmers cannot harvest seeds from their GM crops. These crops have to be replanted every year using new GM seeds. Now this really violates the concept of food security. How secure is our food source if most of it is engineered and can’t be regrown year after year. New seeds have to be bought each season and these seeds are by no means inexpensive. This means that farmers, both large scale agriculture and small subsistence farmers, become utterly reliant on companies, such as Monsanto, whose primary motive is profit. These companies have cleverly engineered a solution which ensures a continued demand for their product, all under the guise of food security. Enabling them to establish a monopoly and dictate the price of their GM seeds leaving farmers and the population at large at their mercy.
When we look at a cross section of those who are most affected by reckless and greedy corporations it is more often than not the poor. When this is viewed globally the same applies, it is the third world counties that are the most exposed. The Earth Organization has chapters all over Africa and therefore we often see the results of unethical business practise on the African continent. One thing that has become clear in our work is that Africa is very exposed to corporate exploitation. Many of the poorer countries do not have an international voice. Ghana is the focus of logging companies, Zambia and Namibia have been mined relentlessly often with little regard for the environmental impact of the mining process.
These are just a few examples of what occurs on our continent. The question is, “how do we handle this?” As environmentalists it is our job to find ways to solve these challenges, but how do we take on big corporations all over Africa and force them to conduct their business in an ethical manner. Well perhaps it is to time to change this from a position of enforcement to a position of empowerment. How easy would it be to violate the environment of an educated public. In solving the challenge we have to discover a method that is sustainable and simply to implement.
In the 1930s Eugene Marias wrote a book called The Soul of the White Ant. The book was based on years of study in the Magaliesburg. His study was on the behaviour, psychology and instinct of white ants (termites). In the course of his work Marais studied other species as well to determine their level of instinct. He captured otters and bred them in captivity for several generations. In captivity they were given enough food and water to survive, but never enough water to swim in or carry out any normal otter behaviour. He then did the same thing with weaver birds; although the birds had enough food to survive they were never given enough grass to weave nests. Several generations later when the otter babies were released into the wild, they knew exactly how to survive, how to swim, how to find food etc. In fact they behaved in the same way as their wild counterparts. The same applied to the weavers; they could build nests, find food etc. Even though the captive generations had never had the opportunity to behave like their wild counterparts this behaviour was instinctive in these animals.
Marais then conducted a similar experiment with baboons, and other apes, but the result was very different. When the young baboons were released into the wild they didn’t have any survival skills, they couldn’t even find water. From his research Marais concluded that animals have very high levels of instinct and can survive instinctively in their natural environment except for the primates. Primates have to be taught how to survive, they have very low levels of instinct and learn how to survive by watching and learning from their parents and man falls into this category. Man has to be taught how to survive. Simply put if man is not taught something he does not know it. So, you ask, how does this relate to the problems of Africa.
Humans have lost their link with nature, where our existence used to be closely linked to the plant and animal kingdoms we are now concentrated in cities with very limited interaction with the natural world. Prior to the industrial revolution man’s survival was very directly linked to subsistence farming but with the invention of machinery people concentrated into larger groups. They were taught how to operate machinery, factories sprung up everywhere, and science and maths became important subjects in these activities. Farming, hunting and animal husbandry become the profession of only a few and the rest became involved in mass production.
But now man has come to realize that loosing this link to our environment has weakened us. We have critical, large scale environmental issues and some seem almost insurmountable. So what is the solution? The solution is actually simple, as alluded to above. We have to bring man back into communication with nature and the first step in this process is education.
To give a couple of examples:
The plastic bag has long been called “the rose of Africa” as the bags get snagged on trees, fences and bushes and get stuck there like flowers littering our environment. In educating people we have taught them about the fact that these plastic bags wash into rivers and enter the ocean to join the ever growing garbage patches in the ocean (such as the North Pacific garbage patch). And that in the ocean, plastic breaks down into smaller pieces and can kill marine animals as they mistake plastic for their natural food source. Additionally, plastic that is left to age releases chemicals that mimic hormones into the environment and can cause hormone imbalances in people and animals. When people learn this information the most common reaction is shock and an immediate change in behaviour. Through educating communities we can change social behaviour for the protection of the environment. If people are taught there is a problem and are taught how to prevent or solve it one sees a change in the modus operandi.
It is well known in first world countries that trees and plants create oxygen which we humans need. In some of the forested areas in central Africa and up to Ghana there are some unscrupulous companies who log ancient, indigenous forests at great profit. When communities are educated on the many advantages the trees give them they often demand that logging companies take responsibility for their action and replant logged areas and not log trees from certain protected areas. Big corporations exploit the uneducated masses therefore The Earth Organization aims to educate these people and enable them to protect their natural heritage.
One can look at a variety of problems faced by man and it will often be found that a lack of education and understanding has created or added to these situations. So we at The Earth Organization will continue to educate people as our first line of attack on ignorance. It is vital that a massive international educational campaign be launched to break through the problems that mankind faces in environmental conservation.
Marais, E (1937) The Soul of the White Ant. Published by Human & Rousseau