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Grain growers meet, Biotech presented

One of the herbicides that is used with Bt crops is glyphosate (trademark Roundup) that has been advertised as safe. GM crops are also genetically modified to make them glyphosate-resistant. More than 30 % of all herbicides used globally contain it. However, glyphosate’s dark side is beginning to come out.

How it works, in the words of Purdue U. plant pathologist Don Huber, is that it “increases susceptibility [of the weed] to disease, (ii) it suppresses natural disease controls such as beneficial organisms, and (iii) it promotes virulence of soil born pathogens at the same time.” These pathogens include the Fusarium fungus. He also adds that “There are more than 40 diseases of crop plants than are reported to increase with the use of glyphosate.” Plant fungicides also do not work when glyphosate is used because the fungicide, in the words of Huber, “destroys the herbicidal activity of glyphosate”.

With the advent of glyphosate-resistant “superweeds”, perhaps the chemical will lose its effectiveness and the issue will resolve itself. One prominent pro-GMO farmer at the meeting does not believe that glyphosate can have any ill effects because it does not get into the ground water. Yet test data from Monsanto, the company that developed glyphosate, shows that only 2 % of the product breaks down after 28 days. By encouraging the growth of fungi and killing good soil bacteria, glyphosate solves one problem while creating others.

Anti-GMO people are also concerned about the health effects of the Bt toxin on humans. The proteins involved are known and have been found to be safe in mammals, though more recent studies contradict this. One of the outspoken attendees of the meeting, a person with a medical background as a surgeon, referred to some of it.

Another inducement for large-scale farmers to want to plant GMO crops is the higher yield. In the business of growing food it is desirable to be as efficient as possible. Dr. Herron showed a dramatic picture of green transgenic trees in the middle of an orchard surrounded by naturally-bred scrawny trees. In Burkina Faso, Bt cotton has made remarkable improvements in yield there.

Yet other reports, such as the official report of the Indian parliament about Bt cotton states that “… after the euphoria of a few initial years, Bt. cotton cultivation has only added to the miseries of the small and marginal farmers who constitute more than 70 % of the tillers in India.” Indian farmer suicides  – in the thousands – due to Bt cotton crop failure and resultant bank debt have also been investigated by nationally-known Indian agricultural journalist Vandana Shiva who wrote a book on the subject.

The 3 to 4 % increase in yield of Bt corn over its 13 years of commercial growth at the time of a significant study, the 2009 Failure to Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops report of the Union of Concerned Scientists, is much less than what has been achieved over that same time period by non-transgenic breeding.

The larger issue facing Belize agriculture is whether the large-scale chemical farming method used prominently in Cayo, which is dependent on machinery and the availability of oil, is sustainable. In an article, “Monsanto and Gates Foundation Push Genetically Engineered Crops on Africa”, (www.globalresearch.ca July 12, 2011) by Mike Ludwig,

The African Centre for Biosafety and its allies often point to a report recently released by IAASTD, a research group supported by the United Nations (UN), the World Health Organization, and others. IAASTD found that industrial agriculture has been successful in its goal of increasing crop yields worldwide, but has caused environmental degradation and deforestation that disproportionately affects small farmers and poorer nations.

Then he reports on a way out of dead-end agriculture:

Increasing crop yields is the bottom line for groups like the Gates Foundation, but the IAASTD recommends that sustainability should be the goal. The report does not rule out biotechnology, but suggests high-tech agriculture is just one tool in the toolbox. The report promotes “agroecology,” which seeks to replace the chemical and biochemical inputs of industrial agriculture with resources found in the natural environment. In March, a UN expert released a report showing that small-scale farmers could double their food production in a decade with the simple agroecological methods.

These methods are being pursued by other less activist farmers in Belize and with good success. One or more chemical farmers at the meeting brushed them off as impractical. However, from Ludwig’s article,

“Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live – especially in unfavorable environments,” said Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food and author of the report. “Malawi, a country that launched a massive chemical fertilizer subsidy program a few years ago, is now implementing agroecology, benefiting more than 1.3 million of the poorest people, with maize yields increasing from 1 ton per hectare to 2 to 3 tons per hectare.”

Perhaps the real solution to the dilemma faced by agriculture is to think outside the box, to consider agriculture for the long term and the problems of unsustainability. Other ways of farming that might not produce as much short-term profit can be sustained. Some are successfully farming in Belize with organic methods that are not considered viable by chemical farmers.

Mayan farmers have done so for centuries. The vast majority of Russians today grow their food on privately-owned family plots. Belize can too, and as more and better sustainable methods are developed, can potentially outperform and avoid the serious problems caused by both chemical farming and transgenics in its current state of development.

Contact: Dennis Feucht, [email protected]

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