Stopping the sixth extinction: Beyond GM food

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Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals — the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

How can we restore our planet to health? From replenishing biodiversity to enforcing legal protection, Salt asks the experts for their opinions on managing the Earth’s health in a critical time. Welcome to the seven-part ‘Stopping the Sixth Extinction’ series.

We need to realise our current food system is broken and move away from GM, writes former Ecologist magazine editor and Beyond GM director Pat Thomas.

The global food system is a dominant force in shaping our planet and its ecosystems. But it’s a system based on faulty foundations, and with every passing year it becomes clearer that conversations about sustainability and biocapacity must begin with how we feed ourselves. Modern agriculture is built on exploitation – the notion that we can take whatever we need for as long as we want and when Nature doesn’t ‘behave’ we can beat her into submission with machinery and chemicals.

As a result around the globe, farming is responsible for the destruction of vital rainforests, the loss of essential topsoil, pollution of the aquatic environment, desertification of once thriving farmlands, and one third of our global greenhouse gas emissions. The pesticides used so widely in farming, particularly those containing chlorinated compounds, can persist in the environment, adulterate the food chain and are toxic to humans and other living creatures.

The ecological footprint of farming is now so enormous that we can no longer achieve sustainability without completely revamping our vision of farming.

But instead of abandoning industrial agriculture as a failed experiment we continue to propose solutions that are relics of this broken system. Genetic modification is a good example of this.

For 20 years GM advocates have promised that this technology will deliver higher yields, lower dependence on chemical inputs such as pesticides, higher profits for farmers, lower prices for the consumer, better nutrition – and of course the biggest promise of all, an end to world hunger.

And yet in the Americas, where GM crops have had their largest uptake, none of these promises have materialised. Instead farmers are using more pesticides and crucially more Roundup whose active ingredient glyphosate has just been declared a ‘probable human carcinogen’; GM yields are variable at best, GM crops offer no nutritional advantages, and globally we are no closer to ‘feeding the world’ then we were when all this started.

There are still very vocal factions who believe that GMOs are simple, safe and sustainable and that anyone who opposes them is irrational and irresponsible. But this is changing.

Commenting on an experimental strain of GM rice, altered to reduce methane emissions, the normally GM-gung-ho journal Nature recently noted that simply tweaking one aspect of the plant to make small reductions in methane emissions, had big implications for other measures of sustainability and “raises biological and ethics concerns”.

It risked, for example, unbalancing the communities of soil microbes that live around the roots of rice plants, many of which utilise methane. Loss of these microbes could encourage an overgrowth of other, potentially pathogenic, microbes. It could affect nutrient uptake from the soil, necessitating more use of nitrogen fertilisers, which in turn leads to water pollution and higher emissions of nitrous oxide (also a climate changing gas).

Simply put, there are no simple tweaks.

If we want to keep eating, and eating well, we must farm within our planetary limits and that requires a substantial shift away from the silver bullet of chemicals and techno-fixes and towards more promising direction of agro-ecology.

A healthy, equitable, sustainable food system from a healthy, equitable, sustainable agriculture is attainable. But to get there we have to move beyond the pro-GMO mindset that lingers in our research establishments, the media and politics.

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Photo credit: Bs0u10e0 from Flickr

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