Coexistence of agroecology with GM and chemical agriculture will never work, since toxic agrochemicals and GM organisms spread, writes Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero
When faced with the challenge of agroecology, the defenders of the industrial agribusiness model are left with no arguments. Some of them seek refuge in the comfortable if intellectually lazy position of proposing the combination of both agricultures, combining “the best” of each so as to reach a harmonious coexistence.
We see this line of thinking in the work of the international organization Ecoagriculture Partners and more recently in a well-publicized article by Jonathan Foley in the National Geographic. Puerto Rico agriculture secretary Myrna Comas has also hopped aboard the “coexistence” bandwagon after being confronted with local opponents of genetically modified (GM) crops and toxic agrochemicals. In testimony to the PR Senate on June 6 she declared that “we aspire to an agriculture of coexistence in which the strategies used for agricultural production are promoted without excluding the freedom of our farmers.” In this clever discourse, which assures us that “we can have it both ways”, the proponents of agroecology are presented as intolerant zealots who won’t compromise.
But the scientific data show quite clearly that no coexistence is possible. The toxic agrochemicals used in conventional agriculture end up polluting everything, and GM organisms reproduce and spread like all organisms are supposed to.
Pesticides end up everywhere
Calls for coexistence with pesticides can only come from those who grossly underestimate their human health cost and their ability to travel downwind from farms where they are sprayed.
In June 2014 the Health Ministry of the Argentine province of Córdoba released an extensive report on cancer statistics. It compiled data from the last five years and determined that cancer cases are twice as frequent as the national average in locations near agroindustrial monocultures. “What we have been denouncing for years, and particularly the doctors of sprayed towns and those affected in the zones of industrial agriculture, has been confirmed once more,” said Dr. Medardo Avila-Vázquez, of the University Network for Environment and Health (Reduas).
Argentine chemical engineer Marcos Tomassoni, member of his country’s Paren de Fumigar (Stop Spraying) movement, says that agrotoxic “sprayings can remain suspended in the air for prolonged periods and travel long distances in the presence of slight breezes. This phenomenon manifests itself generally in the early morning hours, from sunrise on, and in the early evening, and with winds of less than 7 kilometers per hour”.
According to the Ecuadorian Scientific Commission that assessed the impacts of the herbicide sprayings of Plan Colombia, some droplets of agrotoxic substances can remain in the air for 66 minutes and travel over 4.8 kilometers with a low breeze (4.8 kilometers per hour) after being sprayed three meters above the ground. But if there is wind the distance is much greater. Studies made in Costa Rica and California have shown that pesticide residues travel over 20 kilometers.
Dr. Robert Bellé, a top international authority in this field, says that “when a garden is sprayed, the droplets can cover between two and three kilometers, if there is wind. Monsanto recommends there be no spraying if there is wind, but that is impossible because there is always some wind. It also recommends the use of face mask, rubber clothing, boots and gloves. The sprayer is thus protected, but people 500 meters away are not. Aerial spraying is something else. It’s a catastrophe. Saharan sand has been found in the North Pole, and a grain of sand is bigger and heavier than a microdroplet. Sprayed microdroplets are almost like water vapor, like clouds. Spraying from an airplane is madness.”
Acknowledging this danger, the European Parliament banned aerial pesticide sprayings in EU countries in 2009. But such a directive is not much help if it is not global: in 2012 the Argentine scientific body CONICET found traces of agrochemicals in Antartica.
Genetic contamination: a biological Chernobyl
With GM crops the situation is even worse, given that the pollutants in question are not chemicals but organisms that breed and proliferate. A PhD molecular biologist who does not understand this reality can ask any peasant what a seed does: it germinates and multiplies. Since 2001 we have known about the furtive and illegal presence of GM corn in the rural highlands of southern Mexico, the crop’s place of ancient origin. This genetic contamination has now been documented all over Mexico. These GM varieties are spreading and aggressively interbreeding with peasants’ local traditional corn (maize), with uncertain consequences for ecology, agricultural biodiversity and global food security.
In January 2013, the Red en Defensa del Maíz (Network in Defence of Maize), made up of more than 1,200 communities in 22 states of Mexico, held an assembly in 2013, in which it declared:
“We the communities, organizations, and people identifying with the Red en Defensa del Maíz for the past eleven years, raise our voices once again to reject the introduction, movement, marketing, exchange, research, storage, and planting of all transgenic crops.
We reject the whole GM maize paradigm as a direct attack on over 10,000 years of stewardship of native maize; on the agricultural and subsistence strategies of peoples and communities; on Mexico’s food security and sovereignty; on free and autonomous food production from native, patent-free, non-genetically modified seeds, and on public health.
We reject GM maize not only because of the threat it poses to world biodiversity but because of the likelihood of irreversible genetic contamination of native varieties; the certainty of seeds being concentrated in the hands of a few companies, making Mexican farmers captive consumers of their inputs and jeopardizing food security and sovereignty; the prospect that the history and culture of the diverse Mexican peoples will be destroyed, and many other considerations beyond the scope of science as such.”
According to a 2013 joint report by Norway’s Institute of Gene Ecology (GenØk) and the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s Institute of Ecology:
“One of the most important conclusions of our scientific analyses of the unwanted consequences of the liberation of GM corn in Mexico is that these are potentially irreversible. This would result in a weakening of the millennial cultivation of Mexican maize, which is located in the heart of Mesoamerican culture, and is also the basic food of Mexicans and millions more people. The consequences of this type of practice put our food and health at risk, as well as the indispensable communal way of creating and maintaining maize’s genetic diversity, a dynamic process that cannot be preserved or frozen in a germplasm bank: it is precisely the traditional practices that have given place to and will keep generating the genetic diversity of Mexican maize. If the cultivation of GM maize is generalized, Mexican campesino producers will depend on the corporations that own the patents of GM maize, threatening the right to store seed, diminishing agricultural biodiversity and destroying a millennial culture associated to maize. All this would negatively affect maize consumers all over the world as well as global food security, hindering the possibility of facing challenges imposed by a climate that is increasingly changing and unpredictable.”
But that is only the most famous case of genetic pollution caused by GM crops. In 2006 the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that the experimental GM rice Liberty Link, a product of Germany’s Bayer corporation, was contaminating a couple of popular long grain varieties in the US. Bayer was sued by American rice growers for this fiasco and ended up having to pay them a settlement of $750 million.
“The discovery led to rejection by foreign markets and a corresponding dramatic decline in U.S. rice prices”, said the Non-GMO Project. According to a press report in the Delta Farm Press, European Union purchases of US rice remain only a small fraction of what they were before the 2006 contamination incident.
There has never been any GM rice approved for human consumption anywhere in the world. The only existing crops are purely experimental, and even then it ends up mixed with commercially grown rice for human consumption, as the Bayer case shows. Neither is there nor has there ever been any commercially approved GM wheat. It was planted in experimental plots in the US from 1998 to 2005, and was never approved for commercialization. But in May 2013 herbicide resistant GM wheat was found growing in a farm in the state of Oregon. How did it get there, if its planting had not been legal for 8 years? Nobody seems to know.
The economic implications for Oregon wheat growers are enormous. According to the Oregon Wheat Commission, the state exports 90% of its wheat crop. More than 60 countries now require labeling of GM organisms and products, and international regulations on import and sale of unapproved GM varieties are strict, according to the Non-GMO Project.
Shortly afterwards, in September of that year, the Washington State Department of Agriculture announced that Monsanto’s Roundup-resistant GM alfalfa had contaminated non-GM alfalfa. “For nearly a decade, Center for Food Safety has vigorously opposed the introduction of (genetically engineered) alfalfa, precisely because it was virtually certain to contaminate natural alfalfa, among other severe environmental and economic harms. We warned this administration and the industry repeatedly of the significant risk to farmers and the environment. Tragically, neither listened, and this latest contamination is the result of that negligence,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for Center for Food Safety (CFS).
At stake is the US alfalfa export market, which is the primary supplier to countries like Japan, Saudi Arabia and other countries that ban and/or require labeling of GM foods. In 2012, the alfalfa market was valued at $1.25 billion and has been growing steadily, according to CFS. Because alfalfa is pollinated by bees that can fly and cross-pollinate between fields and feral sources many miles apart, GM alfalfa is likely to irreparably contaminate natural alfalfa varieties. Known as the “queen of forages”, alfalfa is the key feedstock for the dairy industry. (Genetic) contamination will cause organic dairies to lose their source of organic feed, a requirement for organic dairy, including milk and yogurt products, warns CFS.
These contamination incidents seem to be part of a larger pattern in the United States. The USDA recorded 712 violations of its GM crop regulations from 2003-2007, including 98 that could lead to a possible release of unauthorized crops, and 21 major non-compliances from 1995-2011, five of which involved Monsanto. Also, “a 2008 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that the USDA lacked the resources to conduct routine testing on areas adjacent to the GM crops to monitor any escape of the transgenes and instead relied on biotechnology companies to voluntarily provide test results”, according to the Biosafety Information Center.
The U.S. has some 1,000 field trials for new GM crops every year, most in multiple sites. The protocols for preventing genetic contamination are inadequate, critics claim. “I would not be at all surprised if there are a number of experimental genes that have contaminated and are happily being passed along at low levels in the food supplies of various crops already, but nobody’s testing,” says Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s really a ‘don’t look, don’t tell’ situation. We just really don’t know.”
How long before something similar or worse happens in Puerto Rico, a biological Chernobyl that will put our agricultural export markets in jeopardy and call the credibility of our agriculture into question?
For non-GM farmers the risk of contamination from nearby GM crops is not some abstract academic issue, as the US Center for Food Safety documented in a recent report:
"After extensive research and numerous interviews with farmers and lawyers, CFS found that Monsanto, the world’s leading agricultural biotechnology company, has used heavy-handed investigations and ruthless prosecutions that have fundamentally changed the way many American farmers farm. The result has been nothing less than an assault on the foundations of farming practices and traditions that have endured for centuries in this country and millennia around the world, including one of the oldest, the right to save and replant crop seed.
"No farmer is safe from the long reach of Monsanto. Farmers have been sued after their field was contaminated by pollen or seed from someone else’s genetically engineered crop; when genetically engineered seed from a previous year’s crop has sprouted, or 'volunteered', in fields planted with non-genetically engineered varieties the following year; and when they never signed Monsanto’s technology agreement but still planted the patented crop seed. In all of these cases, because of the way patent law has been applied, farmers are technically liable. It does not appear to matter if the use was unwitting or a contract was never signed.”
Farmers all over the US are going through this situation, a reality documented in the film "Food Inc." "These lawsuits and settlements are nothing less than corporate extortion of American farmers," decried CFS executive director Andrew Kimbrell. "Monsanto is polluting American farms with its genetically engineered crops, not properly informing farmers about these altered seeds, and then profiting from its own irresponsibility and negligence by suing innocent farmers."
“While it's reasonable for the company to expect to be paid for its products, the issue becomes complicated when gene contamination enters the picture”, commented the US Union of Concerned Scientists. “It's one thing to sue a farmer for intentionally planting seeds containing patented genes without paying for them. It's another thing entirely when those genes turn up in farmers' crops without their knowledge—and, in the case of organic farmers, with potentially devastating consequences for their business.”
So I’d like to ask the Puerto Rico secretary of agriculture, “Is this the coexistence you are talking about?”
Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican author, investigative journalist, and environmental educator. He regularly collaborates with the Organización Boricuá de Agricultura Eco-Orgánica, the local Via Campesina affiliate. He directs the bilingual Biosafety Blog (http://bioseguridad.blogspot.com/) and the Latin America Energy and Environment Monitor (http://energyandenvironmentmonitor.blogspot.com/). His personal blog is at http://carmeloruiz.blogspot.com. His Twitter ID is: @carmeloruiz.
 EAP describes its proposal thus: "Ecoagriculture recognizes agricultural producers and communities as key stewards of ecosystems and biodiversity and enables them to play those roles effectively. Ecoagriculture applies an integrated ecosystem approach to agricultural landscapes to address all three pillars, drawing on diverse elements of production and conservation management systems." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecoagriculture)
But University of California entomologist Miguel Altieri, president of the Latin America Scientific Society of Agroecology, argues in an extensive critique that ecoagriculture is no more than a corporate-friendly mockery of organic agriculture. (http://www.i-sis.org.uk/CHSA.php ) EAP director Sara Scherr fired off a furious response to Altieri, accusing him of miss-stating and mischaracterizing her organization's activities and philosophy.
EAP’s partners include the World Wildlife Fund—vilified for its support for the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and its collaboration with the Roundtable of Responsible Soy, a high-profile attempt to rationalize the millions of hectares of unsustainable soy monocultures in South America. (http://www.toxicsoy.org/toxicsoy/greenwash.html ) Other EAP partners include pillars of what could be called pro-corporate eco-capitalist nature conservation, like the Nature Conservancy, which also campaigned for NAFTA and has been accused of greenwashing soy monocultures in Brazil through its controversial partnership with the Cargill grain corporation. (http://www.multinationalmonitor.org/mm2008/092008/macdonald.html ) Also on the list is Conservation International, strongly criticized by civil society groups for its activities in Mexico's Lacandon jungle (http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=9448 ), and the Katoomba Group, a pioneer in developing rationales for "ecosystem markets". (http://www.katoombagroup.org/ )
Altieri reported in 2004 that EAP's partners included European biotech giants Bayer Cropscience and Syngenta (through its charitable foundation), as well as Croplife International, a trade association that represents the "plant science industry" (read: GM crops). As of July 2009, none of these appeared on EAP's web site as partners or supporters—apparently the organization wants to keep the appearance of critical distance from the biotech industry.
 Foley’s article was expertly debunked by Food First executive director Eric Holt-Gimenez:
“The problem with proposing a happy blend of conventional and organic farming techniques to end hunger is that the approach ignores the ways that industrial agriculture and global markets are destroying smallholder livelihoods worldwide. (The 3 million smallholder bankruptcies in Mexico following the North American Free Trade Agreement are a well-documented example of this.)
Suggesting “we all just get along” by blending techniques is like asking foxes and chickens to share their best eating habits for the overall benefit of the henhouse.
Technical “solutions” invite us to ignore the growing financial speculation and monopolization of food, turn a blind eye to massive land grabbing and pretend free trade agreements benefit the poor. Even if we could (theoretically) take National Geographic’s advice, if steps aren’t taken to prevent the dispossession of the world’s 2 billion peasants they will still be condemned to poverty, migration and hunger.
...when despite evidence to the contrary... false assumptions are repeated over and over as facts in pseudo-scientific literature that seeks to persuade public opinion and influence public policy — i.e. when they have entered the public sphere–then these systematically unexamined assumptions are called “lies”.
Iowa corn farmer George Naylor also pitched in:
“Foley's five steps to 'feed the world' involve the confluence of many miracles, most of which don't jive with the rules of the system as they now stand, and I see no focus here on the institutional changes required for coordinating such tasks. Without serious assessment and commitment, the five steps to feed the world serve as a smokescreen for full speed ahead, corporate profitability dictating our lives based on turning Mother Nature into money.
Don't let the pitch of 'Feed the World' or 'Grow More on Each Acre' fool you. They are simply Madison Avenue subterfuge unfortunately parroted by too many academics and prestigious magazines.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/george-naylor/national-geographics-five_b_5290883.html
 Darío Aranda. “La inseguridad en el campo” Página 12, June 23 2014. http://www.pagina12.com.ar/diario/sociedad/3-249175-2014-06-23.html
 Campaña Paren de Fumigarnos - Santa Fe “Pseudociencia empresaria con aval institucional” http://www.biodiversidadla.org/Principal/Secciones/Documentos/Boletin_N_569_de_la_RALLT_-_Critica_a_la_tecnociencia_que_promueve_los_OGM
 GRAIN. “Hands off our maize! Resistance to GMOs in Mexico” May 16 2013. http://www.grain.org/article/entries/4725-hands-off-our-maize-resistance-to-gmos-in-mexico
 Elena R. Álvarez-Buylla, David Quist, Alma Piñeyro Nelson, Emiliano Rodríguez, Antonio Serratos and Alejandro Espinosa “Maíz GM en México: un camino irreversible en detrimento de la agrobiodiversidad, la subsistencia campesina y el derecho a la alimentación en el centro de origen del maíz”. Taken from Una perspectiva multidisciplinaria respecto a la liberación de maíz transgénico resistente a lepidópteros o tolerante a los herbicidas glifosato y glufosinato de amonio, August 1 2013. http://genok.com/arkiv/1734/
 Andrew Harris and David Beasley. “Bayer Agrees to Pay $750 Million to End Lawsuits Over Gene-Modified Rice”. Bloomberg, July 2 2011. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-07-01/bayer-to-pay-750-million-to-end-lawsuits-over-genetically-modified-rice.html
 Non-GMO Project, May 29 2013 http://www.nongmoproject.org/2013/05/29/non-gmo-project-responds-to-usda-announcement-of-gmo-wheat-contamination-in-oregon/
 Non-GMO Project, May 29 2013.
 Center for Food Safety, September 12 2013 "New GE Contamination Reported in Washington State Alfalfa” http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/press-releases/2510/new-ge-contamination-reported-in-washington-state-alfalfa# , http://bioseguridad.blogspot.com/search/label/Alfalfa
 Center for Food Safety, September 12 2013.
 Biosafety Information Center, June 3 2013 http://www.biosafety-info.net/article.php?aid=974
 “Genetically Modified Wheat Isn't Supposed to Exist. So What Is It Doing in Oregon?” Business Week, May 30 2013. http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-05-30/genetically-modified-wheat-isnt-supposed-to-exist-dot-so-what-is-it-doing-in-oregon
 Center for Food Safety “Monsanto vs. U.S. Farmers” http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/files/cfsmonsantovsfarmerreport11305.pdf
 “Monsanto Assault on U.S. Farmers Detailed in New Report Center for Food Safety” http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/issues/303/seeds/press-releases/894/monsanto-assault-on-us-farmers-detailed-in-new-report#
 Union of Concerned Scientists “Spreading Gene Contamination” http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/our-failing-food-system/genetic-engineering/spreading-gene-contamination.html