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Ecosystems ...

Biodiversity is not just about numbers of varieties, but the web of interactions on which functioning ecosystems depend and about which we still know very little. It is an important - but not the only - part of the larger concept of ecosystems. On a planet under pressure from ecosystem modification and destruction, climate change and human expansion, biodiversity is ever more vital and ever more under threat. An increase demand for agricultural land to produce agrofuels or carbon sinks directly and indirectly increases the destruction of natural ecosystems. At the same time, agricultural biodiversity is getting lost worldwide through the introdcution of industrialized agricultural systems.
... and Rio conventions
The fate of biodiversity and ecosystems is not only decided out 'in the wild', but significantly in conference rooms. EcoNexus therefore works on issues by participating in the meetings of the CBD and the UNFCCC as well through the relationship between these two crucial conventions.

Super organisms for bioeconomy ...

The goal of Synthetic Biology and its proponents like Craig Venter are novel organisms for specific purposes, constructed like a machine in which desirable characteristics are added and undesirable 'components' are excluded. However, unlike machines they can reproduce and adapt in unpredictable ways in order to survive. At present synthetic biology is more speculation than reality, but especially the development of organisms for bioeconomy and agrofuel production, brings several topics together on which EcoNexus works, such as in the report Agriculture and Climate Change.
... or unregulated cottage industry?
The powerful interests involved in Synthetic Biology and its aspired use in economically important areas, require a close monitoring of its developments. Otherwise, we might find that commercial interests will drive it before decisions can be made about how to regulate them, their potential effects and further reaching consequences.
But even then synthetic biology will be difficult to regulate since rapidly reducing prices for basic technologies make resources easily available. This opens a completely different area of concerns, for example whe it becomes possible to build pathogens in simple labs that have already been dubbed garage synbio.

From Asian food to European animal feed

Soya is an ancient crop from Asia that has been used for centuries for human nutrition. Now GE soya, GE maize, GE oilseed rape/canola and Bt cotton are the major GE (or GM) crops commercialised on a large scale, with GE soya representing the largest proportion of the total plantings of soya globally. The huge increase over the last few years in soy production, mainly in the Americas, is driven by the demand for animal feed and represents a massive increase in industrial intensification of monoculture plantations.
Over the years, the drive for ever-increasing productivity has led to the breeding of animals requiring increasing amounts of proteins in their diet. When 'Mad Cow' disease (BSE) forced an end to the practice of feeding animal remains to animals, the livestock industry turned to soya as a replacement protein source for livestock. At around the same time, Monsanto was planning how to cope with the end of its patent on glyphosate - the active ingredient in its best-selling herbicide RoundUp. The development of GE crops that tolerate the application of RoundUp meant that Monsanto could sell the GE seeds and the herbicide as a package.
Since 1997, RoundUp Ready (RR) soya has expanded in the US and Argentina, securing a new business model for Monsanto and providing the intensive lifestock industry with proteins. Most of the GE soya is exported as animal feed to Europe and increasingly to China.
The spread of RR soya monocultures in Argentina has been rapid and decisive. They affect the soils, water, biodiversity, forests and climate. hey also impact the food systems and health of rural communities and small towns, as the reports A case study on the impact of GE soya shows.
GE soy fields as carbon sinks?
The story of GE soya encapsulates much of what is wrong with industrial food & feed systems, but now the model of no-till GE agriculture for soya is being promoted for mitigating climate change at climate talks. The argument is that less CO2 is released from the soil if it is not tilled. Instead weeds are controlled with herbicides. Thus the soil under GE soya becomes a carbon sink and can be rewarded with carbon credits. However, there are many debates about whether no-till really sequestrates more carbon than other agricultural methods.
A dedicated chapter in the report Agriculture and climate change: Real Problems, False Solutions discusses why chemical no-till agriculture is no solution.

Food sovereignty:

Access to a wide variety of foods is a necessity for health and well-being, but it is also the basis for cultural integrity. In many parts of the world, rich and diverse local food systems still exist. EcoNexus therefore addresses not only the food safety of GM crops but also food security and food sovereignty. Food security is often taken to imply a basic but impoverished supply of food, but genuine food security involves defending and regenerating local food systems. Diverse systems that are appropriate to their regions in which food production is under the control of the people or community who then actually eat it, is the basis for food sovereignty. In this context, sustainable farming not only ensures food security but also protects agricultural diversity.
Under threat from industrialized agriculture?
However, farming systems become more and more industrialized, concentrating on the production of agricultural commodities for mass processing. Local varieties of crop and animals are getting lost, along with vital knowledge and practice handed down over centuries. Without these, future food production is seriously jeopardised.
At the same time, grains are increasingly used as animal feed instead of for human consumption, and currently we can witness the use of agricultural land for the production of agrofuels and industrial prodcuts rather than food production. While access to food already is a problem, the industrialized food production systems lead to the waste and destruction of vast quantities of food everyday, especially in the US and Europe.
EcoNexus follows the developments of specific crop plants and animals (such as rice, soya or fish) but also looks at the bigger picture and recurring themes, like the question whether GM crops could feed the world.

So many GMOs, so little time

Genetically modified organisms
The term GMO (genetically modified organism) refers to any organism that has been genetically modified, or – in scientific language – genetically engineered: plants (algae, grasses, flowers, food crops, trees), animals (insects, fish, mammals), fungi, unicellular organisms, bacteria, and viruses. In the last decades a wide range of organisms have been subject to genetic modification for research as well as for commercial purposes. Only four major GM crops have so far been commercialised on a larger scale: maize (corn), soya, oilseed rape (canola) and cotton. They have been modified for two different traits: herbicide tolerance and Bt toxin production for pest resistance. A fifth crop, papaya, genetically modified for disease resistance, is grown on a small scale in Hawaii.
Other crop plants that have been engineered but are not commercially grown include: potato, rice and wheat as well as tomato, fodder beet and sugar beet, sugar cane, alfalfa and brinjal (eggplant, aubergine).
Many organisations worldwide work on the wide range of problems and risks linked to GM crops: environmental and biosafety issues, human and animal health, food security, socio-economic impacts, intellectual property rights and more.
In this broad spectrum, the focus of EcoNexus has largely been on three areas:

  • GE trees because GE trees pose entirely different environmental risks to annual crops, even in the stage of 'field trials'
  • GE rice as the world’s main staple crop
  • GE soyaas a GMO, central to the predominant chemical no-till system, mainly destined for animal feed and more recently for biofuel.

GE, GM, LMO or transgenic?
GE (genetically engineered) is the original scientific term, indicating the method used to alter the organism, though the word engineering gives a misleading impression of precision. GM (genetically modified) is widely used to mean the same. ‘Transgenic’ is another common term, scientifically used for the DNA transferred from one organism to another, for example in transgenic DNA or transgenic construct. There is a misconception that transgenic DNA has to originate from a different species. In fact transgenic DNA can also be derived from within the same species, i.e. ‘donor’ and ‘recipient’ organism can be one and the same species or even individual.
Another term used is ‘recombinant DNA technology’.
The term LMO (living modified organism) is used in the context of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and covers all GMOs, but also organisms created by other methods, such as cell fusion.

Land grabbing & 'marginal' lands

Land that might appear to be “marginal” to one person may be a vital resource to another. Although to the outsider, it may look idle or underused, it often provides food, fuel, medicine and building materials to local communities worldwide. It may be collective or common land used by local communities for generations, even though they have no formal title to it. Its fragility can mean that they use it on the basis of long rotations, only returning to cultivate plots after leaving them to regenerate for several years.

Biodiversity and Climate Change

Biodiversity helps to moderate the scale and impacts of climate change by making ecosystems, including agricultural systems, more resilient to change. However, if great changes occur too fast, then species will be unable to adapt and biodiversity become so depleted that ecosystems will not be able to maintain their resilience or function. This is equally true for agricultural biodiversity and agricultural systems. If systems lack the capacity to endure or to adapt to change (resilience), those systems will be unable to adjust and could completely collapse. If change occurs in a fluctuating or erratic manner, then a system will need time to build up the capacity to cope with such a range. For biological systems, ranging from the organism to the ecosystem, diversity is a key ingredient of the capacity to endure change (buffering) and the ability to respond and adapt. Uniformity, on the other hand, tends to make biological systems vulnerable to changes and stresses. Such changes and stresses are currently occurring at an unprecedented rate in the form of climate change, overexploitation of resources, increasing fragmentation of habitat, loss of biodiversity and land being taken over for human use.

Agriculture and Climate Change

Whilst agriculture is obviously fundamental to human food security, the kind of agricultural practices we use are also critical to climate and biodiversity issues. Depending on the agricultural practices used, agriculture can either contribute to climate change or it could help to increase resilience and even reduce both the vulnerability of ecosystems and the severity of climate fluctuations.

Industrial agriculture: a major climate change contributor

Industrial agriculture based on monocultures and applications of chemicals (fertilisers and pesticides) makes a major contribution to global emissions of green house gases (e.g. nitrous oxide derived from chemical fertiliser applications is 298 times stronger than CO2 and a major contributor to ozone depletion in the atmosphere). However, instead of changing the model and practices of agriculture and making commitments to real emission cuts in agriculture, political and industrial interest groups are proposing technological fixes. These are promoted despite lack of conclusive information as to their effectiveness or their risks and negative side effects. Examples within agriculture include:

  • removing carbon from the atmosphere by burying or storing it, for example through using biochar (charcoal produced by pyrolysis of biomass).
  • Chemical no-till agriculture (e.g. of genetically engineered soy beans) proposed as a carbon sink, and to offset CO2 emissions.

Many of these techno-fix proposals threaten biodiversity and food security, while it is unclear whether they can even fulfil their initial promises. Carbon offsets delay the emission cuts that we need to make as soon as possible. Delays in reducing emissions will make agriculture everywhere more difficult and more prone to failures. Projections indicate that pests and diseases are likely to flourish with global warming, while projected advantages in some temperate zones could well be cancelled out by the effects of other changes, such as increased extremes of droughts, floods, storms and hurricanes. The IAASTD Report (2008) states clearly that climate change, if not addressed, will cause irreversible “damage to the natural resource base on which agriculture depends”. The Report also notes that “The earlier and stronger the cuts in emissions, the quicker concentrations [of greenhouse gases] will approach stabilization.” This means that avoiding cuts may earn short–term advantages for governments, but in the long term it is dangerously short sighted.

The political arena

EcoNexus follows the discussion from different angles: bringing insights about agriculture and land use change to public attention and to the meetings of both the UNFCCC and the CBD. The report Real Problems, False Solutions is an example of this. Between June and November 2009, EcoNexus published two draft versions of the report following and responding to developments in the meetings leading up to the Climate Summit in Copenhagen.

Agrofuels or biofuels?

Agrofuels are sometimes referred to as biofuels. The term biofuels is used widely for any fuel derived from biological material in contrast to fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas). It includes for example biogas production from landfill sites. Where plants are cultivated in agricultural systems for the purpose of fuel production, the term agrofuel is more appropriate to include the specific context and problems such as monoculture plantations and the competition with land for food production.
Myths and realities
First generation agrofuels are liquid fuels made from the reproductive parts (seeds) of crop plants. Two examples of the main types are ethanol produced from the starch of maize kernels and biodiesel from the oil of soya beans. They were strongly promoted as a means to address climate change, to improve energy security and to regenerate rural areas, without reducing the use of internal combustion engines (e.g. cars, tractors, planes, generators) or even modifying those engines too radically.
But contradictions soon emerged, as shown by the report Towards a Reality Check in Nine Key Areas. Agrofuels threaten biodiversity and food security without actually being a solution for climate change. They also need large areas of land and plenty of water. The suggestion that they should be grown on millions of hectares of 'marginal land' ignores the fact that such land may well be vital to local communities and the resilience of ecosystems, their function and services. If such land is genuinely degraded, as often claimed, it is unlikely that it would support the production of crops at industrial scale without massive inputs.
Second generation agrofuels are now promoted as a solution to the problems of the first generation. These 'advanced' agrofuels are meant to utilise the whole plant or tree to produce fuel and other commercially valuable products that are currently derived from fossil fuels, such as plastics. Producing these next (or second) generation agrofuels is energy intensive and involves breaking down the complex, resilient lignin and the different celluloses in tree and plant biomass, using heat, pressure and chemicals. Microbiological processes are also required and are being further developed for these purposes, including the use of genetically modified microorganisms. At the same time researchers are trying to produce fast-growing genetically modified (GM) trees with reduced or less resilient lignin.

Hungry Corporations

The influence of corporations on our lives, the planet and human possibilities for the future is immense. At the UN Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, civil society aimed to highlight the role of corporations in undermining the life support systems of the planet. Instead, the corporations succeeded in making themselves invisible and removing themselves from being the target of criticism. This process continues and is currently gathering pace both in climate and biodiversity negotiations. Here more and more mechanisms are emerging that allow corporations to expand their resource and profit base with few environmental or human rights obligations attached.

Corporations are legally obliged to prioritise profits for their shareholders over all other considerations. The concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) was invented in the 1960s as a means to promote corporations as good citizens. But CSR is not legally binding. And citizens in general have no say over what the company has to do to show Responsibility. Whilst access to information is widely regarded as a citizen’s right, only a few countries have made legal provisions for public access. Even so, corporations can and do prevent or delay disclosure. They do this by claiming, for example that details about a pesticide are Confidential Business Information (CBI) and cannot be disclosed. As a consequence, the public increasingly has to resort to legal proceedings – where such legal frameworks exist - and go to court in an attempt to force disclosure.

Falling revenues from property and banking have led to investors, speculators and companies seeking new sources of profit from land, agriculture, the climate markets and biodiversity. Thus instead of tackling climate change, they seek to profit from it, as discussed in Carbon markets – a distraction from the real priority . This diverts attention from what we really need: to reduce the destructive consumption of energy, water, soil, minerals and biodiversity.

EcoNexus has produced and stimulated the production of materials that tell the history of the corporation, analyse areas of particular concern, plus possible means of addressing corporate power.
A brief outline of the development of the corporation and some of the major problems can be found in Who’s in Charge? , a guest paper for EcoNexus.

Analysis and examples focusing on agriculture, food and seed from around the world can be found in the book Hungry Corporations – transnational biotech companies colonise the food chain which is available for download as individual chapters.

Controlling seeds – and protecting intellectual property

Terminator plants - technically known as V-GURTs (genetic use restriction technologies) - are several different technologies designed to either render seeds sterile at harvest or to prevent saved seeds from growing into mature plants by disrupting plant development at various stages. They were first presented in 1998 as a patented ‘technology protection system’ to stop farmers from saving and growing seeds of patented crops, triggering a global outcry. Later terminator technology was (and continues to be) put forward as a containment strategy for GM crops; this was done on a hypothetical basis rather than being based on any data.

In their design, pollen from V-GURTs plants is fertile and could contaminate crops on other fields. The resulting seeds would be sterile if all goes to plan. It would be a serious threat to food security if farmers unknowingly kept and sowed such sterile seeds in the next season.
The technology is still at the development stage. Scientific articles have been published about some components of transgenic switch mechanisms, but not on functioning V-GURTs plants. However, these articles already indicate that V-GURTs will not offer a fully reliable system to prevent contamination of GM crops.
Due to the risks and the threat to food security, a de facto global moratorium is in place against terminator plants.
Investigating terminator seeds
EcoNexus has been investigating terminator technology since 1998, first presenting on this technology at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) that same year. Our article Terminator Technology – The Threat to Global Food Security was published in 1999 and continues to be relevant.
The more technical report V-GURTS - Design, Reality and Inherent Risks gives detailed information on the different approaches and their specific risks.
Two more specific papers for CBD meetings focus on the questions why terminator seeds are not a reliable biological containment system and why it would be irresponsible to conduct open field trials with them.

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