Resources Research

Culture and systems of knowledge, cultivation and food, population and consumption

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Scientists’ statement deflates the bogus idea of ‘safe’ GM

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ENSSER_GMO_statement_10More scientists, physicians and legal experts have signed the group statement issued by the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) on the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The number of initial signatories to the statement, titled ‘No scientific consensus on GMO safety’, was almost 100 on the day it was released, 2013 October 21, and has more than doubled since.

The ENSSER group has reminded us that crop genetic engineering is dominated not by ecological experts but by molecular biologists: “Many are not knowledgeable about ecological risks and – more importantly – they fail to recognise the limitations of their expertise.”

ENSSER_GMO_statement_13Regarding the environmental risk of GM crops, ENSSER has said, the negative effects now documented empirically have been predicted since about 25 years.

For instance, while naturally occurring Bt toxins come in a diversity of variants, GM crops necessarily have to choose one Bt toxin to be transferred, significantly enhancing the probability of resistance development. Such effects are analysed by community ecology researchers and not visible on the genetic level.

“So it is a shame that, more than 20 years after the international academic societies of ecologists and molecular biologists agreed on the complementarity of their competences, and the necessity to assess ecosystem impacts in a systemic fashion, today’s molecular biologists still do neither recognise nor respect the limits of their competencies (not to speak about the influence of funding). Ignoring one’s own blind spots is what can turn science into a social risk.”

ENSSER_GMO_statement_11Those who have signed the statement “strongly reject claims by GM seed developers and some scientists, commentators, and journalists that there is a ‘scientific consensus’ on GMO safety and that the debate on this topic is ‘over’.”

The signatories have said they “feel compelled to issue this statement because the claimed consensus on GMO safety does not exist. The claim that it does exist is misleading and misrepresents the currently available scientific evidence and the broad diversity of opinion among scientists on this issue. Moreover, the claim encourages a climate of complacency that could lead to a lack of regulatory and scientific rigour and appropriate caution, potentially endangering the health of humans, animals, and the environment”.

ENSSER_GMO_statement_16ENSSER members and non-members alike who have signed the statement have collectively said that science and society do not proceed on the basis of a constructed consensus, as current knowledge is always open to well-founded challenge and disagreement. They endorse the need for further independent scientific inquiry and informed public discussion on GM product safety and urge GM proponents to do the same.

Regarding the safety of GM crops and foods for human and animal health, a comprehensive review of animal feeding studies of GM crops found that most studies concluding that GM foods were as safe and nutritious as those obtained by conventional breeding were “performed by biotechnology companies or associates, which are also responsible [for] commercialising these GM plants”.

ENSSER_GMO_statement_12It is often claimed that “trillions of GM meals” have been eaten in the US with no ill effects. However, no epidemiological studies in human populations have been carried out to establish whether there are any health effects associated with GM food consumption. As GM foods are not labelled in North America, a major producer and consumer of GM crops, it is scientifically impossible to trace, let alone study, patterns of consumption and their impacts. Therefore, claims that GM foods are safe for human health based on the experience of North American populations have no scientific basis.

ENSSER_GMO_statement_15A report by the British Medical Association concluded that with regard to the long-term effects of GM foods on human health and the environment, “many unanswered questions remain” and that “safety concerns cannot, as yet, be dismissed completely on the basis of information currently available”. The report called for more research, especially on potential impacts on human health and the environment.

ENSSER_GMO_statement_14Likewise, a statement by the American Medical Association’s Council on Science and Public Health acknowledged “a small potential for adverse events … due mainly to horizontal gene transfer, allergenicity, and toxicity” and recommended that the current voluntary notification procedure practised in the US prior to market release of GM crops be made mandatory. The ENSSER group has said that even a “small potential for adverse events” may turn out to be significant, given the widespread exposure of human and animal populations to GM crops.

What’s the ‘intensity’ of agri research nowadays?

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Nice infographic, but where are the prices of rice and wheat?

What do countries spend of agricultural research and development? How much is the ‘intensity’ of their agri-R&D spend – whether measured by agriculture domestic product or by ‘agriculturally active population’ (which I’m taking to mean farmers)? How much of this spending comes from taxpayers’ money and how much from the profits of the food companies and food retail chains and the food biotech corporations?

You’ll find some of these answers (in what form I cannot yet say without a close long look at what this new assessment lens is all about) in the ASTI Global Assessment of Agricultural R&D Spending, published by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI, which is one of the CGIAR institutes) in collaboration with the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR).

ASTI is Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators and the assessment says it uses “internationally comparable data on agricultural R&D investments and capacity for developing countries” (can’t see how really, as ag-biodiversity is culturally dependent, but of course Big Ag is mono-minded).

Does this impressive-sounding scrutiny have any bottom-lines for real small farmers worth reading? I am sceptical, given the CGIAR orientation, but here are two sequiturs:

“Global agricultural R&D spending in the public and private sectors steadily increased between 2000 and 2008. Most of this growth was driven by larger middle-income countries such as China and India.”

“Following a decade of slow growth in the 1990s, global public spending on agricultural R&D increased by 22 percent from 2000 to 2008—from $26.1 billion to $31.7 billion.”

I looked, but couldn’t find the connection between all this R&D and the woman wearing the sari.

Written by makanaka

November 12, 2012 at 20:49

India’s new agricultures, clean and local

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The new issue of Infochange India’s journal, Agenda, is about India’s new agricultures. I’m delighted to have edited and compiled this volume, the contributions to which you can read on the Infochange India website. It is in my view a nicely balanced volume, with insight and knowledge from practitioners and academics, government officials and activists. Here are the contents:

Infochange Agenda journal on New Agriculture, coverTowards a new agriculture – With roughly 45,000 certified organic farms operating in India, there is finally a rejection of resource-extractive industrial agriculture and a return to traditional, sustainable and ecologically safe farming. All over India rural revivalists are rejecting the corporatised, programmatic, high-input model of agriculture and following agro-ecological approaches in which shared, distributed knowledge systems provide ways to adapt to changing climate and a shrinking natural resource base. Rahul Goswami explains.

An evolutionary view of Indian agriculture – Farmers work with knowledge systems that evolve with time and circumstance. They learn and unlearn, choosing the appropriate knowledge in their struggle to earn a livelihood. While scientists rely on averages, the knowledge of local people is dynamic and up-to-date, continually revised as conditions alter, writes A Thimmaiah. The integration of scientific knowledge systems with indigenous knowledge systems is vital to make agriculture sustainable.

Tamil Nadu’s organic revolution – With chemical farming becoming uneconomical and grain yields declining, more and more farmers are switching to organic agriculture, says natural scientist G Nammalvar in this interview with Claude Alvares. Nammalvar has been training organic farmers and setting up learning centres in Tamil Nadu for three decades. Trainings sometimes need to be held in marriage halls in order to accommodate up to 1,000 farmers.

Return to the good earth in Sangli – Jayant Barve used to market chemical fertilisers and pesticides and practise chemical agriculture himself. In 1988, he switched to sustainable agriculture, and has never looked back since. In this interview he emphasises that despite much lower input costs, organic farming does give the same yield as chemical agriculture, sometimes even more. An interview by Claude Alvares.

Gulmohur trees in bloom, May in Maharashtra

Gulmohur trees in bloom, May in Maharashtra

The new natural economics of agriculture – Farmer Subhash Sharma watched the decline of his soil and agricultural yields before he let nature be his teacher and understood the agro-economics of agriculture. He abandoned insecticides and chemical fertilisers and relied instead on the cow, trees, birds and vegetation.

Climate change and food security – Rice production in India could decrease by almost a tonne/hectare if the temperature goes up 2 C, while each 1 C rise in mean temperature could cause wheat yield losses of 7 million tonnes per year. A recent national conference on food security and agriculture deliberated strategies to protect agriculture, food and nutrition security in the time of climate change. Suman Sahai reports.

Local solutions to climate change – In developing countries, 11% of arable land could be affected by climate change. Indeed, farmers are already facing the impact of climate change. The need of the hour, say Sreenath Dixit and B Venkateswarlu, is not to wait for global agreements on mitigating climate change but to act locally, intelligently and consistently, as is being done with water harvesting solutions for rainfed agriculture in Andhra Pradesh.

Tackling climate change in Gorakhpur – The people of Gorakhpur district, UP, have come to expect heavy rains followed by long dry spells as a consequence of climate change. But they are no longer allowing climate change to affect their crops. At shared learning dialogues, they are learning about the benefits of multi-cropping, alternative farming, soil management and seed autonomy. Surekha Sule reports.

In the state of Goa, western India, new residential blocks loom over shrinking fields.

In the state of Goa, western India, new residential blocks loom over shrinking fields. The produce from such fields once fed the capital city of Panaji, which now imports food 130 kilometres from the neighbouring state of Karnataka

Agriculture at nature’s mercy – In recent decades, market forces have prompted farmers in the Sunderbans to choose modern, high-yielding varieties of paddy, oblivious to their sensitivity to salt. Cyclone Aila, which caused a huge inundation of salt in the fields, proved that this was a costly mistake: every farmer who sowed the modern seed ended up with no produce, while those who planted traditional salt-tolerant varieties managed to harvest a little rice. Sukanta Das Gupta reports.

Resilience of man and nature – Cyclone Aila seemed to have broken the back of agriculture in the Sunderbans. Most observers, including Santadas Ghosh, felt it would be years before agricultural activity got back to normal. But just three months after the cyclone, salinity notwithstanding, seeds were sprouting and the freshwater ecology stirring with life.

Animal farms – The Green Revolution impacted livestock-rearing as well as agriculture. Farmers were encouraged to shift from low-input backyard systems to corporatised capital-intensive systems. As a result, write Nitya S Ghotge and Sagari R Ramdas, there was an artificial divide between livestock-rearing and agriculture, leading to the further crumbling of fragile livelihoods of small and landless farmers. Organisations such as Anthra are now working with communities to revitalise and re-integrate livestock and agriculture.

Women farmers: From seed to kitchen – Women contribute 50-60% of labour in farm production in India. There is evidence to suggest, writes Kavya Dashora, that if agriculture were focused on women, outputs could increase by as much as 10-20%, the ecological balance could be restored, and food security of communities improved.

Local grain in Mapusa market, North Goa

Local grain in Mapusa market, North Goa

Empty claims of financial inclusion – Government has been broadcasting its success in doubling institutional credit to the agricultural sector. But these numbers have little meaning: 85% of accounts opened were inoperative, 72% had zero or minimum balance, and only 15% had a balance over Rs 100. It is paradoxical, writes P S M Rao, to talk about ‘inclusive growth’ when our policies and practices tread the path of exclusion.

Natural farming, tribal farming – In major parts of India, agriculture is in crisis, with very low returns and large-scale destruction of cropped lands. Conservation agriculture can help small and middle farmers escape the downward spiral that impoverishes them even as it destroys the soil and ecosystem, writes Vidhya Das. Tribal farmers in particular have an intuitive understanding of natural farming techniques, Agragamee discovered during its nascent initiatives in organic conservation agriculture with tribal farmers in Orissa.

The home gardens of Wayanad – Wayanad, which has been in the news for the high number of farmer suicides, is also known for widespread homestead farming. A typical home garden integrates trees with field crops, livestock, poultry and fish. Home gardens form a dominant and promising land use system and maintain high levels of productivity, stability and sustainability, say A V Santhoshkumar and Kaoru Ichikawa.

Small farmer zindabad – More than 80% of India’s farmers are small and marginal farmers. It has been empirically established that small farms produce more per hectare than their larger counterparts. It is therefore imperative to protect the interests of small farmers through measures that help promote and stabilise incomes, reduce risks, and increase profitability, and at the same time improve availability and access to inputs, markets and credit. Extract from the report of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS), ‘The Challenge of Employment in India: An Informal Economy Perspective’ (2009).

The tired mirage of top-down technology – India’s large and complex public agricultural research and extension system, obsessed with the area-production-yield mantra, is geared towards harnessing technology to close the yield gap, while overlooking ago-ecological approaches entirely. This has been an error of staggering proportions, says Rahul Goswami.

The gap between field and lab – In India, publicly-funded research shapes the choices available to farmers, food workers and consumers. But farmers and consumers are only at the receiving end of agricultural research, never involved in it, says Anitha Pailoor. Raitateerpu, a farmers’ jury in Karnataka, wants to ensure that citizens are involved in decisions around science, technology and policymaking.

Kudrat, Karishma and other living seeds – Prakash Raghuvanshi has developed dozens of high-yielding, disease-resistant, open pollinated seeds, distributing them to 2 million farmers in 14 states. He also trains farmers in the basics of selection and plant breeding at his small farm near Varanasi. His aim is clear: to conserve and protect desi (indigenous) seed varieties, thereby freeing the farmer from the stranglehold of foreign seed companies and the cycle of debt and dependence. Anjali Pathak reports.

Indian Climate Research Network

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Flower-Western_GhatsThe Indian Climate Research Network has begun work with a two-day national conference of climate researchers held in the first week of March. Described as a community of individuals and institutions which will work to enhance capacity for climate research and action in the country, the Network brings together at this stage the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras and the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the Delhi-based research and advocacy body.

Ambuj Sagar and Krishna Achutarao of IIT-Delhi have said that the conference itself was distinctive in some respects: perhaps for the first time in India, the organisers of a conference on climate change “reached out to find new researchers working on the subject” through a call for submission of papers. The response, according to the organisers, was overwhelming. On one hand, the meet succeeded in bringing together on one platform almost all the top names working on climate research in the country. On the other, it identified and brought to the fore a lot of micro-scale work and initiatives which have been going on in the field of climate science in various parts of India.

Besides this, the conference also aimed at developing a common understanding of the key issues; identifying lacunae in science, policy, and action that need particular attention; and initiating a platform for a dialogue between researchers, NGOs, and policy-makers.

With sessions broadly categorised under ‘science and impacts’, ‘mitigation’, ‘adaptation’ and ‘policy issues’, the meet hosted a wide variety of presentations, highlighting research that has the potential to inform and influence current policy debates. These included papers on subjects ranging from energy scenarios and low-carbon pathways in India; emissions intensity and climate change; and impact of climate change on forests, to adaptive abilities of farmers in Gujarat; impact of climate change on corals in the Lakshadweep Islands; and micro-level monitoring of concentration of greenhouse gases at Cape Rama on the west coast of India.

Written by makanaka

March 8, 2010 at 09:56