Author Archives: Charles W. Elliott

New Report: Feeding the World Without GMOs

Charles W. Elliott

Feeding the World Without GMOsA new report, Feeding The World Without GMOs , by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) refutes the corporate biotech/industrial narrative that genetically modified organism (GMO) foods offer real solutions to global hunger and food insecurity.

Despite significant progress over the past 30 years, the world still faces an ongoing crisis of hunger and food insecurity. 805 million people continue to go hungry, according to estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.[1] The world also faces a “hidden hunger” problem —micronutrient deficiency—which affects some two billion people, causing long-term, irreversible health effects and significantly impairing economic productivity. We face stark challenges posed by population growth: by 2050 the demand for food will be twice what it was in 2005.[2]

Feeding the World Without GMOs takes a hard look at ways to address this problem and concludes that GMO food is a non-solution. In nine pages of tight synthesis, it analyzes: (1) why GE crops don’t contribute to food security; (2) what would work to boost the global food supply; and (3) the unfulfilled promise of genetic engineering.

 Why GE crops don’t contribute to food security

GE crops don’t meaningfully contribute to global food security for a variety of reasons. First, about 80 percent of the land area dedicated to growing genetically engineered crops is for GMO corn and soybeans[3] and both are overwhelmingly used for animal feed and biofuels. As the report says, “[m]ost of the investment in GE crops ends up feeding cows and cars, not people.”

In 2010, about 5 percent of all the calories grown globally were used to make biofuels, [4] and in the U.S., about 40 percent of corn production is used to produce ethanol, mostly to blend with gasoline for motor vehicle fuels.

Investment in improving yields in already high-yielding areas with GMO crops does little to improve food security; it mostly helps the bottom line of seed and chemical companies, industrial scale agribusiness, and corn ethanol producers.

Because hunger is primarily the product of poverty, and because the economic productivity of smallholder farmers is mostly limited by lack of basic resources such as fertilizer, water, and infrastructure to move crops to markets, investment in GMO crops will do little to address these fundamental issues.[5] Moreover, according to EWG’s report, GMO crops have not been demonstrated to outperform traditional cross-breeding techniques in improving crop drought tolerance and efficiency of resource use, two touted benefits of GMO technology.

And if improving crop yields is the actual goal, investment in GMO crops is highly inefficient. As the report points out, “Industry supported research found that it can take more than $100 million to research and develop a single genetically engineered variety, [6] money that would be better spent to address the factors that frequently limit crop yields. By comparison, it typically costs only about $1 million to develop a new variety by traditional breeding techniques.” [7] [8]

Real Solutions – Low Environmental Impact, Big Payoffs

EWG’s report identifies several real solutions to the problem of hunger: smarter use of fertilizers; reducing food waste; shifting crop production from biofuels and animal feed to food calories for people; reducing meat consumption; and focusing resources and investment in improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. It’s worth noting that smallholder farmers produce the bulk of food in developing countries: seventy percent of Africa’s food supply[9] and an estimated eighty percent of the food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa together.[10] Supporting them directly supports the global food supply.

Smarter Use of Fertilizers

Industrial scale agriculture requires significant inputs of chemical fertilizers and causes significant greenhouse gas emissions. [11] This is especially true for corn, eighty-five percent of which is genetically engineered. The EWG researchers suggest that in place of massive fertilizer use in industrial-scale farms in rich countries, its use should be focused in places with nutrient-poor soils where it would have the greatest impact, potentially increasing global production of major cereals by thirty percent.[12]

In contrast to industrial-scale agriculture, BGR has consistently supported sustainable smallholder agricultural techniques,[13] which have been shown to increase average crop yields up to seventy-nine percent.[14]

Reducing Food Waste

The EWG report notes that in the United States, we waste about 40 percent of national food production – sixty million metric tons a year, worth an estimated $162 billion.[15] That is the equivalent of about 1,500 calories of discarded food per person each day[16] – enough to feed 170 million people a 2,700-calorie per-day diet.

We noted in a previous BGR blog post[17] that ending the wasting of food would bring to the world “triple net benefits”: reducing food insecurity, financial costs, and environmental damage.

As we said in that post, the benefits of reducing food waste in combatting hunger are huge:

Food insecurity impacts:

Reducing food losses by just 15 percent would be enough food to feed more than 25 million Americans every year at a time when one in six Americans lack a secure supply of food to their tables.

Environmental Impacts:

Getting food from the farm to our fork eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of all freshwater consumed in the United States. Yet, 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten… [T]he uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills as the single largest component of U.S. municipal solid waste where it accounts for almost 25 percent of U.S. methane emissions.

Financial impacts:

American families throw out approximately 25 percent of the food and beverages they buy. The cost estimate for the average family of four is $1,365 to $2,275 annually.

Changing Diets

Meat consumption causes an enormous loss of field-grown calories that could be used to feed people. It also imposes huge demands on natural resources, consumes massive amounts of water, and causes significant greenhouse gas emissions. Shifting to a diet less reliant on meat would increase overall food availability and reduce the burden on natural resources. “[I]n theory, shifting all crops grown for animal feed to human food could increase food availability by 54 percent.”[18] Cutting global meat consumption in half could increase food supplies by 27 percent.

Genetic Engineering: “Unfulfilled Promise”

GMO companies have historically focused on crops with the highest commercial potential, not necessarily the ones that would most alleviate world hunger. The most widely grown GMO crops are corn, soybeans, canola, sugar beets and cotton, not exactly the solution to a world of hungry people, especially given that so much of our corn production is used for biofuels and over 80 percent of the soybeans are used to feed livestock destined for meat production. [19]

GMO proponents routinely claim that genetic engineering will result in significantly increased crop yields, especially in conditions of drought.

This promise remains unfulfilled, as GMO technologies have failed to significantly increase yields in major food and animal feed crops despite two decades of effort and hundreds of millions of dollars of investment. The EWG report points out in twenty years of U.S. experiments with GMO corn and soy, they have not increased yields. (Heinemann et al. (2014). “Sustainability and innovation in staple crop production in the US Midwest.” International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability).[20]

As the EWG report concludes, reliance on GMO crops to reduce hunger will fall short of meeting global needs. It diverts resources from more promising opportunities. Alternative strategies of smarter resource use, supporting sustainable smallholder farming, reducing food waste, and reducing meat consumption will both increase food supplies and reduce environmental impacts from food production.


[1] “Global Hunger Index”, http://www.ifpri.org/publication/2014-global-hunger-index.

[2] Tilman, D. et al. (2011). Global food demand and the sustainable intensification of agriculture. PNAS http://www.pnas.org/content/108/50/20260

[3] Barrows et al. (2014). Agricultural Biotechnology: The Promise and Prospects of Genetically Modified Crops. Journal of Economic Perspectives

[4] Searchinger, T. and R. Heimlich. (2015). “Avoiding Bioenergy Competition for Food Crops and Land.” Washington, DC: World Resources Institute. http://www.wri.org/publication/avoiding-bioenergy-competition-food-crops-and-land. By 2050 biofuels mandates could consume the equivalent of 29 percent of all calories currently produced on the world’s croplands.

[5] Seventy percent of the world’s poor are farmers. Smallholders, food security and the environment. Rome, Italy: International Fund for Agricultural Development (2013), http://www.ifad.org/climate/resources/smallholders_report.pdf. In regions such as Africa, farmers can only afford a tenth of the fertilizer recommended for their crops. Gilbert, N. (2014). “Cross-bred crops get fit faster.” Nature 513, 292 http://www.nature.com/news/cross-bredcrops-get-fit-faster-1.15940

[6] McDougall, Phillips. (2011). The cost and time involved in the discovery, development and authorization of a new plant biotechnology derived trait, https://croplife.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Getting-a-Biotech-Crop-to-Market-Phillips-McDougall-Study.pdf

[7] Gurian-Sherman, Doug “Plant Breeding vs. GMOs: Conventional Methods Lead the Way in Responding to Climate Change” Civil Eats, October 10, 2014, http://civileats.com/2014/10/10/plant-breeding-vs-gmos-conventional-methods-lead-the-way-in-responding-to-climate-change/

[8] Goodman, M. (2002). New sources of germplasm: lines, transgenes, and breeders. North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC http://www.cropsci.ncsu.edu/maize/publications/NewSources.pdf

[9]. Agriculture at a crossroads: Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) report (Vol. V, 2009). International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development. Washington, DC: Island Press.

[10] Viewpoint: Smallholders can feed the world. Rome: International Fund for Agricultural Development, 2011, http://www.ifad.org/pub/viewpoint/smallholder.pdf

[11] Recent analyses show that livestock and their by-products account for 51% of annual global GHG emissions. See, http://www.worldwatch.org/node/6294

[12] Mueller, N. D. et al. (2012). “Closing yield gaps through nutrient and water management”, Nature http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v490/n7419/full/nature11420.html

[13] See, http://buddhistglobalrelief.me/tag/sustainable-agriculture/

[14] Smallholders And Family Farmers, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2012), http://www.fao.org/3/a-ar588e.pdf

[15] Nixon, Ron “Food Waste Is Becoming Serious Economic and Environmental Issue, Report Says” New York Times, Feb 25, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/26/us/food-waste-is-becoming-serious-economic-and-environmental-issue-report-says.html

[16] Reich, A. H. & Foley, J.A. “Food Loss and Waste in the US: The Science Behind the Supply Chain.” April, 2014, https://www.foodpolicy.umn.edu/policy-summaries-and-analyses/food-loss-and-waste-us-science-behind-supply-chain

[17] https://buddhistglobalrelief.wordpress.com/2012/09/05/ending-the-wasting-of-food-energy-our-environment-triple-net-benefits-2/

[18] Cassidy et al. (2013). “Redefining agricultural yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare”, Environmental Research Letters, http://iopscience.iop.org/1748-9326/8/3/034015

[19]   “About 85 percent of the world’s soybeans are processed, or ‘crushed,’ annually into soybean meal and oil. Approximately 98 percent of the soybean meal that is crushed is further processed into animal feed with the balance used to make soy flour and proteins. ” http://www.soyatech.com/soy_facts.htm

[20] In a detailed report, Failure To Yield: Evaluating the Performance of Genetically Engineered Crops, the Union of Concerned Scientists also analyzed GMO crop yields and concluded that GMO technology has failed to deliver on the promise:

“The lack of substantial yield increases has not been due to lack of effort. The several thousand field trials over the last 20 years for genes aimed at increasing operational or intrinsic yield indicate a significant undertaking. Yet none of these field trials have resulted in increased yield in commercialized major food/feed crops, with the exception of small increases from Bt corn.”

http://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/legacy/assets/documents/food_and_agriculture/failure-to-yield.pdf

 

 

Marching Toward A New Climate Future

Charles W. Elliott

BGR at Peoples Climate March

 

This past Sunday, Buddhist Global Relief joined 400,000 others at the People’s Climate March in New York to demand swift action to halt the threat of global climate change. The streets were filled with marchers as far as the eye could see with young and old, rich and poor, of all races and religions, joined by their common humanity.

Buddhist Global Relief was part of an Interfaith contingent of thousands that packed 58th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues so tightly there was barely room to breathe. Joining us were more than twenty other Buddhist groups in the common cause of compassion and concern for the world.

BGR Peoples Climate March

We marched in the face of the recent onslaught of bad environmental news – the threat of the West Antarctic ice sheet irreversibly melting, 2014 on track to be one of the hottest in recorded history. Yet this was a march of hope. There would be little point in being in the streets were it not for our common belief that we can yet change the course of events.

New BGR Climate March7696

Our presence in New York was a walk in solidarity with those who will be first and most badly harmed by the consequences of climate change: the poor and indigenous populations who did not benefit from the wealth generated in the economies most responsible for the burning of fossil fuels, and who played little or no role in the causes of climate change. We walked in witness to the extinction of species from the changes wrought by rising temperatures and seas.[1] We walked to recognize the impacts of sea level rise that will swamp coasts and destroy both natural habitat and human infrastructure. And acknowledging the threats posed by climate change to food security for the world’s most vulnerable, BGR’s march banner reminded the world: “The World’s Food Supply Depends on a Stable Climate.”

The scientific community predicts that food production will be harmed by rising temperatures, increased air pollution, ocean acidification, and other climate-change induced factors.

The recent Fifth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states: “Under scenarios of high levels of warming, leading to local mean temperature increases of 3-4 oC or higher, models based on current agricultural systems suggest large negative impacts on agricultural productivity and substantial risks to global food production and security.” (Chapter 7. Food Security and Food Production Systems, p. 3).  The IPCC reported one study showing a global food price increase of 19% due to the impacts of temperature and precipitation trends on food supply.

Here, in the United States, according to the most recent (2014) report, Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States,  “Climate disruptions to agricultural production have increased in the past 40 years and are projected to increase over the next 25 years. By mid-century and beyond, these impacts will be increasingly negative on most crops and livestock.” Agriculture-damaging impacts of climate change in the United States include:

  • Many agricultural regions will experience declines in crop and livestock production from increased stress due to weeds, diseases, insect pests, and other climate change induced stresses;
  • Current loss and degradation of critical agricultural soil and water assets due to increasing extremes in precipitation will continue to challenge both rainfed and irrigated agriculture unless innovative conservation methods are implemented.
  • The rising incidence of weather extremes will have increasingly negative impacts on crop and livestock productivity because critical thresholds are already being exceeded.
  • Drought frequency and severity are projected to increase in the future over much of the United States, particularly under higher emissions scenarios. These droughts will be occurring at a time when crop water requirements also are increasing due to rising temperatures. With increasing demand and competition for freshwater supplies, the water needed for these crops might be increasingly limited. Long droughts can cause crop failures.
  • Fruits that require long winter chilling periods will experience declines. Many varieties of fruits require between 400 and 1,800 cumulative hours below 45°F each winter to produce abundant yields the following summer and fall. By late this century, under higher emissions scenarios, winter temperatures in many important fruit-producing regions such as the Northeast will be too consistently warm to meet these requirements.

As we said in a previous post on climate change, “Our agriculture is fundamentally based on the stable global climate humanity has enjoyed for thousands of years.  That is now disappearing and the evidence is right in front of us.”

New BGR Climate March7700

 

400,000 people in the street sends an excellent message, but marching alone won’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One of the most powerful protest signs at the march said, “The greatest threat to the planet is the idea that someone else will save it.” That’s why the tag line for the march was “To change everything, we need everyone.”  It has been wisely said that “Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act.” The writer Ken Wilber echoes this wisdom: “Therefore, if you have seen, you simply must speak out. Speak out with compassion, or speak out with angry wisdom, or speak out with skillful means, but speak out you must.”

We urge all of you to take action, help others understand what is at stake, and speak truth to power wherever it may be.

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[1] The scientific consensus in the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report‘s Summary for Policymakers  is that: “Anthropogenic warming could lead to some impacts that are abrupt or irreversible, depending upon the rate and magnitude of the climate change” and “There is medium confidence that approximately 20-30% of species assessed so far are likely to be at increased risk of extinction if increases in global average warming exceed 1.5-2.5°C (relative to 1980-1999). As global average temperature increase exceeds about 3.5°C, model projections suggest significant extinctions (40-70% of species assessed) around the globe.”

There’s No Debate about Climate Change Denial

Charles W. Elliott

Originally published at DeSmogBlog

First Phase Digital

Fact and fantasy took the stage at this past Sunday’s CBS “Meet the Press”. Bill Nye and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R. Tenn.) appeared for a so-called “debate” on climate change. Bill Nye is best known for his educational science program “Bill Nye the Science Guy”.  Climate change-denier Blackburn is known, among other things, for echoing Sarah Palin’s claims that the Affordable Care Act included “death panels.” Somewhat less known is Blackburn’s role as vice-chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, responsible for legislative oversight on matters of public health, air quality and environmental health, and energy.

One would think that a person in such an important role would have a clear, if not advanced, understanding of the science of energy and climate change in order to guide policy to further the public interest and protect our children’s future.

Sadly, one would be wrong.
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Super-Typhoon Devastates the Philippines – Emergency Aid Needed Now

World Food Programme Emergency Aid for the PhilippinesTyphoon Haiyan has caused massive loss of life and destruction in the Philippine Islands. The typhoon – described as perhaps the largest tropical storm ever to hit land in recorded history – has left nearly half a million people in the Philippines homeless and without basic necessities.  Those children and families need your help.  Please consider making a donation to the United Nations World Food Programme – the world’s largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger. You can make a donation at: https://www.wfp.org/donate/typhoon

Oxfam International is accepting donations for emergency relief at: http://www.oxfam.org/en/emergencies/typhoon-haiyan

You can also make a $10 donation to UNICEF USA by texting “RELIEF” to 864233

A Buddhist teaching  from the Tibetan Mahayana tradition is to think of all beings as our mothers. Recognizing that all of these suffering beings have been our mothers and in every other close relationship with us since beginningless time, we urge you to help as generously as possible.

The Costs of Economic Inequality: Social, Political, and Moral

by Charles W. Elliott

U.S. is most wealth unequal Gandhi once famously said: “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.” Over the past decade, we have witnessed an unprecedented grab of wealth—with its associated power and influence—by a few at the expense of everyone else. This increasing concentration of wealth for a few in the face of continuing struggles of poor and middle class families just to make ends meet is the consequence of public and economic policies that favor private interests over the public good. This inequality corrupts our political system.  And it ultimately corrodes social cohesion and threatens widespread unrest.

Most people do not have a true perspective of the gross inequality in our economic systems. Fewer still understand its corrosive effects. As writer Michael Lind observed in his article “To Have and to Have Not”[1]:

 The American oligarchy spares no pains in promoting the belief that it does not exist, but the success of its disappearing act depends on equally strenuous efforts on the part of an American public anxious to believe in egalitarian fictions and unwilling to see what is hidden in plain sight.

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More Food or New Colonialism for Africa?

Charles W. Elliott

Obama Africa TripIn a recent (June 30, 2013) speech in Cape Town, South Africa, U.S. President Obama announced new overtures to support agriculture in Africa.  But the people of Africa need to be on their guard lest these renewed efforts to “help farmers” in Africa become mere Trojan horses for corporate colonialism.

President Obama declared that “Governments and businesses from around the world are sizing up the continent, and they’re making decisions themselves about where to invest their own time and their own energy.”  With phrases invoking American generosity, he proclaimed that:

Instead of shipping food to Africa, we’re now helping millions of small farmers in Africa make use of new technologies and farm more land.  And through a new alliance of governments and the private sector, we’re investing billions of dollars in agriculture that grows more crops, brings more food to market, give farmers better prices[.]

No one would complain if the United States and its corporate partners would help “millions of small farmers” grow more food.  But we wonder: what kind of agriculture is the beneficiary of billions of dollars of investment?  And what are the “new technologies” that purportedly will help those millions of small farmers?
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A Bad Month for Monsanto; A Good Month for Food and Farmers

MONSANTO-1 It’s been a rough month for biotech and chemical industrial giant Monsanto. On May 25, 2013, millions of people in 250 cities in 52 countries around the world protested against Monsanto’s GMO activities and its corrupting influence in governments. Investigations confirmed that Monsanto’s unapproved GMO wheat has inexplicably escaped into the wild and now contaminates wheat fields in Oregon, even though the field trial experiments for that GMO wheat took place long ago and far away. Monsanto finally abandoned its intensive lobbying efforts to strong-arm European governments to approve its GMO plant varieties. And Connecticut became the first state in the United States to pass a bill that would require food manufacturers to label products that contain genetically modified ingredients. (For the Connecticut labeling requirement to take effect, additional states totaling at least 20 million in population must also pass similar legislation, and one of the states must border Connecticut.)
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