Category Archives: Agrochemicals

Challenging the Flawed Premise Behind Pushing GMOs into Indian Agriculture

A common claim is that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are essential to agriculture if we are to feed an ever-growing global population. Supporters of genetically engineered (GE) crops argue that by increasing productivity and yields, this technology will also help boost farmers’ incomes and lift many out of poverty. Although in this article it will be argued that the performance of GE crops to date has been questionable, the main contention is that the pro-GMO lobby, both outside of India and within, has wasted no time in wrenching the issues of hunger and poverty from their political contexts to use notions of ‘helping farmers’ and ‘feeding the world’ as lynchpins of its promotional strategy. There exists a ‘haughty imperialism’ within the pro-GMO scientific lobby that aggressively pushes for a GMO ‘solution’ which is a distraction from the root causes of poverty, hunger and malnutrition and genuine solutions based on food justice and food sovereignty.

Last year, in the journal Current Science, Dr Deepak Pental, developer of genetically engineered (GE) mustard at Delhi University, responded to a previous paper in the same journal by eminent scientists PC Kesavan and MS Swaminathan which questioned the efficacy of and the need for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture. Pental argued that the two authors had aligned themselves with environmentalists and ideologues who have mindlessly attacked the use of genetic engineering (GE) technology to improve crops required for meeting the food and nutritional needs of a global population that is predicted to peak at 11.2 billion. Pental added that aspects of the two authors’ analysis are a reflection of their ideological proclivities.

The use of the word ‘mindlessly’ is telling and betrays Pental’s own ideological disposition. His words reflect tired industry-inspired rhetoric that says criticisms of GE technology are driven by ideology not fact.

If hunger and malnutrition are to be tackled effectively, the pro-GMO lobby must put aside this type of rhetoric, which is designed to close down debate. It should accept valid concerns about the GMO paradigm and be willing to consider why the world already produces enough to feed 10 billion people but over two billion are experiencing micronutrient deficiencies (of which 821 million were classed as chronically undernourished in 2018).

Critics: valid concerns or ideologues?

The performance of GE crops has been a hotly contested issue and, as highlighted in Kevasan and Swaminathan’s piece and by others, there is already sufficient evidence to question their efficacy, especially that of herbicide-tolerant crops (which by 2007 already accounted for approximately 80% of biotech-derived crops grown globally) and the devastating impacts on the environment, human health and food security, not least in places like Latin America.

We should not accept the premise that only GE can solve problems in agriculture. In their paper, Kesavan and Swaminathan argue that GE technology is supplementary and must be need based. In more than 99% of cases, they say that time-honoured conventional breeding is sufficient. In this respect, conventional options and innovations that outperform GE must not be overlooked or sidelined in a rush by powerful interests like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to facilitate the introduction of GE crops into global agriculture; crops which are highly financially lucrative for the corporations behind them.

In Europe, robust regulatory mechanisms are in place for GMOs because it is recognised that GE food/crops are not substantially equivalent to their non-GE counterparts. Numerous studies have highlighted the flawed premise of ‘substantial equivalence’. Furthermore, from the outset of the GMO project, the sidelining of serious concerns about the technology has occurred and despite industry claims to the contrary, there is no scientific consensus on the health impacts of GE crops as noted by Hilbeck et al (Environmental Sciences Europe, 2015). Adopting a precautionary principle where GE is concerned is therefore a valid approach.

As Hilbeck et al note, both the Cartagena Protocol and Codex share a precautionary approach to GE crops and foods, in that they agree that GE differs from conventional breeding and that safety assessments should be required before GMOs are used in food or released into the environment. There is sufficient reason to hold back on commercialising GE crops and to subject each GMO to independent, transparent environmental, social, economic and health impact evaluations.

Critics’ concerns cannot therefore be brushed aside by claims that ‘the science’ is decided and the ‘facts’ about GE are indisputable. Such claims are merely political posturing and part of a strategy to tip the policy agenda in favour of GE.

In India, various high-level reports have advised against the adoption of GE crops. Appointed by the Supreme Court, the ‘Technical Expert Committee (TEC) Final Report’ (2013) was scathing about India’s prevailing regulatory system and highlighted its inadequacies and serious inherent conflicts of interest. The TEC recommended a 10-year moratorium on the commercial release of all GE crops.

As we have seen with the push to get GE mustard commercialised, the problems described by the TEC persist. Through her numerous submissions to the Supreme Court, Aruna Rodrigues has argued that GE mustard is being pushed through based on outright regulatory delinquency. It must also be noted that this crop is herbicide tolerant, which, as stated by the TEC, is wholly inappropriate for India with its small biodiverse, multi-cropping farms.

While the above discussion has only scratched the surface, it is fair to say that criticisms of GE technology and various restrictions and moratoriums have not been driven by ‘mindless’ proclivities.

Can GE crops ‘feed the world’?

The ‘gene revolution’ is sometimes regarded as Green Revolution 2.0. The Green Revolution too was sold under the guise of ‘feeding the world’. However, emerging research indicates that in India it merely led to more wheat in the diet, while food productivity per capita showed no increase or actually decreased.

Globally, the Green Revolution dovetailed with the consolidation of an emerging global food regime based on agro-export mono-cropping (often with non-food commodities taking up prime agricultural land) and (unfair) liberalised trade, linked to sovereign debt repayment and World Bank/IMF structural adjustment-privatisation directives. The outcomes have included a displacement of a food-producing peasantry, the consolidation of Western agri-food oligopolies and the transformation of many countries from food self-sufficiency into food deficit areas. And yet, the corporations behind this system of dependency and their lobbyists waste no time in spreading the message that this is the route to achieving food security. Their interests lie in ‘business as usual’.

Today, we hear terms like ‘foreign direct investment’ and making India ‘business friendly’, but behind the rhetoric lies the hard-nosed approach of globalised capitalism. The intention is for India’s displaced cultivators to be retrained to work as cheap labour in the West’s offshored plants. India is to be a fully incorporated subsidiary of global capitalism, with its agri-food sector restructured for the needs of global supply chains and a reserve army of labour that effectively serves to beat workers and unions in the West into submission.

Global food insecurity and malnutrition are not the result of a lack of productivity. As long as these dynamics persist and food injustice remains an inbuilt feature of the global food regime, the rhetoric of GE being necessary for feeding the world will be seen for what it is: bombast.

Although India fares poorly in world hunger assessments, the country has achieved self-sufficiency in food grains and has ensured there is enough food (in terms of calories) available to feed its entire population. It is the world’s largest producer of milk, pulses and millets and the second-largest producer of rice, wheat, sugarcane, groundnuts, vegetables, fruit and cotton.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), food security is achieved when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.

Food security for many Indians remains a distant dream. Large sections of India’s population do not have enough food available to remain healthy nor do they have sufficiently diverse diets that provide adequate levels of micronutrients. The Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey 2016-18 is the first-ever nationally representative nutrition survey of children and adolescents in India. It found that 35 per cent of children under five were stunted, 22 per cent of school-age children were stunted while 24 per cent of adolescents were thin for their age.

People are not hungry in India because its farmers do not produce enough food. Hunger and malnutrition result from various factors, including inadequate food distribution, (gender) inequality and poverty; in fact, the country continues to export food while millions remain hungry. It’s a case of ‘scarcity’ amid abundance.

Where farmers’ livelihoods are concerned, the pro-GMO lobby says GE will boost productivity and help secure cultivators a better income. Again, this is misleading: it ignores crucial political and economic contexts. Even with bumper harvests, Indian farmers still find themselves in financial distress.

India’s farmers are not experiencing financial hardship due to low productivity. They are reeling from the effects of neoliberal policies, years of neglect and a deliberate strategy to displace smallholder agriculture at the behest of the World Bank and predatory global agri-food corporations . Little wonder then that the calorie and essential nutrient intake of the rural poor has drastically fallen.

However, aside from putting a positive spin on the questionable performance of GMO agriculture, the pro-GMO lobby, both outside of India and within, has wasted no time in wrenching these issues from their political contexts to use the notions of ‘helping farmers’ and ‘feeding the world’ as lynch pins of its promotional strategy.

GE was never intended to feed the world

Many of the traditional practices of India’s small farmers are now recognised as sophisticated and appropriate for high-productive, sustainable agriculture. It is no surprise therefore that a recent FAO high-level report has called for agroecology and smallholder farmers to be prioritised and invested in to achieve global sustainable food security. It argues that scaling up agroecology offers potential solutions to many of the world’s most pressing problems, whether, for instance, climate change and carbon storage, soil degradation, water shortages, unemployment or food security.

Agroecological principles represent a shift away from the reductionist yield-output industrial paradigm, which results in among other things enormous pressures on soil and water resources, to a more integrated low-input systems approach to food and agriculture that prioritises local food security, local calorific production, cropping patterns and diverse nutrition production per acre, water table stability, climate resilience, good soil structure and the ability to cope with evolving pests and disease pressures. Such a system would be underpinned by a concept of food sovereignty,  based on optimal self-sufficiency, the right to culturally appropriate food and local ownership and stewardship of common resources, such as land, water, soil and seeds.

Traditional production systems rely on the knowledge and expertise of farmers in contrast to imported ‘solutions’. Yet, if we take cotton cultivation in India as an example, farmers continue to be nudged away from traditional methods of farming and are being pushed towards (illegal) GE herbicide-tolerant cotton seeds. Researchers Glenn Stone and Andrew Flachs note the results of this shift from traditional practices to date does not appear to have benefited farmers. This isn’t about giving farmers ‘choice’ where GE seeds and associated chemicals are concerned. It is more about GE seed companies and weedicide manufactures seeking to leverage a highly lucrative market.

The potential for herbicide market growth in India is enormous and industry looked for sales to reach USD 800 million by 2019. The objective involves opening India to GE seeds with herbicide tolerance traits, the biotechnology industry’s biggest money maker by far (86 per cent of the world’s GE crop acres in 2015 contain plants resistant to glyphosate or glufosinate and there is a new generation of crops resistant to 2,4-D coming through).

The aim is to break farmers’ traditional pathways and move them onto corporate biotech/chemical treadmills for the benefit of industry.

Calls for agroecology and highlighting the benefits of traditional, small-scale agriculture are not based on a romantic yearning for the past or ‘the peasantry’. Available evidence suggests that (non-GMO) smallholder farming using low-input methods is more productive in total output than large-scale industrial farms and can be more profitable and resilient to climate change. It is for good reason that the FAO high-level report referred to earlier as well as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Prof Hilal Elver, call for investment in this type of agriculture, which is centred on small farms. Despite the pressures, including the fact that globally industrial agriculture grabs 80 per cent of subsidies and 90 per cent of research funds, smallholder agriculture plays a major role in feeding the world.

That’s a massive quantity of subsidies and funds to support a system that is only made profitable as a result of these financial injections and because agri-food oligopolies externalize the massive health, social and environmental costs of their operations.

But policy makers tend to accept that profit-driven transnational corporations have a legitimate claim to be owners and custodians of natural assets (the ‘commons’). These corporations, their lobbyists and their political representatives have succeeded in cementing a ‘thick legitimacy’ among policy makers for their vision of agriculture.

From World Bank ‘enabling the business of agriculture’ directives to the World Trade Organization ‘agreement on agriculture’ and trade related intellectual property agreements, international bodies have enshrined the interests of corporations that seek to monopolise seeds, land, water, biodiversity and other natural assets that belong to us all. These corporations, the promoters of GMO agriculture, are not offering a ‘solution’ for farmers’ impoverishment or hunger; GE seeds are little more than a value capture mechanism.

To evaluate the pro-GMO lobby’s rhetoric that GE is needed to ‘feed the world’, we first need to understand the dynamics of a globalised food system that fuels hunger and malnutrition against a backdrop of (subsidised) food overproduction. We must acknowledge the destructive, predatory dynamics of capitalism and the need for agri-food giants to maintain profits by seeking out new (foreign) markets and displacing existing systems of production with ones that serve their bottom line.  And we need to reject a deceptive ‘haughty imperialism within the pro-GMO scientific lobby which aggressively pushes for a GMO ‘solution’.

Gone Fishing? No Fish but Plenty of Pesticides and a Public Health Crisis

There is mounting evidence that a healthy soil microbiome protects plants from pests and diseases. One of the greatest natural assets that humankind has is soil. But when you drench it with proprietary synthetic chemicals or continuously monocrop as part of a corporate-controlled industrial farming system, you can kill essential microbes, upset soil balance and end up feeding soil a limited doughnut diet of unhealthy inputs.

Armed with their synthetic biocides, this is what the transnational agritech conglommerates do. These companies attempt to get various regulatory and policy-making bodies to bow before the altar of corporate ‘science’. But, in reality, they have limited insight into the long-term impacts their actions have on soil and its complex networks of microbes and microbiological processes. Soil microbiologists are themselves still trying to comprehend it all.

That much is clear when Linda Kinkel of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Plant Pathology said back in 2014: “We understand only a fraction of what microbes do to aid in plant growth.”

And it’s the same where ‘human soil’ is concerned.

People have a deep microbiological connection to soils and traditional processing and fermentation processes, which all affect the gut microbiome – the up to six pounds of bacteria, viruses and microbes akin to human soil. And as with actual soil, the microbiome can become degraded according to what we ingest (or fail to ingest). Many nerve endings from major organs are located in the gut and the microbiome effectively nourishes them. There is ongoing research taking place into how the microbiome is disrupted by the modern globalised food production/processing system and the chemical bombardment it is subjected to.

The human microbiome is of vital importance to human health yet it is under chemical attack from agri-food giants and their agrochemicals and food additives. As soon as we stopped eating locally-grown, traditionally-processed food, cultivated in healthy soils and began eating food subjected to chemical-laden cultivation and processing activities, we began to change ourselves. Along with cultural traditions surrounding food production and the seasons, we also lost our deep-rooted microbiological connection with our localities. It was traded in for corporate chemicals and seeds and global food chains dominated by the likes of Monsanto (now Bayer), Nestle and Cargill.

Environmentalist Dr Rosemary Mason says that glyphosate disrupts the shikimate pathway within these gut bacteria and is a strong chelator of essential minerals, such as cobalt, zinc, manganese, calcium, molybdenum and sulphate. In addition, it kills off beneficial gut bacteria and allows toxic bacteria to flourish. She adds that we are therefore facing a global metabolic health crisis linked to glyphosate.

Many key neurotransmitters are located in the gut. Aside from affecting the functioning of major organs, these transmitters affect our moods and thinking.  There is strong evidence that gut bacteria can have a direct physical impact on the brain. Alterations in the composition of the gut microbiome have been implicated in a wide range of neurological and psychiatric conditions, including autism, chronic pain, depression and Parkinson’s Disease.

Recently published research indicates that glyphosate and Roundup are proven to disrupt gut microbiome by inhibiting the shikimate pathway. Dr Michael Antoniou of King’s College London has found that Roundup herbicide and its active ingredient glyphosate cause a dramatic increase in the levels of two substances, shikimic acid and 3-dehydroshikimic acid, in the gut, which are a direct indication that the EPSPS enzyme of the shikimic acid pathway has been severely inhibited. The researchers found that Roundup and glyphosate affected the microbiome at all dose levels tested, causing shifts in bacterial populations.

This confirms what Mason has been highlighting for some time. However, she has also been pointing out the environmental degradation resulting from the spiralling use of glyphosate-based herbicides and has just written an open letter to the Principal Fisheries Officer of Natural Resources Wales (NRW), Peter Gough (NRW is the environment agency for Wales).

The letter runs to 20 pages and focuses on glyphosate and neonicotinoid insecticides. She asks who would re-authorise a pesticide that is toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects and is causing serious eye damage along with various forms of cancers and a wide range of other health conditions?

She answers her question by saying the European Glyphosate Task Force and Jean-Claude Juncker President of the EC along with various regulators in Europe who have basically capitulated to an industry agenda. Mason argues that the European Glyphosate Task Force (who actually did the re-assessment of glyphosate) omitted all the studies from South America where they had been growing GM Roundup Ready crops since 1996. She discusses the suppression of key research which indicated the harmful effects of glyphosate.

The Principal Fisheries Scientist Wales sent Mason two NRW Reports two years ago. In it, Mason discovered that giant hogweed on the River Usk bank had been treated with a glyphosate-based herbicide. NRW had also admitted to not studying the effects of neonicotinoids, which had been introduced in 1994. Mason pointed out to NRW that run-off from farms of clothianidin in seeds would be enough to kill off aquatic invertebrates.

In early January, NRW attempted to explain the absence of salmon and trout in the River Usk on climate change (warming of the river), rather than poisoning of the river, which is what Mason had warned the agency about two years ago.

In Britain, information on emerging water contaminants has been suppressed, according to Mason, and there is no monitoring of either neonics or glyphosate in surface or ground water. In the US, though, measurements of these chemicals have been carried out on farmland and their correlation with massive declines in invertebrates by separate agencies and universities in the US and Canada.

Mason notes there has been 70 years of poisoning the land with pesticides. Although the National Farmers Union and the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs in the UK say fewer pesticides are now being applied, the Soil Association indicates massive increases of increasing numbers of pesticides at decreasing intervals (official statistics obtained via a Freedom of Information request).

Readers should consult the full text of Mason’s open letter on the acamedia.edu site to gain wider insight into the issues outlined above and many more, such as government collusion with major agrochemical corporations, the shaping of official narratives on illness and disease to obscure the role of pesticides and Monsanto’s poisoning of Wales.

What Mason outlines is not specific to Wales or the UK; the increasing use of damaging agrochemicals and government collusion with the industry transcends national borders. Nation states are becoming increasingly obsolete and powerless in the face of globalised capitalist interests.

What follows is the e-mail that Mason sent to Peter Gough by way of introducing her letter to him.

Dear Peter,

The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) classified glyphosate as a substance that is toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects

Your colleague Dave Charlesworth declared on BBC 1 Breakfast last week that the declines in salmon and trout were due to climate change and warming of the rivers. I told you just over 2 years ago that it was due to pesticides and showed you the proof from assorted NRW documents you sent me.

Why are NRW, the government, ‘top’ UK doctors, farmers, the corporations, the media and global pesticides regulators protecting the agrochemical industry? All of you could suffer from the effects of pesticides in food, in water, in the air and in rain. Why don’t you inform the people?

Monsanto claims that Roundup doesn’t affect humans, but their sealed secret studies that scientist Anthony Samsel obtained from the US EPA, shows evidence of cancers and that bioaccumulation of 14C labelled glyphosate occurred in every organ of the body (page 9).

The NFU and Defra deny they are responsible for 70 years of poisoning the land and the subsequent insect apocalypse; they should read their own document “Healthy Harvest.” The National Farmers’ Union (NFU), the Crop Protection Association (CPA) and the Agricultural Industries Confederation (AIC) combined to lobby the EU not to restrict the 320+ pesticides available to them. The publication is called: HEALTHY HARVEST. [1] (Pages 6-9)

The Department of Health and the Chief Medical Officer for England claim that parents are responsible for obesity in primary school children. However, Pesticides Action Network (PAN) analysed the Department of Health’s Schools Fruit and Vegetable Scheme and found that there were residues of 123 pesticides in it, some of which are linked to serious health problems such as cancer and disruption of the hormone system.

When PAN informed them, they said that pesticides were not the concern of the DOH. (Page 14, 13-16).

Dr Don Huber, Emeritus Professor of Plant Pathology, Purdue University, US, speaking about GMO crops and glyphosate, said: “Future historians may well look back upon our time and write, not about how many pounds of pesticide we did or didn’t apply, but by how willing we are to sacrifice our children and future generations for this massive genetic engineering experiment that is based on flawed science and failed promises just to benefit the bottom line of a commercial enterprise.” (Page 18)

Kind regards,

Rosemary

The Right to Healthy Food: Poisoned with Pesticides    

Environmentalist Dr Rosemary Mason has just written an open letter addressed to three senior officials in Britain: John Gardiner, Under Secretary of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the British government; Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England; and Chris Wormald, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health and Social Security.

Her letter focuses on the issue of food and the herbicide glyphosate. But the issues she discusses should not be regarded as being specific to the situation in Britain: they apply equally to countries across the world which are facilitating the interests of global agrochemicals conglomerates.

For instance, according to a September 2019 report in the New York Times, ‘A Shadowy Industry Group Shapes Food Policy Around the World’, the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) has been quietly infiltrating government health and nutrition bodies. The article lays bare ILSI’s influence on the shaping of high-level food policy globally, not least in India and China.

Accused of being little more than a front group for its 400 corporate members that provide its $17 million budget, ILSI’s members include Coca-Cola, DuPont, PepsiCo, General Mills and Danone. The report says ILSI has received more than $2 million from chemical companies, among them Monsanto. In 2016, a UN committee issued a ruling that glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s weed killer Roundup, was “probably not carcinogenic,” contradicting an earlier report by the WHO’s cancer agency. The committee, it turned out, was led by two ILSI officials.

And this brings us to Rosemary Mason’s letter.

In it, she describes how she established a very successful nature reserve in South Wales, which attracted huge numbers of insects, two bat species and many swallows, house martins and swifts. She says that it was miraculous. But disaster soon followed.

In 2011, the local council was asked to attempt to destroy Japanese Knotweed using the glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup.  Japanese Knotweed had become resistant to Roundup in the 1980s. That meant that however much of the chemical was sprayed, it was impossible to kill it; the plant just grew bigger and stronger. Between 2012 and 2017, Mason notes that the number of insects on her reserve began to decline. It ultimately became a wildlife desert.

Mason asks:

Monsanto, the British government and the UK and EU regulators say that glyphosate is safer than table salt. But would table salt kill all these insects that we recorded in our photo-journals or cause apocalyptic declines globally?

She adds that the invertebrates in her nature reserve were poisoned. But that was only the half of it:

My neurologist concluded that I had developed a toxic neurodegenerative disorder secondary to long-term exposure to glyphosate-based herbicides.

Mason proceeds to outline the cosy relationship between the agrochemicals sector, Cancer Research UK and the British government, the result of which is to promote a disease narrative that diverts attention from the effects of toxic agrochemicals and place the blame on individual lifestyle behaviour, choice of diet and alcohol consumption. She asks:

Where is the scientific evidence for this?

Aside from the government’s collusion with pesticides manufacturers, Mason says the corporate media, most notably in Britain, are silent about pesticides that are poisoning the public:

They haven’t informed the British people about the trials involving Roundup in the US. Bayer estimates that there are currently more than 42,000 plaintiffs alleging that exposure to Monsanto’s Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides made by Monsanto caused them or their loved ones to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In the UK, there were 13,605 new cases of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma in 2015 (and 4,920 deaths in 2016).

Mason refers to Robert F Kennedy Jr, one of the US attorneys fighting Bayer (which bought Monsanto). He says that Monsanto told Bayer that a $270-million set-aside would cover all its outstanding liabilities arising from Monsanto’s 5,000 Roundup cancer lawsuits. However, Bayer never saw certain internal Monsanto documents prior to the purchase.

Kennedy explains that for four decades Monsanto manoeuvred to conceal Roundup’s carcinogenicity by capturing regulatory agencies, corrupting public officials, bribing scientists and engaging in scientific fraud to delay its day of reckoning.

He adds that Monsanto also faces cascading scientific evidence linking glyphosate to a constellation of other injuries that have become prevalent since its introduction, including obesity, depression, Alzheimer’s, ADHD, autism, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, kidney disease, inflammatory bowel disease, brain, breast and prostate cancer, miscarriage, birth defects and declining sperm counts.

Moreover, strong science suggests glyphosate is the culprit in the exploding epidemics of celiac disease, colitis, gluten sensitivities, diabetes and non-alcoholic liver cancer which, for the first time, is attacking children as young as 10.

Whether as a weed killer or as a desiccant to dry oats and wheat immediately before harvest, farmers have been spraying Roundup directly on food. Roundup sales rose dramatically to 300 million pounds annually in the US, with farmers spraying enough to cover every tillable acre in the country with a gallon of Roundup.

Glyphosate now accounts for about 50% of all herbicide use in the US. About 75% of use has occurred since 2006, with the global glyphosate market projected to reach $11.74 billion by 2023.

Kennedy asserts that never in history has a chemical been used so pervasively: glyphosate is in our air, water, plants, animals, grains, vegetables and meats. And it’s in beer and wine, children’s breakfast cereal and snack bars and mother’s breast milk. It’s even in our vaccines.

And yet, in the UK, as Mason explains, the Department of Health says pesticides are not its concern. None of the more than 400 pesticides that have been authorised in the UK have been tested for long-term actions on the brain; in the foetus, the child or the adult. But perhaps that’s to be expected: between May 2010 and the end of 2013, the Department of Health alone had 130 meetings with representatives of the agri-food industry.

Mason then says that the Department of Health’s School Fruit and Vegetable Scheme has residues of 123 different pesticides, some of which are linked to serious health problems such as cancer and disruption of the hormone system. Moreover, the scientific community has little understanding about the complex interaction of different chemicals in what is termed the ‘cocktail’ effect.

The effects of these toxins carry through to adulthood. Mason discusses the deleterious effects of glyphosate on the gut microbiome. Glyphosate disrupts the shikimate pathway within these gut bacteria and is a strong chelator of essential minerals, such as cobalt, zinc, manganese, calcium, molybdenum and sulphate. In addition, it kills off beneficial gut bacteria and allows toxic bacteria to flourish. She adds that we are facing a global metabolic health crisis provoked by an obesity epidemic linked to glyphosate.

Gut bacteria are vitally important to our well-being. Many key neurotransmitters are located in the gut. Aside from affecting the functioning of major organs, these transmitters affect our moods and thinking. Findings published in the journal Translational Psychiatry in 2014 provided strong evidence that gut bacteria can have a direct physical impact on the brain. Alterations in the composition of the gut microbiome have been implicated in a wide range of neurological and psychiatric conditions, including autism, chronic pain, depression and Parkinson’s Disease.

Mason then proceeds to provides evidence that shows that Britain (and the US) is in the midst of a barely reported public health crisis.

She refers to a letter written in 2013 by the late Marion Copley (US EPA toxicologist) to her colleague Jess Rowland. She accused Rowland of conniving with Monsanto to bury the agency’s own hard scientific evidence that it is “essentially certain” that glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer, causes cancer. The date of the letter comes after Copley left the EPA in 2012 and shortly before she died from breast cancer at the age of 66 in January 2014:

Jess, Since I left the agency with cancer [breast] I have studied the tumor process extensively… based on my decades of pathology experience. Glyphosate was originally designed as a chelating agent and I strongly believe that is the identical process involved in tumor formation.

Dr Copley makes 14 observations about chelators and/or glyphosate, including that they are endocrine disruptors and suppress the immune system and damage the kidneys or pancreas, which can lead to clinical chemistry changes that favour tumour growth. She notes glyphosate kills bacteria in the gut: the gastrointestinal system is 80% of the immune system making the body susceptible to tumours.

Copley adds:

It is essentially certain that glyphosate causes cancer.

Mason concludes her letter by saying:

The probability is that the population in Britain will increasingly suffer from the diseases associated with glyphosate-based herbicides and with the 400-odd pesticides that contaminate our food. The deleterious effects of glyphosate on trees and crops will also continue because it is in the soil, water, air and rainfall.

On the back of Brexit, the Conservative government in Britain is set to jump into bed with the US via a trade deal hammered out without public scrutiny or parliamentary oversight. That deal could see the gutting of food safety and environmental standards so that they are brought in line with those in the US. With its recent ‘landslide’ election victory (having gained just 29.5% of the electorate’s votes), it seems increasingly likely that, given his stated commitment to do so, Boris Johnson will usher in herbicide-tolerant GM crops.

US agrochemicals and GM seeds manufacturers must be salivating at the prospects of any such trade deal. With the privatisation of an increasingly burdened NHS likely to be part of a deal, private healthcare providers and insurers must be too.

You may read Rosemary Mason’s open letter in full (with all relevant citations) here.

Don’t Look, Don’t See: Time for Honest Media Reporting on Impacts of Pesticides

The UK-based Independent online newspaper recently published an article about a potential link between air pollution from vehicles and glaucoma. It stated that according to a new study air pollution is linked to the eye condition that causes blindness.

The report explained that researchers had looked at vision tests carried out on more than 111,000 people across Britain between 2006 and 2010 and cross-referenced results against levels of air pollution in their neighbourhoods. Those living in areas with higher amounts of fine particulate matter were at least 6% more likely to have glaucoma than those in the least polluted areas.

Glaucoma affects half a million people in the UK and can cause blindness if left untreated. However, the study cited by The Independent, published in Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science, was unable to prove that air pollution was a trigger.

Following the article, environmentalist Dr Rosemary Mason put together a 20-page report on glyphosate and has sent it out to key public health officials and media outlets, including The Independent’s editor. In her report, she states that the European Chemicals Agency classifies glyphosate as a substance that causes serious eye damage and is toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects. But she claims that the media still remains silent on the matter. Even in UK towns and cities, glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide is still being sprayed on weeds and super-weeds which have become Roundup-resistant.

Mason implores The Independent and other mainstream media outlets to write with honesty about the use and harmful effects of glyphosate-based weedicides and other agrochemicals. She quotes the UN expert on Toxics, Baskut Tuncak, who in 2017 urged the EU to put children’s health before pesticides. Children form the most vulnerable part of the population as pesticides can adversely affect their development.

Offering insight into the incidence of cataracts in England, Mason notes that annual rates of admission for cataract surgery rose 10‐fold from 1968 to 2004: from 62 episodes per 100,000 population to 637. A 2016 study by the WHO also confirmed that the incidence of cataracts had greatly increased: in ‘A global assessment of the burden of disease from environmental risks’ it says that cataracts are the leading cause of blindness worldwide. Globally, cataracts are responsible for 51% of blindness. An estimated 20 million individuals suffer from this degenerative eye disease.

Mason discusses long waiting lists for cataracts in England. Because the NHS cannot cope with the pressure, private companies are cashing in. The growing demand for cataract operations is forcing the NHS to send increasing numbers of patients to be treated privately.

In Wales, where Mason resides, 35,000 patients are at risk of going blind from macular degeneration and glaucoma while on the NHS waiting list. All the municipal councils in Wales use glyphosate-based herbicides. Glyphosate now accounts for about 50% of all herbicide use in the US. About 75% of glyphosate use has occurred since 2006, with the global glyphosate market projected to reach $11.74 billion by 2023.

Figures for the use of glyphosate in the UK show a similar trend, which Mason has documented in her many reports. And let us not forget at this point that the current Conservative government regards Brexit as an ideal opportunity to usher in crops that have been genetically engineered to withstand the application of glyphosate or similar chemicals. The agrochemicals sector stands in the wings salivating at the prospect. This has nothing to do with boosting yields or ‘feeding the world’ as Boris Johnson asserts (claims which fail to stand up to scrutiny) but has everything to do with facilitating industry ambitions.

Never in history has a chemical been used so pervasively. Glyphosate is in our air, water, plants, animals, grains, vegetables and meats. It’s in beer and wine, children’s breakfast cereal and snack bars and mother’s breast milk. It’s even in our vaccines.

Of course, the power of the pesticides companies has been well noted. In 2017, global agrochemical corporations were severely criticised by UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver. A report presented to the UN human rights council accused them of the “systematic denial of harms”, “aggressive, unethical marketing tactics” and heavy lobbying of governments which has “obstructed reforms and paralysed global pesticide restrictions.”

The report authored by Hilal Elver and Baskut Tuncak says pesticides have “catastrophic impacts on the environment, human health and society as a whole”, including an estimated 200,000 deaths a year from acute poisoning. Its authors said: “It is time to create a global process to transition toward safer and healthier food and agricultural production.”

Hilal Elver says:

Using more pesticides is nothing to do with getting rid of hunger.  According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), we are able to feed nine billion people today. Production is definitely increasing, but the problem is poverty, inequality and distribution.

Elver said many of the pesticides are used on commodity crops, such as palm oil and soy, not the food needed by the world’s hungry people:

The corporations are not dealing with world hunger; they are dealing with more agricultural activity on large scales.

Mason notes that chronic exposure to pesticides has been linked to a range of diseases and conditions and that certain pesticides can persist in the environment for decades and pose a threat to the entire ecological system on which food production depends. The excessive use of pesticides contaminates soil and water sources, causing loss of biodiversity and destroying the natural enemies of pests. The impact of such overuse also imposes staggering costs on national economies. Moreover, the use of neonicotinoid pesticides is particularly worrying because they are linked to a systematic collapse in the number of bees around the world. Some 71% of crop species are bee pollinated.

Mason goes on to describe the various lawsuits in the US against Bayer (which bought Monsanto) and the tactics used by Monsanto to conceal glyphosate-based Roundup’s carcinogenicity, including capturing regulatory agencies, corrupting public officials, bribing scientists and engaging in scientific fraud to delay its day of reckoning.

Following the court decision to award in favour of Dewayne Johnson, attorney Robert Kennedy Jr said the following at the post-trial press conference:

… you not only see many people injured, but you also see a subversion of democracy. You see the corruption of public officials, the capture of agencies that are supposed to protect us all from pollution. The agencies become captured by the industries they are supposed to regulate. The corruption of science, the falsification of science, and we saw all those things happen here. This is a company (Monsanto) that used all of the plays in the playbook developed over 60 years by the tobacco industry to escape the consequences of killing one of every five of its customers… Monsanto… has used those strategies…

There is now also a good deal of scientific evidence linking glyphosate to obesity, depression, Alzheimer’s, ADHD, autism, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, kidney disease, inflammatory bowel disease and brain, breast and prostate cancer, miscarriage, birth defects and declining sperm counts. Strong science suggests glyphosate is the culprit in the exploding epidemics of celiac disease, colitis, gluten sensitivities, diabetes and non-alcoholic liver cancer which, for the first time, is attacking children as young as 10. Researchers also peg glyphosate as a potent endocrine disruptor, which interferes with sexual development in children.

The compound is also a chelator that removes important minerals from the body, including iron, magnesium, zinc, selenium and molybdenum. Roundup disrupts the microbiome destroying beneficial bacteria in the human gut and triggering brain inflammation and other ill effects.

Neurotransmitter changes in the brain have been detected due to exposure to glyphosate. This is why, according to Mason, there are so many mental health and psychiatric disorders, depression, suicides, anxiety and violence among children and adults. It is even found in popular breakfast cereals marketed for UK children.

And this says nothing about the cocktail of pesticides sprayed on crops. The Soil Association and PAN UK have indicated that exposure to mixtures of pesticides commonly found in UK food, water and soil may be harming the health of both humans and wildlife. A quarter of all food and over a third of fruit and vegetables consumed in the UK contain pesticide cocktails, with some items containing traces of up to 14 different pesticides.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Environment has identified the rights threatened by environmental harm, including the rights to life, health, food and water and has mapped obligations to protect against such harm from private actors. In effect, where pesticides are concerned, the public are being denied the right to a healthy environment.

But it’s not just the powerful pesticides lobby that is to blame here. Rosemary Mason says the British public (and indeed people across the world) have a right to information. However, she concludes that the public have been denied this because mainstream media outlets have on the whole for too long opted to remain silent on the pesticides issue.

This article touches on just a few of the points in Rosemary Mason’s report. Readers can access the full text of ‘Glyphosatecauses serious eye damage’ on the academia.edu site.

Agrochemical Apocalypse: Interview with Environmental Campaigner Dr Rosemary Mason  

The renowned author and whistleblower Evaggelos Vallianatos describes British environmentalist and campaigner Dr Rosemary Mason as a “defender of the natural world and public health.” I first came across her work a few years ago. It was in the form of an open letter she had sent to an official about the devastating environmental and human health impacts of glyphosate-based weed killers. What had impressed me was the document she had sent to accompany the letter. It was over 20 pages long and contained official data and referred to a plethora of scientific papers to support the case she was making.

For almost a decade, Rosemary Mason has been writing open letters and sending reports she has compiled to media outlets and prominent officials and agencies in the US, the UK and Europe to question their decisions and/or to inform them of the dangers of pesticides. She has been relentless in exposing conflicts of interest, fraudulent science and institutionalised corruption in regulatory processes surrounding glyphosate and other agrochemicals. Her quest has been fired by a passion to protect the natural world and the public but there is also a personal aspect: she is affected by a serious health condition which she attributes directly to the reckless use of pesticides in South Wales where she resides. And her assertion here is not based on idle speculation. In her reports, she has presented a great deal of evidence about the deterioration of the health of the British public and how agrochemicals play a major contributory role.

She recently sent me a report ‘How glyphosate-based herbicides poisoned our nature reserve and the world‘. It focuses on how she had set up a nature reserve in South Wales. What she and her husband (who has a professional background in conservation and nature) had achieved on that reserve was impressive. But thanks to the local council’s indiscriminate spraying of glyphosate-based herbicides, it was subsequently transformed from a piece of land teeming with flora and fauna into a barren wasteland.

What follows is an interview I conducted with Rosemary Mason about her nature reserve and her campaigning. We discussed her motivation, the support she has received and her feelings after almost a decade of campaigning.

Colin Todhunter:  Have you always had a passion for the natural environment?

Rosemary Mason:  I was born in the countryside during the war and my mother took us on walks and taught us about wildflowers, which was her passion. My brothers and I fished in the stream for minnows and sticklebacks and set nightlines for pike and chub (we never caught any). When I was a junior doctor, I became interested in bird watching and I am former chair of the West Area, Glamorgan Wildlife Trust. At that time, unlike today, farmland was full of lapwing, oystercatcher and redshank displaying and protecting their nests.

CT: Why did you decide to set up your nature reserve?

RM: In 2006, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust was launched in response to the massive declines in bumblebees, butterflies and insects in general, with the demise of traditional hedgerows, hay meadows, chalk grassland and wildflowers and the intensification of farming and the widening use of pesticides. At the same time, the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council perversely announced the closure of its wildlife research centres for ‘financial reasons’, a decision opposed by 99% of 1,327 stakeholders. Monks Wood centre, which hosted BBC’s Spring Watch, pioneered work on DDT and pesticides in the 1960s and more recently revealed how climate change is affecting wildlife, with spring arriving three weeks earlier. More significantly, the research centres were also involved in assessing the impacts of GM (genetically modified) crops on wildlife, with findings contradicting industry claims that no harm would be caused.

In response, in March 2006, my husband and I decided to establish our own small pesticide-free wildlife reserve after attending a joint meeting of the Welsh Ornithological Society and the British Trust for Ornithology in Aberystwyth.

CT: I have read your new report about your nature reserve. I would certainly encourage everyone to read it. It describes in some detail how you and your husband set about attracting an impressively wide array of bird, insect and plant species to the reserve, many of which had virtually disappeared from the British countryside, mainly as a result of intensive farming practices. What I found impressive is your knowledge of these species and how you were able to identify them. From the narrative provided (which at times reads almost like a novel) and the enthusiasm conveyed, you put in a lot of hard work developing the reserve and what you achieved there was impressive.

RM: In brief, it was a miracle. I think the next five years from 2006 were the most exciting and fulfilling of my life. At the end of 2009, I wrote an account of speckled bush crickets. Judith Marshall, working at the Natural History Museum, is a world expert on grasshoppers and bush crickets. She said it was the first monograph to be written on a single species.

CT: Can you say something about the demise of the nature reserve?

RM: We published a second photo-journal in 2010, ‘The year of the bumblebee: observations in a small nature reserve.’ But in 2011, I knew something was wrong. The moths were disappearing from the area and the orb web spider had gone from the hedge. We were aware that the local council was spraying glyphosate-based herbicides on Japanese knotweed in the valley below and close to our reserve. But we had to be sure.

So, in August 2013 and August 2014, we sent samples of river water and tap water to Leipzig to Prof Dr Monika Kreuger for analysis. Between August 2013 and August 2014, the levels of glyphosate in tap water had increased ten-fold, from 30 ppt to 300 ppt. These were of the order of concentrations that stimulated the growth of breast cancer cells in a laboratory setting.

In August 2013, we asked our then Welsh Assembly Member to request the council to stop spraying glyphosate-based herbicides on Japanese knotweed. The council said they would only stop if they were authorised by the Health and Safety Executive. So, I wrote to the HSE at the beginning of 2014 telling them about measuring increasing glyphosate levels in water and that we had had many cases of breast cancer in our area. They refused to do it because they said that glyphosate-based herbicides were still legal. I begged them to do it on several occasions, as we saw the biodiversity in our reserve plummeting. Finally, they said if I asked the same question again, they wouldn’t reply to me.

CT: You have engaged in a long struggle for many years, trying to get officials at local, national and European levels to act on pesticides. You have written many open letters to policy makers and key officials and have usually attached lengthy reports referring to data and scientific papers in support of your case. I think you began doing this in late 2010. Whose work have you taken inspiration from along the way?

RM: The work of Dr Henk Tennekes, the independent Dutch toxicologist, was a real eye opener for me. In 2010, he published a paper and wrote a book ‘The Systemic Insecticides: a disaster in the making’. It is about the loss of insects and insect-feeding birds in Europe, caused by neonicotinoid insecticides. The RSPB and the IUCN Charities refused to help fund the book because it ‘wasn’t scientific enough’.  We subsequently discovered that Syngenta had funded neonicotinoid seeds for the RSPB Hope Farm Reserve. Systemic neonicotinoid insecticides are still on the market in the UK and the US nine years later.

I found Henk’s work to be shattering. It actually changed the course of my life. The fact was that he’d worked out that the effect on the brains of insects was irreversible, cumulative and there was no safe level of exposure. What was worse was that the Chemical Regulation Directorate didn’t seem to take it seriously. So, I wrote to Europe and the US EPA and the response was the same: ‘there is no evidence that the neonics are harmful to honeybees.’ Henk had written this book with amazing pictures and artwork showing the impact on insect-feeding birds throughout Europe. Humans had the same receptors; so, imagine the effects on humans if there are lots of neonics around. By March 2011, Henk and I decided that there would be a chemical apocalypse. So here we are, eight years later and bingo, our predictions were spot on!

Francisco Sanchez-Bayo, a toxicologist living in Australia, wrote papers with Henk agreeing that neonicotinoids insecticides irreversibly damaged the brains of insects and that levels built up over time. In 2019, he wrote a paper with a colleague in China, which proved that insect losses were global and due to pesticides.

Then there was the late Dr Maewan Ho of the former Institute of Science in Society who helped me to publish an article in the ISiS magazine in September 2014: ‘How Roundup poisoned my nature reserve’. She sadly died on 16 March 2016 from advanced cancer. She was an amazing woman and gave me much encouragement.

Finally, Polly Higgins, a Scottish barrister and environmentalist, gave up her practice and set up an organisation to end ecocide (destruction of the environment). Polly Higgins was an inspiration and campaigned tirelessly against ecocide. She died from cancer aged 50.

CT: Given all the open letters you have written to officials over the years, I cannot but feel you have by and large been stonewalled. Where does the buck stop?

RM: With David Cameron, the Health and Safety Executive and Defra (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) . A ‘Letter from America’ was sent from nearly 60 million US citizens warning Europe not to authorise GM crops and Roundup because of the disastrous effects on human health and biodiversity. Wales and Scotland took that advice. David Cameron received it on 11 November 2014, but he and Defra ignored it on behalf of England and kept it secret from the public. Cameron also appointed Michael Pragnell, Founder of Syngenta, to be Chairman of Cancer Research UK, which I’ve written about.

The HSE refused to ask the Council to stop spraying GBH on our reserve because it was ‘still legal’. The European Commission and the European Food Safety Authority ignored the Letter from America too and kept on authorising GM crops for feed and food in the EU.

Of course, there are many others who should be held responsible too, such as Bernhard Url, chief executive of EFSA, and the recently retired Chief Medical Officer for England, Dame Sally Davies.

CT: How do you feel about the destruction of your reserve, the pesticides issue, the state of nature and those officials who have effectively ignored much of what you have said to them? Disappointed? Frustrated?

RM: Those are such inadequate words to express my feelings. I am devastated about the global losses of biodiversity and I weep for our reserve. Sometimes, I dream that it is all reversible, but I know it is not. I read books about nature as ‘comfort food’. I feel sorry for the children who may never see a butterfly or a bumblebee. Indeed, I am a bit disappointed about the lack of support I have had from certain environmental groups and media outlets that report on environmental issues. I would like the mainstream media to acknowledge the role of the pesticides industry, but I don’t suppose they ever will.

However, I have gained some satisfaction from receiving expressions of gratitude and praise via the academia.edu site where my work is archived. And at least Jon Snow (Channel 4 broadcast journalist in the UK) has revealed the chief cause of losses of biodiversity to be poisoning the land, not global warming.

How do I feel? Maybe ‘resigned’ would be the right word to use.

• All of Rosemary Mason’s work can be accessed on the academia.edu website here.

Genetically Engineered Golden Rice: A Silver Bullet that Misses the Target

Promoters of genetic modification (GM) in agriculture have long argued that genetically engineered Golden Rice is a practical way to provide poor farmers in remote areas with a subsistence crop capable of adding much-needed vitamin A to local diets. Vitamin A deficiency is a problem in many poor countries in the Global South and leaves millions at high risk for infection, diseases and other maladies, such as blindness.

Some scientists believe that Golden Rice, which has been developed with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, could help save the lives of around 670,000 children who die each year from Vitamin A deficiency and another 350,000 who go blind.

Meanwhile, critics say there are serious issues with Golden Rice and that alternative approaches to tackling vitamin A deficiency should be implemented. Greenpeace and other environmental groups say the claims being made by the pro-Golden Rice lobby are misleading and are oversimplifying the actual problems in combating vitamin A deficiency.

Many critics regard Golden Rice as an over-hyped Trojan horse that biotechnology corporations and their allies hope will pave the way for the global approval of other more profitable GM crops. The Rockefeller Foundation might be regarded as a ‘philanthropic’ entity but its track record indicates it has been very much part of an agenda which facilitates commercial and geopolitical interests to the detriment of indigenous agriculture and local and national economies.

Smears and baseless attacks

As Britain’s Environment Secretary in 2013, Owen Paterson claimed that opponents of GM were “casting a dark shadow over attempts to feed the world”. He called for the rapid roll-out of vitamin A-enhanced rice to help prevent the cause of up to a third of the world’s child deaths:

“It’s just disgusting that little children are allowed to go blind and die because of a hang-up by a small number of people about this technology. I feel really strongly about it. I think what they do is absolutely wicked.”

Just recently, Robin McKie, science writer for The Observer, wrote a piece on Golden Rice that uncritically presented all the usual industry talking points. On Twitter, The Observer’s Nick Cohen chimed in with his support by tweeting: “There is no greater example of ignorant Western privilege causing needless misery than the campaign against genetically modified golden rice.”

Yes, that Nick Cohen; the one who cheer-led for the illegal invasion of Iraq and who remains unrepentant.

Whether it comes from the likes of corporate lobbyist Patrick Moore, Owen Paterson, biotech spin-merchant Mark Lynas, well-remunerated journalists or from the lobbyist CS Prakash who engages more in spin that fact, the rhetoric takes the well-worn cynically devised PR line that anti-GM activists and environmentalists are little more than privileged, affluent people residing in rich countries and are denying the poor the supposed benefits of GM crops.

Golden Rice does not work and opponents are not to blame

Despite the smears and emotional blackmail employed by supporters of Golden Rice, in a 2016 article in the journal Agriculture& Human Values Glenn Stone and Dominic Glover found little evidence that anti-GM activists are to blame for Golden Rice’s unfulfilled promises. Golden rice was still years away from field introduction and may fall far short of lofty health benefits claimed by its supporters.

Professor Glenn Stone from Washington University in St. Louis stated that:

Golden Rice is still not ready for the market, but we find little support for the common claim that environmental activists are responsible for stalling its introduction. GMO opponents have not been the problem.

Stone added that the rice simply has not been successful in test plots of the rice breeding institutes in the Philippines, where the leading research is being done. While activists did destroy one Golden Rice test plot in a 2013 protest, it is unlikely that this action had any significant impact on the approval of Golden Rice.

Stone said:

Destroying test plots is a dubious way to express opposition, but this was only one small plot out of many plots in multiple locations over many years. Moreover, they have been calling Golden Rice critics ‘murderers’ for over a decade.

Believing that Golden Rice was originally a promising idea backed by good intentions, Stone argued:

But if we are actually interested in the welfare of poor children – instead of just fighting over GMOs – then we have to make unbiased assessments of possible solutions. The simple fact is that after 24 years of research and breeding, Golden Rice is still years away from being ready for release.

Researchers continue to have problems developing beta carotene-enriched strains that yield as well as non-GM strains already being grown by farmers. Stone and Glover point out that it is still unknown if the beta carotene in Golden Rice can even be converted to vitamin A in the bodies of badly undernourished children. There also has been little research on how well the beta carotene in Golden Rice will hold up when stored for long periods between harvest seasons or when cooked using traditional methods common in remote rural locations.

Claire Robinson, an editor at GMWatch, has argued that the rapid degradation of beta-carotene in the rice during storage and cooking means it’s not a solution to vitamin A deficiency in the developing world. There are also various other problems, including absorption in the gut, the low and varying levels of beta-carotene that may be delivered by Golden Rice in the first place and the rapid degradation of beta-carotene when stored.

In the meantime, Glenn Stone says that, as the development of Golden Rice creeps along, the Philippines has managed to slash the incidence of Vitamin A deficiency by non-GM methods.

In whose interest?

The evidence presented here might lead us to question why supporters of Golden Rice continue to smear critics and engage in abuse and emotional blackmail when they are not to blame for the failure of Golden Rice to reach the commercial market. Whose interests are they really serving in pushing so hard for this technology?

In 2011, Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, a senior scientist with a background in insect ecology and pest management, asked a similar question: 

“Who oversees this ambitious project, which its advocates claim will end the suffering of millions?”

She answered her question by stating:

An elite, so-called “Humanitarian Board” where Syngenta sits – along with the inventors of Golden Rice, Rockefeller Foundation, USAID and public relations and marketing experts, among a handful of others. Not a single farmer, indigenous person or even an ecologist, or sociologist to assess the huge political, social, and ecological implications of this massive experiment. And the leader of IRRI’s Golden Rice project is none other than Gerald Barry, previously Director of Research at Monsanto.

Sarojeni V. Rengam, executive director of Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific, has called on the donors and scientists involved to wake up and do the right thing:

Golden Rice is really a ‘Trojan horse’; a public relations stunt pulled by the agri-business corporations to garner acceptance of GE crops and food. The whole idea of GE seeds is to make money… we want to send out a strong message to all those supporting the promotion of Golden Rice, especially donor organizations, that their money and efforts would be better spent on restoring natural and agricultural biodiversity rather than destroying it by promoting monoculture plantations and genetically engineered (GE) food crops.

And she makes a valid point. To tackle disease, malnutrition and poverty, you have to first understand the underlying causes – or indeed want to understand them. Walden Bello notes that the complex of policies that pushed the Philippines into an economic quagmire over the past 30 years is due to ‘structural adjustment’, involving prioritizing debt repayment, conservative macroeconomic management, huge cutbacks in government spending, trade and financial liberalization, privatization and deregulation, the restructuring of agriculture and export-oriented production.

And that restructuring of the agrarian economy is something touched on by Claire Robinson who notes that leafy green vegetables used to be grown in backyards as well as in rice (paddy) fields on the banks between the flooded ditches in which the rice grew. She argues that the ditches also contained fish, which ate pests. People thus had access to rice, green leafy veg, and fish – a balanced diet that gave them a healthy mix of nutrients, including plenty of beta-carotene.

But indigenous crops and farming systems have been replaced by monocultures dependent on chemical inputs. Robinson says that green leafy veg were killed off with pesticides, artificial fertilizers were introduced and the fish could not live in the resulting chemically contaminated water. Moreover, decreased access to land meant that many people no longer had backyards containing leafy green veg. People only had access to an impoverished diet of rice alone, laying the foundation for the supposed Golden Rice ‘solution’.

Whether it concerns The Philippines, EthiopiaSomalia or Africa as a whole, the effects of IMF/World Bank ‘structural adjustments’ have devastated agrarian economies and made them dependent on Western agribusiness, manipulated markets and unfair trade rules. And GM is now offered as the ‘solution’ for tackling poverty-related diseases. The very corporations which gained from restructuring agrarian economies now want to profit from the havoc caused.

Genuine solutions

In finishing, let us turn to what the Soil Association argued in 2013: the poor are suffering from broader malnourishment than just vitamin A deficiency; the best solution to vitamin A deficiency is to use supplementation and fortification as emergency sticking-plasters and then for implementing measures which tackle the broader issues of poverty and malnutrition.

Tackling the wider issues includes providing farmers with a range of seeds, tools and skills necessary for growing more diverse crops to target broader issues of malnutrition. Part of this entails breeding crops high in nutrients; for instance, the creation of sweet potatoes that grow in tropical conditions, cross-bred with vitamin A rich orange sweet potatoes, which grow in the USA. There are successful campaigns providing these potatoes, a staggering five times higher in vitamin A than Golden Rice, to farmers in Uganda and Mozambique.

The Soil Association says, despite the fanfare, Golden Rice has not yet actually helped a single person and if commercialised it will not be helping to reduce people’s reliance on a rice-based diet. It believes that we could have gone further in curing blindness in developing countries years ago if only the money, research, and publicity that have gone into Golden Rice over the last 15 years had gone into proven ways of curing the Vitamin A deficiency that causes blindness.

However, instead of pursuing genuine solutions, we continue to get smears and pro-GM spin in an attempt to close down debate.

Asia-Pacific Trade Deal: Trading Away Indian Agriculture?  

On the back of Brexit, there are fears in the UK that a trade deal will be struck with Washington which will effectively lower food and environmental standards to those of the US. At the same time, it seems that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is being resurrected and could have a similar impact in the EU. These types of secretive, corporate-driven trade deals ride roughshod over democratic procedures and the public interest.

India has not been immune to such deals. The US-India Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture (2005) is aimed at widening access to India’s agricultural and retail sectors for US companies. This agreement was drawn up with the full and direct participation of representatives from various companies, such as Monsanto, Cargill and Walmart, in return for India receiving assistance to develop its nuclear sector.

And now, in India, there are serious concerns about another deal. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is currently being negotiated by 16 countries across Asia-Pacific and would cover half the world’s population, including 420 million small family farms that produce 80% of the region’s food. Although stumbling blocks have prevented any deal being struck thus far, there is an increased sense of urgency to get it signed.

The RCEP could further accelerate the corporatisation of Indian agriculture. The plight of farmers in India has been well documented. A combination of debt, economic liberalisation, subsidised imports, rising input costs, deliberate underinvestment and a shift to cash crops has caused massive financial distress. Over 300,000 (perhaps over 400,000) have taken their lives over the last 20 years. From the effects of the Green Revolution (degraded soils, falling water tables, drought, etc.) to the lack of minimum support prices and income guarantees, it is becoming increasingly non-viable for many smallholder farmers to continue.

Indian smallholder/peasant farmers are under attack on all fronts. Transnational corporations are seeking to capitalise the food and agriculture sector by supplanting the current system with one suited towards their needs, ably assisted by the World Bank and its various strategies and directives. There is a push to further commercialise the countryside, which will involve shifting hundreds of millions to cities.

GRAIN is an international non-profit organisation and in 2017 released a short report that outlined how RCEP is expected to create powerful new rights and lucrative business opportunities for food and agriculture corporations under the guise of boosting trade and investment.

Land acquisition and seed saving

The RCEP is expected to create powerful rights and lucrative business opportunities for food and agriculture corporations under the guise of boosting trade and investment. It could allow foreign corporations to buy up land, thereby driving up land prices, fuelling speculation and pushing small farmers out. This could intensify the ‘great land grab that has already been taking place in India.

GRAIN notes that giant agribusiness concerns want to put a stop to farmer seed saving and sharing by forcing farmers to buy their proprietary seeds each season. The global seed industry is highly concentrated today and recent mergers only further consolidate its power and influence over both governments and farmers. For example, with China having acquired Syngenta, that country has a new vested interest in seeing seed laws strengthened via tighter intellectual property rights under RCEP.

We have already seen the devastating effects on Indian farmers due to Monsanto’s illegal ‘royalties’ (on ‘trait values’) on GM cotton seeds in India. Monsanto effectively wrote and broke laws to enter India. Under RCEP, things could get much worse. If patents are allowed on inventions ‘derived from plants’ (whether hybrid or genetically modified seeds), we could see higher seed prices, a further loss of biodiversity, even greater corporate control and a possible lowering of standards (or a complete bypassing of them as with GM mustard) for high-risk products such as GMOs.

India’s dairy sector

Access to the huge Indian market is an important focus for New Zealand in the RCEP negotiations, especially where the diary sector is concerned. However, according to RS Sodhi, managing director of the country’s largest milk cooperative, Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing Federation, this could rob the vibrant domestic dairy industry and the millions of farmers that are connected to it from access to a growing market in India.

The Indian government has encouraged the co-operative model in the dairy sector with active policy protection. However, the dairy trade could be opened up to unfair competition from subsidised imports under RCEP. India’s dairy sector is mostly self-sufficient and employs about 100 million people, the majority of whom are women. The sector is a lifeline for small and marginal farmers, landless poor and a significant source of income for millions of families. They are the backbone of India’s dairy sector.

New Zealand’s dairy giant Fonterra (the world’s biggest dairy exporter) is looking to RCEP as a way into India’s massive dairy market. The company has openly stated that RCEP would give it important leverage to open up India’s protected market. As a result, many people fear that Indian dairy farmers will either have to work for Fonterra or go out of business.

At the same time, some RCEP members not only heavily subsidise their farmers, but they also have food safety standards that are incompatible with the small-scale food production and processing systems that dominate in other RCEP countries. There is sufficient room for concern here: during the ‘mustard crisis’ in 1998, ‘pseudo-safety’ laws were used to facilitate the entry of foreign soy oil: many village-level processors were thereby forced out of business.

The RCEP could accelerate the growth of mega food-park investments that target exports to high-value markets, as is already happening in India. These projects involve high-tech farm-to-fork supply chains that exclude and may even displace small producers and household food processing businesses, which are the mainstay of rural and peri-urban communities across Asia. This would dovetail with existing trends that are facilitating the growth of corporate-controlled supply chains, whereby farmers can easily become enslaved or small farmers simply get by-passed by powerful corporations demanding industrial-scale production.

From pesticides to big retail

Fertiliser and pesticide sales are expected to rise sharply in Asia-Pacific in the next few years. Agrochemical use is heaviest in China and growing rapidly in India. GRAIN notes that China’s acquisition of Syngenta, the world’s top agrochemical company with more than 20% of the global pesticide market, puts the country in a particularly sensitive position within RCEP.

GRAIN states that liberalized trade in farm chemicals are bound to be part of the RCEP, resulting in increased residues in food and water, more greenhouse gas emissions, rising rates of illness and further depletion of soil fertility.

The RCEP also demands the liberalisation of the retail sector and is attempting to facilitate the entry of foreign agroprocessing and retail gaints, which could threaten the livelihoods of small retailers and street vendors. The entry of retail giants would be bad for farmers because they may eventually monopolise the whole food chain from procurement to distribution. In effect, farmers will be at the mercy of such large companies as they will have the power to set prices and also will not be interested to buy small quantities from small producers. In effect, the RCEP will usher in a wave of corporate agri-food consolidation.

It is interesting to note that Ashwani Mahajan, economics professor and national co-convener of Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, an Indian political and cultural organization that promotes self-reliance, argues that the ‘make in India’ push by the current government is completely at odds with the RCEP. He argues that no sector seems to want the trade deal and that India’s participation in the talks have overshot the original aim. That aim was to be that of observer, so India could learn from the process. However, Mahajan suggests civil servants now seem to be fully engaged and are ready to sign up to the deal.

The RCEP is a recipe for undermining biodiverse food production, food sovereignty and food security for the mass of the population. It will also create massive job losses in a country like India, which has no capacity for absorbing such losses into its workforce

There is a need to encourage localised food economies that are shielded from the effects of rigged trade and international markets. Rather than have transnational agri-food corporations determining global and regional policies and private capital throttling democracy, we require societies run for the benefit of the mass of the population and a system of healthy food and sustainable agriculture that is run for human need.

We need only look at Mexico and what ‘free trade’ has done to that country’s food and agriculture sector: destroyed health, fuelled unemployment, transformed a rural population into a problematic group of migrants who now serve as a reserve army of labour that conveniently depresses the incomes of those in work. The writing is on the wall for India.

Decimation of the Rainforests and the Money Men

During August thousands of fires ravaged the Amazon rainforest in Brazil and Bolivia. Some are still burning. In the wet ecosystem of the rainforest fires are not a natural phenomenon, they are started by people, mostly well-organized criminal gangs that profit from illegal logging and land clearance.

Brazil’s right-wing President, Jain Bolsanaro, took office in January; since then deforestation in the country has doubled, there have been 87,000 fires in the Amazon, the highest number since 2010. Funding to Brazil’s Environmental Protection Agency, IBAMA, has been cut by 25%, including monies allocated for prevention and control of fires, which was slashed by 23%, he has publicly attacked organizations working to protect the rainforest, like Guardians of the Forest (made up of indigenous people), and turned a blind eye to environmental crimes.

By dismantling “all the state organs that enforce environmental protection,” Alfredo Sirkis, director of the Brazil Climate Center, says Bolsonaro is inciting environmental crimes and facilitating deforestation; through his words and deeds he is complicit in the environmental crimes being perpetrated. A spokesman for Guardians of the Forest told Human Rights Watch, “If we were to wait for the authorities to act there will be nothing left.”

80,000 acres a day

The World’s rainforests are the lungs of the planet. They soak up greenhouse gas emissions, affect wind currents and rainfall patterns and produce the oxygen we need to survive. They provide habitat for hundreds of animals, thousands of birds and tens of thousands of plants: around 25% of modern pharmaceuticals are derived from ingredients found in rainforests.

In 1950 they covered around 15% of the earth’s land surface.  Now, due to intensive deforestation, it’s down to just 6%. According to Scientific American, “most experts agree that we are losing upwards of 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest daily, and significantly degrading another 80,000 acres every day on top of that. Along with this loss and degradation, 135 plant, animal and insect species are disappearing every day………as the forests fall.”

In 2015 the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) claimed that “over the past 25 years the rate of net global deforestation has slowed down by more than 50 percent”.  However, according to the World Resources Institute, that trend has reversed; 2018 “was the second-highest on record for tree cover loss, down just slightly from 2016. The tropics lost an area of forest the size of Vietnam in just the last two years.” If this unimaginable level of carnage continues unabated it is feared that in less than 40 years there will be none left.

The consequences of a world bereft of rainforests are too horrific to contemplate, but one thing is clear: it would then be too late to do anything meaningful about climate change and the environmental calamity more broadly. Currently, deforestation and forest degradation rank as the second highest cause of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, producing around 15% of the total. As the children of the world have been rightly demanding, radical action is needed now, not in twenty-five or thirty years’ time, but now.

The causes of deforestation

There are various causes of deforestation; while logging is an issue, particularly in Indonesia where 80 percent of timber exports are illegal, the major cause is animal agriculture. Huge tracts of land are cleared to graze cattle, grow feed for animals and for biofuels. Animal agriculture is a principle cause of greenhouse gas emissions – producing, the UNFAO say, 14.5% of the anthropogenic GHG emissions that are driving climate change. It also uses approximately 70% of all agricultural land, and is the primary cause of biodiversity loss, animal extinction and water pollution. If deforestation and climate change are to be tackled, reducing consumption of animal produce needs to be a priority. This is something we can all do; it just requires commitment and a sense of social/environmental responsibility.

A recent study into the impact of farming on the planet concluded that “a vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication [when a body of water becomes overly enriched with minerals and nutrients which induce excessive growth of algae], land use and water use…it is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car,” it states, “as these only cut greenhouse gas emissions.”

The research, which is the most comprehensive to date, found that “beef cattle raised on deforested land result in 12 times more greenhouse gases and uses 50 times more land than those grazing rich natural pasture,” and states that producing 100g of beef “results in up to 105kg of greenhouse gases, while tofu produces less than 3.5kg.” Without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by 75% (an area equivalent to the US, China, the European Union and Australia combined), the study states, and we could still feed everyone.

In response to this summer’s fires in the Amazon a coalition of environmental groups came together, which included Friends of the Earth, Action Network, Rainforest and Amazon Watch. They called for a Global Day of Action for the Amazon and issued a damning statement to those responsible for the destruction.

Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro is, they made clear, primarily to blame for the fires and the increase in deforestation since he took office, due to his “regressive, and racist policies and his explicit encouragement to ‘open the Amazon for business’.” But, it is multinational companies that have created the “conditions for profiteering at the expense of the lungs of the earth – and these same companies are poised to profit further as today’s fires open up the door for tomorrow’s plantations and ranches.” Behind deforestation is big business and the multinational banks.

Global commodity traders are the “key drivers of deforestation in the Amazon”; companies like Cargill, a US based agriculture corporation, or JBS, an American food processing company, or Marfrig Global Foods, a Brazilian beef producer, and, according to their website, “one of the world leaders in the production of hamburgers, with processing capacity of 232.000 tons per year”.

The products these companies make are sold by large-scale retailers all over the world: E. Lecrerc has over 500 shops in France and 112 outside the country; Stop & Shop (the name says it all), a US supermarket chain with 415 outlets; Costco, another American conglomerate, and US mega corporation, Walmart, which has 11,389 stores. Behind these corporations sit the money men. The key players are BlackRock (an American investment management corporation); US investment bank, JPMorgan Chase; Santander (Spanish Bank); BNP Paribas (French Bank); HSBC (UK-based bank) and others. “These financiers not only enable the destruction of our forests – they profit from it.”

The driving force

Behind the banks and corporate traders is the Neo-Liberal socio-economic model; these powerful organizations operate within, and are determined to uphold, the confines of its doctrine, they are driven by the values and motives inherent in the Ideology of Money, and demonstrate no concern for the natural world, or human well-being.

Together with the consumer society that it relentlessly promotes and depends on, Neo-Liberalism, sits at the polluting heart of deforestation and the wider interconnected environmental catastrophe. Under its profit-bound ethos, everything is regarded as a commodity, everyone seen as a consumer. Competition and division are inherent, selfishness and greed, the antithesis to what is needed, are fostered.

Within the present construct and modes of living it is hard to see how the necessary action to curb deforestation could be initiated. In an attempt to halt the carnage in 2008 the UN set up Redd (reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation). A mechanism through which developing countries are encouraged to improve forest management and developed nations can contribute to a fund to facilitate and support such schemes. It may contribute to encouraging conservation and places a degree of responsibility, albeit voluntarily accepted, on rich nations, but it will not stop deforestation.

A completely new approach to so-called development as part of far reaching systemic change is urgently needed, together with a shift in public attitudes: away from self-centered activity, competition, and the aggrandizement of the individual and/or the nation state. Humanity is one, individual but united. This essential fact needs to be recognized and acted upon. Not as a vague philosophical or psychological catchphrase, but as a principle of truth from which a new socio-economic model can be created; one that serves the needs of all through sharing, encourages simplicity of living, harmlessness and social/environmental responsibility.

Pesticides in the Dock: Ecological Apocalypse but Business as Usual

Much of the following article is based on a new 20-page report by environmentalist Dr Rosemary Mason. Readers are urged to access the full report containing all relevant citations here  

In a new paper published in King’s Law Journal — ‘The Chemical Anthropocene: Glyphosate as a Case Study of Pesticide Exposures’ — the authors Alessandra Arcuri and Yogi Hale Hendlin state:

As the science against glyphosate safety mounts and lawsuits threaten its chemical manufacture’s profits, the next generation of GMO crops are being keyed to the pesticide dicamba, sold commercially as XtendiMax® – and poised to be the next glyphosate. Regulatory agencies have historically been quick to approve products but slow to reconsider regulations after the decades of accumulated harms become apparent.

They add that the entrenched asymmetries between public and ecological health and fast-to-market new chemicals is exacerbated by the seeming lack of institutionalised precautionary policies.

According to environmentalist Dr Rosemary Mason, these ‘entrenched asymmetries’ result from the corporate capture of key policy-making bodies and their subversion by agri-food oligopolies.

In her new report, ‘Why Does Bayer Crop Science Control Chemicals in Brexit Britain’, she states that Bayer is having secret meetings with the British government to determine which agrochemicals are to be used after Brexit once Britain is ‘free’ of EU restrictions and becomes as deregulated as the US.

Such collusion comes as little surprise to Mason who says the government’s ‘strategy for UK life sciences’ is already dependent on funding from pharmaceutical corporations and the pesticides industry:

Syngenta’s parent company is AstraZeneca. In 2010, Syngenta and AstraZeneca were represented on the UK Advisory Committee on Pesticides and the Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Foods, Consumer Products and the Environment. The founder of Syngenta, Michael Pragnell CBE, was the Chairman of Cancer Research UK (CRUK) from 2011-2017. CRUK started by giving money (£450 million/year) to the Government’s Strategy for UK Life Sciences and AstraZeneca provided 22 compounds to academic research to develop medicines. AstraZeneca manufactures six different anti-cancer drugs mainly aimed at breast and prostate cancer.

It seems like a highly profitable and cozy relationship between the agrochemical and pharmaceutical sectors and the government at the expense of public health.

Mason states that pesticides have been conveniently kept off the public health agenda: people are being blamed for obesity and rising rates of illness because of lifestyle choices. Because ‘loosely’ regulated and unmonitored pesticides continue to proliferate, she says that each year there are steady increases in the numbers of new cancers in the UK and increases in deaths from the same cancers, with no treatments making any difference to the numbers.

However, it is not just human health that is at risk from pesticides.

Devastating impacts

In 2010, Dutch toxicologist Henk Tennekes described neonicotinoid insecticides as an unfolding disaster. In his book The Systemic Pesticides: a Disaster in the Making, he catalogued a tragedy of monumental proportions regarding the loss of invertebrates and subsequent losses of the insect-feeding (invertebrate- dependent) bird populations in all environments in the Netherlands.

Tennekes stated:

The disappearance can be related to agriculture in general, and to the neonicotinoid insecticide imidacloprid in particular, which is a major contaminant of Dutch surface water since 2004. The relationship exists because there are two crucial (and catastrophic) disadvantages of the neonicotinoid insecticides: they cause damage to the central nervous system of insects that is virtually irreversible and cumulative. There is no safe level of exposure, and even minute quantities can have devastating effects in the long term; they leach into groundwater and contaminate surface water and persist in soil and water chronically exposing aquatic and terrestrial organisms to these insecticides. So, what, in effect, is happening is that these insecticides are creating a toxic landscape, in which many beneficial organisms are killed off.

From Rachel Carson back in 1962 with her book Silent Spring to more recent researchers, governments have been warned about the catastrophic effects of pesticides but have continued to capitulate to industry interests.

Mason counts the costs of these unheeded warnings. In 2017, scientists in Germany found three quarters of flying insects had vanished in 25 years in protected habitats surrounded by intensively farmed land. It was predicted that the world is “on course for ecological Armageddon” and profound impacts would be felt by human society.

In France, scientists have revealed a massive decline in bird populations. The primary culprit, researchers speculate, is the intensive use of pesticides on vast tracts of monoculture crops, especially wheat and corn. The problem is not that birds are being poisoned, but that the insects which they depend on for food have disappeared.

This global insect apocalypse is largely the result of intensive agriculture and pesticide usage. According to Mason, one of the biggest impacts of insect loss is on the many birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish that eat insects. If this food source is taken away, all these animals starve to death. Such cascading effects have already been seen in Puerto Rico, where a recent study revealed a 98% fall in ground insects over 35 years.

The demise of insects appears to have started at the dawn of the 20th century, accelerated during the 1950s and 1960s and reached alarming proportions over the last two decades.

Corporate capture

Mason refers to documents that reveal the EU bowed to demands of pesticide lobbies and created SAPEA (Science Advice for Policy by European Academies) which she says is “a committee of corrupt individuals that would actually increase sales of pesticides.”

She notes that the environmental group Pesticide Action Network Europe (PAN) has obtained over 600 documents showing top EU officials fighting to “cripple” the bloc’s pesticide protection legislation. They show top officials trying to protect chemical and farming interests (and profits) from incoming European rules that were expected to directly ban up to 32 endocrine disrupting (EDC) pesticides. Mason concludes that current EU legislation is set up in favour of the pesticides industry.

In discussing the failure of regulators to keep hazardous chemicals from polluting our wildlife, food, air and drinking water. Mason cites several studies and reports and concludes that thousands of chemicals have entered the food system. Their long-term, chronic effects have been woefully understudied and their health risks inadequately assessed.

It is worrying to think that, globally, sales of synthetic chemicals are to double over the next 12 years with alarming implications for health and the environment if governments continue to fail to rein in the plastics, pesticides and cosmetics industries. The second Global Chemicals Outlook (2019) says the world will not meet international commitments to reduce chemical hazards and halt pollution by 2020. In fact, industry has never been more dominant nor has humanity’s dependence on chemicals ever been as great.

Global agricultural corporations have been severely criticised by Hilal Elver, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food. A report presented to the UN human rights council in 2017 was severely critical of the global corporations that manufacture pesticides, accusing them of the “systematic denial of harms”, “aggressive, unethical marketing tactics” and heavy lobbying of governments which has “obstructed reforms and paralysed global pesticide restrictions”.

Elver says many of the pesticides are used on commodity crops, such as palm oil and soy, not the food needed by the world’s hungry people: “The corporations are not dealing with world hunger,” she says, despite industry propaganda which claims it and its chemicals are necessary for feeding the world. This is simply not true. Numerous high-level reports say that agroecology can feed the world healthily and sustainably.

At the Royal Society of Medicine Conference on pesticides safety, the late Peter Melchett presented alarming figures from official sources. The number of active ingredients applied to wheat had risen 12-fold from 1.7 in 1974 to 20.7 in 2014; that those applied to potatoes had risen 5.8 times from 5.3 in 1975 to 30.8 in 2014; that those applied to onions and leeks had risen 18-fold from 5.3 in 1975 to 30.8 in 2014. Pesticides are tested individually but no one tests the cocktail of pesticides to which humans and the environment are exposed.

The Chief Scientist for the UK’s Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) Professor Ian Boyd has pointed out that once a pesticide is approved there is no follow up.

Moreover, Dr Michael Antoniou, head of the Gene Expression and Therapy Group at King’s College London, told a Royal Society of Medicine conference that the adjuvants in commercial pesticide formulations can be toxic in their own right and in some cases more toxic than the declared active ingredients. Yet only the active ingredients are tested and assessed for long-term health effects in the regulatory process. He also said that research on hormone-disrupting chemicals, including pesticides, shows that very low realistic doses can be more toxic than higher doses.

Nevertheless, Dave Bench, head of UK Chemicals Regulation Division, has described the regulatory system for pesticides as robust and as balancing the risks of pesticides against the benefits to society. Does this mean balancing industry profits against public interest on a set of scales heavily weighted in favour of the former?

Glyphosate in the dock

Hilal Elver has stated that to address the pesticides issue, we must deal with the corporations pushing them. And this is not lost on Mason who documents Monsanto’s dirty tactics to keep its multi-billion-dollar money-spinner glyphosate-based Roundup on the market.

Bayer CEO Werner Bauman has told his top-tier investors that Bayer had performed an adequate due-diligence on Monsanto before purchasing the company for $66 billion. At the time of its purchase, Monsanto told its German suitors that a $270-million set-aside would cover all its outstanding liabilities arising from Monsanto’s 5,000 Roundup cancer lawsuits.

But Bauman has conceded to anxious shareholders that Monsanto had withheld internal papers relevant to the case. Bayer never saw those internal Monsanto documents prior to the purchase.

Robert F Kennedy, co-counsel to Baum Hedlund Law, which is representing nearly 800 people in the US who allege Roundup exposure caused their non-Hodgkin lymphoma, says that it was no surprise that Monsanto kept secrets from Bayer.

He notes that Dewayne Johnson’s jury heard evidence that for four decades Monsanto maneuvered to conceal Roundup’s carcinogenicity by capturing regulatory agencies, corrupting public officials, bribing scientists and engaging in scientific fraud to delay its day of reckoning. The jury found that these activities constituted “malice, fraud and oppression” warranting $250 million in punitive damages.

Kennedy says:

Perhaps more ominously for Bayer, Monsanto also faces cascading scientific evidence linking glyphosate to a constellation of other injuries that have become prevalent since its introduction, including obesity, depression, Alzheimer’s, ADHD, autism, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, kidney disease, and inflammatory bowel disease, brain, breast and prostate cancer, miscarriage, birth defects and declining sperm counts. Strong science suggests glyphosate is the culprit in the exploding epidemics of celiac disease, colitis, gluten sensitivities, diabetes and non-alcoholic liver cancer which, for the first time, is attacking children as young as 10.

“Researchers peg glyphosate as a potent endocrine disruptor, which interferes with sexual development in children. The chemical compound is certainly a chelator that removes important minerals from the body, including iron, magnesium, zinc, selenium and molybdenum. Roundup disrupts the microbiome destroying beneficial bacteria in the human gut and triggering brain inflammation and other ill effects.

Kennedy states that glyphosate now accounts for about 50% of all herbicide use in the US. About 75% of glyphosate use has occurred since 2006, with the global glyphosate market projected to reach $11.74 billion by 2023. He adds that never in history has a chemical like glyphosate been so pervasive. It is in our air, water, plants, animals, grains, vegetables and meats. It’s in beer and wine, children’s breakfast cereal and snack bars and mother’s breast milk. It’s even in our vaccines.

The issues outlined here are not confined to Europe, the UK or the US. From Argentina to India, the agri-food industry is subverting public institutions and adversely impacting diets, food, public health and the environment.

Regardless of a rapidly emerging health and environmental apocalypse, unrestrained capitalism reigns, profits trump public interest and its business as usual.

Treadmill of Magic Seeds and Broken Promises

Political posturing aligned with commercial interests means that truth is becoming a casualty in the debate about genetically modified (GM) crops in India. The industry narrative surrounding Bt cotton is that it has been a great success. The current Modi-led administration is parroting this claim and argues its success must be replicated by adopting a range of GM food crops, amounting to what would be a full-scale entry of GM technology into Indian agriculture. Currently, Bt cotton is India’s only officially approved commercially cultivated GM crop.

With the aim of putting the record straight, a media event took place on Friday, 6 September in New Delhi at the Constitution Club of India during which it was declared that Bt cotton has been a costly and damaging failure. Speakers included prominent environmentalists Aruna Rodrigues and Vandana Shiva who presented a good deal of information based on official reports, research papers and documents submitted as evidence to the Supreme Court on Bt cotton.

It was argued that even the government’s own data contradicts its tale of Bt cotton success and that the consequences of irresponsibly rolling out various GM crops based on a false narrative would be disastrous for the country.

PR and broken promises

In the early 2000s, Bt cotton was being heavily promoted in India on the basis it would cut pesticide use dramatically, boost yields and contribute to the financial well-being of farmers. However, pesticide use is back to pre-Bt levels and yields have stagnated or are falling. Moreover, some 31 countries rank above India in terms of cotton yield and of these only 10 grow GM cotton.

As will be shown, farmers now find themselves on a chemical-biotech treadmill and have to deal with an increasing number of Bt/insecticide resistant pests and rising costs of production. For many small-scale cotton farmers, this has resulted in greater levels of indebtedness and financial distress.

Failure to yield

Over 90% of cotton sown in India is now Bt. Although initially introduced to the country in 2002, its adoption was only about 12 and 38% respectively in 2005 and 2006. A good deal of data was contained in the media briefing that accompanied the event in Delhi. In it, Aruna Rodrigues and Vandana Shiva show that, even then (2005-2006), average yields had already reached the current plateau of about 450-500 kg/ha. Average all-India Bt cotton yields hovered around or below 500 kg/ha during the period 2005-2018.

What is particularly revealing is that cotton production for 2018-2019 will be the lowest in a decade, down to an estimated 420.72 kg/ha, according to a press release issued in July by the Cotton Association of India.

Furthermore, the argument is that increases in yields that may have occurred were in any case due to various factors, such as increased fertiliser use and high-yielding hybrid seeds, and not Bt technology.

The data presented by Rodrigues and Shiva shows that cotton yield in the pre-Bt era increased significantly from its 191 kg/ha low in 2002 to 318 kg/ha in 2004-2005, registering an increase of 66% in just three years (the baseline for Bt cotton is 2005-2006 as prior to this adoption rates were not significant). The two environmentalists say this was a result of increased acreage under hybrids and a new class of insecticides.

They note that the momentum of this upward swing carried into the Bt era and had nothing to do with that technology. Their argument is that Bt cotton has failed but is being trumpeted as a success under the cover of increased fertiliser use, hybrid seed trait yield (not attributable to Bt technology), better irrigation and insecticide seed coating.

Biotech treadmill and ecological disruption

Bt technology was used in conjunction with high-yielding hybrids (as opposed to pure line varieties) and has no trait for intrinsic yield. This, Rodrigues and Shiva argue, conveniently allowed a smudging of the yield data (isolating the precise impact of hybrid yield would prove to be difficult) and also provided a ‘value-capture’ mechanism for Monsanto: the introduction of these hybrids disallows seed saving, forcing farmers to buy new expensive hybrid Bt cotton seed each year (hybridisation gives one-time vigour).

Prior to Bt cotton, the extensive use of insecticides to cope with the Pink Bollworm (PBW), which is native to India, had become a problem. Spraying for PBW caused outbreaks of the American Bollworm (ABW). The ABW is a secondary pest that was induced by extensive insecticide use and became the target for Bt cotton.

Although Bt cotton was supposed to control both species of bollworm, PBW resistance to Bt toxin has now occurred and the ABW is also developing resistance. Moreover, post 2002, new pests have appeared, such as whitefly, jassids and mealybugs.

However, Rodrigues and Shiva note that resistance in PBW now occurs to both Monsanto’s Bollgard I and Bollgard II Bt cotton (BGI and BG II). BGI was replaced by BG II as early as 2007-8, just six years after its introduction because the PBW had developed resistance. The ABW is also now developing resistance to stacked Bt toxins in BG II.

Irresponsible roll out

Hybrids are input intensive and are sown at suboptimal wide spacing. Unlike in other countries that grow Bt cotton, they are long season cottons and are thus more susceptible to pest build-up. With this in mind, Rodrigues and Shiva refer to Dr K R Kranthi, former director of the Central Institute for Cotton Research, who says:

Insecticide usage is increasing each year because of resistance development in sucking pests to imidacloprid and other neonicotinoid insecticides—by 2012 insecticide usage was at 2002 levels and will continue to increase inducing further outbreaks of insecticide and Bt resistant pests.

Bt cotton hybrids also require more human labour and perform better under irrigation. However, 66% of cotton in India is cultivated in rain fed areas, where yields depend on the timing and quantity of highly variable monsoon rains. Unreliable rains, the high costs of Bt hybrid seed, continued insecticide use and debt have placed many poor (marginal) smallholder farmers in a situation of severe financial hardship.

In fact, Professor A P Gutierrez argues that Bt cotton has effectively put these farmers in a corporate noose: his research has noted a link between Bt cotton, weather, yields, financial distress and farmer suicides.

Monsanto’s profiteering

Rodrigues and Shiva note that Monsanto was allowed a ‘royalty’ on Bollgard I seed without having a patent on it. Drawing on conservative estimates (by K R Kranthi), on average, the additional expenditure on seeds (compared to non-Bt seeds) was at least Rs 1,179 per hectare and the Indian farmer may have spent a total extra amount of Rs 14,000 crores (140 billion) on Bt cotton seeds during the period 2002-2018. The trait value charged (2002-2018) is around Rs 7,000 crores. This excludes royalties accruing to Mahyco-Monsanto, which were illegal on Bollgard I (first generation Bt cotton) and yet allowed by the regulators.

Overall net profit for cotton farmers was Rs 5,971/ha in 2003 (pre-Bt) but plummeted to average net losses of Rs 6,286 in 2015, while fertiliser use kg/ha exhibited a 2.2-fold increase. As Bt technology was being rolled out, costs of production were thus increasing. And these costs were increasing in the face of stagnant yields.

Why GM anyway?

At this point, it is worth broadening the scope of this article by noting that in 2010, an indefinite moratorium was placed on Bt brinjal, which would have been India’s first GM food crop. Despite the current push for a full-scale entry of GM into Indian agriculture, the moratorium is still in place: the conflicts of interest, secrecy, negligence and lack of competence inherent in the GM regulatory process that were acknowledged at that time remain unaddressed.

It would therefore be grossly irresponsible to roll out GM. If the experience of Bt cotton tells us anything, it would also be extremely unwise to proceed without carrying out independent health, environmental and socio-economic risk assessments.

Of course, establishing the need for GM – crops that outperform current non-GM options currently available – is paramount but totally absent. With this in mind, Rodrigues and Shiva cite evidence that traditional plant breeding and newer methods outperform GM agriculture at much less cost, release fewer carbon emissions and earn much greater profits for farmers.

Given this situation (the fraud of GM and its dubious track record aside), anyone could be forgiven for thinking that the plan to get GM into Indian agriculture is solely driven by ideology and commercial interest. Instead of drawing on proven traditional knowledge and practices to ensure food security, the strategy seems to be to place farmers on biotech-chemical treadmills for the benefit of corporate interests.

Green Revolution to ‘gene revolution’

If we look at the Green Revolution, it too was also sold under the guise of ‘feeding the world’. But in India, according to Professor Glenn Stone, it merely led to more wheat in the diet, while food productivity per capita showed no increase or actually decreased. Nevertheless, there have been dire consequences for the Indian diet, the environment, farmers, rural communities and public health.

More generally, the Green Revolution dovetailed with an international system of chemical-dependent, agro-export mono-cropping and big infrastructure projects (dams) linked to loans, sovereign debt repayment and World Bank/IMF directives, the outcomes of which included a displacement of the peasantry, the consolidation of global agri-food oligopolies and the transformation of many countries into food deficit regions.

Often regarded as Green Revolution 2.0, the ‘gene revolution’ is integral to the plan to ‘modernise’ Indian agriculture. This means the displacement of peasant farmers, further corporate consolidation and commercialisation based on industrial-scale monocrop farms incorporated into global supply chains dominated by transnational agribusiness and retail giants. It would also mean the undermining of national food security.

GM-based agriculture is key to what would amount to a wholesale corporate capture of the agri-food sector: a sure-fire money spinner that would dwarf the amount drained from India courtesy of Monsanto’s ‘royalties’ on Bt cotton.

Agroecological solutions

This wholesale shift to industrial agriculture would have devastating impacts on the environment, rural communities, public health, local and regional food security, seed sovereignty, nutritional yield per acre, water tables and soil quality, etc. Industrial agriculture has massive health, social and environmental costs which are borne by the public and taxpayers, certainly not by the (subsidised) corporations that rake in the massive profits.

It is no surprise, therefore, that an increasing international consensus is emerging on the role of agroecology. In this respect, smallholder farmers are not to be regarded as residues from the past but as being crucial to the future.

And this is not lost on Rodrigues and Shiva who note the vital importance and productivity of small farms (which outperform industrial-scale enterprises and feed most of the global population) and the advantages of agroecological farming. They refer to the recent UN FAO High Level Panel of Experts which concludes that agroecology provides greatly improved food security and nutritional, gender, environmental and yield benefits compared to industrial agriculture.

Furthermore, according to Rodrigues and Shiva, regenerative organic farming can draw down excess carbon from the atmosphere and put it in the soil, thereby reversing climate change and making agriculture climate resilient. They argue that organic systems are competitive with conventional yields and leach no toxic chemicals. As for cotton, they state that ‘desi’ species of cotton varieties are highly amenable to low-cost organic farming, providing an excellent opportunity for India to emerge as a global leader in organic cotton.

The take-home message is that if GM food crops are to be rolled out – based on a narrative about Bt cotton that relies more on industry spin than actual facts – it would be disastrous for India. Given the evidence, it’s a warning that should not be taken lightly.

An eight-page briefing was issued to coincide with the media event and contains relevant references, additional data and numerous informative charts. It can be accessed here.