Barking up the wrong tree. GMOs, Hunger, Climate and Environment (by Diego Fdez-Sevilla)
Recently I have seen an article pointing once more the scenario of feeding a projected world of 9 billion by 2050. This scenario keeps alive an ongoing debate over the suitability of applying GMOs as the solution against all possible consequences.
If I may, I would like to share some thoughts in the subject. Not to cover every aspect because I don´t have the capacity, but I feel some points have to be, at least, considered for thought.
I believe that it is a very complicated subject to face, increasing agricultural productivity in an unpredictable environment.
Innovation towards cvs. tolerant to drought, salinity, heat stress is going to demand resources. Not only for the research involved, but to accomplish the requirements for the new cvs. (pesticides, nutrients, soil structure and space, …) When at the same time there is a big proportion of production being thrown away just to keep prices “under control”.
The amount of land cover and use that it has been changed throughout the years it is becoming relevant enough to wonder if it can play a part affecting the balance in the ecosystem at global scale. In that case, extending mass production practices with new cvs. would walk hand by hand with increasing the instability of the system.
I see, at least, two questions in here:
* Management of Resources. Resources to produce in one hand, and in another hand, to sell. Sustainable productivity is no longer about feeding populations. It is more about feeding the economy where there is a population willing to buy. At the end of the day, does not matter how much it can be produced but who is going to buy it, and the balance between cost of production and price when selling the product. So, how many resources are needed to sustain the situation of whom?
* Accessibility. Being able to get access to resources is becoming an issue that stretches differences between members of the same society, different societies, countries … The cvs demanded to cope with the increasing demand of production are focused on specific locations for their production. The locations might not be suitable for the best development of these crops but the economic idiosyncrasy (economic treatments and tax and labour benefits, …) dictates for them to be there. And the costs required to produce the new varieties have to be recovered. So, they are not going to be accessible for everyone.
This is a tricky situation, and I believe that we have to keep in mind many aspects in direct conflict with our own survival and quality of live.
From Environmental Sustainability and Economical Development to a much more delicate issue, Genetic Interference between Biological Kingdoms.
If genetic evolution is about the survival of the fittest and we open the door for genetic interference between biological kingdoms, we have to be conscience and very cautious about where our specie stands in order to react against all those proteins being generated by genetic engineering. Every specie needs a period of adaptation against contact with new biological forms as part of a new environmental pressure. Are we resilient enough to adapt our state of health to the introduction of new products originated from genetic engineering? In our food, as aerosols in our atmosphere and by direct contact in their manipulation?
Today, genetic engineering is allowing to force inter-kingdom gene transference, codification and expression. Genes from the Animal kingdom are being incorporated in the Plant kingdom.
The distance between species in the tree designed by the genetic evolution of life has characterized an inherent resilience against health deterioration vectors carried by species of separated kingdoms. And also, particles generated by separated kingdoms are innocuous to each other due to genetic incompatibility when in contact. In other words, the difference between kingdoms and families in gene codification and expression has created barriers which have protected each side from interfering with health deterioration and illnesses. Pathologies do not tend to cross over between genetically differentiated kingdoms and families. And that is a challenge to be addressed in genetic engineering as part of genetic evolution. The new branches in the evolutionary genetic tree are going to have the name of pharmaceuticals and it is going to be funny to see where are they going to be placed.
In another hand, considering all resources available there is one questions that makes everything tremble in this subject. Efficiency is not considered a strategy economically sustainable. The market demands needs to justify investment, even if they have to be created.
There is a huge lack of efficiency in energy consumption and production, as well as in resource management, in each one of the sectors sustaining our society.
Food production is competing with the demand to cover the gap left from the waste generated in its own production. And the same happens with Energy. Inefficiency in energy consumption generates demands not only to cover the gaps, but furthermore, to dissipate the energy being wasted.
I really wonder, are we barking up the wrong tree?
Or perhaps Diego the question is, how do we make the system better?
I have big concerns about which are the demands that the system is addressed to cover.
So far, there are propositions to make the system work for some but not for others. Actually, the system is being fed just to preserve from collapse by looking into creating demands that increment consumption. Self-preservation is driving the system that we know as we know it. The system only works based on consumption and it works better with more consumption. So, how do we make the system better?
Maybe it is about time to separate “systems” to address “different demands”.
The only way to design and implement “efficient systems” is by separating niches of demand, drivers and synergies between niches. That is what it would be done in any market study aimed to identify the most efficient strategy to introduce a product or to design and incorporate a system. E.g. introducing “smartphones” as a product and “social media” as a system to make them useful. However, can we compare smartphones with food?
Food is being treated as a commodity. As such, the system applied to produce it is based on fomenting consumption following market drifts driven by marketed appealing properties. Do we need all products from all seasons and all parts of the world, manufactured by all multinational chains, to be supplied all the year round at our footsteps? Is this type of food production and supply what GMOs are made for?
“Green energy” is a label competing with “fossil” but the general system has not steered yet towards prioritising energy efficiency in any of both sources. Both compete for the niche of which consume less energy, highlighting the availability of the source (fossil, wind, electricity). But they do not move towards which delivers the most efficient transformation from consumption into useful work. Only efficiency has become relevant in the fossil industry when alternative energy has being introduced in the market.
Production, transformation and recovering of energy has to be complemented with improvements in manufacturing, infrastructure demands and resources management altogether with the impact derived from generating by-products, waste and post lifespan treatment for any system of production.
In food production quantity it is prioritised to cover demands over any other aspect. So, what is the demand that “quantity” is covering if there is an intentional proportion of waste required to control the market?
Different niche markets need different strategies to make different systems work. To apply same strategy for all niches involved in human development is what is happening nowadays. The system based on “Consumption” should only play part under the terms of Comfort and Commodities. When considering Survivability and Sustainability, other system should be in place.
Only when the real demands and drivers are identified and their niches consensuated, we will be able to begin seeing ways for improvement. So far, what I see as the actual state, is that there is only one system that is being fed with consumption to preserve from collapsing as the only answer to our questions.
For me, the real conflict raises when we see that arguments are created to justify lowing the standards for safety in practises touching all aspects related with the sustainability of the environment that generates supplies and support our physical and social well-being.
I don´t have any problem with the development of new technologies in all areas of knowledge. I am a researcher by profession and passion so I am always looking into areas with room for improvement in every aspect of our life. But no critical thinking would justify lowing the standards for safety and quality control based on consumption and quantity. And that is what it feels about GMOs when I see them proposed as the solution to solve a problem, which in itself, it hasn´t been “properly identified”.
I leave here a link to some posts that I have written previously in my blog extending info and points of view in this topic, always open for constructive discussion:
Also I leave you here the latest assessment by the FAO on Food wastage.
(FAO) 2013 Food wastage: Key facts and figures
- The global volume of food wastage is estimated at 1.6 billion tonnes of “primary product equivalents.” Total food wastage for the edible part of this amounts to 1.3 billion tonnes.
- Food wastage’s carbon footprint is estimated at 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent of GHG released into the atmosphere per year.
- The total volume of water used each year to produce food that is lost or wasted (250km3) is equivalent to the annual flow of Russia’s Volga River, or three times the volume of Lake Geneva.
- Similarly, 1.4 billion hectares of land – 28 percent of the world’s agricultural area – is used annually to produce food that is lost or wasted.
- Agriculture is responsible for a majority of threats to at-risk plant and animal species tracked by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
- A low percentage of all food wastage is composted: much of it ends up in landfills, and represents a large part of municipal solid waste. Methane emissions from landfills represents one of the largest sources of GHG emissions from the waste sector.
- Home composting can potentially divert up to 150 kg of food waste per household per year from local collection authorities.
- Developing countries suffer more food losses during agricultural production, while in middle- and high-income regions, food waste at the retail and consumer level tends to be higher.
- The direct economic consequences of food wastage (excluding fish and seafood) run to the tune of $750 billion annually.