1.Climate, Biodiversity and Livelihoods





1.Climate, Biodiversity and Livelihoods

'Climate change and peak oil will unravel our present-day fossil-fuel-dependent farming systems and long distance, 'just-in-time' food distribution networks more thoroughly and enduringly than any U-boat torpedoes”¦ that means more localisation, less globalisation.' - Robin Maynard, Vandana Shiva, Resurgence, April 2008

In a special feature, Climate, Biodiversity and Livelihoods, the Gaia Foundation in conjunction with Resurgence magazine, has worked with visionary thinkers from all over the world to call for a more profound response to climate change.

An article written by Soil Association communications director, Robin Maynard, and environmentalist, activist and author, Vandana Shiva, looks at the move to turn wheat into biofuel to fuel the world's vehicles rather than to feed the world's people. They write, 'In order to protect ourselves from the economics of suicide, we need to chose localisation over globalisation, and learn from the lessons of Cuba and Ethiopia as to how we can rebuild agricultural self-sufficiency and resilience.' - Resurgence (April, pp.14-33)


Lim Li Ching (1) Third World Network (2005)

[Sustainable agricultural practices, which include organic farming, offer many benefits to the environment, biodiversity, local livelihoods, and human health, are viable alternatives to genetic engineering.]


Genetically engineered (GE) crops were estimated to cover a global area of 81.0 million hectares, equivalent to 200 million acres, for 2004 (James, 2004). Only 17 countries in the world officially grew GE crops in 2004. Countries that were growing 50,000 hectares or more were, in order of hectarage, the United States, Argentina, Canada, Brazil, China, Paraguay, India, South Africa, Uruguay, Australia, Romania, Mexico, Spain and the Philippines.

The US remains the country with the greatest area planted to GE crops (47.6 million hectares or 59% of global total), followed by Argentina with 16.2 million hectares (20%), Canada with 5.4 million hectares (6%), Brazil with 5.0 million hectares (6%) and China with 3.7 million hectares (5%). While GE crops are still concentrated in a handful of countries, there has been an increasing push on many other countries to adopt GE crops. The rapid development and expansion of genetic engineering in agriculture would, however, carry a wide range of potential risks to the environment, health and socio-economic situations of farmers, indigenous peoples and local communities.

With the pressure to adopt GE crops, agriculture is thus currently facing a major choice - which technology to base the future of world agriculture on? The dominant model is based on industrial monoculture, high chemical inputs and increasingly, GE crops.

Yet, sustainable agriculture and organic farming are not only superior for the environment, but are also beneficial for productivity and farmers’ incomes. There are currently more than 26 million hectares of farmland under organic management worldwide, which is over two million hectares more than in 2004, and an increase of almost 10% (Willer, H. and Minou Yussefi 2005). In 2003, the market value of organic products worldwide reached USD 25 billion, reflecting an increase of 7-9%.

While organic farming excludes the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), there is still a danger of contamination by transgenes occurring, via gene flow, spillage during transport, seed saving and exchange, and co-mingling of bulk shipments. Thus, the risks posed by GE crops are also very real for organic farmers.


Environmental concerns about GE crops include gene flow (both via cross-pollination and horizontal gene transfer), the impact on biodiversity and non-target organisms, and the potential development of weediness traits in wild and weedy relatives and insect resistance to insect resistant crops.

Especially in centres of origin and diversity, hybrids of GE crops and wild relatives could swamp populations of wild species, possibly leading to their extinction and impacting agrobiodiversity. Crop genetic diversity is important for food security, acting as a reservoir for future breeding efforts. Already, traditional varieties of maize in Mexico, a centre of origin and diversity of maize, have been contaminated by transgenes (CEC 2004, Quist and Chapela 2001).

GE crops could impact non-target organisms (that are not direct targets of pest control), including beneficial species like natural enemies of pests (e.g. lacewings) and pollinators. There is also little research on ecological consequences; as ecosystems are complex, impacts on one organism could have significant impacts elsewhere in the ecosystem (Snow et al. 2004). Effects on soil biodiversity have also not been adequately assessed.

Widespread adoption of herbicide tolerant GE crops could lead to problems in the long-term. In the US, where GE crops have been planted commercially for nine years, pesticide use has increased overall (Benbrook 2004). This was primarily due to an increase in herbicide usage, largely because there has been a shift towards more herbicide tolerant weed species or the development of weeds resistant to herbicides, particularly glyphosate.

Some herbicide tolerant crops (GE oilseed rape and beet) have significant effects on biodiversity (FSE 2003). Weed densities and biomass, and abundance of some invertebrates, were found to be lower in GE crops than in conventional controls.

Insects may eventually evolve resistance to insect resistant GE crops. If this happens, GE crops will no longer be effective at controlling insect pests and more harmful insecticides could be used instead.

It is widely assumed that resistance to insect resistant Bt crops will occur (Snow et al. 2004). Some of the key concerns in relation to potential health risks of GE crops include the toxicity and allergenicity of transgenic products, the fate and persistence of transgenic DNA, rearrangements of transgenic inserts compared to notified sequences, the use of antibiotic resistance marker genes, and the potential for horizontal gene transfer of transgenic DNA