Once again genetic modification features strongly in this edition of Seedling. Such is the pace of change in global farming today that it seems that every quarter we have something urgent and new to say about genetic modification, often bringing to the discussion information that is not readily available elsewhere. Our first article deals with contamination. We have known for some time that, despite the reassurances of the biotechnology companies, genetically modified crops invariably contaminate other, non-GMO crops planted nearby. Indeed, it seems clear that this has been part of the companies’ strategy for spreading their crops in a region. But it is becoming equally clear – and this certainly was not part of the companies’ agenda – that many peasant communities are developing strategies for dealing with the contamination. In particular, indigenous communities in Mexico, after lengthy discussions, are taking action. At times, their moves are surprising: for instance, they have decided that contaminated maize should not be destroyed but treated as if it is sick, and gradually cured, even if it takes a hundred years to get it healthy again.
Not everywhere have communities been able to organise effective opposition to GMOs. As we show in our article on the 12 years of GMOs in Argentina, one of the tragedies of the soya boom in that country is the destruction of age-old peasant communities, as soya plantations have taken over the land. Nowhere else in the world has such a large area of land been devoted to a single GM crop. Although financial investors and big farmers are still making large profits, the land is dying. New superweeds, resistant to the glyphosate herbicide, are emerging. And, predictably enough, the companies have come up with a new technical fix: a new form of GM soya that is resistant to another herbicide – dicamba. How long will it be before weeds develop resistance to this too?
Meanwhile, fresh threats from genetic engineering emerge. One new technology is based on minichromosomes. Our article explains, in terms accessible to the non-expert, the science behind this new technology. It is interesting to note that, although the biotech companies present this new technology as safe and effective for – yet again – saving the world from hunger and environmental degradation, their patent applications tell a different story: their main goal is pharming (the production of drugs and chemicals through engineered crops). Although the risk of contamination from pollen may decrease with this technology, a new threat will emerge: contamination through bacteria. This raises the spectrum of new forms of contamination, not only between species, but also – and very alarmingly – between kingdoms.
Thankfully, thousands of communities are carrying on with their old way of life, based on very different principles. One such community, called Mangabal, lies deep in the Amazon forest, beside the Tapajós river. Like many others in the Brazilian Amazon, it was formed more than a hundred years ago when north-eastern migrants of European origin were lured to the Amazon basin to tap rubber. The men “solved” the gender imbalance by kidnapping young women from neighbouring indigenous groups. The women brought indigenous knowledge into the rubber-tapping communities, teaching the men how to create living seed banks of cassava. Similar communities are to be found in the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, where slaves were allowed by their owners to establish “Creole gardens” in the forest so that they could cultivate their own food. These gardens, which were integrated into the forest around them, also became living seed banks, with the breeding of new species and the conservation of medicinal plants. Some of these gardens still exist today and are being rediscovered by the authorities. The farming principles that lie behind this cultivation in both the Amazonian and Caribbean communities are diversity and sustainability – the qualities that modern farming, particularly with GMOs, is destroying.
One of our most popular publications last year was a Briefing on land grabbing – the way governments and corporations, alerted by last year’s food crisis, are scouring the world in search of arable land where they can grow food to ship back to their own countries. For those of you who missed the report, we include a summary and details about how you can find the report on our website. We also have a summary of our latest Briefing on a new form of rice – Nerica – that is being strongly promoted in Africa.