"Biodiversity, Food Security and GMOs"
By Dr. Michael Tobias and Jane Gray Morrison
Forum CSR International
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In attempting to assess the health of the myriad global agro-ecological zones - those regions of the planet that translate into the daily kilocalories of human consumers, as well as critical biodiversity that enables our species, and all species, to survive - numerous, often contradictory data sets have all intersected on several hazy fronts that give little comfort to those seeking to forecast predictable resolution to many of the most pressing environmental crises.

The areas of uncertainty include: 1) reliable short-, mid-, and long-term demographic projections; 2) the escalating severity of climate change and hence, the degree of precipitation affecting every aspect of water resources, irrigation, soil moisture and subsequent cultivation practices, nutrient turnover rates, runoff, flooding, extreme weather events, humidity vital to the life of invertebrates, pollination and every biome; 3) the degree to which biodiversity is rapidly disappearing; 4) the capitalization factors that will either ameliorate or further disintegrate agricultural stability from region to region across the globe; 5) the additional component (stressor, or de-stressor) of genetically modified food and other organisms.

Food security can be ascertained at a glance by looking to the millions of hectares of primary staples under irrigation; vegetables and pulses, low hanging fruit, fodder, maize, cereals, wheat and rice, primarily. In the early part of this decade, nearly 20% of the terrestrial planet required irrigation, on average, though in so called developing countries, the number exceeded 26% (FAO Stat, 2004), the very countries, by and large, that endure(d) the highest food security risks, the highest fertility rates, have the least stable political and economic systems, the largest number of biological hotspots and internecine armed conflicts.

The one uncertainty dominating all others was spelled out in the FAO "Climate change, energy and food" technical report produced at the Rome meetings 3-5 June 2008 (HLC/08/BAK/2), concluding that "Without some form of water control across the world's river basins, freshwater lakes and associated aquifers, local, regional and global food security would not be possible." Yet, this is precisely the arena of agitation induced both by climate change and political exacerbation.

The IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4, 2007)was unambiguous with respect to climate change impacts on water management and thus crop production in coming years. As water replenishment cycles dissipate and basic food prices escalate, out-migration of increasing rural denizens (read: environmental refugees, a number difficult to calculate but probably well over 100 million individuals at present) is guaranteed, while current malnutrition and hunger rates, according to the 2010 Global Hunger Index published by the International Food Policy Research Institute ("IFPR") exceeds one billion people who were hungry in 2009.

Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity, Mr. Ahmed Djoghlaf, speaking October 1, 2010 in Rome on declining biodiversity, plant genetic resources and agricultural security, clearly outlined the current risks, including the continuing disappearance - by a factor of 1,000 - of species, versus their natural background rate of extinction; the fact that "seventy-five per cent of the food crop varieties we once grew have disappeared"; that ten domestic mammalian breeds have gone extinct each year of the past decade; and that "widespread failure in our handful of remaining major crops and animal breeds due to disease or pest outbreaks is a very real possibility."

A major topic for policy makers presently concerns the status and safety issues inherent to Living Modified Organisms ("LMOs") - organisms that are modified but also exist in situ in the wild, versus newly created organisms through recombinant DNA, the traditional definition of a GMO. Transgenic controversies , questions of risk, copyright, traditional ownership, labeling, hybrids, patenting and public health have engaged litigants for decades, beginning with the microbiologist Ananda Chakrabarty et al. filing for a patent in 1972 for a new bacterium from the Pseudomonas genus, to the Monsanto Canada Inc. v. Schmeiser [2004, 1 S. C.R. 902, 2004 SCC 34] decision regarding proprietary rights to a seed commercially referred to as "Roundup Ready canola".

The European Commission, all but paralyzed over the use of GMOs, has recently suggested a shift of the burden of proof of risk to member nations, as opposed to the entire trading bloc of the EU. This means that science-predicated decisions will come into conflict with ethics and tradition-based orientations, particularly in any court of law where a juridical determination may well be swayed by conventional notions of what constitutes appropriate empirical data. Notwithstanding the outcome of numerous discussions and debates this Fall in various global conference venues, 2009 saw increases in the use of GM by-products: 15% in developing countries and 3% in developed countries. EU nations currently have a 0.9 percent of GM content threshold that is being debated as to whether that limit should be relaxed or increased. Nations like the Netherlands, Spain and the U.K. embrace GM, as does the U.S., China and many other countries (Spanish farmers particularly wedded to genetically modified maize). But other EU nations, like France are demanding an end to all GMOs.

In New Zealand's bid to become one of the world's only GM-free boutique food exporting nations, her Green Party acknowledged at least two areas where GM would be deemed acceptable: realms where rare childhood diseases were involved, as well as immuno-contraception methods for bio-invasives. These exceptions were lost on the public in the Royal Commission (2001) polls examining the country's attitudes towards GMOs. But following input from some 400 experts, in addition to 10,000 public submissions, New Zealand legislators decided not to close the door on genetic modification but move cautiously forward.

If GMOs are deemed an additional stressor upon already hammered global biodiversity - in some countries, but not all- the fickle contest over how to sustain conservation gains in the face of decreasing yields, higher levels of malnutrition amongst humans and other vertebrates, the complete breakdown of ecosystems, will undoubtedly pose unprecedented challenges for the public in coming years. The issue of human starvation versus the death of other species is likely to incite vagaries in human nature as yet unwitnessed, with species altruism dominating the debate and the ever increasing disappearance of non-human species fully comporting with what has already long been described as the Sixth Extinction Spasm in the annals of biology.

How these two competing altruisms (anthropocentric versus biocentric) will resolve their inevitable differences has a limited time-frame given the rate at which other species are going extinct. Humans make ethical compromises under stress. We also surprise ourselves through compassion and tolerance when the stakes are particularly acute. With 2010 being the U.N. designated Year of Biodiversity, our time for revealing our true collective humility and heroism is now.

Dancing Star Foundation ("DSF") is a nonprofit public benefit corporation based in California. DSF's mission is focused on international biodiversity conservation, global environmental education, and animal protection.

Copyright 2008 Dancing Star Foundation