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By the year 2050, the Earth's population will reach more than 9 billion people. With so many mouths to feed, agribusiness giants have argued that genetically modified crops are the answer to global food security as these plants have been spliced and diced to resist herbicides and pesticides and (theoretically) yield more crops.
However, a new analysis from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) slams this conventional agribusiness argument—and recommends much more sustainable solutions to feed the world.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
The report, Feeding the World Without GMOs, argues that genetically engineered crops (also known as GE or GMOs) have not significantly improved the yields of crops such as corn and soy. Emily Cassidy, an EWG research analyst who authored the report, found that in the last 20 years, yields of both GE corn and soy have been no different from traditionally bred corn and soy grown in western Europe, where GE crops are banned. Additionally, a recent case study in Africa found that crops that were crossbred for drought tolerance using traditional techniques improved yields 30 percent more than GE varieties, she wrote.
The report also said that in the two decades that GE crops have been a mainstay in conventional agriculture, they "have not substantially improved global food security" and have instead increased the use of toxic herbicides and led to herbicide-resistant "superweeds." (FYI: superweeds have spread to more than 60 million acres of U.S. farmland, wreaking environmental and economic havoc along the way).
She pointed out that while corn and soybeans take up the vast majority (about 80 percent) of global land devoted to growing GE crops, they are not even used to feed people but instead as animal feed or fuel.
Unfortunately, this practice is unlikely to change in light of increased consumption of meat around the world, as well as U.S. biofuel policy requiring production of millions of gallons of corn ethanol to blend into gasoline, Cassidy observed. “Seed companies’ investment in improving the yields of GMOs in already high-yielding areas does little to improve food security; it mainly helps line the pockets of seed and chemical companies and producers of corn ethanol,” she said. “The world’s resources would be better spent focusing on strategies to actually increase food supplies and access to basic resources for the poor, small farmers who need it most.”
Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It, an organization advocating for federal labeling of GMO foods that also provided funding for the EWG report added, "Biotech companies and their customers in chemical agriculture have been attempting to sell the benefits of GMOs for two decades. Between exaggerated claims about feeding the world and a dramatic escalation in the use of toxic pesticides, it is no wonder consumers are increasingly skeptical."
Fortunately, as Cassidy noted, there are ways out of this mess that will not only produce enough food for the world’s burgeoning population but will also make minimal impacts on our environment. It comes down to four main approaches:
- Smarter use of fertilizers: Fertilizer should be used in places with nutrient-poor soils where it would have the greatest impact, instead of over-fertilizing industrial-scale farms. This switch could increase global production of major cereals by 30 percent, the report said.
- A dramatic shift in biofuels policy: A World Resources Institute analysis found that by 2050, biofuels mandates could consume the equivalent of 29 percent of all calories currently produced on the world’s croplands. According to the report, reversing course on food-based biofuels policies could alleviate the need to double the global calorie supply.
- A significant reduction in food waste: By weight, a third of all food grown around the world—accounting for a quarter of calories—goes uneaten, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. Food gets tossed before it reaches the market, much less anyone's plate. So in theory, by eliminating all food waste in fields, grocery stores and at home would increase the global calorie supply by 33 percent, the report noted.
- A better diet: Meat production currently uses up three-quarters of all agricultural land, and on average, it takes about 10 calories of animal feed to produce just one calorie of meat. This suggests that a shift from grain-fed beef to a diet emphasizing chicken or grass-fed beef could reduce the amount of land devoted to growing animal feed such as corn and soy (Beef also stands far above the production of other livestock for its negative environmental impact).
Cassidy concluded that investment in genetic engineering is no substitute for solving the real causes of food insecurity and poverty, such as improving access to basic resources and infrastructure in developing countries.
"The alternative strategies of smarter resource use, improving the livelihoods of small farmers, reducing food waste and changing diets could double calorie availability and reduce the environmental burden of food production, all without relying on GE foods," she wrote.
We wonder what Bill Nye thinks about this?
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Colorado River Has Lost 1.5 Billion Tons of Water to the Climate Crisis, 'Severe Water Shortages' May Follow
California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.
The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.
"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."
While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.
The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.
"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.
Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.
Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.
"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.
NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.
As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.
"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.
The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.
"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."
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A warm day in winter used to be a rare and uplifting relief.
Now such days are routine reminders of climate change – all the more foreboding when they coincide with news stories about unprecedented wildfires, record-breaking "rain bombs," or the accelerated melting of polar ice sheets.
Where, then, can one turn for hope in these dark months of the year?