Organic, GMO, Pesticide-free, Fair Trade—what do these really mean, are they just trends and how do they affect our planet? Agriculture is a complex industry which to some extent we are all reliant upon. Understandably, for decades the focus has been on how to increase crop yield more efficiently and at lower and lower costs. At first glance, this seems intuitive. And in large measures the agricultural industry has been able to accomplish this through the widespread use of pesticides and genetically modified crops (GMOs) that are resistant to pests and other external factors. But does more equal better?
The evidence suggests not. We have sacrificed nutrition for quantity, and we are now ingesting chemicals into our bodies that we were never meant to. In 1974 Monsanto patented glyphosate as an herbicide, aka Roundup, which revolutionized farming practices and as such the use of the herbicide has grown exponentially. This has had not only a profound impact on the food we eat, but also on all the natural support systems that affect all life.
The pervasive use of glyphosate has given rise to “superweeds,” more resistant weeds that have evolved in response to the herbicide, resulting in ever larger doses of the chemical being sprayed. Herbicides and pesticides leave residuals on crops, affecting the genetic makeup of the plants, their nutrition, as well as, consumption by humans. A 2014 study by the Arctic University of Norway conducted in Iowa found high levels of Roundup on 70 percent of genetically engineered soy plants. This increase of glyphosate and other chemicals in humans is leading us to numerous health hazards.
As far as thirty years ago, glyphosate has been evaluated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its potential to cause cancer. In an original study done with mice, the EPA found that the chemical may have cancer causing potential, but reversed their decision only six years later in 1991. However, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an agency of the World Health Organization (WHO), recently declared that glyphosate “probably” causes cancer, drawing from several previous studies on people, animals and cells. Industry leaders, like Monsanto, oppose the decision, citing agendas and cherry-picking of data. The EPA’s initial reversal, as well as the controversy surrounding the WHO’s declaration, demonstrates the variance of conclusions reached by how each agency analyzes the same data. Although we are still waiting for the WHO’s detailed monograph on how they reached their conclusions, what is clear is that glyphosate deserves a second look. As the most widely used herbicide in the world we cannot afford to take risks and ignore the potential harm.
But what about the plants themselves? GMO crops, as well as those excessively treated with herbicides and pesticides, have an altered genetic makeup that severely depletes their nutritional value. One way we are seeing this is in the impact on the quality of soil, which not only affects nutrition but yield. According to The New York Times article “Misgivings About How a Weed Killer Affects the Soil,” Robert Kremer, a scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says “Because glyphosate moves into the soil from the plant, it seems to affect the rhizosphere, the ecology around the root zone, which in turn can affect plant health.” To ward off disease and improve photosynthesis, plants’ root systems depend on a complex system of bacteria, fungi and minerals in the soil. Roundup in the soil can actually compete with plants for these nutrients and in some cases change the makeup of bacteria and fungi in the soil, making them more susceptible to pests and pathogens. Simply put, chemicals that are put on soil affect and alter the chemistry and biology of the land, which affects the biology of the crops, which affects the biology of the humans consuming these crops.
A clear example of this is colony collapse disorder, the name given to the ongoing mass die off of our pollinators, primarily bees, but butterflies and other insects as well. Pollinators are responsible for one-third of the food we eat, and this includes some of our most nutritious food, like fruits and vegetables. Although studies are still trying to determine the exact nature of the relationship between colony collapse and pesticides, the relatively new neonicotinoids found in insecticides are thought to be a primary culprit. Honeybee pollination is a major economic engine, according to the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Department of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. The worth of global crops with honeybee’s pollination was estimated to be close to $200 billion in 2005.
As global citizens of the world, we can not afford to keep living with our heads in the sand about pesticides and GMO foods. What can you do? Each time you choose the organic product at the grocery store your dollars are voting against these destructive practices. Whether you choose to buy organic or not, let your grocer know you want food labeling. You can also empower yourself with the Environmental Working Group′s recently launched food scores database. This is a definitive guide that rates food based on nutrition, ingredients and processing scores. You can shop at local markets and refuse to purchase plants treated with neonicotinoids. Also check out these organizations that are doing amazing work: Xerces Society, Pesticide Action Network, Friends of the Earth and Center for Food Safety.
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One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
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The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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