Category Archives: Agriculture

Monsanto’s GMO cotton loses luster in India

The American agricultural giant, which has bet its future on crops genetically engineered to resist pests and herbicides, is suffering a major setback in the world’s second most populous land.

Farmers resent the company in part because they are no longer able to save seeds at the end of the harvest to plant the following year, but instead must honor the company’s patents and buy new every year, inflicting yet more economic hardship on hard-pressed smallholders.

But the main reason India’s farmers no longer buy the proprietary seeds is that they simply don’t work as promised.

From New Europe:

India is dumping Monsanto’s genetically modified Bt cotton in favor of “desi”, an indigenous variety, which comes at half the cost and farmers are allowed to save seed to plant next year.

Sales of the seed are down by 15% year on year, worth $75 million according to Reuters.

Monsanto stands losing the world’s biggest cotton producer and second largest exporter of the fiber. While Monsanto’s Genetically Engineered cotton variety remains dominant, the government is promoting indigenous varieties. Monsanto may have lost as much as 5% to indigenous varieties this year alone.

Additional losses come from Indian farmers dumping the water-intensive cotton in favour of other crops, like pulses and lentils; there has been a 10% drop in cotton production year-on-year.

The main competitive advantage of the Monsanto seed is resistance to pest such as the bollworm, but not to the whitefly, especially common in India during dry seasons. Local varieties appear more resistant to whitefly, while Monsanto’s resistance to bollworm is declining.

California groundwater supplies still in danger

 Amount of rain and snow (as water equivalent) for the state of California over December – March each year since 1948, shown as the departure from the 1981-2010 average (dark gray bars; scale on left). The December – February Niño3.4 Index (Oceanic Niño Index) is shown in overlay (scale on right). Pink bars = El Niño conditions, blue bars = La Niña, light gray = neutral. Data from NOAA Climate Divisions data, graph by

Amount of rain and snow [as water equivalent] for the state of California over December – March each year since 1948, shown as the departure from the 1981-2010 average [dark gray bars; scale on left]. The December – February Niño3.4 Index [Oceanic Niño Index] is shown in overlay [scale on right]. Pink bars = El Niño conditions, blue bars = La Niña, light gray = neutral. Data from NOAA Climate Divisions data, graph by

While rains have brought some relief to a drought-stricken California, the fact remains that the state’s groundwater supplies have plunged and last winter’s modest rains and snow have brought no relief.

That’s seriously bad news for the state’s Central Valley, the source of many of the foods gracing America’s tables.

And the odds are that this winter will bring a return of La Niña conditions, meaning lower than average precipitation and an intensification of the drought.

From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

This past winter, most water agencies across California were counting on the strong El Niño to produce surplus water, helping to increase groundwater and make up for what’s been pumped out due to the severe drought.  Unfortunately, precipitation during the winter of 2015-16 was barely above the long-term average in the state, despite stormy weather in the northern part of California.

Recent patterns in groundwater

The drought was somewhat alleviated in Northern California, thanks to these rains. However, new evidence suggests that the groundwater level in California’s Central Valley will continue to decline this year. We examined about 55 years of data from nearly 500 wells, and also used estimated water storage from Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites.

Historically, drought and reduced groundwater storage occurred almost hand-in-hand in the Central Valley. When drought conditions ended, groundwater storage would normally rebound – this is the relationship we see in records from about 1960 – 2000.  But our recent study found that this relationship has changed over the last decade and a half.

In the data from the past fifteen years or so, scientists found that groundwater storage continued to decline for a full year after drought has ended.  So, whereas previously when drought ended, groundwater resources would begin to recover, now groundwater continues to decline, even through a wet period. It will take more research to understand exactly why this is happening, but it’s possible that the recent tendency toward more intense, longer-lasting droughts in this region has changed the way rainfall and snowmelt are taken up by the soil and recharge groundwater.

California’s groundwater has been used to supplement the water supply for households, agriculture, and industry for many years, and there’s been a downward trend in groundwater storage since at least the middle of the 20th century. However, this trend doesn’t explain the recent change in the effect of drought on groundwater supply.

The effect of ENSO

It’s well known that precipitation in California is somewhat tied to the El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Roughly speaking, El Niño tends to bring rain, and La Niña tends to withhold it. [Although this past winter is an excellent example of how what’s expected doesn’t always happen.]

There’s more, after the jump. . . Continue reading

When a GMO bacterium almost killed the planet

We have long maintained that genetically modified organisms may be the most dangerous of all human creations, dwarfing in potential nuclear weapons, overpopulation, and all the other sundry horrors that haunt our nightmares.

And we’ve already come perilously close.

From The Big Picture:

How One GMO Plant Nearly Took Down the Planet…

Program notes:

The very same day that President Obama signed the DARK Act into law – the USDA confirmed that 22 of Monsanto’s unapproved GMO wheat plants were growing in a field in Washington State. No one knows how it got there – and that should raise alarm bells.

The universe beneath out feet

Stephen Nottingham is a biologist and writer. He has a doctorate in the field of agricultural entomology and is one of Britain’s most ardent advocates of agroecology [previously], the science of working with rather than against nature to produce the food and other plant and animal products that keep us and our civilization alive.

The fundamental element of agroecology is the earth itself, the soil that gives rise to most of those foods and goods, and if it is anything else, the soil beneath our feet is a vast and complex ecosystem, and must be considered whenever we release new genetic creations into our environment..

In his book Genescapes: The Ecology of Genetic Engineering, Nottingham writes:

Agricultural soil typically contains around 600 million bacteria, approximately three miles of mycorrhizal fungal hyphae, about 10,000 protozoa, and between 20 and 30 beneficial nematodes, in a teasponful. . .Elaine Ingham, author of the Oregon Klebsiella sstudy, has critized tests routinely performed by the EPA to evaluate genetically engineered microorganisms for environmental release, in which they use microcosms containing sterile soil. The results cannot provide any information about how the GMO will behave in the field, in terms of effects on soil ecology or on other organisms. In addition, no realistic data on exchange of genetic information between different bacteria can be obtained in sterilized soils.

Genetic exchange with GMOs is now a given

The genetically engineered organisms do exchange their artically manipulated genes with other organisms is a given, though one mightily resisted by the corporations which sell them.

UC Berkeley’s Ignacio Chapela, a friend of the blog, was fired because of his research showing that genes from Monsanto’s herbicide-resistant corn had infected the native corn varieties of Mexico, the nation which gave the world one of its major staple food crops.

His ouster followed a well-financed campaign by the company, using false fronts and academic shills.

It took a lawsuit to win Chapela tenure, and subsequent research has confirmed his findings.

Herbicide-resistant genes have also jumped into weeds, creating new breeds of so-called superweeds and prompting a search for ever more powerful plant killers.

Given that nature had countless billions of ready recruits, we can be certain of one thing: The arms race will never end as corporations seek to maintain their exorbitant profits and maintain their deadly grip on the planet’s food supplies.

Back to that Klebsiella planticola experiment

Dr. Ingham, a soil micobiologist and author of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Soil Biology Primer, was a professor at Oregon State University in 1992 when she supervised the experiments that discovered the deadly nature of the microbe just weeks before it was scheduled for approval for release.

Here’s what she wrote about the discovery, via San Francisco State University:

Field burning of plant residues to prevent disease is a serious cause of air pollution throughout the US. In Oregon, people have been killed because the cloud from burning fields drifted across the highways and caused massive multi-car crashes. A different way was needed to get rid of crop residues. If we had an organism that could decompose the plant material and produce alcohol from it; then we’d have a win-win situation. A sellable product and get rid of plant residues without burning. We could add it to gasoline. We could cook with it. We could drink grass wine-although whether that would taste very good is anyone’s guess. Regardless, there are many uses for alcohol.

So, genes were taken out of another bacterium, and put into Klebsiella planticola in the right place to result in alcohol production. Once that was done, the plan was to rake the plant residue from the fields, gather it into containers, and allow it to be decomposed by Klebsiella planticola. But, Klebsiella would produce alcohol, which it normally does not do. The alcohol production would be performed in a bucket in the barn. But what would you do with the sludge left at the bottom of the bucket once the plant material was decomposed? Think about a wine barrel or beer barrel after the wine or beer has been produced? There is a good thick layer of sludge left at the bottom. After Klebsiella planticola has decomposed plant material, the sludge left at the bottom would be high in nitrogen and phosphorus and sulfur and magnesium and calcium-all of those materials that make a perfectly wonderful fertilizer. This material could be spread as a fertilizer then, and there wouldn’t be a waste product in this system at all. A win-win-win situation.

But my colleagues and I asked the question: What is the effect of the sludge when put on fields? Would it contain live Klebsiella planticola engineered to produce alcohol? Yes, it would. Once the sludge was spread it onto fields in the form of fertilizer, would the Klebsiella planticola get into root systems? Would it have an effect on ecological balance; on the biological integrity of the ecosystem; or on the agricultural soil that the fertilizer would be spread on?

There’s a whole lot more, after the jump. . . Continue reading

Maps of the day: African farmland, irrigated and not

From HarvestChoice, an international NGO devoted to farming in sub-Saharan African, consisting of governmental agencies and NGOs and coordinated by the International Food Policy Research Institute and the University of Minnesota:

Total cropland in Africa

BLOG Cropland

Irrigated cropland in Africa

BLOG Cropland irrigated

Venezuelan program brings agroecology home

We’ve had a long fascination with agroecology, the practice of growing food with the use of environmentally damaging synthetic fertilizers and corporatized seeds and pesticides.

Giving the ever-growing corporate domination of the American university, it’s no surprise that the best-paid academic scientists are busily churning out highly profitable patented pesticide, veterinary drugs, and plants and animals for the Big Agra and Big Pharma.

UC Berkeley, which once had one of the country’s finest agroecology programs, has dropped it ad huge Big Agra bucks have flooded the campus, most notably in the form of a half-billion-dollar BP-funded program to create cellulose-chomping bacteria designed to poop out the basic ingredient of clean-burning, high-energy fuel.

So far, with all the original cash spent, there’s still no superfuel, but, golly, there was all that cash, and all those wobnderful corporate connections.

To paraphrase an old and very sexist joke, they know what UC Berkeley is, and they’ve already established the price.

So it’s up to countries like Cuba [previously] and Venezuela [previously] to give backing to agroecological programs.

And that brings us to this report on one Venezuelan agroecology program, via teleSUR English:

Agroecology: A Latin American Movement

Program note:

Is Agroecology a viable option for Latin America? This small Venezuelan institute may have the answer.

Moving to curtail rights abuses by companies

When it comes to power, think transnational corporations.

Back in March Foreign Policy published an excellent report on the power of the 21st Century corporation, including these observations:

Already, the cash that Apple has on hand exceeds the GDPs of two-thirds of the world’s countries. Firms are also setting the pace vis-à-vis government regulators in a perennial game of cat-and-mouse. After the 2008 financial crisis, the U.S. Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Act to discourage banks from growing excessively big and catastrophe-prone. Yet while the law crushed some smaller financial institutions, the largest banks — with operations spread across many countries — actually became even larger, amassing more capital and lending less. Today, the 10 biggest banks still control almost 50 percent of assets under management worldwide. Meanwhile, some European Union officials, including Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, are pushing for a common tax-base policy among member states to prevent corporations from taking advantage of preferential rates. But if that happened (and it’s a very big if), firms would just look beyond the continent for metanational opportunities.

The world is entering an era in which the most powerful law is not that of sovereignty but that of supply and demand. As scholar Gary Gereffi of Duke University has argued, denationalization now involves companies assembling the capacities of various locations into their global value chains. This has birthed success for companies, such as commodities trader Glencore and logistics firm Archer Daniels Midland, that don’t focus primarily on manufacturing goods, but are experts at getting the physical ingredients of what metanationals make wherever they’re needed.

Could businesses go a step further, shifting from stateless to virtual? Some people think so. In 2013, Balaji Srinivasan, now a partner at the venture-capital company Andreessen Horowitz, gave a much debated talk in which he claimed Silicon Valley is becoming more powerful than Wall Street and the U.S. government. He described “Silicon Valley’s ultimate exit,” or the creation of “an opt-in society, ultimately outside the U.S., run by technology.” The idea is that because social communities increasingly exist online, businesses and their operations might move entirely into the cloud.

The U.N. ponders a move

Two years ago, the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to begin the process of regulating the way transnational corporations impact human rights.

Here’s how the vote went:

  • In favor: Algeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, China, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Cuba, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Morocco, Namibia, Pakistan, Philippines, Russia, South Africa, Venezuela, and Vietnam
  • Opposed: Austria, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Montenegro, South Korea, Romania, Macedonia, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America
  • Abstained: Argentina, Botswana, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Gabon, Kuwait, Maldives, Mexico, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, and the United Arab Emirates

The idea has won the support of more than 80 countries, though Obama’s America remains firmly opposed.

The work continues.

From the latest report from the Working Group on the Issue of Human Rights and Transnational Corporations of the United Nations Human Rights Council:

The most egregious business-related human rights abuses take place in conflict-affected areas and other situations of widespread violence. Human rights abuses may spark or intensify conflict, and conflict may in turn lead to further human rights abuses. The gravity of the human rights abuses demands a response, yet in conflict zones the international human rights regime cannot possibly be expected to function as intended. Such situations require that States take action as a matter of urgency, but there remains a lack of clarity among States with regard to what innovative, proactive and, above all, practical policies and tools have the greatest potential for preventing or mitigating business-related abuses in situations of conflict. In the present report, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises outlines a range of policy options that home, host and neighbouring States have, or could develop, to prevent and deter corporate-related human rights abuses in conflict contexts.


States should warn business enterprises of the heightened risk of being involved with gross abuses of human rights in conflict-affected areas and clearly communicate their expectations with regard to business respect for human rights, even in such challenging environments. With few exceptions, States have yet to convey their expectations of business behaviour in situations of conflicts. Normally, States would convey such expectations through policies, laws and regulations. For example, in the area of anti-corruption, States in recent years have agreed upon and communicated their expectations regarding standards of business conduct with respect to bribery through international conventions and domestic policies and regulations. However, unlike anti-corruption, the existing legal and policy framework relevant to conflict-affected regions does not have a component that is specifically designed to deal with the problems of business involvement.

This lack of regulatory clarity limits the ability of States to engage or advise business enterprises regarding acceptable conduct in or connected to conflict-affected regions. Therefore, states should review whether their policies, legislation, regulations and enforcement measures effectively address the heightened risk of businesses operating in conflict situations being involved in gross human rights abuses, including through provisions for human rights due diligence by business. They should ensure that their regulatory frameworks are adequate, the applicability to business entities is clarified and, for the most extreme situation, make sure that the relevant agencies are properly resourced to address the problem of business involvement in international or transnational crimes, such as corruption, war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Abby Martin interviews one of the measure’s architects

In this, the latest episode of Abby Martin’s series for teleSUR English, the San Francisco Bay Area native interviews a diplomat who played a seminal role in shaping the UN panel’s mandate.

From teleSUR English:

The Empire Files: Bringing Corporations to Justice with Ecuador’s UN Rep

Program notes:

For the first time ever, progress is being made at the United Nations for a binding legal instrument that would hold corporations accountable for human rights violations. Transnational corporations — many with larger economies than the countries they operate in — have enjoyed immunity from charges for destroying the environment and taking human lives. But Ecuador is leading a fight in the UN to create an international treaty and standards that can change this equation. At teleSUR’s studios in Quito, Abby Martin interviews Ecuador’s Permanent Representative to the UN and Chair of the negotiations for the binding instrument, María Fernanda Espinosa, about the need for this step.

U.S.: Give land to indigenous people to save it

How incredibly sensible.

From the Thomson Reuters Foundation:

Indigenous people are better than governments at preventing forests from being cut and should be seen as a solution, not a barrier to protecting them, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People said on Tuesday.

Indigenous peoples and communities have claims to two thirds of the world’s land but are legally recognised as holding only 10 percent, according to think tank World Resources Institute (WRI).

Without title deeds, indigenous communities may find their land is taken over for major development projects such as palm oil plantations and logging.

“Society thinks that indigenous peoples are claiming land that they shouldn’t be having because it should be used for expanded food production,” U.N. Special Rapporteur Victoria Tauli-Corpuz told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But giving indigenous peoples rights to land was a guarantee that forests, which store carbon and contribute to food security would continue to exist, Tauli-Corpuz said.