Category Archives: Agriculture

GMO corn contamination spreads rapidly in Spain

When UC Berkeley’s Ignacio Chapela and David Quist discovered evidence that genes from commercially engineered crops had invaded native maize strains in the Mexican heartland where native peoples have first bred the grass-like teosinte into modern corn, Monsanto began a smear campaign that cost Chapela his professorship. [Previously, and here’s a story we wrote for the Berkeley Daily Planet at the time.]

It took a lawsuit to win Chapela tenure at Cal, but the corporate muscle displayed by the Big Agra nearly destroyed a promising career and sent a powerful message to other researchers about the dangers of challenging Monsanto’s hunger to control the world’s crops.

Subsequent research has confirmed the migration of engineered genes into a variety of crops — including Mexican maize strains.

And now comes word that Spanish organic farmers are discovering that a plague of GMO contamination is sweeping through crops on the Iberian peninsula.

Here’s a brief report on the growing Spain from Deutsche Welle:

Spain: GM corn spreading unchecked

Program notes:

Genetically modified corn appears to be contaminating non-GMO varieties through cross-pollination. It’s a disaster for organic farmers as the insect-resistant GM corn can spread unchecked. Environmentalists want to stop its cultivation immediately.

Transgenic corn ancestor could become Spanish superweed

Pesticide resistant genes inserted into GMO crops have produced a new class of invasive plants called superweeds, plants just as tolerant of corporate herbicides like Monsanto’s Roundup as the Roundup Ready crops the company peddles.

In the ultimate ironic twist, a new weed is invading Spain, the Mexican grass-like plant from which ancient Mexicans bred the plant that was to become modern maize, or corn.

And now the fear is that a genetic flow between GMO corn and teosinte could produce a superweed threatening to the region’s entire corn crop.

Sustainable Pulse reported on the crisis in February:

Teosinte and maize have the potential to interbreed and form hybrids. This applies equally to genetically engineered maize MON810, produced by Monsanto and grown on more than 100,000 hectares in Spain. Due to the risks of appearance of an invasive, transgenic teosinte species, the organisations have asked the Commission and the Spanish government to ban the cultivation of MON810 in 2016.

Teosinte was discovered in Spain for the first time in 2009, but has never been reported to the Commission by the Spanish authorities nor by Monsanto. However, Monsanto is legally obliged to publish annual monitoring reports about the cultivation of MON810 in the EU and potential environmental hazards, including crossbreeding. That maize is not supposed to cross and interbreed with any other species in the EU was an important precondition for allowing genetically engineered maize to be cultivated in the EU.


“Thousands of hectares of transgenic maize producing an insecticide Bt toxin are being grown in areas affected by the spread of teosinte. If gene flow takes place from MON810 to the teosinte, it could become even more invasive”, said Blanca Ruibal, responsible for Food and Agriculture at Amigos de la Tierra. “We are highly concerned that neither the Spanish government nor Monsanto has officially informed the Commission about this major threat to agriculture and the environment. Europe could soon find itself in a situation with transgenic plants persisting and spreading not only in Spain but also in other maize growing regions in countries such as France, Italy and Portugal.”

More from Critical Scientists Switzerland:

The wild ancestor of commercial maize, teosinte, has been detected in Aragon, Catalonia and Navarra, Spain and is spreading as an invasive species in maize growing areas. In one region where growing maize is the main source of income for farmers, the teosinte population has already reached such a high density, that the local governments has issued and enacted a ban on maize cultivation to prevent teosinte from spreading further.

Since in Spain the transgenic maize MON810 is grown on more than 100’000 hectares, it is feared that teosinte could interbreed with MON810, potentially resulting in an invasive transgenic teosinte species. If the hybrids between MON810 and teosinte inherit the insect resistant trait from MON810 they are likely to show higher fitness compared to the native teosinte plants, thereby increasing the invasive potential.

The fact that maize has no wild relatives in Europe to cross and interbreed with, was an important precondition for allowing genetically modified maize to be cultivated in the EU. Thirteen civil society organisations have now asked the EU Commission and the Spanish government to ban the cultivation of MON810 in 2016.

Big  Agra has opened Pandora’s Box, and there’s no going back.

Chart of the day: European organic farming


From Eurostat:

With more than 11 million hectares of certified area or area under conversion in 2015, organic farming made up 6.2% of the European Union’s (EU) total utilised agricultural area (UAA). Since 2010, the area devoted to organic farming has grown by almost two million hectares. Similarly, an upward trend can be observed for the number of registered organic producers. At the end of 2015, 271,500 organic agricultural producers were registered in the EU, an increase of 5.4% compared with 2014.

Among Member States, Spain, Italy, France and Germany registered the largest organic areas as well as the largest numbers of organic producers in 2015, accounting together for over half (52%) of both total EU organic crop area and organic producers in the EU.

Austria, Sweden and Estonia on top for organic farming

The part of agricultural land farmed organically differs widely between EU Member States. The highest share of crop area dedicated to organic farming was registered in Austria, with one fifth (20%, or 552 thousand hectares) of its total agricultural area farmed organically in 2015. It was followed by Sweden (17%, or 519 thousand hectares) and Estonia (16%, or 156 thousand hectares). Alongside these top performers, the Czech Republic (14%, or 478 thousand hectares), Italy (12%, or 1,493 thousand hectares) and Latvia (12%, or 232 thousand hectares) also reported over 10% of agricultural land farmed organically.

In contrast, organic farming was not strongly developed in three Member States with the area under organic farming below 2% of agricultural land: in Malta (0.3 %, or 30 hectares), Ireland (1.6%, or 73 thousand hectares) and Romania (1.8%, or 246 thousand hectares).

It should be noted that the importance of the organic sector is generally lower in regions with plains where more intensive production systems prevail.

Study reveals even greater climate change impacts

And the results provide stark evidence that indirect impacts on both soil and plants equal to the previously estimated direct impacts, with the average being two-thirds.

The increase effects are greatest for regions like the American Great Plains, the nation’s breadbasket, and the Southwest.

From the University of Southampton:

The indirect effects of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels, such as changes in soil moisture and plant structure, can have a bigger impact on ecosystems than previously thought.

Understanding the importance of these indirect effects, in comparison to the direct effects, will improve our understanding of how ecosystems respond to climate change.

A study, involving researchers from the University of Southampton, found that water-limited ecosystems in arid and semi-arid regions, such as The Great Plains and South-West United States and some in Australia and Mediterranean Europe, were particularly impacted by these indirect effects. For those ecosystems, the importance of the indirect effects was as much as or in some cases, greater than, the direct effects.

Co-author Dr Athanasios Paschalis, a New Frontiers Fellow in the Water and Environmental Engineering group at the University of Southampton, said: “These results have major implications for our understanding of the CO2 response of ecosystems, the future of water resources and for global projections of CO2 fertilisation. This is because, although direct effects are typically understood and easily reproducible in models, simulations of indirect effects are far more challenging and difficult to quantify.”

Rising CO2 levels affect a lot of plants directly by stimulating photosynthesis and reducing the loss of water (plant transpiration) by reducing the opening of the small pores in the leaves, known as ‘stomata’. This triggers several more subtle, indirect effects. For example, when plants close their stomata, they use less soil water, changing the amount of soil water available to other plants. At the same time, altered water availability and enhanced photosynthesis can change the amount of leaf, root and below ground microbial biomass, resulting in changes to ecosystem functioning.

In the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) [$10 to access], the researchers found that these indirect effects explain, on average, 28 per cent of the total plant productivity response, and are almost equal to the size of direct effects on evapotranspiration (ET) – the sum of evaporation and plant transpiration from the land to the atmosphere.

Using computer simulation, the researchers investigated the effects of elevated CO2 across a variety of ecosystems. They were able to specifically determine for which ecosystems and climatic conditions the indirect effects of elevated CO2 are of crucial importance.

The simulations suggested that the indirect effects of increased CO2 on net primary productivity (how much carbon dioxide vegetation takes in during photosynthesis minus how much carbon dioxide the plants release during respiration) are large and variable, ranging from less than 10 per cent to more than 100 per cent of the size of direct effects. For ET, indirect effects were, on average, 65 per cent of the size of direct effects. Indirect effects tended to be considerably larger in water-limited ecosystems.

Dr Paschalis added: “Understanding the responses of plants to elevated concentrations of CO2 is of major importance with potential implications on the global economy and water and food security under a changing climate.”

The study was led by Dr Simone Fatichi (ETH Zurich -Switzerland), and involved researchers from Aukland University of Technology (NZ), the University of Southampton (UK), Duke University (US), Villanova University (US) and the University of Tasmania (AU).

Charts of the day II: Monsanto’s lobbying outlay

From Monsanto Lobbying: an attack on us, our planet and democracy, an important new report from Corporate Europe Observatory, two revealing charts, first of Big Agra/GMO giant’s lobbying and election spending in the U.S. [including, in small print, the $8.1 million spent to fight a GMO labeling referendum in California]:


And the corporation’s outlays in the European Union, including company-sponsored front groups:


As CEO reports:

Corporations like Monsanto have limitless resources to buy political power through lobbying. Not only are they represented by numerous lobbying associations at every level from local to global, they also have an army of hired-gun lobbyists, fund scientists to act as their mouthpiece, and participate in ‘greenwashing’ projects.

EU institutions and the US government often actively solicit corporations to lobby them, giving corporations privileged access to decision-making. This perverse symbiosis allows corporations to capture decision-making, but leads to hollowed out democracy, environmental disaster, and grave social injustice.

There are roughly three fields of industry lobbying: directly targeting decision-makers; PR and propaganda; and undermining science. Broadly three types of actors exist: those giving the orders, those following them, and those who are accomplices to these attempts.

Big Agra African land grabs raise risk of violence

Regions of Africa where the relative availability of fresh water, as calculated by the Blue Water Index [BWI] threatens violence as the competition got fresh water between smallholders and giant foreign-owned farms intensifies.

Regions of Africa where the relative availability of fresh water, as calculated by the Blue Water Index [BWI] threatens violence as the competition got fresh water between smallholders and giant foreign-owned farms intensifies.

We’ve long been concerned about the increasing share of African farmlands, once owned in common by the people who farm them, being sold to foreign agricultural giants by cash-strapped African governments.

One of our deepest concerns has been the power of those corporations, largely own by Chinese and European multinationals, to gain control over the continent’s water supplies, raising the risk of starvation and violence for the planet’s poorest continent.

And now comes a study confirming our suspicions and revealing just where the risks of conflict are greatest.

From Sweden’s Lund University:

For the first time, researchers point to areas in Africa where foreign agricultural companies’ choice of crops and management of fresh water are partly responsible for the increased water shortages and greater competition for water. This in turn increases the risk of outright conflicts between all those who need water – plants, animals and humans.

During the 21st century, foreign companies have leased large tracts of land in Africa – more so than in other parts of the world – in order to produce cheap food, cheap timber and cheap raw material for biofuels. An interdisciplinary study from Lund University in Sweden shows that about three per cent of the land leased in Africa by foreign companies has been registered as currently in production, for the purpose of growing crops. For various reasons, the companies have either pulled out or not started producing on other leased land.

The study also shows that the crops that foreign investors decide to grow often require more water than the traditionally grown crops. Furthermore, it shows that the same crop can have very different needs for water, depending on the climate where it is grown and which irrigation systems the companies use.

The researchers in Lund, together with a colleague in France, have developed a model that shows how much water is needed for different production systems, in different types of climates, in different parts of the continent. The model takes into account both the size of the land and the type of irrigation system.

This model has enabled researchers to distinguish between areas where rainwater accounts for the largest share of irrigation water, and areas where large foreign agricultural companies satisfy more than half of their water needs by using fresh water sources, such as groundwater, rivers and ponds. This has allowed the researchers to highlight the areas around the continent where increased competition for water escalates the risk of water-related conflicts between different sectors and ecosystems.

“These hotspots have not been identified in this way before. Previous studies have often focused on the size of the area and not on how much fresh water is used to grow the demanding crops that foreign companies are interested in”, says physical geographer Emma Li Johansson, who was in charge of the study.

The leases are often written for periods of 33 to 99 years. The contracts rarely include any rules or limits concerning the use of water.

“Our research can perhaps lead to foreign investors showing greater consideration for how much water is necessary, in relation to how much water is actually available. Hopefully, the results can serve as a basis for documents that regulate the water consumption of large-scale farming companies”, says Emma Li Johansson.

The results are published in an article in the scientific journal PNAS.

Download article: Johansson E L et al (2016) Green and blue water demand from large-scale land acquisitions in Africa. PNAS (open access).

Chart of the day III: Animal ag greenhouse gases

From the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, which estimates that our hunger for meat produces 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gases:

Tackling Climate Change through Livestock: A global assessment o

Map of the day: Land cover in the United States


From the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Land Cover Database, and here’s the key to all those colors: