Monthly Archives: January 2016

Genetically engineered crops are here to stay.

by Stan Hirst

Genetically-engineered crops and foods derived from them have been in commercial production for just under 20 years. That’s a surprisingly brief period considering the intensity of the debates and the assessments that have raged around their development and commercial deployment.

Here in Canada the use of terms like ‘genetically modified’, ‘genetically engineered’, ‘GM’, ‘GE’ and such-like when applied to products on supermarket shelves or to fruits and veg in the bins usually produces a knee-jerk negative reaction. The pages of our journals, newspapers and blogs (this one included) still routinely contain a variety of concerns raised around safety, linkages to ecosystem effects, links between GE crops to herbicide misuse, and the corporate behaviour of the agrochemical companies who develop, sell and promote GE crop seeds.

Perspective is important in the world. Nobody knows that better than Elders. So its often instructive to step back once in a while and take a broader look. That’s the underlying motivation for this particular post. Where have GE crops and foods gone since their introduction? Where might they be going in the future?

When they were first planted commercially back in 1996, GE crops covered an estimated total of 1.7 million hectares, most of that in the U.S. By 2014 GE crops (or ‘biotech’ crops as the agricultural industry prefers to call them) covered 181.5 million hectares in 28 countries. That’s an average rate of increase of 30% per year.

The USA has always led the surge to use GE crops . Currently they have about 73 million hectares planted (40% of the global total). About 93% of all corn crops in the U.S. are now GE, soybeans are 94% and cotton is 96%. Brazil ranks second in the GE list and Argentina third. Canada is ranked fifth internationally with 11.6 million hectares under canola, maize, soybean and/or sugar beets.

Credit: India Water Portal via Flickr

Credit: India Water Portal via Flickr

Developing countries, by comparison, still rank fairly low in the GE-adoption scales. India leads with nearly 12 million hectares of GE cotton under cultivation. China follows with about 4 million hectares of GE cotton, papaya, poplar, tomato and sweet peppers.

Why, when there is so much negativity on the part of many western urban consumers towards GE products, do increasing numbers of farmers around the world plant GE crops? A simple two-word response dominates the conversation. Production and profit. Jennifer Schmidt, a farmer in Maryland in the US cultivates both GE and non-GE corn on her property. In response to recently blogged questions on the comparative costs and efficiency she produced a summary balance sheet for her farm which indicated that in the 2014 season she spent (per acre) 75% more on GE seed than regular seed, but 90% less on herbicides. Production from the GE corn was 19% higher than from non-GE corn, and her net income per acre was 68% higher for the GE crop. Such data would seal the argument for the majority of commercial corn farmers.

The economics and perspectives on GE crops are different for the developing world with much denser and generally poorer rural farmers than in the highly mechanized west with its relatively low farmer-to-land ratios. The costs of GE seeds will always pose a significant problem for Asian and African farmers, but the increasing human populations and loss of productive land on those continents are factors underpinning a move to increased deployment of GE crops.

In 2014 more than 7 million small farmers in China and 8 million in India chose to plant over 15 million hectares of GE Bt cotton because of the significant financial incentives. GE maize is now cultivated in the Philippines and Vietnam. Bangladesh has introduced GE brinjals and is examining the feasibility of introducing biotech potatoes, cotton and rice. Indonesia has plans to introduce drought-tolerant sugarcane, Brazil has an HT soybean and a home-grown GE virus-resistant bean ready for planting in 2016. Biotech drought-tolerant maize was first planted in the US in 2013 and has been offered to selected countries in Africa faced with increasing periods of severe droughts.

Ironically, the most promising GE crop in Asia remains commercially unviable because of massive local and international resistance. Golden rice is produced through genetic engineering to biosynthesize beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, and is intended to be grown and consumed in areas where a shortage of dietary vitamin A kills 670,000 children each year.

In 2014 the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) commissioned a global meta-analysis of 147 studies of GE crop production undertaken over the last 20 years. Their findings included the conclusion that GE technology has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Biotech crops were credited with increasing crop production to the value of US$133 billion, saving ~500 million kg of pesticides over a 16-year period, reducing CO2 emissions by 28 billion kg (equivalent to taking 12.4 million cars off the road for one year), saving 132 million hectares of land, and alleviating poverty for ~16.5 million small farmers and their families totalling >65 million people, including some of the poorest people in the world.1306548890823

People in Canada, Europe and other parts of the western world will almost certainly continue to come out against the production and marketing of GE crops and GE-constituent foods. But, for very obvious reasons, they’re here to stay.

We’d better learn to accommodate them.

 

 

The COP21 Climate Change Conference is over: now what?

by Stan Hirst

A spanking new year is upon us. Time to clean out all the junk from 2015. Christmas cards, old calendars, used gift wrappings stuffed under the sofa. Time to file away bills, notices, demands and platitudes dated 2015 or earlier.

We live in a technological age, so there are huge amounts of clutter on my PC in the form of e-mails hastily scanned and then forgotten. Also web pages saved in a dozen hastily labelled folders for perusal at some later time. Hardly ever happened, the study part I mean, but my good intentions leave me with a warm, fuzzy feeling. That could be the lingering effects of the new year’s celebratory wine.

I’m struck by the large amount of communications in 2015 which dealt with the U.N. Climate Change Conference (also known as COP21) held in Paris from 30 November to 12 December. As evidenced by the number of stored e-mails on the topic on my PC, we Suzuki Elders spent a lot of time discussing the underlying climate change issues. They were lurking in the background of much that we debated in 2015 – climate change, oil pipelines proposed to bisect British Columbia, the future of the Alberta tar sands. Thanks to the efforts of our energetic Council Chair we even managed an honourable mention within the huge mass of news and publicity swirling around the halls and desks of the non-governmental component of the Conference at Le Bourget.

The pre-conference attitude amongst most groups such as the Elders was generally one of hype, rah-rah-rah and speculation. Expressions such as ‘our generation’s last hope’ and ‘historic opportunity’ were dropped everywhere. The post-conference phase by comparison is a tad more reserved. Almost lacklustre in fact. My rough guess is that media pieces on the meeting have dropped twenty-fold at least.

One reason for this is that the conference itself was overshadowed by the events around Bataclan and in neighbouring Belgium in December 2015. Greenhouse gases belched out by Chinese coal-fired plants or Melanesian islands slowly disappearing under the waves are editorial small potatoes compared to people being mowed down by brain-washed maniacs.

One estimate puts the total costs of COP21 at $1.2 billion. What will we get for that monumental outlay? What difference will it make in the coming years? I’ve spent a fair chunk of the Christmas vacation period perusing the better quality journals on their take on COP21 while assiduously avoiding reports that feature photos of Ban Ki Moon and Christiana Figueres. Here is what seems to be the general consensus.

The sober thinkers amongst the journalistic fraternity think that the overall outcome in Paris was better than had been expected. That is really no surprise, since the previous big international climate gathering in Copenhagen (COP 15) in 2009 was a disaster in terms of international cooperation on the global climate. Anything would have been an improvement.

The 195 countries meeting in Paris actually agreed on a goal of keeping the future increase in the global average temperature below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”. Canada’s new Environment and Climate Change Minister, Catherine McKenna, made lots of friends back home when she told a stunned crowd at Le Bourget that she wanted the Paris agreement to restrict planetary warming to just 1.50C and not the generally accepted figure of 2°C.

The fact that 195 countries were able to reach an accord on anything is remarkable, but the fact that they reached a consensus after all the years of arguing, conniving, back-biting and outright hostility following the initial attempt to forge an agreement at Kyoto in Japan back in 1997 highlights the shift in perceptions of climate change amongst the world’s nations, rich and poor, east and west, in the last 20 years.

But its not all blue skies and sunny ways from here on forward. For starters what are the “pre-industrial temperature levels” that we don’t want to exceed by more than 20C? Conference reports and news items keep it a secret (suggesting that they have no idea either). The definition doesn’t seem to appear in formal reports of the  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But if one stares at all the charts showing measured and assumed global mean temperatures published over the years, it is obvious the temperature curves all start no earlier than 1850. That is when the industrial revolution reached its climax in the western hemisphere.Global Surface Air Temperature Anomaly

If you stare at the charts a tad longer you’ll notice that the present mean global temperature already exceeds those pre-industrial levels by about 10C. That leaves us wiggle room of just one more 10C before we reach temperatures which climatologists fear will cause us serious grief. NASA estimates the current global warming trend to be 0.68°C per century. One can fiddle around with curves and projections until the cows come home, but its hard to avoid the conclusion that Minister McKenna is in for a huge disappointment 50 years from now. As will my grandchildren who will have to deal with the ecological and social consequences of the massively altered climate.

Most of the participating countries in COP 21 vowed to make ‘intended nationally determined contributions’ (INDCs). These are publicly stated pledges as to how each country intends to take action in the post-2020 period to assist in reducing GHG emissions. Pledges will be lodged with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for all the world to see. The process will hopefully work by each country determining its respective contribution to emission reduction in the context of its own national priorities, circumstances and capabilities. There will be no legal framework for enforcing the pledges, it will simply be up to the participants to demonstrate their commitments to the common cause. The optimists and the pessimists amongst us will have a grand debating point on that for years to come.

The good news is that to date 158 of the COP21 participating countries have submitted their INDCs to the UNFCCC. These collectively cover around 94% of global emissions (as estimated in 2010) and the participating countries contain 97% of the global population.

The bad news is that most INDCs submitted to date don’t meet the targets debated and cheered at Le Bourget. The Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis produced by four research organisations tracking climate action, considers only five of 32 reviewed INDCs to be ‘sufficient’, i.e. stating clear goals and providing an acceptable rationale for reduction of GHG emissions. All five are developing countries with rural economies and generally low levels of industrialization. Eleven of the submitted INDCs, including that submitted by the U.S.A., are judged ‘medium’, i.e. room for improvement, while 14 are rated ‘inadequate’.

Canada’s INDC is rated ‘inadequate’ because our widely-publicized economy-wide target to reduce emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 equates to a reduction in the lowering of actual emissions of only 21%. To meet the stated target, removal of atmospheric carbon would have to be implemented through terrestrial sinks such as land use, land-use changes and enhanced forestry (LULUCF) activities which are not yet in place. Canada’s stated INDC at COP21 is in fact equivalent to a mere 2% below actual 1990 emission levels.

If all nations are sincere in their commitments to their pledged reductions in GHG emissions, will that get us to the track we need to be on? Based on past performances in all endeavours over the millennia, the chances of maximum commitment by nations are zero. Even if by some miracle this were to come to pass, Climate Action Tracker‘s analysis suggests this would hold us down to a global increase of between 2.4 and 2.70C by the end of the century. Restricting global temperature rise to anywhere near 1.50C by century’s end would mean not only reducing total emissions to near zero but would necessitate actual removal of global CO2 from the atmosphere. Effects of pledges and policies on global temperature edit

The countries participating in COP21 did commit to pursuing a goal of zero net emissions, but were sketchy on the ways and means. Reforestation is one option which has not been hugely successful at the global level over the past decades. Deep underground storage of carbon will require technologies capable of storing carbon dioxide underground, but there is no proven technology of carbon removal capable of working on anything like the scale required, let alone at a reasonable price.

Like so many other policies, plans and agreements of our modern world, the COP21 Climate Change Conference guarantees us nothing. It does provide a roadmap of sorts to the future, and there is no doubt that our world will continue to change in ways and at scales the likes of which we modern humans have never seen before.