Contribution to participant handout by

Robert Verkerk PhD, Executive and Scientific Director

Alliance for Natural Health International (UK)


Download as a pdf

I have prepared this background information to help put in context, at least from my perspective as a scientist who has worked for over 30 years in the field of sustainability, both in the agricultural and health sectors, what this weekend’s workshop is all about.

Neolithic beginnings

Agriculture started just twelve thousand years ago, quite recently in human evolutionary terms. It represented the shift in main human activity from hunter-gatherer to farmer. The location of its inception is generally accepted to be in the area around Abu Hareira in Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers — in present day Iraq. The discovery that the seeds of certain grasses - early relatives of wheat, namely eikhorn and spelt - could be collected, cultivated, harvested and stored, are considered the primary reasons that these early people discarded their nomadic lifestyle. The population apparently reached some 10,000 during its hey day. But after about 2,500 years, archeological evidence suggests the people simply left the area. The most likely theory explaining Abu Hareira’s abandonment is that the soil became depleted of nutrients given the continuous cultivation.

Since the time of this early neolithic settlement, humans have discovered a raft of different ways of making agricultural systems more sustainable. Over time rotations, mulching, manuring, composting and various other techniques were adopted. Plant selection and, later, purposeful breeding programmes were used to improve yields and select crop cultivars which were less susceptible to pests and diseases.

Silent spring dawns

Only in the 20th century did large scale, industrial farming take off, characterised by monocultures that were more suited to mechanisation. In the mix were high-yielding varieties (HYVs) of crops, the result of scientifically-managed traditional plant breeding programmes. The widespread use of HYVs in the 1960s allowed for a great expansion of food production, hence it being referred to as the ‘green revolution’.  But these crops were highly dependent on pesticides to manage insect, weed, and pathogen populations that would otherwise have limited yield. These were the glory days for the seed and agrochemical companies — it seemed for a while they could do no wrong.

Amongst the armoury of weapons the agrochemical companies had developed was DDT and its organochlorine relatives. They were seen as safe alternatives to the more acutely toxic inorganic pesticides that preceded them. It wasn't until biologist, conservationist and author, Rachel Carson published her book Silent Spring in 1962 that the first warning was sounded.  The unassuming graduate biologist was predictably castigated by the agrochemical companies, but she is widely viewed as the inspiration for the development of the grassroots environmental movement. She predicted dire, long-term environmental consequences of the very widespread usage of persistent organochlorine pesticides like DDT, lindane, aldrin and dieldrin in agriculture, as well as documenting cases of human poisoning. The bioaccumulation of these pesticides within ecosystems and in bird populations that then succumbed (hence Carson’s choice of titles for her book) was soon evident and irrefutable and the agrochemical companies were forced to propose more discriminate use of such compounds, at least in the USA and other industrialised nations. The subsequent and much publicised agrochemical dumping of pesticides on less developed countries marked the next dark chapter in the history of agriculture.

Agrochemical industry re-invents itself

Tighter regulation and less indiscriminate use of pesticides did little to rock the continued growth of the agrochemical industry, which had kept step with the booming and closely related pharmaceutical industry. All that was needed was a change in tack. The business model of the largest agrochemical companies, as it remains today, was based on producing patented products. But these needed to be less persistent in the environment, and of higher selectivity to target pests. Plant breeders no longer had to worry about natural 'in-built' resistance to pests and diseases, they had chemical tools to deal with these 'undesirable' organisms. They didn't care that the pesticides were also killing the 'farmers' friends' or 'natural enemies', the multitude of predators, parasitoids and insect pathogens that had co-evolved to regulate numbers of herbivorous insects.  

Nature, as always, found ways of adapting. Insects that survived repeated pesticide onslaughts courtesy of mutations that allowed them to tolerate, metabolise or detoxify the poisons that killed other members of their species, bred up in vast numbers. Insecticide resistance was born - and the agrochemical industry begun its game of 'cat and mouse' with the superbugs. That game continues today, only the agrochemical industry has been running out of ideas for new chemicals that can outwit the bugs.

The transgenic revolution

The year 1996 saw the first outdoor commercial cultivation of a genetically modified (GM), also referred to as transgenic, crops. The biotech revolution then begun in earnest and is now running full bore. Any objective analysis of the available evidence makes it difficult to scientifically support the case that transgenic crops provides net benefits in those areas of agriculture where consistent, sustainable yields of crops are needed most. Four hundred scientists from 60 countries, who spent 5 years investigating the role that could be played by transgenic crops in feeding the world’s growing population during times of climate change, were agreed on this. To the intense annoyance of the biotech industry, the scientists’ conclusions were there for all to see in the 2,500 page report that represented the final output of the United Nations’ sponsored project, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge in Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) in 2008 (www.agassessment.org). Despite these findings, transgenic crops are being pushed for all they’re (not) worth jointly by elite governments and the world’s largest biotech corporations like Monsanto, BASF, Syngenta and Bayer – with astonishingly little evidence of benefit and no recognition that this may represent the largest uncontrolled experiment humans have yet undertaken.

The environmental consequences, as well as evidence of adverse human health effects — such as the 65 documented cases in Jeffrey Smith’s 2007 book Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods — are ignored by the governments and biotech corporations.  Whether it’s purely as a result of the profit motive, or whether there’s a more sinister intent, the crops for which transgenic traits are prioritized by their manufacturers are those that also have the greatest usage today. Human and livestock staples such as soybeans, maize and wheat, or rice are the prime food crops. To-date, the global area planted to transgenic varieties is around 100 million acres, the vast majority of this relating to just two traits, herbicide (Roundup) tolerance and insect resistance. The primary GM crops are soybean, maize, canola and cotton. Argentina, Brazil, China and India are the largest growers of transgenic crops among the less industrialised countries.

Control by a few

Today the bulk of the seed stock consumed by the majority of people on the planet are the result of breeding or transgenic alteration by a handful of companies. In many cases, the phytochemical components that were responsible for natural resistance, that may have contributed to more pronounced flavours and tastes in our food, have been bred out. These same compounds have been shown to protect us from the key chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity, that have become the scourges of our era.

It is becoming increasingly clear that history is repeating itself, but this time, the consequences are likely to be multi-generational, given the likely potential for transgenes to impart epigenetic effects. Few are talking about transgenic crop dumping, but it’s already happening.  Our diets, the world over, have been simplified and adulterated to such an extent that they are killing us, slowly but steadily.

The public hold the balance of power — but few know it!

It is becoming apparent to more and more people that governments and large corporations can no longer be trusted if our intent is to create a harmonious, healthy society that is respectful of the environment it shares with millions of other species. Whether it is the short-sightedness of political goals or corporate bottom lines — or a more deliberate attempt to slowly disempower, or even reduce, human populations, is a matter of speculation.

But let’s realise one thing above all others: we, the citizens at large, are, in fact, all powerful. We actually have the potential to bring governments and corporations to their knees simply by altering our purchasing behaviour. Mass avoidance by the public of processed and transgenic foods is likely the single biggest potential ‘game changer’. This not only requires high levels of awareness and grassroots communication, it also requires that alternative sources of food are available.

Among the many skills we need are communities capable of raising their own diverse foods, from seed stock that has not been exposed to the ravages of the largest seed, biotech and agrochemical companies, but rather ones that are appropriately adapted to particular agro-ecological systems. We also need to know how to manage the weeds, the pests and the diseases that have the potential to impact yields, in the knowledge that in a balanced agro-ecosystem, the problems are rarely as severe as in monocultures based on highly susceptible crops.

And it is knowledge of these and related things that will be freely exchanged during the course of this weekend’s Urban Farming Festival. What you learn this weekend could quite seriously change the world. Let’s do it together – and I hope you’ll appreciate there has never been a more important time for us to act!