The fear that what you eat is “poisoned” and it is not good for you have produced a two-tier market with the top tier, made up of “organic foods” catering to the rich, while the ordinary people have to eat the food from the large warehouse sales centers, US examples being Costco and Wall-mart. The clout of the rich social segment is such that its campaign is likely to endanger the food market of the poor, especially in developing countries where safe pesticides and fertilizers have been banned by frightened politicians who are faced with various illnesses whose origins are often ill-understood, and hence simply blamed on “poisoned farming”. In Canada, a small group of people from Sri Lanka were trying to sell their “traditional rice” packets, and also collect money for their NGO, claiming that normal Sri Lankan rice is contaminated with arsenic (although there is no evidence to support such a claim).
Dr. Mercola’s writings
I decided to write this some what general article after reading some of Dr. Mercola’s write ups on GMOs and Glyphosate. Dr. Mercola is known to have glibly swallowed the “article” by Anthony Samsel and Dr. Stephanie Seneff, published in the pay-and-publish anything (PPA) “journal” named “Entropy” where the authors had presented pure speculations as “research”. The present article can be taken as a companion to my article about Glyphosate and its alleged capacity to cause Kidney disease that I put out as a response to Dr. Jeff Ritterman’s article on the mis-named “truthout.com” publication claiming that a group of Californian scientists have provided credible evidence that glyphosate causes kidney disease. Ritterman based himself on a speculative article published in another PPA journal, where the lead author was not Californian, but Dr Jayasumana of Sri Lanka. An account of these “predatory” for-profit PPA journals which are not peer-reviewed, and not run by learned societies, and live only on the internet.
Recently, when the WHO classified Glyphosate (in the same class as cell-phone radiation) as an agent that can “probably” cause cancer, there has been a flurry of public activity, with internet writers like Dr. Mercola cashing in on public apprehensions. An excellent, valid scientific discussion of all this can be fond in a TV-Ontario discussion which involved some of the leading researchers working on the toxicity of Glyphosate.
The new write up by Dr. Mercola adds nothing new. He says that Glyphosate inhibits protein synthesis needed for plant growth, and suppresses mineral uptake by plants. Indeed, the plants concerned are the weeds that we wish to eliminate, and we don’t eat the weeds, so to argue that “When minerals are bound to glyphosate in the plant, they will not be available to your body when you eat it” is misleading . If Dr. Mercola and others are worried about the parts-per-billion amounts of Glyphosate residues found in the environment, they should first of all worry about the parts per million amounts of petroleum, diesel, plastic toxins and coal-burning emissions found every where, and we should begin by banning the motor car. When you have cholera, you don’t worry about an in-growing toe-nail.
Dr. Mercola is well-known for his writings about health, and matters that impact on human health, usually espousing a view favoured by the Californian “alternative lifestyle” movements. This readership tends to be somewhat idealist, anti-establishment urbanites who have little experience with the realities faced by the farmer, or feeding the 7.3 billion people crowded on a planet with finite resources. Ranjith Mulleriyava has been writing to the Island Newspaper, and arguing with Dr. Ranil Senanayake, a well-known environmental scientist, on this very topic.
Agriculture, consumers and life-styles
Most of the problems in modern agriculture arise due to the incorrect, un-informed use of agro-chemicals. The soil is a living eco-system teeming with micro-organisms vital to the health of the soil. However, even these organisms need the minerals inputs for their existence, but an excess will kill them. The solution to our agricultural problems is not going back to out-dated methods which were discarded because they failed, but learning modern agricultural and chemical science. You cannot rely on the village general store to sell the agrochemicals and also provide the safe technical know how, while working under free-market conditions. Agrochemicals must be sold in the same way as medicine is sold by prescription, where a farmer gets the chemical prescription after soil tests by an agricultural technician. Instead of using informed agriculture and setting up the infra-structure for it, we have activists who want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Many who oppose modern agricultural practices consider it “fashionable” to be skeptical about the “green revolution” and the fruits of technological progress. They are likely to regard main-stream medicine and psychiatry in the manner that such practice is depicted in the movie “One flew over a cuckoo’s nest”, based on Ken Kesey’s novel. They view atomic energy within the “China syndrome” paradigm, and want “organic food totally free of contaminants” ! They blame big agri-business, Monsanto being a typical target. India, Sri Lanka and other Asian countries have their share of the prophets of doom and gloom who have no real solutions. Sarath Fernando of MONLAR used to claim that “Poisoned agriculture will slowly kill the world, while Shiva Vandana in India has made herself a career by protest action against GMO foods in India, preventing the introduction of “golden rice” (engineered to contain Vitamin A sources), that could have saved millions.
However, while the California activists are worried about the activities of the food industry and agri-business, they insist on market competition and getting the best value for their dollar. Today they want milk in the US at less than a dollar per litre, an egg at less than a quarter (25 cents), a kilo of beef at less than $10, and a kilo of potatoes at less than $3! This has to pay the retailers, middlemen and finally the farmer, ensuring that the small farmer is dead!
The consumer and the current model of free markets are forcing on us industrial mass production. The same consumer has a lifestyle where s/he wants his/her fruits extra sweet, food well salted, flavoured and delivered extra fast, with extra servings, ketchup and pickle. All pop drinks are laced with sugar. Even a glass of “unsweetened’ orange juice may have over 30g of sugar! That the uncontrolled consumption of salt and sugar is largely poisonous is ignored. So a vast industry has arisen to carter to them, where we see even traditional Asian cultures embracing the fast-food franchises of the industrial nations they imitate.
However, unlike in the West where the population is stable or even dwindling, the “developing countries” have population growths which usually exceed their rates of economic growth. Even more explosively, developing nations have aspirations of life-styles acquired from glamor TV shows which depict families living in 5000 sq. ft. climate-controlled homes with designer toilets, swimming pools and multi-car garages, consuming vast amounts of water and energy. Naturally, the developing nations also want highways, fly-overs and the convenience of plastic wrap. They will consume vast amounts of energy within the next decades.
Today, every person’s blood contains significant amounts of gasoline (petrol) residues, pharmaceuticals and plastic residues from the use of automobile and plastics. Each discarded computer, cell phone or fluorescent light adds arsenic, mercury and other toxins to the environment. The pharmaceuticals consumed by individuals to control cholesterol, hypertension, fertility and so on end up in sewers discharged into the water table, becoming toxic to the biosphere. No government insists that the manufacturers take back their used products, as each nation’s market wants to be competitive against other nations. This frenzied human activity is reflected even in our climate which is “just giving up”. The developing nations blame the West for high consumerism per capita, while the developed nations blame the poor but highly populated nations for high consumption in toto. Nobody really obeyed the Kyoto accord.
Those familiar with any Asian capital will remember how leisurely houses with large “gardens” in “residential areas” have been replaced by rabbit warrens of “flats” and apartments that now teem with humans. Palm trees and forest cover and even marshes have disappeared and taken over for human habitations. Wild animals have no place to go and are threatened with extinction by loss of habitat and poachers. If human populations and their greed have grown to the bursting point, and if the governments, usually run by men who care only for the vote do nothing, the only option is to look for the best technological solutions that will provide a solution to the existing mess caused by human greed and excessive fecundity.
One of the great successes in this sense was the discovery of a method of converting atmospheric nitrogen into Ammonia by Fritz Haber (Nobel laureate, 1918) enabling us to make synthetic fertilizers. Most of the modern Nitrogen fertilizers are made via the “Haber process”, and this is a chemical reaction which absorbs some energy. But the energy cost of this fertilizer is minimal compared to the energy costs of production of most alternative fertilizers, contrary to the claims of some writer who say that “mineral fertilizers” require a lot of energy to produce them (The phosphates needed in fertilizer mixes has to be mined, be it using modern or traditional methods). In any case the Haber process can be run using solar, hydro or other sustainable energy sources. If not for the Haber process, according to Prof. Smil Vaclav, “with average crop yields remaining at the 1900 level, the crop harvest in the year 2000 would have required nearly four times more land and the cultivated area would have claimed nearly half of all ice-free continents, rather than under 15% of the total land area that is required today”.
It is this single advance by Haber that has enabled the human kind to feed itself in the face of the phenomenal rise in human population since the discovery of the origin of many diseases, and their control by vaccines, antibiotics and the increasing availability of clean water and hygiene. Most human being living today are “synthetic” in the sense that (~80% of) their body tissues are made from Nitrogen harvested via the Haber process!
The human life span has more than doubled compared to the 19th century, infant mortality has dropped, and most dreaded diseases of our grand-parents are now a matter of memory. All this adds to the rapid rise in populations. Then came the Green revolution of Borlaug (Nobel laureate 1970, and World-Food prize), and modern varieties of high-yield rice, followed by methods in genetic engineering (GMO foods). Ignoring that that these advances are the main stay of our food supply that feeds billions (while a lot of people in Africa who use traditional agriculture still remain hungry), we now have the “organic lobby” wanting to go back to “traditional agriculture” using traditional seeds, throwing out not only GMO, but even hybrids!
Proponents of “organic farming” want to use compost as their fertilizer. Of course, compost and the labour force needed are hard to find. Compost pits are notorious for emitting green-house gasses injurious to the climate. As plants accumulate metals and other toxins, the re-use of plant matter in “compost” needs to be done in tandem with chemical analysis. Different soils need different fertilizer mixtures, and this cannot be easily done except by high-tech methods. Furthermore, traditional seeds need more water, more land, longer periods of growth, more manual work, and finally give poor yields. I remember a series of articles in the Island Newspaper, Colombo, where Dr. Ranil Senanayake, when asked to provide data on yields and profitability, presented some theoretical computer-model estimates from a group in California. If I understand him right, Dr. Senanayake went on to argue that “traditional agriculture” can feed the world and that there is no other “rational” choice.
However, Sri Lankan agricultural scientists have made actual field studies giving a clearer picture of the present situation. For instance, Dr. KMC Bandara from the Rice research Institute in Batalagoda and colleagues from the Peradeniya University (GRMD. Gunawardane and LHP. Gunaratne) published an “Evaluation of relative performances of organic rice cultivation based on experimental evidence” (Proceedings of the Peradeniya University Research Sessions, Sri Lanka, Vol. 14, 3rd December 2009, p403), where they used a traditional variety known as <span class=”T2″>Sudu Heenati</span> as a comparison against the popular hybrid seed BG360, with compost-fertilizer and mineral-fertilizer approaches used in the comparison. They conclude that:
“Both traditional and improved varieties had better performances with inorganic fertilizer compared to that with organic practices. The highest yield was recorded by conventionally grown improved variety which was 6.93 t/ha whereas the lowest yield was given by organically grown improved variety which was 3.39 t/ha. Conventionally grown traditional variety recorded a higher yield than organically grown traditional variety (5.30 t/ha vs. 4.45 t/ha).”
“The breakdown of the total cost of cultivation revealed that the highest cost component was the labour, irrespective of the variety or fertilizer applied. The organic practices were more labour intensive than modern practices due to organic inputs, transportation costs, and use of buffaloes in land preparation. The analysis further revealed that conventionally grown improved variety outperforms all with respect to the yield, revenue and the profit thus rejecting the claims of organic rice promoters. Analysis of benefit-cost ratios and break-even prices corroborate the same. Organically grown improved varieties did not perform well due to inadequate supply of nutrients as these improved varieties are unable to grow well under organic fertilizers which release nutrients slowly.”
Although these are the facts, various organizations, often sphere-headed by respected Buddhist monks, Hindu Kururals or evangelicals operate in Sri Lanka, India and other Asian countries, pushing the agenda of “traditional seeds”. Many NGOs do contract planting for niche markets. A few scientists, often without any training in agriculture, chemistry or any such relevant disciplines come forward as” “Champions” of these causes, and provide credence to beliefs which are often only a little better than urban myths. We see this phenomenon even among some electrical engineers who have come forward to oppose the setting up of cell-phone transmission aerials, claiming that the strong radiation will cause cancer in the neighboring populace. In electromagnetic waves, the energy or “strength” is determined by the frequency, and not by the “power” of the signal, as Einstein proposed in 1905 in his theory of the photo-electric effect. No exception what so ever to this law has ever been found, except in the minds of those who believe that the use of cell-phones will give them brain cancer. There are always PPA “journals” willing to publish such claims. Even the WHO was politically influenced to classify cell-phone radiation as a “possible cause” of cancer, as it takes off their responsibility from the issue, even though over 10 billion Wi-Fi devices have now been used in the world for over a decade, with not one properly substantiated case of cancer caused by Wi-Fi radiation.
The concern over glyphosate, pesticides etc. is totally mis-directed given that much more serious environmental threats at some three orders of magnitude higher in intensity exist in our environment, our food and water. It is similar to the red-herring concerns about Wi-Fi and cell-phone radiation. On the other hand, the use of gasoline vehicles, many types of plastics, glues, fire-retardants and paints have to be curtailed, and better methods for the disposal of electronic waste have to be developed, long before we worry about parts per billion presence of glyphosate in the environment. A push to severely restrict the intake of sugar and salt, inputs of nitrates in cured meat, enacted roughly on the lines of the anti-tobacco effort has to be launched. Cured meat and even red meat are likely to be carcinogenic, and the consumption of meat is ecologically hard to defend. Technology has solutions to feed “carnivorous” individuals and save the ecosystem.
The push for organic agriculture is largely a movement catering to the worried wealthy social strata who want “custom-made” design food, “organic beef” (and perfect bodies at any cost, including cosmetic surgery). These can provide niche markets for specialized agriculture and specialized services, but it cannot ever serve the whole populace.
“Sustainable agriculture” has no meaning in a world where even the existing population has rapidly increasing insatiable demands due to unsustainable aspirations for greedy life-styles. This earth, with its limited supply of water, phosphate, and other crucial minerals cannot ever support these demands via “traditional agriculture”, unless we have a method of reducing the world’s population back to what it was in the 19th century.