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A lack of government oversight and antitrust law enforcement has given rise to the ‘Big 4’- four major firms who control more than 60% of global proprietary seed sales. When these providers make money at the expense of their customers’ health and the environment- as seen with agrochemical company Monsanto- it impacts on the ability to ensure a sustainable food supply for the planet’s ever-growing population. 

The Monsanto Scandal

Monsanto produced pesticides and genetically modified organisms and seeds. It was acquired by Bayer, a pharmaceutical company, in 2018, who proclaimed that Monsanto would continue to operate as a separate legal entity in many countries for several years, and that there would be no changes to Monsanto’s name. It’s estimated that Monsanto seeds account for up to 90% of the US production of soybeans. 

Monsanto argues that its work has the potential to improve crops, while using natural resources more efficiently, fighting pests and disease, and conserving natural habitats. Its genetically modified seeds around the world include alfalfa, apples, canola, corn, papaya, pineapples, potatoes and soybeans. Some institutions and communities have criticised Monsanto because it developed genetically modified seeds that would resist its own herbicide, RoundUp, offering farmers a convenient way to spray fields with weed killer without affecting crops. 

According to Professor Alan Boobis, Monsanto’s products are carcinogenic. In April 2019, a French court found Monsanto guilty in the poisoning of a farmer after he was exposed to Lasso, Monsanto’s weedkiller that contains monochlorobenzene, which was banned in Canada in 1982, Belgium and Great Britain in 1992 and France in 2007. The farmer argued that Monsanto was aware of the dangers of the substance long before it was banned in the French market and sought damages for long-term neurological damage after accidentally inhaling the fumes. 

In attempting to create as high a crop yield as possible through the use of pesticides, food may contain trace particles of the substances, which can pose serious health problems for children and adults alike, including Parkinson’s, ADHD and autism.

Institutions such as The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a World Health Organisation (WHO) agency devoted to cancer research, conducted an investigation into the link between glyphosate- found in herbicides used by Monsanto- and cancer using urine samples from farmers. The research found that 60% of farmers had glyphosate in their samples taken within 24 hours after they applied a formulation containing the chemical. 4% of their spouses and 12% of their children were also found to have traces of glyphosate in their samples. The agency concluded that the herbicide is a ‘probable human carcinogen’.

Despite having evidence of the risks that Monsanto products pose, governments, policy-makers and other institutions still approve their use and consumption. Argentina, the world’s third largest producer of soybeans, has increased the spraying of agrochemicals near residential areas and schools. Each region of the country creates and applies its own laws and rules regarding the use of agrochemicals and hence there are no standard regulations. However, the people living in these areas have reported illnesses resulting from exposure to the chemicals. 

This situation is mirrored in Mexico where children from rural communities such as Jalisco have been found to have agrotoxics (around 12 types) in their urine samples. The government has ignored these findings in favour of increased agricultural production. While the production of transgenics (species that have been modified by introducing the DNA of a different species) has been banned in Mexico, it is still legal to purchase them, which has resulted in the importation of corn, soybeans, potatoes, tomatoes, cotton alfalfa and canola. Monsanto has control of over 70% of the seed market in Mexico, impacting not only the food and nutrition derived from seeds and the herbicides used in vegetable cultivation, but also on the animals which feed on these same seeds.  

Under Bolsonaro, Brazil’s government has approved more than 160 pesticides, some of which are classified as ‘highly hazardous’. In August 2019, this increased to 290. Additionally, 1942 registered pesticides were reevaluated and the number of those considered to be ‘extremely toxic’ dropped from 702 to just 43. In total, 474 agrotoxics were approved in 2019. On the list of approved products is the controversial herbicide, Roundup, notorious for its poor health effects. The new active chemical ingredients were Florpirauxifen-benzyl, Fluopiram and Dinotefuran; the latter is considered by Anvisa (national health surveillance agency) to be ‘extremely toxic’. 

Colombia has not been spared either. In 2015, ex-president Juan Manuel Santos banned the use of glyphosate, after a WHO literature review found that it was carcinogenic to humans. However, the current president, Ivan Duque, defends aerial spraying of coca plantations with the toxic herbicide. The government announced in January that it would resume aerial fumigation of coca with glyphosate, however the Constitutional Court of the country has said that it must provide evidence that aerial fumigation poses no health and environmental hazards. 

Communities affected by the government’s decisions are now starting social movements through actions such as March against Monsanto. The use of alternatives in ensuring food security is possible and it is imperative that nature is used wisely to ensure a sustainable source of food for the world. 

In March 2020, it was found that Monsanto secretly funded academic studies indicating ‘very severe impacts’ on farming and the environment if its controversial glyphosate weedkiller were banned. The research was used by the National Farmers’ Union and others to successfully lobby against a European ban in 2017.

A new UN report has warned that climate change could trigger a global food crisis. The report outlines possible solutions including sustainable land management and increasing food productivity.

How will climate change affect food production?

The United Nations climate report warns that the world might face a food crisis due to climate change and overexploitation of land and water resources. A steady increase in global temperatures will make things worse, as floods, drought, storms, and other types of extreme weather threaten to disrupt the global food supply. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, prepared by more than 100 experts from 52 countries and released in Geneva last week, reveals that humans affect more than 70% of ice-free land and a quarter is already degraded. Rapid agricultural expansion has led to destruction of forests, wetlands, grasslands, and other ecosystems. Soil erosion from agricultural fields is 10 to 100 times higher than the soil formation rate. Such rapid land degradation has created spinoff effects.

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“When land is degraded, it becomes less productive, restricting what can be grown and reducing the soil’s ability to absorb carbon,” says the report. “This exacerbates climate change, while climate change in turn exacerbates land degradation.”

The report also reveals that an estimated 23% of all greenhouse gas emissions that significantly warm the planet are caused by agriculture, cattle rearing, and deforestation. 

A warming atmosphere intensifies the world’s droughts, heat waves, wildfires, and other weather patterns, and it is further speeding up the rate of soil loss, land degradation, and desertification. “Since the pre-industrial period, the land surface air temperature has risen nearly twice as much as the global average temperature,” the report says “climate change, including increases in frequency and intensity of extremes, has adversely impacted food security and terrestrial ecosystems as well as contributed to desertification and land degradation in many regions.”

Possible solutions 

Warning that the window to address threats of climate change, food security, and land degradation is closing rapidly, the report offers a variety of solutions to address the challenges. 

Tactics like improving food productivity and increasing the carbon content of soil can simultaneously mitigate climate change, help regions adapt to warming, stop desertification, reverse land degradation, and enhance food security.

“The options with medium to large benefits for all challenges are increased food productivity, improved cropland management, improved grazing land management, improved livestock management, agroforestry, improved forest management, increased soil organic carbon content, fire management, and reduced post-harvest losses,” the report says.

Enhancing food productivity means using less land for agriculture, which could help preserve forest land retaining a natural carbon intake system. Those forests move moisture through the biome and help regulate temperature, reducing the impacts of warming. Trees in the preserved forest anchor the soil, slowing erosion and preventing desertification. That stabilising effect in turn helps reduce volatility in crop yields, enhancing food security.

Sustainable land management is an effective solution. “Land management can prevent and reduce land degradation, maintain land productivity, and sometimes reverse the adverse impacts of climate change on land degradation. It can also contribute to mitigation and adaptation,” says the report. “Reducing and reversing land degradation, at scales from individual farms to entire watersheds, can provide cost-effective, immediate, and long-term benefits to communities and support several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with co-benefits for adaptation and mitigation.” 

Reducing food waste is another important solution. The report estimates that over 30% of food is lost or wasted, which has environmental costs as food waste accounts for upward of 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions. If the world were to drastically limit food waste, farmers would need less land, less fuel, less water, and less fertiliser, all of which would translate to a smaller environmental footprint. “Technical options such as improved harvesting techniques, on-farm storage, infrastructure, transport, packaging, retail, and education can reduce food loss and waste across the supply chain,” the report states. “By 2050, reduced food loss and waste can free millions of square kilometers of land.”

A regressive agricultural policy might be hindering Europe’s quest to become carbon neutral. 

The Problem with the European Union’s Agricultural Policy

The European Union claims to be a leader in implementing climate change mitigation strategies. Under the Paris agreement, it has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% and produce 32% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. The European Commission’s new President Ursula von der Leyen wants to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050. 

However, the EU has ignored a key area in its fight against climate change: agriculture, which is responsible for about 10% of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions. Its Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), experts warn, encourages environmentally destructive farming practices that cause large scale emissions and the degradation of natural resources at an alarming rate. The continent’s rich biodiversity has also suffered because of those practices.

Launched in 1962 to sustain the EU’s food supplies by boosting the productivity of farmlands, the CAP is a cornerstone of Europe’s agricultural policy. With a budget of more than €58 billion a year, it provides financial support to some 12 million farmers across Europe.

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A report by Alliance Environnement, a union of environmental advocacy groups, finds that the CAP has allowed farmers to plough up permanent grasslands, thus releasing large volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It also allowed large-scale cultivation on peatlands which store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests. 

Wetlands in Europe were species-rich habitats performing valuable ecosystem services such as flood protection, water quality enhancement, food chain support, and carbon sequestration. However, the CAP encouraged farmers to convert vast tracts of wetlands into agricultural lands causing significant biodiversity loss. Intensive use of pesticides has also led to species loss in many parts of Europe including France, which receives the largest agricultural subsidy under CAP.

An investigation by Greenpeace revealed that CAP funds provide direct incentives for the widespread use of harmful and polluting agricultural practices. More than half of the farms examined by Greenpeace in seven EU countries had received payments totaling €104 million despite being the highest emitters of ammonia in their countries. Ammonia runoff from fertilisers and slurry manure has led to the rapid growth of algae in rivers, lakes, and oceans in Europe choking plants and animals of oxygen as well as causing air pollution.

Another report reveals the EU’s farming sector has shown no decline in emissions since 2010 due to a lack of effective environmental regulations in the CAP. Even if an individual state wanted to introduce new regulations in the agricultural sector, CAP provisions would not allow for them.

According to WWF, CAP has done very little to effectively support low-carbon and nature-friendly farming because it only supports market-driven high-input farming practices whilst disregarding climate commitments. It has demanded major reforms in the EU’s agricultural policy to reduce the sector’s carbon footprint.

“We can achieve wins for both the climate and the farming sector’s sustainability by cutting emissions rapidly, and adopting practices that help store more carbon in soils and landscapes,” says Imke Lübbeke, head of climate and energy, WWF. “The EU’s draft long term climate strategy shows that agriculture can and should do more to achieve net-zero emissions in Europe.”

Efforts to fix CAP are hampered by a lack of political consensus among the member states. A recent meeting of EU agriculture ministers to revise the CAP with green architecture and eco-schemes failed to yield any positive results. The new amendments and proposals are a source of political divisiveness among the member states.

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