GM Crops and Water


Genetically Modified (GM) crops are widely recognised for their potential to damage both human health and the environment. Evidence is now accumulating of the contamination of streams, rivers, rain, as well as groundwater with GM-associated chemicals including Monsanto's glyphosate-based herbicide, while genetic elements such as antibiotic resistant genes are emerging in water-borne microbes. Further, GM crops have been shown to be less water efficient, corroborating farmer's reports of failing GM crops during droughts. Industrial farming in general has been shown to be ill-adapted to extreme weather events such as hurricanes as well as droughts: and GM crops are not expected to do any better.

Cultivation of GM crops is a serious threat to food security particularly as global water supply is depleting and already heavily polluted; with elicit and licit drugs, in addition to pathogens, arsenic, fluoride, chemical fertilisers, pesticides, industrial waste products, landfill leaks, and gasoline etc.

Glyphosate, the active ingredient of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, is one of the most commonly used herbicides in the world, owing to the widespread planting of glyphosate-tolerant (GT) crops. It has been associated with a host of human and livestock health issues including birth defects, reproductive problems, carcinogenicity, endocrine disruption, neurotoxicity and internal organ toxicity as well as lethality to frogs and harm to soil and aquatic ecosystems. With all this in mind, the contamination of water supplies with glyphosate, a highly water soluble herbicide, has wide-ranging implications.

Groundwater has recently been shown to be contaminated with glyphosate. Groundwater is water    located under the earth's surface and supplies wells, aquifers and streams and makes up approximately 70% of the world's fresh water supply. As rivers and lakes tend to be supported by groundwater much of the water people use for agriculture, industry and drinking water is either groundwater or has been groundwater at some point in the water cycle. An important study published in 2011 found that of 140 groundwater samples taken from Catalonia, Spain, 41% of them had glyphosate levels above the limit of detection, contrary to the claim by Monsanto that the herbicide biodegrades rapidly in the environment. Moreover, the highest detected level reached 2.5mg/L, which is above the already controversially high O.I mg/L and 0.7 mg/L drinking water limits in place in the EU and US respectively. Catalonia is a region that does not even grow glyphosate-tolerant GM crops that have been directly linked to increased glyphosate use in the US.

In 2012 the US suffered from the worst drought in 50 years. As a result, crop yields were severely affected as well as cereal food prices. The overwhelming majority of corn and soybean crops grown in the US are GM but evidence from Howard Vlieger, a farmer who grew both GM and non-GM varieties of corn and soybean showed that his GM varieties suffered more than the conventional varieties. In fact, he reported that his conventional varieties were not only surviving the drought, but flourishing. For his corn crops, he harvested 100-120 and 8-50 bushels/acre for non-GM crops and GM respectively.

This report from the farmer can be corroborated by scientific studies that show GM GT soybean absorbs less water and requires more water than conventional varieties.

To date, there have been no studies assessing the ability of GM crops to adapt and cope with extreme weather conditions such as hurricanes, flooding and extreme drought. However, GM crop cultivation can be considered an extreme form of industrial agriculture, which was found in studies to suffer more damage than organic agriculture following extreme weather events. In contrast, organic fields retained more top soil, which helps to retain water during drought and minimises landslides and runoff during flooding. Organic soils were found to have increased soil microorganisms such as mycorrhizae, which help maintain soil structure and retain water. Two studies, one in Central America and the other in Japan have confirmed this, with organic crops out-yielding industrially produced crops following hurricanes. Independent studies directly assessing GM crops and climate change have yet to be done.

Available studies have exposed GM agriculture's contribution to the pollution of the world's finite water supplies with toxic herbicides, insecticidal proteins and genetically modified DNA, including antibiotic resistance marker genes in pathogenic bacteria. GM crops are also likely contributing to the depletion of this essential resource, as they require more water to grow. Thorough national and international studies are needed to define the extent of the problem. Because it is a life and death question for billions in most third world countries.

Vol. 46, No. 20, Nov 24 - 30, 2013

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