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Ecology & Interconnectedness

The sun and the moon
Follow courses (exactly) computed;
And the herbs and the trees-
Both (alike) bow in adoration.
And the Firmanent has He
Raised high, and He has set up
The Balance (of justice),
In order that ye may
Not transgress (due) balance.
Qur’ an (55:5-9)

Introduction

When a genetically modified crop is grown on a large scale in the open, should we be concerned? What possible adverse effects could such crops pose to the wider ecology? Can we know the totality of the effects that will occur? What can be done if something goes wrong?

Let us start by taking a few moments to appreciate the diverse life forms and natural elements that make up a typical farming environment – the insects, birds, small animals, and plants; the soil, its nutrients, earthworms, micro-organisms, and other soil inhabitants; the wind, the sunlight and the rain; larger animals; the varying temperatures, pressures and humidity.

Nature is truly incredible, and no human being can compute the total interactions that occur within a natural system. No human being has control over the forces that both affect and are a part of nature. Yet, in acknowledging our limited ability and understanding, our hearts may open up, awakening humility, and moving us to wondering the possibility of something much more intelligent and capable than we are, and upon which we depend.

Bean Sprout
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“On the earth there are Signs for those of inner certainty, as also within your own selves..”
(Qur’ an 51: 20-21)

The totality of interactions in natural systems is immense and beyond intellectual comprehension. When we apply science, we can measure a limited number of outcomes resulting from the genetic modification of a crop. For example, we can look at some changes in the degree of biodiversity; is there a reduction in the number of ladybirds or other insects? What happens to the number of birds? We can also look for any differences in yield over a given area.

However, any experiment is done for a limited time-frame. How long should that time-frame be? Would the results be valid for the same crop grown in successive years, or in different conditions – in a slightly more humid or warmer climate, for example? Crucially, a what point should we say that we know enough to make an important decision?

“Wisdom, wholeness and love, for example – rather than profit, egoism, and greed – are what is needed and that have the potential to embrace science within a framework of a deeper truth – that is what makes science worthwhile, and through which it can be guided to be of real service.”

It is clear that scientific evaluations exist in a framework that give a partial picture, and not a full one. The whole, after all, is not the sum of its parts, and even moreso when we speak only of the parts we know. However, at WIN we do believe that scientific knowledge has value. Scientific experiments can indeed give us certain bits of information.

Our ability to appreciate the implications from those bits is dependent on the extent that we use our awareness and capacity to reflect, both individually and collectively. Within that capacity will exist an appreciation that there are possibilities we perhaps have little or no knowledge about.

Our own awareness and capacity to reflect is the place where science ends, and deeper qualities can emerge. Wisdom, wholeness and love, for example – rather than profit, egoism, and greed – are what is needed and that have the potential to embrace science within a framework of a deeper truth – that is what makes science worthwhile, and through which it can be guided to be of real service.

 

Some Scientific Studies: Examining ‘Parts’ Of Nature

Let us consider several scientific studies that have examined the impacts of GM crops on other ‘parts’ of nature. These studies are helpful in highlighting some basic principles that concern many people about the idea of releasing genetically modified crops into the open.

1) Specific GM Crops

GM crops are grown commercially over tens of millions of hectares worldwide. The vast majority are modified to be, either:

  1. Resistant to herbicide
  2. Resistant (toxic) to target insects
  3. or both the above.

GM crops are grown commercially in regions including: North and South America, India, China, Pakistan, South Africa, some countries in Europe, as well as other parts of the world (See Genewatch; for more specific information about Europe, click here).

As well as commercial growing, GM crops are also grown in the open on trial sites.

 a) Herbicide resistant crops. Many GM crops have been engineered to be more resistant to herbicides. For instance, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soya, corn and cotton, are engineered to be resistant to a broad spectrum, toxic herbicide called ‘Roundup’. The resistance allows the farmer to spray more herbicide onto the field, with the intention of fewer sprayings being needed, and better weed control without destroying the crop.

Weed Resistance: However, several weeds growing with Roundup Ready crops have already developed resistance to Roundup herbicide, which would consequently limit its effectiveness.
Increased Chemical Use: Also, while there are claims that genetic modification can reduce chemical use, this is often not in line with what the science tells us: for instance, over the first thirteen years of commercial growing of GM crops in the US, there has in fact been an estimated 383 million pounds (over 173 million kg) greater use of herbicide than if the crops were not genetically modified. (see PDF: Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the US: The First Thirteen Years).

Wider Impacts: A greater use of of herbicide and its consequent impact on weed population could also have a knock-on effect on the wider ecology.

For example, a study conducted in Iowa State University suggested that the increased use of Roundup herbicide is contributing to a decline in the monarch butterfly population, the larvae of which feed primarily on a particular weed (milkweed). The paper estimates an 81% decline in monarch egg production in the US Midwest over approximately 10 years.

monarch_butterfly

b) Insect Resistant crops. Another group of GM crops are those engineered to produce a toxin that is lethal to target insects.

Bt corn is one example of such a crop. Although the production of insect toxin within the plant is meant to prevent the need for external applications of insecticides, nature does not function in such a linear way.

At war with nature: The insects resist: In fact, Monsanto has acknowledged that in Gujrat, India, insects that are targeted by its GM Bt cotton have developed resistance, and has advised farmers to take up “need-based application of insecticide sprays”. (See article in India Times). Thus, farmers are being advised to buy and use chemicals, on crops that are meant to prevent the use of those chemicals! Additionally, there is evidence of insects also having developed resistance to GM Bt corn and cotton in other parts of the world, such as in the US and South Africa (See GM Freeze Briefing: p.3-4).

Impact on non-target insects: In an experiment carried out by Cornell University in New York, monarch caterpillars (non-target insects) were fed on leaves dusted with GM Bt corn pollen. The density of the pollen was set to visually match that in a field. Within four days, almost half of the caterpillars died, and of those that survived, their weight was on average significantly reduced.

Further down the food chain: In a particularly interesting feeding trial (p.68-72) carried out by the Scottish Crop Research Institute, a GM insect resistant potato was fed to aphids. Aphids are considered a pest and their population was reduced as intended. However, female ladybirds that were fed these aphids (ladybirds are a natural predator to aphids, and are thus considered to be beneficial) were also harmed. Their lifespan was reduced by 50%, and their fertility was also adversely affected.

The results from the above feeding trial are particularly striking, as they highlight that the release of GM crops could have implications at a later stage in the food chain. In the experiment, it was not just the target insects (aphids) that were affected by the GM potato. It was also the ladybirds that fed on them. The natural world does not exist as a set of separate compartments, but as an intimate web of living and non-living matter.

2) GM Contamination: The illusion of Choice

When GM crops are grown, there is no reliable way to contain their spread. Indeed, contamination of non-GM sites and products can take place through a number of ways, such as through cross-pollination, the spread of seeds, and accidents. The GM Contamination Register, is a highly informative initiative of Genewatch UK and Greenpeace, which aims “to record all incidents of contamination arising from the intentional or accidental release of genetically modified (GM) organisms”.

Cross-pollination: Pollen from GM crops can travel many kilometres, potentially leading to cross-pollination with related species, and contamination of honey. In fact, government scientists have been reported to discover that pollen from one GM crop can be carried up to 16 miles by bees.

While GM corporations are responsible for genetically modifying foods, nobody is able to control the wind or the bees, and thus GM pollution will spread. This means that any adverse ecological effects can be perpetuated beyond the intended area, the result being that the planet becomes a laboratory containing an experiment started by multinational corporations, and over which they have no control.

bee

Spread of Seed & Accidents: For a comprehensive list of GM contamination, please see the GM contamination register.

 

Conclusion: Valuing Inter-connectedness

It is clear that the inter-connectedness and inter-dependence inherent in nature is both extremely beautiful and complex.

 

“We consider GM agriculture to exist within and contribute to a paradigm that devalues a basic principle – that of inter-dependence – a cost of which is violence against the mizan (balance), and a move towards a sterile, life-less environment.”

The genetic modification of foods is an attempt to control something that we do not fully understand. We can control small ‘parts’ of it, but those parts are intimately connected to many other ‘parts, and there will therefore always be unpredictable knock-on effects elsewhere. Unfortunately, it may take years for us to become aware of some of these adverse effects, and by then it may be impossible to contain GM pollution.

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We consider GM agriculture to exist within and contribute to a paradigm that devalues a basic principle – that of inter-dependence – a cost of which is violence against the mizan (balance), and a move towards a sterile, life-less environment. Instead, we need a move towards a valuing of inter-dependence and a nurturing of the ecology embodied through weaving the individual, the societal and the economic, viewing them as part of and existing within the land, within nature.

The application of technologies should never be used in a selfish way. We must respect the reality that we share our planet with so many other life forms. We must respect the interconnectedness within life, and the dynamic and delicate balance that exists in creation. The Qur’ an reminds us not to be so arrogant and egocentric and to appreciate that we are but a tiny part of the whole. We will finish on this beautiful verse, simply put, yet with a profound message:

 

“Assuredly the creation
Of the heavens
And the earth
Is a greater (matter)
Than the creation of men:
Yet most men understand not.”
Qur’ an (40:57)