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Agribusiness and biotechnology threaten nature and the peasantry / III “Industrial agriculture” is not sustainable and causes serious damage

Agribusiness and biotechnology threaten nature and the peasantry / III “Industrial agriculture” is not sustainable and causes serious damage

By Julio Boltvinik


With the modernization of agriculture, says Miguel Altieri, his link with ecology was broken: ecological principles were ignored. Monocultures that characterize such modernity are highly vulnerable agro-ecosystems , dependent on high doses of agrochemicals.

Associated with the double breakdown of nutrient recycling, generated by the distancing of humans and farm animals from the farmland, which I described in the deliveries of 01/27 and 02/03, there was a radical change in agricultural model whose environmental and human effects I examine today.

Miguel Altieri (MA) points out that, until the middle of the last century, “Agricultural yields depended basically on internal resources, the recycling of organic matter, natural biological control mechanisms, and rainfall patterns. The production was protected from pests and bad weather by sowing several crops or varieties in each plot. Nitrogen was fixed to the soil by rotating the main crops with legumes. This also suppressed insects, weeds and pests by breaking their life cycle. The link with ecology in this type of agricultural system was very strong and signs of environmental degradation were seldom evident. The importance of biological diversity in maintaining such systems cannot be overstated. The diversity of crops on the ground and the diversity of life in the subsoil provided protection against climate fluctuations, market ups and downs, pests and pests ”1

But with the modernization of agriculture, MA continues, its link with ecology was broken: ecological principles were ignored. Modern agriculture lives an environmental crisis. Intensive in technology and capital, it has been very productive and has provided cheap food, but it carries economic, environmental and social problems. The monocultures that characterize such modernity are highly vulnerable agro-ecosystems, dependent on high doses of agrochemicals. Monocultures (in which the same crop is planted year after year: corn, wheat or rice, with a single variety) have increased dramatically, driven by mechanization, improved varieties, the development of agrochemicals, the increase in the concentration of land (see recent data from Brazil in the graph) and, in the US, by government policy stimuli.

Its environmental impact is manifesting itself in what MA calls ecological diseases and which classifies into two types of problems: 1) Those associated with basic resources: erosion, loss of productivity and depletion of nutrient reserves, salinization and alkalization of the soil; and contamination of surface and groundwater. 2) Problems related to crops and animals: loss of genetic resources of crops, wild plants and animals; elimination of natural enemies of pests, resurgence of these and resistance to pesticides, chemical contamination and destruction of natural control mechanisms. Each of these ecological diseases should not be seen as an independent problem, but as what they are: symptoms of a system that is poorly designed and that works poorly, to the extent that in some cases the energy used is greater than that harvested, concludes MA .

Pest losses are very high (20-30% in most crops) despite increasing volumes of pesticides; some of them, which are particularly toxic and associated with cancer (such as those used in strawberries and grapes), express the environmental crisis of this model of agriculture. MA says that chemical fertilizers are polluting due to their excessive application and the fact that plants use them inefficiently. Therefore, a significant portion is not absorbed by plants and ends up in surface or groundwater. Nitrate contamination of aquifers is becoming widespread. According to MA, 24 percent of drinking water wells in the US contain levels of nitrates dangerous to human health; and they have been found to produce low levels of oxygen in the blood of minors and cancer in the digestive system of adults. On the other hand, they generate explosive growth of algae in surface waters (rivers, lakes, bays) that ends up destroying all aquatic life. Thus MA concludes his exposition of what he calls the first wave environmental problems (before biotechnology):

The first wave of environmental problems is deeply rooted in the prevailing socioeconomic system that promotes monocultures and the use of input-intensive technologies, as well as agricultural practices that lead to the degradation of natural resources. Such degradation is not only an ecological process but also a social and political-economic process. Attention to the social, cultural, political and economic issues that explain the crisis is crucial, particularly now that the rural development agenda is dominated by agribusiness that thrive at the expense of the interests of agricultural workers, small family farms, rural communities, the general population, wildlife and the environment ”(p.83).


MA examines the second wave of environmental problems associated with the biotechnology revolution. Although proponents of transgenic crops argue that biotechnology will be beneficial to the environment because it "uses the same methods as nature," MA notes that while "certain forms of biotechnology hold the promise of improved agriculture, being under the control from multinational corporations, the results are most likely to be environmentally damaging and lead to further industrialization of agriculture. " So far (2000), he continues, field research and ecological theory indicate that the greatest environmental risks associated with GM crops are: 1) Corporations are creating the conditions for global rural genetic uniformity. History shows that such agriculture would be very vulnerable to pathogens and insect pests. 2) The genetic diversity of crops would be threatened as the old varieties become extinct. 3) They open up the possibility of involuntary transfers of the added genes, with unpredictable ecological effects. 4) Most insect pests will develop resistance to added toxins (Bt). 5) The massive use of Bt can unleash negative interactions that affect ecological processes and organisms for which Bt was not intended. 6) Pollen from crops containing Bt can be deposited on wild plants and kill herbivorous insect populations, as has been observed in the case of Monarch butterflies. 7) Bt toxins can be incorporated into the soil, affecting the organisms that live in it and the recycling of nutrients. 8) In plants that contain genetic material of viruses, the possibility of generating new varieties of viruses is opened by combining those that usually affect plants with those that are genetically added. 9) The possible transfer, via pollen, of genes derived from viruses added to crops, which can lead to the creation of new viruses.

Notes: 1 “Ecological Impacts of Industrial Agriculture and the Possibilities for Truly Sustainable Farming”, in F.

Magdoff, J. B. Foster and F. H. Buttel, Hungry for Profit. The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the

Environment, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2000, pp. 77-78. In what follows, I continue to cite this work.

http://www.julioboltvinik.org/; [email protected]

Source: Own elaboration based on Table 1 by Sergio Pereira and Sergio Sauer, "Expansion of agribusiness, land market and foreignization of rural property in Brazil: Critical notes on recent dynamics", in 21st century world, Revisat del CIECAS-IPN, N ° 26, vol. VII, 2011.

Julio Boltvinik - Mexico - Economist from UNAM, with master's degrees in economics and economic development from El Colegio de México and at the University of East Anglia (Great Britain) and a doctorate in social sciences from the Center for Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS) of West (Guadalajara). http://www.julioboltvinik.org - This article, published on February 10, 2012, is the third in the series "Agribusiness and biotechnology threaten nature and peasantry"

First, In the 19th century, the first notable breakdown of agricultural nutrient recycling can be read here.

The second, Totally broken nutrient recycling, agriculture is no longer sustainable, can be read here .


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