Tag Archives: Biotechnology

The Ultimate Showdown: Mother Earth vs Globalization

Bolivia is a fascinating place to live right now. It is a bundle of contradictions and paradoxes that are a microcosm of the economic and ecological crises that the rest of the globe faces. Like any other collection of people, organizations, communities and especially nation-states, Bolivia is a complicated mix of history, races, languages, religions, ideologies and these make up the political situation of parties, factions and groups vying for influence, pushing their agenda, marching and blockading streets. Amidst this complex environment two issues in particular arise that frame all others and create contradictions that will eventually have to be overcome. They are environmental protection/conservation and economic development. An article on the Poverty Matters Blog of the Guardian summed this contradiction up nicely,

Rated eighth in the world for its biodiversity, more than half of Bolivia is still covered by pristine forests. But what for some is picturesque remoteness, is for others the curse of underdevelopment…Despite its finger-pointing at the west for causing climate change through the irrational use of raw materials, Bolivia’s economy thrives on the sale of natural gas… So, on one hand, Morales is Bolivia’s first indigenous president and an environmental champion; on the other, he’s a tacit supporter of the industrialised model. 2

Seeds, Security and Sovereignty
I’ve written previously about this contradiction in terms of the Law of Pachamama
(The Law of Mother Earth) that Bolivia passed which gives “rights to life and regeneration, biodiversity, water, clean air, balance, and restoration” and mandates “a fundamental ecological reorientation of Bolivia’s economy and society, requiring all existing and future laws to adapt to the Mother Earth law and accept the ecological limits set by nature.” 1

Bolivia has since proposed other legislation concerning genetically modified seeds and food sovereignty. Carlos Romero, the minister who proposed a draft law for Bolivia to produce its own seeds and fertilizer explains in another Guardian article that “[Seeds] are a major factor in food production. But in recent years we’ve seen an increase in their price across the world, because of a rise in oil prices and the monopoly exercised on seeds by a few corporations. That’s why we want to create state-owned companies that produce seeds.”

In the same article Ciro Kopp, an agricultural engineer at the National Council for Food and Nutrition, puts the concerns about seeds and fertilizer in the broader context of food sovereignty,

“About 20 to 25 years ago, 70 to 80% of what we ate was produced locally in Bolivia,” he said, “but then we embraced the agro-industrial model and now 70 to 80% of what we eat comes from the agro-industry, which makes us dependent on technologies and price controls from abroad. So, in the same way that industrialists received support from the government in the past, now it’s small farmers who need help…Bolivia is a centre of origin of several Andean crops such as potatoes, quinoa, chili and corn,” he said. “It is essential to strengthen the systems of production, natural selection and exchange of seeds that farmers have been doing for centuries. Our focus should be first of all to feed the country. If our priority is to export, what are people going to eat?” 2

There have been serious effects from this shift to agro-industrial production, including abandoning one of the healthiest foods in the world. Also from the Guardian, “Prices of locally-produced indigenous food, such as quinoa, are also at a record highs: some highland communities have taken to eating rice and pasta instead of their traditional – and more nutritious – crops.” 2 Quinoa contains the most complete protein found in any grain in the world. Yet, the very people producing this crop cannot afford it and are forced, instead, to consume the poor substitutes of rice and pasta. For people whose health depends on getting the most nutrition out of the small amounts of food they can afford this places their very lives on the edge of survival.

Biodiversity is nature’s way of both creating a safety net and maintaining equilibrium. If one species goes extinct as they do (though never before at the current rate), then another is available to fill the niche left and other species can evolve from the diversity of the remaining gene pool. The BBC says

“Bolivia is home to thousands of native varieties of crops, including potato and corn. The Morales government wants to improve genetic stock through natural selection. It rejects what it describes as an invasion of genetically-modified seeds, fearing they will contaminate indigenous species, and prove to be too expensive for small farmers to buy.” 3

The reason that these technologies are beyond the reach of small farmers across the world is that companies, such as Monsanto, create a vertically integrated line of products in which their genetically modified seeds (or “viralized transgenics” as the host of Agroinnovations prefers) are dependent on the chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers that the same company produces. This suite of agro-chemical products is very expensive and only becomes more so as more applications are needed year after year, or as new products are introduced. This has led many farmers in India to go into inexorable debt and is the cause of the epidemic of farmer suicides in that country.

The Guardian article, “Will Bolivia make the breakthrough on food security and the environment?”, concludes on an upbeat note about the prospects for Bolivia’s future, “For now, however, the general consensus is that if the new law is applied well, Bolivia could succeed in guaranteeing food security with sovereignty for its people – as well as keep its biodiversity intact.” 2 Yet, we have already hinted at some of the obstacles facing the application of environmental and food sovereignty legislation.

The Rising Tide of Globalization Is a Tsunami
An Associated Press article pointed out some of these difficulties concerning the current agro-industrial producers in Bolivia.

“In Bolivia’s eastern lowlands, soybeans that would ordinarily have been exported languished in their silos because they could not find local buyers. We were already being battered by the climate when the government came out with these decrees prohibiting exports,” said Demetrio Perez, a soy farmer who is president of the National Association of Oil Seed Producers. “With the restrictions, an incentive to plant more was lost.…”We can’t fight the ravages of nature, but what’s doing the most harm are inappropriate policies that discourage production,” said Gary Rodriguez of the National Institute of Foreign Commerce, a leading business group. “Farmers already have plenty to deal with coping with the climate.” 1

You see, there is currently only one possibility for development and that is the industrial, growth economy. On the one hand, I feel bad for any farmer affected by bad policies, but in this case it might be a case of good policies badly implemented, at least so far. Crops such as soy or corn are not produced in order to feed anybody until they have gone through a long chain of processing and turned into all kinds of products. These crops are damaging to the food security and sovereignty of nations like Bolivia, because they are primarily export commodities. The reason they don’t have much of a local market is because no one can eat them or turn them into edible products without massive infrastructure. This hurts the farmers producing such crops, because they have no incentives to plant something else and many don’t yet have the skills for alternative agricultural production.

How To Have It Both Ways…Or Not
The biggest battle currently raging in Bolivia is over the governments intention to build a road through the middle of the Isiboro Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park (TIPNIS) which is home to thousands of species of birds, mammals and plants, three indigenous groups and a lot of natural gas deposits. “With its 2.5m acres, the TIPNIS (from its initials in Spanish) is doubly protected, as a park and as the territory of the Moxeños, Yurakarés and Chimanes indigenous people.” 4 The conflict over the proposed road between indigenous groups and the government (with an indigenous leader as its president) has been going on for months. The government claims that the road will help to connect and unite the indigenous groups in the area, while the residents claim that the road will bring more trucks and extractive industry than unity or benefits to them. This particular issue has made the paradox of the Morales administration’s situation crystal clear in my mind. It has to deal with indigenous groups and its own agenda for environmental protection and rights, but at the same time has to do something about a country with the worst economy and highest poverty in South America.

This contradiction between economic development and ecological sustainability is the primary question facing our planet. The problem facing the Bolivian government is that you can only have it both ways for so long before the contradictions inherent in these two issues will come to a head. It’s not enough to pass good laws about the rights of the earth, food sovereignty and security. If there is not a strategy for transitioning to a new kind of development and economy, then Bolivia, and indeed the rest of the planet, will remain caught in this most costly of contradictions.

In the next post I will explore some ideas about this transition and what an economy based on the kinds of legislation Bolivia is working on might look like.

Articles cited:
1 AP “Climate, government controls hit Bolivia’s farmers”
2 Guardian “Will Bolivia make the breakthrough on food security and the environment?”
3 BBC “Bolivia moves to end dependence on foreign seed firms”
4 Guardian “Evo Morales plays a double game on Bolivia’s environment”
5 Yes! Law of Mother Earth

Our Changing Relationship With Mother Nature

I often go on and on about our relationship to nature, but Alain de Botton touches on something in a Treehugger article that struck me.

Nature doesn’t remind us that we are small, but rather provides chilling, awesome evidence of our size and strength. We glance up to the snows of Mount Kilimanjaro and think of how quickly our coal generators have heated the earth. We fly over the denuded stretches of the Amazon and see how easily we have gashed the planet. Nature used to terrify us, now we terrify ourselves. We are responsible for the early flowering of those Wordsworthian daffodils. Our fingerprints are all over the uncannily early return of the migratory birds.

This recognizes how we assume that we relate to nature based on our mythologies, in contrast to the reality of how we really perceive nature and our relationship to it based on how we work things out practically in the real world. If you want to know what people (or societies) believe about something, don’t listen to what they say. Look at what they do and how they spend their money.

I listened recently to a TED talk by Paul Root Wolpe on the ethics of bioengineering. He talks about three phases of evolution. The first phase involved what we have come to understand as Darwinian evolution in which nature does all the work of random mutation, adaptation and selection. When we settled down into agricultural communities we realized that we could speed up this process and manipulate it in order to get traits of plants and animals that we wanted. So, we domesticated animals and selected plants with features that helped us cultivate easier, like large-seeded grains that did not fall off the plant until we harvested them. This second phase of evolution speeded up evolution from something like millions of years to thousands. So, the process was still pretty slow for a long time. However, we have entered what he calls the third phase of evolution in which we are able to actually design lifeforms and manipulate them in ways that do not require the process of Darwinian evolution. Paul Root Wolpe spends most of his talk describing the myriad of ways that scientists now are able to manipulate and use the building blocks and components of organisms and life to create all kinds of technologies and organisms.

One that really blew my mind was taking neurons from a rat which then organized themselves on a microprocessor into a network which was then used to run a computer. One experiment used a computer to monitor and understand the signals in a primate brain that moved its arm. Then the computer mirrored the monkey’s brain pattern to move a prosthetic arm in another room. Finally, the monkey was shown the arm that the computer was moving. Eventually the monkey stopped moving its own arm and was moving the prosthetic arm with his mind, essentially having a third arm that it could control. Another was wiring electrodes into the brains of animals which then made it possible for scientists to control their movements, running rats through a maze basically with a joystick. Wolpe mentions that some students involved in that particular experiment asked whether what they were doing was ethical, overriding and controlling another organism, effectively taking away its autonomy.

Wolpe as an ethicist calls for ethical discussion and consideration of these technologies. The point is that we are now capable of technology and manipulation of our natural environment in ways with which we have not, as a society, fully grappled. When we consider, not what could happen in the future, but what is possible right now, it is clearly true that nature does not terrify us. I wonder, however, if we terrify ourselves. I have close friends who are very confident in both technology and science to basically “do the right thing”. They think that the systems in place and the nature of the scientific community and process will basically take care of these ethical problems that some worry about. As is obvious to any casual reader of this blog, I do not share their confidence.

Our relationship to nature is the most important issue facing human beings today. For the vast majority, the nature of this relationship is simply assumed and goes unquestioned. The idea that we should recycle, change our light bulbs and not throw trash all over the place does not even scratch the surface of our relationship to nature. Yet this is the extent of most people’s probing of our relationship to nature. Until we deal with basic assumptions about what it means to be human and what that has to do with the natural systems that make up our planet, we will continue on a trajectory destined for disaster. As Paul Root Wolpe describes there is a sense in which our relationship to nature has changed dramatically, and we must understand and wrestle with these changes. However, there is another sense in which our relationship to nature does not and cannot change. This final reality will eventually catch up to us if we do need deal with it.

It seems to me that the idea that we perhaps should terrify ourselves relates to the concept of sin, in which we recognize potentialities and possibilities within ourselves that we do not want to realize or which we regret acting on. Sin is often described as brokenness or, better yet, broken relationships with God, other people and the planet. This seems to describe the state of our current relationship to the planet in which we continue to simply ignore the relationship or pursue an unhealthy kind of codependence that necessarily involves mental gymnastics and denial to sustain it.

As with healthy relationships with God and other people, we must first recognize that we are already related to them in some way, even if negatively (e.g. atheists or oppressive systems). Our civilization is designed in many ways to obscure and deny our relationship to the planet. So, the first step is to acknowledge our relationship and dependence. Then we can begin to listen to what we know about how ecosystems work and change our lives and systems to live within these systems rather than exploit, deplete and destroy them.