Monday, June 10, 2013

Up the Amazon on a Camel

Amazon rainforest cleared for soy production 

One unintended consequence of GMO and monoculture crops is the desertification of some of the most bio-intense regions on Earth. This guest post by Ray Neary explains more.

I don't normally do guest posts, but Ray and I go back a long way and went to school together and rode the rails around Europe as teenagers. These days Ray practices permaculture in the French Pyrenees and writes about GMO. See Monsanto Roundup Resistance for more info.


Camel riding isn't what you'd describe as a typical Amazonian tourist activity, but it might be a lot closer to becoming a reality than you imagine. We might not yet be surfing down the dunes of the Amazon basin, but the days of canoe trips up endless rivers through dense jungle are well and truly numbered. The only things that are endless in some parts of Brazil now are the soya plantations, and with three harvests a year they are very thirsty. Not only is the water disappearing as fast as the trees vanished, but the soil is too, now that there is nothing left to protect it.

On average for every kilo of food produced by the globalised food chain we have lost six kilos of soil. A kilo of cooked ham from a pig fed GM soya from Brazil has used 3,500 litres of water. Of course the majority of that production is bound for Europe and North America. Even though the majority of the charge falls on the food giants like Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, ADM and Cargill, we also have a part of the responsibility for having allowed (and sponsored with our taxes) the globalisation of the food chain; we also have the responsibility to change things.

So while the world will be celebrating the feast of football that the World Cup in Brazil promises, we have to face the reality that if we continue as we are one day soon the only green things left in Brazil will be the football pitches. In some parts of Brazil fetching water has become the principal time consuming activity, just like in certain better known desertified regions including East Africa. Now there is also a growing problem of migration towards the slums of Sao Paulo as subsistence farmers are forced off their land.

It's a phenomenon unknown to many, yet it threatens almost half of the world's remaining land, and most of the worlds farmland. We've already almost turned half the world to desert - the barren Middle East was once called the 'fertile crescent'. It's called desertification and is incontestably the prevailing sign that our modern farming techniques are far from sustainable. If left unchecked its effects are disastrous. In Brazil we are witnessing the desertification of an area the equivalent in size to the surface of France and Germany combined, and purely due to deforestation, slash and burn destructive agricultural techniques and excessive ploughing. Sometimes in Brazil it takes as little as five years to transform woodland into desert.

This is not just happening to Brazil, it's happening to all the forests and farmlands of the world, even places considered traditionally to have green fertile farmland such as France are showing alarming signs of desertification. It doesn't have to be that way. Studies show that we are capable of feeding the world for future generations organically, without cutting down any more trees and even letting some grow back. 
In some areas of Brazil the desertification is being fought by using low-cost and ancient techniques, including constructing swales for water retention, and planting trees.

By doing this we might hope to save some rainforest - but that's not all we'd achieve, in doing so we'd reduce pollution, create humus that fixes carbon, increase the world's forests' potential to balance our carbon emissions, create jobs, provide healthier food, save energy and reduce emissions, have cleaner water (or still actually have some water), really start fighting hunger, improve living conditions for billions of people, reduce developing countries' dependence on providing cheap labour and resources or being forced into debt - indeed, what is there not to like, unless you are a corporation?

There have been many successful projects where desertification has been reversed. These are grass roots projects that have not involved the global giants of agribusiness; from South America to Africa, and China to the Middle East successful projects have been shown to work. Sustainable and regenerative projects, using principles like permaculture, are working with and improving not only the fertility and therefore the local ecology and biodiversity, but also living standards and animal welfare. 

Producing food locally with less energy limits waste, ends the speculation on food prices and limits the indexation of food prices with commodities such as oil - all of which lead to the instability of world food prices and elevated insecurity for poor communities and the tensions that creates. This is a distinct reality and we could be re-greening deserts the world over instead of creating them.

We don't need GMOs, we don't need intensive mono crops, we don't need to deforest the planet to feed the world, we just need better management, or even simply less “management”. Individually we can start making a difference today by thinking about what we eat and its consequences, and by getting more informed about where your food is coming from. If possible grow your own food (and teach the kids to as well) either in your back garden or by joining or starting a local community garden or free food initiative like Incredible Edible. When you buy food get organic and local or Fair Trade for imported goods. Boycott GMO, non-sustainable farming products, prepared food and the globalised food chain - your lives and those of many others depend on it.

by Ray Neary for Roundup Resistance 


  1. I mostly agree with the essay and hate to nick pick. There are two instances of somewhat sloppy thinking.

    First, the desertfication of the Middle East dates to before the Industrial Revolution. Its usually associated with the Mongol invasions, though may have happned earlier, but it certainly was in place before the 18th century.

    Second and more seriously, the claim that we can feed "everyone" through organic farming methods is contestable. Pre-industrial agriculture never had to feed a planetary population of more than a billion people. It would be great if we could feed seven billion plus without GMOs and other facets of industrial agriculture, but its important to face the fact that we probably can't, though by encouraging monoculture modern agricultural techniques certainly make matters worse.

    The post World War II population explosion spurred the Green Revolution in an effort to prevent famine from having all these extra mouths at once, which in true Malthusian style spurred a larger population explosion. Its going to be difficult to walk this one back.

  2. I take it you've never come across Joel Salatin, Vandana Shiva, Mark Shepard, Darren Doherty, Sepp Holtzer, Jeff Lawton etc etc.....

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  4. @ED - Firstly the middle East has become deseert due to farming techniques such as poor animal management and ploughing. We were doing that before the industrial revolution, and not just in the Middle East but places like china. Tractors just mean we do it quicker.

    Secondly the "claim" is backed up by studies and reports that have been validated by organisations such as the World Health Organisation and the UN, the longest comparitive study of it's kind (30 years) also backs this up. Also our post war "green revolution" is highly dependent on petrol and exits purely due to petrol. Which is why food prices go up when petrol goes up, which is not a good idea I think.

    Also we actually grow enough food for 12 billion but throw half of it away, in Africa for example 30% of what they grow rots in the fields, mainly due to cheap subsidised imports when the IMF won't allow African states to subsidise their farmers and secondly because they are growing crops that do not have a local market and the infrastructures are not developed. In Europe it is not unusual for a supermarket to reject 50% of the produce it recieves for cosmetic reasons.

    This is the link for the original article, there are many links that explain more. But anyone who thinks that we canno feed the world organically really needs to wake up, not only can we feed the world, but we can deal with a lot of it's problems.

    @Anonymous - no he obviously hasn't ;)

  5. In fact if we want to feed the world for future generations it is ONLY through organic agriculture and especially organic horticulture that we can do it. Agribusiness is non-sustainable.

    Following the permaculture principal and using techniques such as forest gardening, vertical gardening and synergistic (no dig) gardening - we can not only feed the world, but we can regenerate the world. Now that is not a word you'll ever here from the mouths of the giants of biotech and agribusiness.

  6. yeah, we need to teach ourself and our kids to love earth as much as we love ourself and start with gardening


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.