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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