NEW BLOG “Tres Piedras Ecolodge Reserve”: Why? — March 23, 2016

NEW BLOG “Tres Piedras Ecolodge Reserve”: Why?

Many consider writing to be one of life’s greatest forms of expression. It offers an outlet to portray one’s ideas clearly and effectively to the reader. For almost a year now, I have found pleasure in writing about various topics relating to food and the environment on this blog, Sustainable Future Through Food. I plan to continue doing this in the future, but for the moment I will be focusing my attention on starting and maintaining a new blog called Tres Piedras Ecolodge Reserve. As I am just three weeks into my 6 month long internship in Tres Piedras, Costa Rica, I am realizing the power of blog writing for the outreach goals I laid out in a previous post. Consequently, I will be writing on a new blog page (TPEcolodgeReserve.wordpress.com) to share my experiences living and researching in the wilderness of Tres Piedras, CR. The blog will also serve as a platform for raising awareness for the property where I am doing my research, and eventually it will be available for other researchers, students, professors, and ecotourists to express their feelings, adventures, and experiences here at the Tres Piedras Ecolodge Reserve (TPER).

Here is the first post from the new blog site TPEcolodgeReserve.wordpress.com titled:

Jungle Internship: Tres Piedras Ecolodge Reserve
Often we find ourselves in situations where it is hard or impossible to predict what will be. This condition can easily promote anxiety about our future and what it will bring to us (or what we will bring to it). At the same time, circumstances like this can invoke curiosity and a sense of opportunity. While traveling to Tres Piedras, Costa Rica to complete my last semester research internship of Saint Edwards University’s Professional Science Master’s in Environmental Management and Sustainability, uncertainty and not knowing what to expect became quite familiar to me. Even though I had traveled to Tres Piedras in the past during my Bachelor’s degree (to study tropical ecology for the month of July in 2012, and to volunteer in reforestation efforts for the month July in 2013), I was now going back to the same site to carry out my own independent scientific research project for 6 months in a remote tropical ecosystem with one of my peers, Tessa Rager. The ambiguity of what we were getting ourselves into for the next half of a year was amplified by the fact that my undergraduate university has not traveled to the property for almost three years. Despite all of my uncertainties beforehand and on the journey here, I am extremely content and excited about the prospect of carrying out my research project, as well as helping the new property owner develop an organization that will conserve this (about 150 acre) slice of tropical forest in Tres Piedras, Costa Rica.
As I wrote in a previous post on my other blog site,(SustainableFutureThroughFood.wordpress.com), the property where Tessa and I are conducting our research has an interesting history of students, professors, and environmentalists all using this property over the last 20 years to teach ecology, initiate reforestation in the region, and conduct scientific research studies (among a variety of other projects). Now, a local resident, Maricel, is in charge of the property, and she wants to see this land conserved through the implementation of some sort of ecotourism on the site. This left a lot of room for Tessa and I to brainstorm during out first two weeks here about how to attract ecologically-minded people to this property, which consists of a secondary and primary tropical forest and four cabins on site.
During our first week, Maricel and her family were extremely welcoming and made sure we had everything we needed in the main cabin, which is fully equipped with a kitchen and bathroom. Maricel knew we have our own research projects to carry out and that we are willing to help her with outreach and development of some sort of conservation organization, but I sensed she did not know what to expect from us either. After a few days of adjusting, Maricel, Tessa, and I sat down to find out exactly what would be helpful from us to conserve this land, while at the same time produce some sort of a living to Maricel and her family. This revenue from the property has the potential to keep her, and possibly her family, from having to travel all the way to Dominical (located about 40 minutes by car from Tres Piedras) to clean tourists’ homes.
Thus far, Tessa and I have completed a variety of tasks for the goals we set forth for the property. Before anything, we had to make sure all the trails on the property were cleared of vegetation, as to allow us to move through the forest somewhat easily, to survey the property for ideal sites for our independent research projects, and simply to enjoy hiking in the jungle on our downtime. At the same time, we started a compost pile for our organic food scraps. Our hope is to start building a structure to provide shade for a vegetable and herb garden we would like to create on a part of the property where there is direct sunlight. It is too hot to grow vegetables without some sort of covering for shade, so we plan to use these metal poles that were left on the property by the previous owners and some screen we also found in the shed. Currently, we are working on developing an official website for the property, which we decided to call Tres Piedras Ecolodge Reserve (TPER). The goal is to get the name out there with the intention of providing a place for adventurous travelers to come and enjoy the natural beauty of the tropical forests here. The facilities are already in place, so raising awareness of this place as a spot for ecotourism and attracting people with an interest in this type of experience are our main goals.
One of the major points of interest on the property is the tropical secondary and primary growth forests, both of which are accessible by maintained trails. The forest has a tremendous amount of biodiversity, which makes it ideal for ecotourists, birdwatchers, ecologists, researchers, environmentalists, and anyone else interested in spending time the natural world away from the distractions of big cities. The surrounding village of Tres Piedras is mostly agricultural land, making the property we are living on even more special and more important ecologically. If we can bridge the gap between the current environmental benefits of the forested land at TPER and the potential for socioeconomic benefits to the local residents through ecotourism, there is a huge opportunity to conserve this ecologically sensitive ecosystem.
Moreover, getting here was quite hard without a car, as Tessa and I realized when we decided to venture into the nearest city of San Isidro en General. For this reason, Maricel’s brother offered to pick us up when we arrived on our first day with our heavy backpacking backpacks. To get to the city from Tres Piedras, we have to walk one hour catch the 6am bus at the closest community of San Juan de Dios. Then it is about a 45 minute bus ride until you arrive in the small city of San Isidro en General. Since the bus from San Juan de Dios to San Isidro en General only runs on Mondays and Fridays, we stayed overnight on a farm close to San Isidro to get some rest and visit Tessa’s boyfriend, Victor. He is working and learning about agriculture in the tropics at Finca Armata. The next morning we caught the bus to Platanillo, which is about a three hour walk to Tres Piedras (on a Tuesday when the bus does not run to San Juan de Dios). Luckily there were two people who drove us the majority of the way when they saw us walking along the dirt road. One fact about Costa Rica that becomes particularly noticeable when traveling by foot is that the land is rarely flat because the country is dominated by mountainous terrain. It may sound like a lot of work to get here without a car, but for me the cost in energy is rewarded ten-fold when I return to such a secluded and peaceful tropical environment (though it would be nice to have a car of some sort).
Despite the anxiety and uncertainty clouding my thinking on my journey here, the opportunities that are available to me here at Tres Piedras Ecolodge Reserve are more than enough to keep me busy for 6 months. In addition to quantifying and comparing the biomass (or trapped carbon) in the secondary and primary forests on the property, I will be working closely with Tessa and Maricel to attract visitors to the region through ecotourism in an attempt to conserve the land and create socioeconomic benefits for Maricel and her family.

If you are interested in seeing photos of the site and learning more about us, like us on Facebook “Tres Piedras Ecolodge Reserve” and follow us on Instagram “Tres_Piedras_Ecolodge. Once the website is complete I will update this blog post. Also, follow my new blog page TPEcolodgeReserve.wordpress.com

Internship Goals in Tres Piedras, Costa Rica — March 15, 2016

Internship Goals in Tres Piedras, Costa Rica

Often people are drawn to certain environments. Personally, I am drawn to the tropics, specifically the rainforest. For this reason, I chose to do my internship for the last semester as a graduate student in the Professional Science Master’s Program for Environmental Management and Sustainability Master’s degree program at St. Edwards University in Costa Rica.  As I lay awake in bed on my first night in Tres Piedras, Costa Rica, excited for what lays ahead, I think about where I am, how I got to this place, and what my goals are here.

Tres Piedras is a rural village located about 40 minutes inland from west coast of Costa Rica if you drive. For about 60 years now, the main source of income for the residents has been cattle farming. In a rapidly changing global economy, however, the people here are being forced to look outside Tres Piedras for work to support themselves and their families. Unfortunately, opportunities are often lacking and hard to get to from this area of the country. People are having to travel to Dominical for work, which is the nearest costal village with some opportunities (typically cleaning and maintenance jobs). Also, people here are having fewer children and farming less because of how difficult it is to raise a family on cattle grazing and subsistence agriculture.

I first learned about Tres Piedras while getting my Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies at Binghamton University in New York. As summer approached during my sophomore year, I was looking for a way to escape the drudgery of waiting on tables at the local restaurant back home in Queens, New York, when I came across a flyer detailing a trip to Costa Rica. During the month of July, I would have the opportunity to take a tropical ecology class and receive internship credit for reforestation efforts and participating in sustainable development projects. I quickly contacted the professor directing the initiative, Dr. Richard Andrus, to secure a spot for myself in 2012. After having such an incredible time on the first trip, I decided to volunteer and go a second time for the month of July of 2013.

Moreover, I am extremely lucky to currently be back in Tres Piedras for my last semester internship of my Master’s degree program. The main purpose of the internship is to design and carry out a scientific research project for a company or organization anywhere in the world, which has the potential to lead to a job after graduation. Ever since my first trip to Tres Piedras in 2012, I fell in love with the place and its residents, and for this reason I had a strong urge to return here.

Although my undergraduate school no longer returns to Tres Piedras, I contacted the current owner of the property that I studied on in July of 2012 and 2013 to see if it was possible for me to carry out a research study there. Maricel, a lifetime resident of Tres Piedras and now owner of the 350 acre property, was happy to hear that I wanted to come back to the area and offered me and another classmate of mine a place to stay for the duration of our internship, which is recommended by our professors to be 6 months long. One of the reasons why I wanted to return to this location in particular is because there are both secondary and primary tropical forests on site. For my project I will be comparing the biomass of the trees and woody vines in the secondary forest to the biomass in the primary forest. The property is ideal for scientific research because of the two stages of forest growth, as well as for its the tremendous amount of biodiversity.

In addition to carrying out our own independent research projects, my classmate, Tessa, and I agreed to help Maricel figure out a way to attract people to this incredible property once again. For Tessa and I, this is crucial to our stay here. Without any incentive to keep this property intact with all its biodiversity, it is almost certain that the property will be developed to accommodate homes for more people. It makes no economic sense to keep this property as it is now because it is too large for Maricel and her family to manage while they spend most of their time working in Dominical, Costa Rica. The fact that it does not provide them with any revenue is a real problem, so Tessa and I have been thinking up ways to conserve the property while providing some economic benefit to Maricel and her family. Hence, ecotourism was an idea that we thought would be a great way to accomplish these objectives.

According to a paper written in 1965 by Hetzer, ecotourism has four main principles or pillars. The four principles “are minimizing environmental impacts, respecting host cultures, maximizing benefits to local people, and maximizing tourist satisfaction” (Buchsbaum 2004). Tessa and I proposed the idea of ecotourism to Maricel last week, and she was excited about the idea. We will be working to build a website for her to make the property known once again.  Additionally, we are considering paying to put the property on a ‘work to stay’ type website like WorkAway.info or WWOOF.net (World Wide Opprotunities on Organic Farms) to recruit experienced people willing to help us start up some gardens and complete other maintenance tasks on the property.

Eventually, it would be great to form another connection with a university that is willing to send professors and students to carry out research, teach ecology, and complete internships here. This would provide Maricel with a steady stream of people coming to the property. Unlike ecotourism, this kind of partnership with a university has the potential provide long term stability to Maricel and the community of Tres Piedras.

The goals we set forth for ourselves seem overwhelming at times, but I have faith in our ability to convince the local and global community that tropical ecosystems, such as this one, can produce economic, social, and environmental benefits Tropical forests are in desperate need of conservation for a variety of reasons, and this property is the perfect place for us to start recognizing and realizing this essential truth. Personally, I have various things to consider before planning to live in Costa Rica long-term, but I am grateful and excited to just have the opportunity to help some amazing people here in Tres Piedras for the next 6 months.

Can traveling the globe ever be considered sustainable?  — November 23, 2015

Can traveling the globe ever be considered sustainable? 

Sometimes I grapple with finding a justification for traveling such long distances in relatively small periods of time for my education. As a graduate student in a program with international components and as an environmentalist, I cannot overlook the tremendous amount of energy it takes to travel to new places. Whether it be going on week long class trips or moving to a new city to study, the transportation environmental costs are tremendous. Despite the expenses associated with traveling, I tend to think it is worthwhile if your travels have a beneficial impact on your local community when you return to the place you call ‘home.’ Still, I ask myself, “Can any form of global travel be considered sustainable?”
For the first time in our species’s history, carbon dioxide has surpassed 350ppm. This greenhouse gas, along with methane and a few others, are contributing to a rapid increase in average global surface temperatures. The major implications associated with climate change are unpredictable weather patterns, increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, rising sea levels, more climate refugees, and species extinction on a scale humans have never before experienced in history. The wide ranging impacts of climate change are difficult to comprehend for many, and this is one of the causes of delayed action by politicians around the world. Knowing all of this and still traveling seems to be irresponsible for anyone trying to impact the environment in a positive way.

Yet, I am currently on a bus for the next 6 hours with my fellow classmates from St. Edward’s University, traveling from Angers, France to the north of France to study marine biodiversity. My peers are also astonishingly environmentally aware people who make great strides to have positive impacts on the natural world. Additionally, the people in making decisions for this Master’s degree program in Environmental Management and Sustainability, I assume, are environmentally conscious individuals. So what benefit could be behind this trip to the north of France (and to Angers, France more broadly)?

The educational benefit could not be overlooked in this situation. We will be learning valuable information about ecosystems, sustainable development, environmental pollution monitoring, and more topics that will be applicable to our future goals to help the planet in the career paths we choose to take. Education is our most powerful tool against most of the challenges we face on a daily basis. No meaningful change can arise without knowledge of the right action to take. The objective to become an educated human being, however, is not sufficient to justify such extensive travel.

Furthermore, we must have an intention on taking what we learn from our traveling and applying it to a local community in need of support economically, socially, and/or environmentally. For me specifically, it is not enough for me to learn about ways to build more sustainably and live a lifestyle that benefits the planet. What I learn on my journey ought to be shared with others and put into practice if it has the potential for a great impact on society, the environment, and/or the local economy. This may start on a global scale when traveling to acquire knowledge and new perspectives on the world’s problems, but it should always end on a local scale where these new ways of thinking can be implemented to benefit society and the environment.

On the other hand, the way we travel today is unsustainable even if you have good motives, like environmental education. We require mammoth amounts of fossil fuels to transport ourselves to far away destinations across the globe. The production, maintenance, and use of vehicles and transportation related infrastructure is dependent on a fossil fuel economy. Until it becomes more convenient to travel in a way that does not threaten global health, we will continue to choose to travel via unsustainable means until we can no longer afford the environmental and economic consequences of such actions. There is promise for the future in the realm of renewable energies and sustainable development for travel to become more environmentally friendly, but we must move definitively faster than our current pace if we want to avoid a climate crisis by raising the average global surface temperature above 4 degrees Celsius.

So, can any form of global travel be considered sustainable? Despite being torn between the answer to this question, I would still answer yes. When you travel to another country and experience another culture, you gain a new perspective on everything you thought to be truth. It challenges your most inner convictions. If you have the opportunity to gain perspective on a social, economic, or environmental issue while traveling, this experience can help you in the future when you are trying to solve the complex problems facing the world today in your career. Individually, travel benefits are immediate, but for collective society the benefits might take longer to come to fruition. The act of traveling can induce a kind of expanded consciences, therefore the traveler has an obligation to share his or her experience with the local community to which they belong. The inspiration for beneficial changes may not always start at home, but ultimately and ideally the idea of beneficial change that was gained through international travel should inspire you to go out into your community and have a profoundly positive impact.

Future Plans for a Conservation and Environmental Education Project in Costa Rica — November 17, 2015

Future Plans for a Conservation and Environmental Education Project in Costa Rica

Often it is hard to focus on the present moment, and it is in our nature to think in terms of the past and the future. After studying tropical ecology for my Bachelor’s degree in Costa Rica for the months of July 2012 and July 2013, I have since been drawn to return to the country.  Likewise, as I mentioned in a previous post, the Professional Science Master’s program in Environmental Management and Sustainability that I am currently pursuing requires for its last semester that each student complete a research internship project, related to sustainability, anywhere in the world. The requirements are broad, but this allows us to actually explore something we wish to pursue as a career. Despite having the opportunity to explore somewhere new to complete my last semester of , my classmate, Tessa, and I are choosing to return to the same small village where I learned and grew a tremendous amount during my undergraduate experience with SUNY Binghamton University in Tres Piedras de Baru, Costa Rica.

As I am finishing up my semester in Angers, France, I cannot help but think of the upcoming research opportunity that I am so fortunate to have available to me. In July 2012, I enrolled in a tropical ecology class through my university, SUNY Binghamton University, which was taught a class in tropical ecology in Tres Piedras de Baru, Costa Rica every July and Spring. The property in the village was referred to as the Tropical Forestry Initiative (TFI) at the time, which was owned by a small group of professors and environmentalists. The property was used by professors to teach students, conduct research projects, and carry out reforestation efforts in the region. Unfortunately, SUNY Binghamton no longer brings students to the area anymore, but the TFI property is now in the hands of a local resident who would like to continue using the property for conservation and educational projects. Although Tessa and I will be expected to design, complete, and present our own independent research projects for our degree, we intend to help the new owner of the property with outreach initiatives that could bring student groups back to the area to partake in similar sustainable development projects and in research opportunities to the activities that used to be done with TFI.

The plans for outreach are still in their preliminary stage, as we work with the owner of the property to develop a program. My hope is to provide a site that offers students the ability to conduct their own independent research projects on site, as well as have the opportunities to volunteer on sustainable development projects and provide support for outreach efforts relating to conservation of the property and surrounding ecosystems. Ideally, we could aim to attract graduate students who could perform their research studies on a topic related to the tropical forest on the property. These students would also be willing to learn about and participate in sustainable development projects on and off site relating to reforestation, sustainable food systems, and community outreach.

Although my plans are incomplete and lacking much detail, I have high hopes for what can be accomplished in Tres Piedras de Baru. Tropical ecosystems are threatened around the globe, and we need people to start environmental conservation and educational initiatives like this one to mitigate the damage we are doing to our planet. Often there is so much that is presented to us in our lives that we do not make the most of for many reasons. Yet, there might still be great potential for having a profoundly positive impact in taking advantage of what life offers you.

Documentary Film Review- Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret — October 11, 2015

Documentary Film Review- Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret

Few documentaries have the ability to make you question your fundamental morals and convictions. For me, Food Inc. was one of my favorite documentaries for this reason. There is, however, a new documentary on Netflix that does an equal or better job at doing this in my opinion. In Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret, directors Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn are on a mission to expose the leading cause of environmental destruction, and in the process they reveal information about our food system that will have you asking yourself: “Can I really call myself an environmentalist and still eat meat?” The purpose of the film is to illustrate how there is one industry that out ranks any other in causing deforestation, climate change, species extinction, ocean dead zones, and water depletion, and how the top environmental organizations have focused their attention elsewhere when talking about how to mitigate these problems.

Throughout the documentary, Kip Anderson is on a quest to find out how to be more sustainable. He takes all the typical approaches of environmentalists, like recycling and taking shorter showers, but he is shocked when he finds out how many resources go into eating just one hamburger. He wonders why he was never aware of how intensive animal agriculture is in today’s world. It becomes clear that the top environmental organizations are not focusing on this issue when Kip does his research, so he becomes determined to find out why.

If you ask the average person what they think the single biggest contributor to environmental degradation is, they will probably tell you the fossil fuel industry. Shockingly, the leading environmental organizations like Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network, and Oceana (just to name a few) do not focus on animal agriculture as the number one cause of the destruction of the planet. The inability and unwillingness for these organizations to talk about the problems with animal agriculture was the most eye opening part of the documentary for me. You would expect for these organizations, who claim to be advocates for protecting our lands and oceans, to be speaking about the root cause of our most serious environmental harms.

What can you do if you truly want to make a positive difference for the planet? Recycling and taking shorter showers is not going to cut it, as you will see after you watch this documentary. The statistics given throughout this film are almost unbelievable. It is hard to comprehend why more people are not talking more about animal agriculture, but Kip explores the many possibilities for why this is the case. It is actually extremely difficult to justify eating meat at the rate we do today after watching Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret. If you want to be a well-informed person on the most important environmental issues of our time, then you must see this documentary. It will have you questioning something that is so fundamental to life culture, and being human: food.

Here is a link to the official trailer: https://vimeo.com/95436726

French Hospitality — September 14, 2015

French Hospitality

People often come together for a meal for various occasions. Moreover, food is often the perfect way to experience a new culture. Shortly after moving to France, I met someone I now call my boyfriend. This is totally new to me, but I am learning so much from Matthieu. I was extremely grateful to be invited to his sister’s surprise birthday a couple of weeks ago on his aunt and uncle’s farm. The farm is situated about 40 minutes outside the city of Angers, in Cheffes, France. They raise cattle for dairy and meat, corn, rabbits, and chickens (among other things).  Despite my fascination with the agriculture, I was captivated by his family’s welcoming nature towards someone who can barely speak a full sentence of their language.

When we arrived at the farm, about 30 of his family members and friends greeted us. To say I was intimidated is an understatement. I was nervous, not only to meet my boyfriend’s entire family, but also I was afraid to interact with people who speak a completely different language than me. I wondered if I would unintentionally offend someone, yet this was not the case at all. Since I had already met Matthieu’s parents the previous week, his mother was quick to introduce me to her siblings, cousins, and countless other family members and friends. Although we could not say more than a few words to each other, they seemed to be happy to meet me. I felt a sense of belonging and was honored that they let me be a part of this special occasion.

At the beginning of the party (around 9pm), we drank some red wine, which was followed by some champagne. Matthieu’s sister, Margaux, was extremely surprised and pleased to see all of her family and some of her close friends at her aunt and uncle’s house to celebrate her 18th birthday. Matthieu and Margaux are about a year apart in age, and their relationship reminded me so much of my relationship with my sister Alexa. Being so far away from home and watching them interact made me miss Alexa greatly. I was still so happy to be in the presence of a wonderful family celebrating such a joyous occasion, even though I missed my own family.

As the night progressed, we sat down for a fantastic home cooked meal: paella (see picture above). I have not eaten a better meal in France till this day. Followed by a birthday cake and other delicious desserts, we drank a tasty, strong after dinner pear liquor called “Liqueur de poire.” There was loud music and a place for people to dance. Nearly everyone sang and danced until the early hours of the morning. If I learned one thing that night, it was that the French know how to eat and drink (and party). Matthieu’s family was warm and friendly towards me and made me feel like I was part of their family. Above all, they seemed to genuinely enjoy each other’s company, which was refreshing to see.

The next day we awoke around noon. I immediately went to explore the farm in the daylight with Matthieu. I saw the rows of corn, the cattle roaming in their paddocks, the rabbits eating in their cages, and the chickens. It might sound mundane to some (Matthieu grew up around all of this so it was nothing new to him), but I was in awe at the diversity on the farm. There were pear trees and a home vegetable garden as well as two baby calves that were born two days earlier. They were, by far, the cutest animals on the farm. I had Matthieu to help me talk to his aunt about the farm. He translated for me as I asked some basic questions about their home. They raise the cows primarily for milk production, so generally they do not keep the male calves (which meant one of the two baby cows I saw were going to be turned into veal). I did not get a chance to ask them about their specific farming techniques, as Matthieu was exhausted from having to be my translator the night before. Their farm, however, was breathtakingly beautiful and full of life. I felt at peace there and not at all out of place. I am thankful to have had this experience with Matthieu and his family.

Another thing I learned on this trip to the countryside was that the French do not like to say quick goodbyes. After exploring the farm in the daylight, whoever remained from the party sat down to eat a late lunch and to continue celebrations for Margaux’s birthday. We ended up staying until the about 6pm, after many of Matthieu’s family members helped with the cleanup from the party the previous night. Once the house was back in order, we said goodbye to his family in the traditional French way of two (or sometimes four) kisses on each cheek. It may have seemed like a long goodbye, but when I think back on it I believe the reason it was not a quick goodbye was because no one wanted to leave. Their family is very close and they did not want to say goodbye or leave without helping clean up. I felt this was truly thoughtful of them and so adorable.

I do not normally write blog posts that are this personal, but I am glad to be able to share my wonderful experience with others. With an approaching research internship that I must complete next semester (which could take place anywhere in the world), the future of me and Matthieu’s relationship is far from certain, yet I am still so happy to have met such an incredible and thoughtful human being. I am trying to live in the present moment and enjoy our time together without letting the future ruin today. We can never know what could happen in the future 🙂

“Tomorrow is tomorrow.
Future cares have future cures,
And we must mind today.”

– Sophocles

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs): Should we be concerned? — August 19, 2015

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs): Should we be concerned?

The simplest answer to this question, for me, is a clear and unequivocal yes (This is also my second post about GMOs, so I clearly believe we should be, at the very least, aware of the issues surrounding the topic). Recent reports from news media have questioned whether or not food products containing GMOs (genetically modified organisms) should be labeled as such, so that consumers can choose if they will, or will not, buy the product. This has sparked a serious debate concerning the safety GMOs in our food system. Although some people argue against the labeling of GMOs for causing unnecessary fear surrounding the safety of these products, there is legitimate reason to approach GMO products with caution for political, social, and environmental reasons.

The most important reason to oppose the use of GMO crops is the environmental consequences from the form of agriculture that is necessary to grow these crops: monoculture systems. In short, monoculture farmers plant only one crop in a given area to maximize the yield of this crop. When a farmer choses (or is economically forced) to grow GMO crops (like corn, cotton, or soy), they adopt a monoculture style of growth to maximize the yield of the crop. One reason for planting all of the same variety of plant in the same area is that it makes it easier for the farmer to spray pesticides without killing the other crops (Since most GMO crops are designed to withstand the poisonous nature of pesticides, they will not perish in the presence of excessive pesticide use). Moreover, planting monocultures makes your farm less resilient because if the crop fails, there is no other crop variety to fall back on for food. If farmers cannot produce and sell enough of their one crop, then they cannot feed themselves. Still, it is more efficient to grow GMO crops in monocultures under the current economic system. Large seed companies are then able to sell farmers seeds and pesticides, often with the promise of increased yields.

The argument of increased crop yield is used all the time in favor of the use of GMOs, but it is simply not true that GMOs yield more food. For example, in India, GMO cotton was sold to small farmers with the promise that their yields would be higher than organic, traditional farming methods (Small farmers account for about 80 percent of food production in India). Today, about 95 percent of the cotton grown in India is a Monsanto GMO product.  It is true that cotton yields increased with the introduction of GMO crops in India because people started to just grow cotton instead of maintaining their traditional polyculture system of planting cotton alongside other nutritious food crops. Overall food output has not increased because of the monoculture systems implemented by GMO cotton crops in India. The result was an influx in cotton production and a decrease in the production of nutritious crops that feed people. Now, this would be a good thing if farmers were selling their cotton and receiving enough money to purchase what they need to eat, but this is not the case. Agriculture output decreased and yield of the specific cotton crop increased. People do not eat cotton and increased supply means a decrease in the price of cotton. This caused enormous economic pressure on India’s small farmers because they were now indebted to buying seed and pesticides from these companies, like Monsanto.

One crucial social aspect of this issue to understand is that farmers in the past had no need to buy seed from anyone. Nature provided seed to the farmers (specifically women in India assumed the role of traditional seed saving techniques). Seeds are the source of life, but large companies have now patented life and made it illegal for farmers to save their seeds for the next growing season. This created a cycle of planting and buying expensive GMO seeds for many small farmers in India. When their crops did not produce enough to sustain the farmers, there was a stark increase in suicides among farmers in India since 1997 and 1998. Granted, there were suicides among farmers before this date (as there are unfortunately in every society), but there was a clear increase in the number of suicides among farmers when this economic pressure of debt became greater with the use of GMOs and the accompanying pesticides. (Vandana Shiva is an inspirational advocate against the use of GMOs, specifically in India but also around the world, and she writes/speaks extensively on the topic). Putting all your eggs in one basket is never a good idea, especially when you are an economically vulnerable small farmer.

Similarly, in the United States, farmers receive subsidies from the government to grow corn (which is dominantly GMO corn), and most of this crop is turned into ethanol for fuel. Less food is being produced on these large monoculture farms because food is now a commodity to be sold efficiently in the global market. If the government is going to pay you to grow fuel instead of food, you will grow GMO corn for fuel because of the economic gain. There is still a huge social and environmental cost. As Vandana Shiva (environmental activist and physicist) puts it, if we were growing food for nourishment, then we would maximize nutrition by planting biodiverse polyculture agricultural systems. Instead, we are growing food to maximize profits, which supports a monoculture model of agricultural production.

Furthermore, there are political and legal consequences to the debate around GMO use in agriculture. As I mentioned earlier, the contracts small farmers enter into with large seed companies, like Monsanto, legally restrict farmers from saving their seeds. They are forbidden from planting these seeds again, and they cannot share seeds with anyone. In the United States, there are many cases of farmers who were sued by Monsanto for illegally growing their patented seeds, and often these farmers do not even know that they are growing GMO crops because of the nature of pollination. If your neighbor decides to grow GMO corn, your crop of organic corn is at risk of being contaminated by patented GMO pollen from the neighboring crop because corn is pollinated by the wind. You then are vulnerable to being sued by Monsanto for stealing their patented seed. The concept of having ownership over life is a new one, and it has allowed Monsanto, and other companies, to put small, organic farmers out of business. Once the small, organic farmer can no longer afford their land after litigation, the neighboring GMO farm is eager and ready to take over the farmland to plant more GMO crops.

Moreover, the enormous backlash against labeling GMO products in the United States is serious political problem. With the upcoming presidential reelection campaigns in full swing in the United States, we can see the corrupting influence money has on the political process. (Recent polls have Donald Trump leading the race for the Republican nomination, even after his racist and insensitive comments about Mexicans. Do I need to explain the power of money in politics any further?)  If we allow seed production and dispersal to be controlled by large corporations, politicians will undoubtedly be influenced by these companies when implementing food policy. There is no way your average citizen in the United States can compete with Monsanto lobbyists. The result is that these companies will have the access to politicians that they need to create the laws necessary to perpetuate the cycle of control over seed dispersal and secrecy surrounding products that contain GMOs. Currently, citizens of the United States do not even have the right to know if they are consuming GMO products because GMOs are not labeled on packaging. There is even a push by some politicians to make it illegal to label GMO products for what they are: GMOs. If there is nothing wrong with GMOs, why not label them?

Although many people believe the future of GMOs provides us with great hope for innovation and higher efficiency in food production, we must consider the environmental, social, and political implications of GMOs. The high cost of non-renewable seeds for small farmers, the increased pesticide use on GMO crops, and the huge political influence companies have on politics are a few great reasons to be concerned about the production and consumption of GMOs. Moreover, traditional selective breeding methods can be extremely effective at adapting a certain plant species to a specific region, and this has tremendous potential for helping farmers deal with the changing climate. Small farmers still feed most of the world. Rather than looking to large corporations to solve the problem of food insecurity, we should place higher value on the traditional knowledge of ecological-minded small farmers around the world.

To see Vandana Shiva answer some hard questions surrounding GMOs in a BBC interview watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vbIQF72IDuw