Science in Society Archive

Making the World GM-Free & Sustainable

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Recipient of the Weston A. Price Integrity in Science Award 2006

Keynote Lecture to Wise Traditions Conference, Weston A Price Foundation, 11 November 2006

Abstract

A study in progress at the Russian Academy of Sciences reveals excessive stunting, deaths and sterility in the progeny of rats fed genetically modified (GM) soya. It is the latest in a long line of scientific and anecdotal evidence indicating that GM food and feed may be inherently hazardous to health.

GM crops epitomises industrial monoculture, with its worst features exaggerated. They are part and parcel of the “environmental bubble economy” built on the over-exploitation of natural resources that has destroyed the environment, depleted water and fossil fuels and accelerated global warming. As a result, world grain yields have been falling for six of the seven past years. Expanding the cultivation of GM crops now is a recipe for global bio-devastation, massive crop failures and global famine. GM crops are a dangerous diversion from the urgent task of getting our food system sustainable in order to really feed the world.

There is a wealth of knowledge for making our food system sustainable that can provide food security and health for all while effectively mitigating global warming. The greatest obstacle to implementing the knowledge is the dominant economic model of unrestrained, unbalanced growth that has precipitated the current crises.

I have proposed to put together all the appropriate technologies in a potentially highly productive zero-emission, zero-waste food and energy ‘Dream Farm 2' based on a model of sustainable systems as organisms. It is our best way forward to a greener, healthier and more fulfilling life without fossil fuels.

Latest findings on the health hazards of GM food and feed

Female rats fed GM soya produced excessive severely stunted pups with over half of the litter dying within three weeks and the surviving pups are sterile [1] ( GM Soya Fed Rats: Stunted, Dead or Sterile , SiS 33 ).

These alarming findings come from the laboratory of senior scientist Dr. Irina Ermakova at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow. The experiments began two years ago, and the initial results hit the world press when Ermakova was invited to address the 11th Russian Gastroenterological Week in Moscow in October 2005.

Female rats given a supplement of GM Roundup Ready soya beginning two weeks before mating and continuing afterwards through pregnancy and lactation produced litters in which more than a third of the pups were severely stunted, and over half of the pups died within three weeks after birth. Stunting was 5 to 6 times, and mortality 6 to 8 times those of control litters produced by females on normal rat pellets only, or rat pellets supplemented with non-GM soya. These results were confirmed in further experiments. In addition, the surviving pups from the GM soya-fed females were completely sterile when mated with one another whether they continued to be fed GM soya or not.

A long line of damning evidence

Ermakova's findings are by no means an isolated case peculiar to a specific batch of GM soya. They are the latest in a long line of evidence from all over the world indicating that GM food and feed may be inherently hazardous to animal and human health (see Box 1).

Box 1

Damning evidence against the safety of GM food and feed

  1. Scientists at the Russian Academy of Sciences reported between 2005 and 2006 that female rats fed glyphosate-tolerant GM soya produced excessive numbers of severely stunted pups and more than half of the litter dying within three weeks, while the surviving pups are completely sterile (see main article).
  2. Between 2004 and 2005, hundreds of farm workers and cotton handlers in Madhya Pradesh, India, suffered allergy symptoms from exposure to Bt cotton [2] ( More Illnesses Linked to Bt Crops , SiS 30).
  3. Between 2005 and 2006, thousands of sheep died after grazing on Bt cotton crop residues in four villages in the Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh in India [3] ( Mass Deaths in Sheep Grazing on Bt Cotton , SiS 30).
  4. In 2005, scientists at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Canberra Australia reported that a harmless protein in bean (alpha-amylase inhibitor 1) transferred to pea caused inflammation in the lungs of mice and provoked sensitivities to other proteins in the diet [4] ( Transgenic Pea that Made Mice Ill , SiS 29)
  5. From 2002 to 2005, scientists at the Universities of Urbino, Perugia and Pavia in Italy published reports indicating that GM-soya affected cells in the pancreas, liver and testes of young mice [5] ( GM Ban Long Overdue , SiS 29)
  6. In 2003, villagers in the south of the Philippines suffered mysterious illnesses when a Monsanto Bt maize hybrid came into flower; antibodies to the Bt protein were found in the villagers, there have been at least five unexplained deaths and some remain ill to this day [5]
  7. In 2004, Monsanto company's secret research dossier showed that rats fed MON863 GM maize developed serious kidney and blood abnormalities [6]
  8. Between 2001 and 2002, a dozen cows died in Hesse Germany after eating Syngenta GM maize Bt176, and more in the herd had to be slaughtered due to mysterious illnesses [7] ( Cows Ate GM Maize & Died , SiS 21)
  9. In 1998, Dr . Arpad Pusztai and colleagues formerly of the Rowett Institute in Scotland reported damage in every organ system of young rats fed GM potatoes containing snowdrop lectin, including a stomach lining twice as thick as controls [8]
  10. Also in 1998, scientists in Egypt found similar effects in the gut of mice fed Bt potato [9]
  11. The US Food and Drug Administration had data dating back to early 1990s showing that rats fed GM tomatoes with antisense gene to delay ripening had developed small holes in their stomach [8]
  12. In 2002, Aventis company (later Bayer Cropscience) submitted data to UK regulators showing that chickens fed glufosinate-tolerant GM maize Chardon LL were twice as likely to die compared with controls [10] ( Animals Avoid GM Food, for Good Reasons , SiS 21 ).

A variety of GM crops - soybean, tomato, maize, cotton, potato, pea - with different transgenes, fed to rats, mice, cows, sheep, chickens, or human beings, resulted in illnesses and deaths. You don't have to be a scientific genius to suspect that it could be the genetic modification process itself and/or the artificial genetic material used in genetic modification.

The list is not complete. In fact, evidence of GM hazards has been emerging since the 1980s that should have halted the development of many GM crops [2]. But our regulators were biased in favour of GM from the first, and have systematically ignored and dismissed research findings that might harm the fledgling biotech industry [11] ( Fatal Flaws in Food Safety Assessment: Critique of the Joint FAO ... ) . By now, the evidence has accumulated to such an extent that the regulators should be answering a charge of criminal negligence at the very least in continuing their campaign of denial and misrepresentation while failing to impose a ban on further releases of all GM crops until and unless they have been proven safe by thorough independent investigations [5].

This is all the more important, as like a long string of scientists who have tried to tell the public what they know, Ermakova's funding has been cut, and she is now strongly discouraged from continuing with the research. She is pleading for other scientists to repeat her work to see if they can replicate her results.

Meanwhile, the biotech industry is aggressively pushing the next generation of GM food and feed, and our ever-permissive government regulators are obligingly reassuring everyone that “GM food is safe”.

“GM food is safe”

For those who believe that “GM food is safe” because people have been eating GM food since its first release in 1994 and no one has fallen ill or died from it, think again. First, there has been no labelling in countries like the US where GM food and feed are most available. Second, many GM products are ‘de-regulated' and hence not known or traceable as such. Third, there has been no post-release monitoring, so it is impossible to tell how many people and animals have become ill or have died from eating GM food and feed, although researchers at the Centers for Disease Control have published a paper in 1999 suggesting that food-related illnesses went up 2 to 10 fold compared with a survey done just before GM food was commercially released in 1994 [12, 13] ( US Foodborne Illnesses Up Two to Ten Fold , SiS 13/14 ) . Fourth, GM food and feed may be linked to chronic illnesses such as autoimmune disease, slow viruses or cancer [14] ( Horizontal Gene Transfer – The Hidden Hazards of Genetic Engineering and numerous other articles on ISIS website www.i-sis.org.uk ) , which may be difficult to detect. Finally, animal feed accounts for up to half the world's harvest [15], so most of the GM produce so far has probably ended up in animal feed after being processed for seed oil, corn starch and syrup and increasingly, ethanol and biodiesel [16, 17] ( Biofuels for Oil Addicts , Biodiesel Boom in Europe? SiS 30). That means GM produce is seldom eaten directly by either animals or human beings so far, except in Argentina, with dire consequences [18] ( Argentina's GM Woes , SiS 20 ) . But that is soon to change, if proponents have their way.

New generation GM foods to come

The first GM crop, Calgene's Flavr Savr tomato for prolonged shelf life, was approved for commercial release in 1992. It was a complete flop. Since then, however, the area planted to GM crops has been increasing, and according to industry sources, reached 90 million ha in 2005 [19]. It should be emphasized that this comprises only 1.8 percent of the world's agricultural land, and is confined largely to the US, Argentina and Canada. Two traits, herbicide-tolerance and insect-resistance, currently account for nearly all GM crops, but not for long.

New GM crops with other traits and GM gut bacteria are poised to enter the market, in the guise of nutritional benefits and health foods [20, 21] ( GM Crops for Health? GM Crops and Microbes for Health or Public Health Hazards? SiS 32 ) . Food crops genetically modified to overproduce single nutrients could be public health hazards as overdose of many single nutritional factors are known to be toxic; and genetically modifying natural gut bacteria could turn them into pathogens pre-adapted to invade the human gut.

In addition, the US FDA is set to approve foods derived from genetically modified animals for commercial release [22, 23] ( Genetically Modified Food Animals Coming ; GM Food Animals Coming, SiS 32 ) . These are likely to be contaminated by potent vaccines, immune regulators, and growth hormones, as well as nucleic acids, viruses, and bacteria that have the potential to create pathogens and to trigger cancer. My organisation has submitted strong objections to United Nations' regulator Codex Alimentarius on these new developments.

Why genetic modification might be inherently hazardous

I have written on this topic for a number of years before summarizing it succinctly for UK's then Environment Minister Michael Meacher in 1999 [24] ( Special Safety Concerns of Transgenic Agriculture and Related Issues ) when he invited me to his office to debate with pro-GM molecular geneticists. He has taken it to heart, and is now an avid reader of ISIS' magazine Science in Society and very vocal about the risks of GM food and feed.

Let me start with some basics such as what is GM food. GM food is derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). A GMO is an organism whose natural genetic material has been modified by having synthetic genetic material inserted into it in the laboratory, so as to give it special traits or characteristics.

It is generally not easy to get the synthetic gene(s) to work in an organism, so a very aggressive signal or promoter is needed for each gene, literally to force the cell to make the protein [25] ( GM Food & Feed Not Fit for "Man or Beast" ). The cauliflower mosaic virus (CaMV) 35S promoter is the most popular one used, and is often accompanied by other ‘boosters' from a variety of sources. The gene (coding sequence) itself could also be a composite of pieces copied from other organisms, with substantial changes in the coding sequence.

For example, MON863 maize is described on the AGBIOS Database as follows [26]: “The introduced DNA contained the modified cry3Bb1 gene from B. thuringiensis subsp. kumamotoensis under the control of the 4-AS1 promoter (CaMV 35S promoter with 4 repeats of an activating sequence), plus the 5' untranslated leader sequence of the wheat chlorophyll a/b binding protein (wt CAB leader) and the rice actin intron. The transcription termination sequence was provided from the 3' untranslated region of the wheat 17.3 kD heat shock protein ( tahsp17 ). The modified cry3Bb1 gene encodes a protein of 653 amino acids whose amino acid sequence differs from that of the wild-type protein by the addition of an alanine residue at position 2 and by seven amino acid changes.”

There are thus 9 bits of DNA from different sources including the coding sequence, which has been quite substantially altered from the natural gene.

The synthetic genes and combinations of genes inserted into GMOs and introduced into our food chain have never existed in billions of years of evolution . The genes code for proteins completely foreign to our food chain, and are likely to provoke immune reactions including allergy. That could happen even when the proteins are copies of those in a closely related species. Thus, a transgenic (GM) pea with a copy of a normally harmless bean protein provoked debilitating immune responses in mice [4], simply because each species processes its proteins differently, decorating them with distinct carbohydrate chains. Transgenic proteins also differ from the native proteins in amino acid sequences, some of which are intentional and others unintentional. And if you just look at the amino acid sequences, 22 out of 33 transgenic proteins in GM crops already commercialised are found to have similarities to known allergens, and are therefore suspected allergens [27] ( Are Transgenic Proteins Allergenic? SiS 25).

There is also direct evidence that the synthetic genes are not the same as the natural genes. Take the Bt toxins isolated from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis and incorporated into many GM maize, cotton and other crop varieties to kill insect pests. Green lacewings suffer significantly reduced survival and delayed development when fed an insect pest (lepidopteran) that has eaten GM maize containing the Bt toxin Cry1Ab, but not when fed the same pest treated with much higher levels of the natural toxin [28, 29]. This extremely important effect passed on through the food chain has been documented in several laboratories. Unfortunately, the researchers misrepresented the results only to mean that natural Cry1Ab does not harm beneficial insect predators [30].

The synthetic genetic material is introduced into the cells of organisms with invasive methods that are uncontrollable, unreliable and unpredictable, and far from precise . It ends up damaging the natural genetic material of the organism with many unpredictable, unintended effects, including gross abnormalities that you can see, and metabolic changes that may be toxic that you can't see [31] ( FAQ on Genetic Engineering ).

The transgenic line is essentially derived from a single cell that has taken up the transgene, so its properties will depend on where and in what form in the genome – the totality of the organism's genetic material - the insert(s) landed, and the collateral damages done. That is why EU regulation now requires “event specific” characterization of the transgenic insert(s), which also provides a way of detecting transgenic contamination of GM produce, an increasingly frequent occurrence involving transgenic lines that have not even been approved for commercial release [32] ( USDA Poised to Deregulate Illegal GM Rice , SiS 32).

However, transgenic lines are genetically unstable, which makes it impossible to control for safety or quality, and increases the dangers from unintended horizontal gene transfer . The expression of the genes can change from generation to generation and most worrying of all, the insert(s) may rearrange, insert at new sites in the genome or insert into other genomes by horizontal gene transfer [24, 25, 33, 34] ( Transgenic Lines Proven Unstable , SiS 20 Unstable Transgenic Lines Illegal , SiS 21). The transgenic inserts in practically all the commercially approved lines were found to have rearranged since characterised by the companies. A frequent breakpoint is the cauliflower mosaic virus promoter present in most, if not all transgenic lines, and we had warned of that possibility earlier [35-36] ( Cauliflower Mosaic Viral Promoter - A Recipe for Disaster? ; Hazards of Transgenic Plants Containing the Cauliflower Mosaic ... ). We also warned that the promoter is active in animal and human cells, contrary to the assumption of GM proponents that it is active only in plant cells [37] ( CaMV 35S promoter fragmentation hotspot confirmed, and it is ... ) , and that too was confirmed recently [38]. The genetic instability itself is worrying, as the transgenic variety effectively changed into something else, thereby invalidating all previous safety assessment, and could make it difficult to detect contaminating transgenic material.

Another major worry is horizontal gene transfer and recombination.

Many foreign synthetic genes are copies of those from bacteria and viruses that cause diseases and include antibiotic resistance marker genes to help track the movements of the foreign gene inserts and select for cells that have taken up the foreign genes.

Right from the beginning of genetic engineering in the mid1970s, geneticists themselves were concerned that releasing those synthetic genetic material runs the risk of creating new viruses and bacteria that cause diseases, and spreading antibiotic resistance to make infections untreatable [39] ( Gene Technology and Gene Ecology of Infectious Diseases ). They even imposed a moratorium subsequent to the 1975 Asilomar Declaration. Unfortunately, the moratorium was short-lived, as geneticists were in a hurry for commercial exploitation of genetic engineering. The guidelines set up were totally inadequate, and remain so to this day [40] ( Slipping through the regulatory net ).

You have to realize that the toolkit of genetic engineering is precisely the same as that for making biological weapons [41] ( GM & Bio-weapons in the post-Genomics Era , SiS 15). The US government has been ostentatiously concerned about ‘biosecurity' ever since September 11, which extends to experiments directly or indirectly involved in creating lethal biological agents. Yet the regulators are still reassuring us that all genetic engineering experiments and the release of GMOs and products thereof are safe. I have warned the UK government that there can be No Biosecurity without Biosafety ([42], SiS 26). The numerous ‘biodefence' labs set up in the US and elsewhere to research and genetic engineer lethal pathogens for the stated purpose of creating vaccines pose the most serious public health risks.

The genetic material persists long after the cell or organism is dead, and can be taken up by bacteria and viruses in all environments . This process - called horizontal gene transfer and recombination - is the main route to creating dangerous pathogens.

Genetic engineering is nothing if not greatly enhanced horizontal gene transfer and recombination, and nasty surprises have been sprung already .

Researchers in Australia ‘accidentally' transformed a harmless mousepox virus into a lethal pathogen that killed all the mice, even those that were supposed to be resistant to the virus. Headlines in the New Scientist editorial January 2001 [43]: “The Genie is out, Biotech has just sprung a nasty surprise. Next time, it could be catastrophic.”

The lead article continued in the same vein [44]: “Disaster in the making. An engineered mouse virus leaves us one step away from the ultimate bioweapon.”

The researchers added a gene coding for an immune signalling molecule to the virus, which they thought would boost antibody production; instead, it suppressed immune responses. The researchers had previously put the same gene into a vaccinia virus and found it delayed the clearance of virus from the animals, so it may well have the same immune suppressive effects for all viruses. Imagine what would happen if this gene ever got into a smallpox virus.

More surprisingly, researchers at the University of California in Berkeley reported in 2003 that disrupting a set of disease-causing genes in the tuberculosis bacterium resulted in a hyper-virulent mutant strain that killed all infected mice by 41 weeks, while all the control mice exposed to the unmodified bacterium survived [45]. This goes to show how very little we understand the way bacteria and viruses cause diseases.

There is yet another insidious danger. The synthetic genes created for genetic modification are designed to cross species barriers and to jump into the genome of cells. Such constructs jumping into the genome of human cells can trigger cancer . This is not just a theoretical possibility; it has happened in gene therapy [46] ( Gene Therapy Woes , SiS 26), which is genetic modification of human cells using synthetic constructs very similar to those for genetic modification of plants and animals.

In 2000, researchers in the Neckar Hospital in Paris, France, treated infants with X-linked Severe Combined Immune Deficiency apparently successfully by isolating bone marrow cells from the patients, genetically modifying them in the test tube, and then injecting the genetically modified cells back into the patients. In this way, they thought they had avoided the widely acknowledged major hazards of gene therapy: creating replicating viruses and triggering cancer. But since 2002, three infants have developed leukaemia, and one has died. The foreign synthetic gene carried by the virus vector has inserted near a human gene that controls cell division, making it overactive, resulting in uncontrollable multiplication of the white blood cells.

The greatest danger is the mindset of the GM proponents . Genetic engineering of plants and animals began in the mid 1970s under the illusion that the genetic material is constant and static and the characteristics of organisms are hardwired in their genes. One gene determines one characteristic. But geneticists soon discovered to their great surprise that the genetic material is dynamic and fluid, in that both the expression and structure of genes are constantly changing under the influence of the environment. By the early 1980s, geneticists have already coined the term, “the fluid genome”, to mark this major paradigm shift, as described in my book, Living with the Fluid Genome [47].

The processes responsible for the fluid genome are precisely orchestrated by the organism as a whole in a dance of life that's necessary for the organism to survive and thrive. In contrast, genetic engineering in the lab is crude, imprecise and invasive. The synthetic genes can land anywhere in any form, causing a lot of collateral damage to the genome, and tending to be unstable, basically because these rogue genes do not know the language of the dance. Genetic engineers haven't learned to dance with life.

That was why dozens of prominent scientists from around the world launched themselves as the Independent Science Panel (ISP) in 2003, to overcome the campaign of disinformation from pro-GM scientists who are working to promote the corporate agenda, and to reclaim science for the public good. We compiled all the evidence against GM crops as well as the evidence on the successes and benefits of sustainable non-GM agriculture in an ISP report, The Case for a GM-Free Sustainable World [48]. Based on this evidence, we have called for a ban on the environmental releases of GM crops and a comprehensive shift to sustainable agriculture. I hope you can all support that, by sending this article, which updates on the evidence contained in the ISP report, to your policy makers and other elected representatives.

GM crops have failed on all counts

GM crops are industrial monocultures only far worse. Two traits account for nearly all GM crops planted: herbicide-tolerance (almost all glyphosate-tolerant or Roundup Ready) covering more than 80 percent of the area, and insect-resistance (Bt-crops engineered with toxins from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis to kill insect pests), 30 percent of the area (11 percent of GM crops have both traits) [19].

Evidence has been accumulating over the years that both types of GM crops have failed on every count [49] ( GM Crops Failed , SiS 13/14): yield drag, poor performance in the field, more pesticides used, reduced profits for farmers (at times drastically so, causing poor farmers to commit suicide), and bad for health and the environment; so much so that many people including me were ready to say Good-bye GMOs in 2002 [50, SiS 16]. It was too optimistic, in the face of powerful corporate propaganda and disinformation [51] ( India's Bt Cotton Fraud , SiS 26).

But a spate of recent findings not only confirms what we already know, but also completes the debacle. Health hazards of GM food and feed are not the only worry. Roundup resistant super-weeds and Bt-resistant insect pests have now been documented, making both Roundup tolerant crops and Bt crops useless. The problems don't end there.

Roundup herbicide causes sudden crop death. It is lethal to frogs, and highly toxic to human placental cells, even at one-tenth the recommended dosage. (It is already linked to cancers, neuro-defects and spontaneous abortions.) [52] ( Roundup Ready Sudden Death, Superweeds, Allergens... , SiS 28). Bt crops express variable amounts of the toxins, often insufficient to kill target pests; but harm beneficial insects including predators, bees and soil decomposers. (Bt toxins are already known to be actual or potential allergens and can provoke strong immune reactions.) [53] ( Scientists Confirm Failures of Bt-Crops , SiS 28).

GM crops are a dangerous diversion from addressing the global energy and food crises

Perhaps people are still unaware, or in denial of the food [54, 55] ( The Food Bubble Economy , SiS 25) and energy crises [56] ( Oil Running Out , SiS 25 ) as global warming is accelerating [57] ( Global Warming Is Happening , SiS 31).

World grain yield has fallen for six of the past seven years, bringing reserves to the lowest in more than thirty years [58]. Chronic depletion of aquifers in the major bread baskets of the world, droughts and soaring temperatures from global warming are taking their toll and set to do even more damage to food production . An international team of crop scientists had already reported that crop yields fall by 10 percent for each deg. C rise in night-time temperature during the growing season [59].

The Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that the earth's average temperature would rise by 1.4 to 5.8 deg. C within this century [60]. But the IPCC model fails to capture the abrupt nature of climate change, which could be happening over a matter of decades or years [61] ( Abrupt Climate Change Happening , SiS 20). A group based in Oxford University in the UK is predicting a greater temperature rise of 1.9 to 11.5 deg. C when carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere doubles its pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million sometime within the present century [62].

Farmers from all over the world are now reporting that GM crops require more water, and are less tolerant to drought than non-GM varieties [63]; that may prove to be a final nail in the coffin for GM crops.

It is sheer lunacy to expand the cultivation of GM crops across the world, as the pro-GM lobby is pushing for. It can lead nowhere else but towards global bio-devastation, massive crop failures and global famine.

Dream Farm 2 – How to be food and fuel rich without fossil fuels

The good news is that we have a wealth of existing knowledge that can provide food security and health for all and significantly mitigate global warming [64, 65] ( Sustainable Food System for Sustainable Development , SiS 27; Which Energy? ). A major obstacle to implementing this knowledge is the overwhelming commitment of our elected representatives to the dominant neo-liberal economic model, otherwise known as the environmental bubble-economy.

The dominant model glorifies competitiveness and unlimited growth involving the most wanton and destructive exploitation of the earth's natural resources, laying waste to agricultural land and biodiversity, and impoverishing billions.

In order to overcome these obstacles to implementing the knowledge, we have proposed to set up a ‘Dream Farm 2' [66] ( Dream Farm 2 - Story So Far , SiS 31).

Dream Farm 2 is a model integrated, ‘zero-emission', ‘zero-waste' highly productive farm that maximises the use of renewable energies and turns ‘wastes' into food and energy resources, thereby completely obviating the need for fossil fuels. It is our answer to the food and energy crises, climate change, and more. It is a microcosm of a different way of being and becoming in the world, and in that respect, nothing short of a social revolution .

In a way, I have dedicated the past 20 years towards developing Dream Farm 2. T he technical underpinnings are in my book [67] The Rainbow and the Worm - The Physics of Organisms 2nd Edition , which presented a theory of the organism and sustainable systems, and the social and spiritual revolution it entails.

The ideas have been taken further forward recently, thanks to theoretical ecologist Robert Ulanowicz at the University of Maryland who co-authored a paper with me [68] ( Sustainable Systems as Organisms? ); and George Chan's Integrated Food and Waste Management System [69] ( Dream Farms , SiS 27), which inspired me to extend the theory of sustainable systems as organisms to include growth and development explicitly.

Figure 1 is a very schematic diagram of George Chan's system, which I shall call Dream Farm 1. The farms are very diverse, depending on local resources, ingenuity and imagination.

Figure 1. Dream Farm 1

The anaerobic digester takes in livestock manure plus wastewater, and generates biogas, which provides all the energy needs for heating, cooking and electricity. The partially cleansed wastewater goes into the algal basin where the algae produce by photosynthesis all the oxygen needed to detoxify the water, making it safe for the fish. The algae are harvested to feed chickens, ducks, geese and other livestock. The fishpond supports a compatible mixture of 5-6 fish species. Water from the fishpond is used to ‘fertigate' crops growing in the fields or on the raised dykes. Aquaculture of rice, fruits and vegetables can be done in floats on the surface of the fishpond. Water from the fishpond can also be pumped into greenhouses to support aquaculture of fruits and vegetables. The anaerobic digester yields a residue rich in nutrients that is an excellent fertiliser for crops. It could also be mixed with algae and crop residues for culturing mushrooms after steam sterilisation. The residue from mushroom culture can be fed to livestock or composted. Crop residues are fed back to livestock. Crop and food residues are used to grow earthworms to feed fish and fowl. Compost and worm castings go to condition the soil. Livestock manure goes back into the anaerobic digester, thus closing the grand cycle. The result is a highly productive farm that's more than self-sufficient in food and energy.

George's farms are strong on animal welfare [70] (Dream Farm Power Point Presentations, http://www.i-sis.org.uk/onlinestore/av.php ). They are organically fed, and the pigs are especially easy to toilet-train (!) to deposit their manure directly into the digester, so the animals and their living quarter are spotlessly clean, which makes for healthy and contented animals.

Anaerobic digestion is the core waste-treatment and energy technology in Dream Farm 1. It has numerous advantages over other waste-treatment and energy technologies, including other biofuels [71] (see Box 2, How to be Fuel and Food Rich under Climate Change , SiS 31). The Chinese government is promoting the widespread use of biogas digesters to support a burgeoning eco-economy [72] ( Biogas China , SiS 32).

Box 2

Advantages of anaerobic digestion to recover methane

  1. Potential to provide 11.7 percent of all energy needs or 50.2 percent of transport fuels in the UK
  2. Methane can be used as fuel for mobile vehicles or for combined heat and power generation
  3. Methane-driven cars area already on the market, and currently the cleanest vehicles on the road by far
  4. Biogas methane is a renewable and carbon mitigating fuel (more than carbon neutral)
  5. Saves on carbon emission twice over, by preventing the escape of methane and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere and by substituting for fossil fuel
  6. Conserves plant nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous for soil productivity
  7. Produces a superb fertilizer for crops as by-product
  8. Prevents pollution of ground water, soil, and air
  9. Improves food and farm hygiene, removes 90 percent or more of harmful chemicals and bacteria
  10. Can be adapted to produce hydrogen either directly or from methane

Dream Farm 1 gave me a lot of food for thought on how my theory of the organism and sustainable systems contrasts with the dominant model.

The dominant model of infinite competitive growth can be represented as the bigger fish swallowing the smaller ad infinitum , and it describes equally how a person should behave and how a company should develop in order to be successful. Another way to represent it is a diagram in Figure 2. The system grows relentlessly, swallowing up the earth's resources, laying waste to everything in its path, like a hurricane. There is no closed cycle to hold resources within, to build up stable organised social or ecological structures.

Figure 2. The dominant economic model of infinite unsustainable growth that swallows up the earth's resources and exports massive amounts of wastes and entropy

In contrast, the archetype of a sustainable system is a closed lifecycle, like that of an organism, it is ready to grow and develop, to build up structures in a balanced way and perpetuate them, and that's what sustainability is all about. Closing the cycle creates a stable, autonomous structure that is self-maintaining, self-renewing and self-sufficient.

In order to do that, one needs to satisfy as much as possible the zero-entropy or zero-waste ideal (Fig. 3). We tend towards that ideal, which is why we don't fall apart, and grow old only very slowly. If we were perfect, we'd never grow old. The secret is described in my book, the Rainbow Worm .

 

Figure 3. The zero-entropy ideal of a sustainable system

The ‘zero-waste' or ‘zero-entropy' model of the organism and sustainable systems essentially predicts balanced development and growth at every stage, as opposed to the dominant model of infinite, unsustainable growth. This immediately disposes of the myth that the alternative to the dominant model is to have no development or growth at all, and that is how most critics of the dominant model see it.

The system's cycle contains more cycles within that are interlocked to help one another thrive and prosper. The minimum integrated farm has the farmer, livestock and crops. The farmer prepares the ground to sow the seeds for the crops to grow that feed the livestock and the farmer; the livestock returns manure to feed the crops. Very little is wasted or exported to the environment. In fact, a high proportion of the resources are recycled and kept inside the system. The system stores energy as well as material resources such as carbon. The extra carbon is sequestered in the soil as the soil improves, and in the standing biomass of crops and livestock.

The farm can perpetuate itself like that quite successfully and sustainably, or it can grow by engaging more cycles, units of devolved autonomy that help one another do better.

In the old paradigm, organisms are predominantly seen to compete for resources and for space. But we've got three space dimensions and the time dimension too. We've got space-time that we can fill up more thickly with life cycles of different sizes that occupy different space-times. That is exactly what organisms in a naturally biodiverse ecosystem do to maximise the reciprocal, symbiotic relationships that benefit all the species. So you can add fish, algae, poultry, worms, mushrooms, etc., turning the ‘waste' from one cycle to resource for another.

The more lifecycles incorporated, the more energy and standing biomass are stored within the system, and the more productive the farm. It will also support more farmers or farm workers.

Productivity and biodiversity always go together in a sustainable system, as generations of farmers have known, and recent academic researchers have rediscovered. It is also the most energy efficient. Why? Because the different life cycles are essentially holding the energy for the whole system by way of reciprocity, keeping as much as possible and recycling it within the system.

Industrial monoculture, in contrast, is the least energy efficient in terms of output per unit of input, and often less productive in absolute terms despite high external inputs, because it does not close the cycle, it does not have biodiversity to hold the energy within, and it ends up generating a lot of waste and entropy and depleting the soil.

In a recent visit to China as part of the Dream Farm 2 project, I was delighted to discover that something very similar to my model of sustainable systems as organisms is in the official Chinese mainstream discourse; they call it the “circular economy”. Chinese farmers have perfected it over the past two thousand years [73] ( Circular Economy of the Dyke-Pond System , SiS 32) especially in the Pearl River Delta of southeast China. This integrated agriculture and fish farming system is a key component of George Chan's IFWMS. It really disposes of the myth that there is a constant carrying capacity for a given piece of land, in terms of the number of people it can support. There is a world of difference between industrial monoculture and circular integrated farming. The Pearl River Delta sustained an average of 17 people per hectare in the 1980s, a carrying capacity at least ten times the average of industrial farming, and two to three times the world average.

‘Dream Farm 2' is a particular implementation and extension of George Chan's IFWMS concept, in that it consciously integrates food and energy production, emphasising consumption of both at the point of production. While it operates as a farm, it will also serve as a demonstration, education and research centre and incubator for new ideas, designs and technologies. Its aim is to promote and support similar farms springing up all over Britain and the rest of the world not only through publicity of Dream Farm 2 itself, but also by collating and analysing data from all similar farms, by acting as resource centre and centre for information exchange (see Box 3) [66].

Most significant of all, it runs entirely without fossil fuels. As Robert Ulanowicz says, “I'll bet people will be surprised at how quickly the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere can come down if we stop burning fossil fuels.” I think he may well be right.

Box 3

Benefits of Dream Farm 2

  1. Assembles in one showcase all the relevant technologies that can deliver sustainable food and energy and a profitable zero carbon economy
  2. Generates all its own energy for heating and electricity, including clean fuel for transport
  3. Energy use at the point of production enables combined heat and power generation improves efficiency by 70 percent
  4. Runs entirely without fossil fuels
  5. Saves substantially on carbon dioxide emissions, by preventing methane and nitrous oxide escaping, by substituting for fossil fuels and by improved energy efficiency
  6. Increases sequestration of carbon in soil and standing biomass
  7. Reduces wastes and environmental pollution to a minimum
  8. Conserves and purifies water and controls flooding
  9. Produces a diversity of crops, livestock and fish in abundance
  10. Fresh and nutritious food free from agrochemicals produced and consumed locally for maximum health benefits
  11. Provides employment opportunities for the local community
  12. Provides a showcase and incubator for how appropriate new energy and food technologies are implemented
  13. Provides hands-on education and research opportunities at all levels from infants to university students and beyond
  14. Supports and promotes similar farms in the UK and all over the world

The complete model of Dream Farm 2 is presented in Figure 4, which will be implemented at potential site(s) now under consideration. The diagram is colour coded to emphasize the major components: Pink is energy, green is food, blue is water purification and conservation, black is waste in the common sense of the word, though in Dream Farm 2, it rapidly becomes transformed into resources for producing energy or food. Purple is the analytical laboratory on site, which links to many other labs. We want to be able to do water, gas and soil analyses on site, to monitor how the system is working. Modelling and forecasting will be done on site as well.

Figure 4. Dream Farm 2 version 2

Because this is an organic system in the sense I have described, we don't have to have all the elements all at once. We can have a very simple system consisting of biogas digesters, livestock, crops, algae basins without fishponds, as that essentially does the water purification already and closes the cycle. The algae can be used to feed livestock, as an alternative to grain or soybeans.

Notice that three biogas digesters are present, connected both in parallel and in series. This is advisable, because it provides spares in case one is not working properly. It also provides for the production of both hydrogen and methane in a two-stage digestion process. I am also suggesting that we include human manure in the biogas digestion, as well as restaurant wastes. That way, we hardly export any waste to the outside.

The challenge now is to make Dream Farm 2 a reality, to put flesh on the bare bones of the diagram, so we can start building the best when sites are agreed, and we can promote and support a worldwide movement. Already, we have potential partners in UK, US, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Mauritius, and France. We believe this is the best way forward to a greener, cleaner, healthier and more fulfilling life without fossil fuels [59] ( Which Energy? ).

Article first published 05/12/06



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