28 January 2010

wake up and smell the contamination

The risk of GM contamination with non-GM and organic crops has long been one of the standing contraindications of the technology. Involving H&M again, there has been an expose that the Swedish clothing chain's organic cotton clothing is in fact contaminated with GM. This not only is a reflection of H&M but also of the Indian organic cotton industry.

30% if the tested samples contain contaminated GM and the cotton has been traced back to India which supplied half the global supply of organic cotton. This means that roughly 107,000 tons of fiber could have been contaminated. Sanjay Dave, the head of the Indian agricultural authority, Apeda, said that fraud was occurring on a “gigantic scale,” and fines were issued to third-party certification agencies such as EcoCert andControl Union as recently as April 2009.

Organic Exchange states that while GM contamination in organic cotton is growing in India--where it is estimated that up to 70% of conventional cotton is produced using GM seed--this is also true for all other regions that grow both organic and GM cotton. Contamination can occur at the farm where GM and organic crops are grown too close together and cross pollination takes place. The resulting seed on the fringes of the organic cotton crop may then contain the Bt gene. Opportunities also exist for accidental contamination to occur as the majority of organic cotton is processed in the same machinery as conventional/GM cotton.

The original expose in the Financial Times, German edition also mentions C&A and Tchibo. Wal-Mart is currently the biggest buyer of organic cotton and should their produce be tested as well? How does this effect the Indian cotton industry?

Cotton accounts for upto 38% of the country's export and the area under cultivation in India is the highest in the world (8.9 million ha). This accounts to 25% of the world area and employ seven million people for their living. This also accounts to huge portions of revenue which will be affected if our certifying bodies are not rigorous enough. Firmer rules need to be in place and enforced along the organic cotton production chain, including third party certification. Clothing retailers as well will keep the industry in check with more involvement in the supply chain and this will work as an additional measure of quality control.

The dangers of Bt cotton are well documented and this is the first major scandal of contamination that could have severe consequences to the cotton industry. When is the Indian government going to wake up and stop pushing for more GM?

26 January 2010

tossing clothes

I came across something in the news recently that was rather shocking. There have been reports of Swedish clothing mega-chain H&M and American chain Wal-Mart are throwing away their unused clothing. Not just throwing them away, destroying them and then throwing them away. This story was covered in the New York Times and it is unsure whether it is the common practice of all H&M stores or just this one store on Manhattan Sixth Avenue.

On the H&M corporate responsibility website of course, there are claims that all unwanted clothes are donated to the needy. This however has its own consequences, the chief among which is that unwanted clothes affect local industries in the country in which they are donated. Although the intentions are good, the negative ramification include increased dependence of the West and downward spiral of the local economy.

In a follow up to the article, there has been another one run the next day with spokespersons from both companies claiming that "it will not happen again" and that the standard practice was to donate unwanted clothing to needy causes. The evidence pointed out in the NY Times article however is completely different. I'm only writing about this to high-light the vagaries in corporate social responsibility. CSR at the end of the day is a document of best practices followed by a company; it is a piece to paper that makes it looks like it is the greenest, cleanest, most ethical enterprise there is, which they well be. However, when even one store in a chain drops the ball, it leaves people wondering about the whole picture.

H&M is a favourite with many people that now needs some serious damage control if it wants to remain so.

15 January 2010

close encounters with the endangered

I spent the last couple of days away from the city in Valparai which is situated in the Western Ghats of Southern India and is famous for its tea plantations and wildlife. About 3500 feet above sea level it is as pollution-free as it gets with strong enforcement of anti-litter/plastic rules and surrounded by rolling walls of green hills all covered entirely in tea. The faint smell of pesticides and fertilizers however do linger in the air which makes me wonder how much is being used to cover all the mountains and mountains of plantations we saw.

This aside, waking up to greenery and the much needed fresh air is a splendid treat. En route, the Indira Gandhi National Park situated in the Anamalai Hills is home to many endemic species that this area of the world is famous for: lion-tailed macaque, the Nilgiri and the common langur, Malabar giant squirrel, elephant, gaur, bison, spotted deer, sambar, barking deer and wild boar. Many of these species are also highly endangered and are being actively protected through many conservation programs.

This area is also rife with hydro-electricity projects which require vast area of forests to be cleared. It also consists of some huge dams like Aliyar, Sholiyar etc. One of the main attractions for me at Valparai was to spot the highly endangered lion-tailed macaque (Macaca silenus) which is also endemic to the area. Recent IUCN estimates place its numbers at 3000-3500. The lion-tail is an old world macaque and among the smallest of the macaque species and the most endangered. International trade is banned by their listing on Appendix I of the International Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and they are also protected by Indian law.

The lion-tail is shy and prefers to stay above in the thick canopy of trees hardly venturing to the forest floor which makes it not only difficult to spot but also means that it is unable to adapt to any other environment other than its natural habitat which is being rapidly destroyed. On the second day armed with my camera and other gear we ventured out in search of this elusive creature. Our guide got in contact with some wildlife wardens who constantly patrol the area from which they emerge around mid-day which is the forest on either side of the road. The patrol ensures that monkeys are spared from being killed by passing vehicles and people do not stop to feed them.

As we patrol with them they emerge slowly from the thick cover the bravest ones venturing forward first followed by the entire band. They were clinging to every branch and showing off their amazing acrobatic skills. This band of about twenty monkeys entertained and enthralled. They kept mostly to themselves and viewed us with curiosity and rarely kept still long enough for me to get a crisp picture. As they moved they stopped to feed on insects that they deftly pulled out from the hollow trees and shook branches to release seeds from the fruit. They also showed us how cautiously they cross roads to get to the other side.

We were told that this band was particularly adventurous and usually this species is not so forthcoming. Coming away later that day, what struck me most about the whole experience is that how rarely one witnesses endangered animal species in the wild and how much longer such meetings will last...
Photo: Akhila Vijayaraghavan ©

04 January 2010

year of biodiversity

The UN has declared 2010 as the year of biodiversity. 2009 was year of natural fibers and 2008 was year of the coral reefs. Public understanding and action are the clearest ways to halt loss of biodiversity. Even those climate change skeptics cannot deny loss of biodiversity that happens everyday on a massive scale. Biodiversity loss is even more irreversible than climate change even if one feeds the other.

The 2010 Biodiversity Target is an overall conservation target aiming to save biodiversity by the end of the year 2010. The UN has set a framework on how to achieve this. Prevention of biodiversity loss is a massive undertaking as most of it is linked to rapidly diminishing forest cover which is in turn connected with socio-economic balances within the country. Unfortunately most of the world's richest forests are found in the countries which means a high level of corruption exists which mars any conservation efforts. Governments and NGOs play a vital role is stressing that destruction of forests is not sustainable and instead expend efforts to show people a more sustainable method of using forest products for their livelihood. In a previous post I highlighted some of the factors that make conservation of forests very difficult. There are however, many success stories where forest area has been successfully preserved by involving the local community into its conservation.

I have blogged about biodiversity and its importance previously (here and here). I cannot stress enough the role that consumer choices play in the conservation of the ecosystem. It's a New Year and a new start: to your list of resolutions, add one eco-solution that you can keep and do it. It's easier than you think!