Organic And Beyond

by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

Patrick Appel quotes a Prospect article hailing GM crops. In fact, according to this Scientific American article, research on GM crops to date seems highly likely to be biased towards the interests of GM seed developing companies:
To purchase genetically modified seeds, a customer must sign an agreement that limits what can be done with them. (If you have installed software recently, you will recognize the concept of the end-user agreement.) Agreements are considered necessary to protect a company’s intellectual property, and they justifiably preclude the replication of the genetic enhancements that make the seeds unique. But agritech companies such as Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta go further. For a decade their user agreements have explicitly forbidden the use of the seeds for any independent research. Under the threat of litigation, scientists cannot test a seed to explore the different conditions under which it thrives or fails. They cannot compare seeds from one company against those from another company. And perhaps most important, they cannot examine whether the genetically modified crops lead to unintended environmental side effects.Research on genetically modified seeds is still published, of course. But only studies that the seed companies have approved ever see the light of a peer-reviewed journal.

In addition, most of the corn and nearly all the soybeans in the US are GMOs that have been engineered to survive application of Monsanto's herbicide Roundup. (68% of corn (stacked gene + herbicide-tolerant) from and 91% of soybeans) The claim that GM crops "reduce reliance on agrochemical sprays" is just plain false; the entire point of their use is to *increase* use of herbicides with them. Certainly an excellent business move because Monsanto and Dupont (the two biggest corporations in these areas) then make money from the sale of seed and the sale of herbicides. I'm not particularly concerned with whether the organic food I purchase has more nutrients than conventional products, but there's just no way anyone is going to convince me that coating millions of acres of the US in Roundup is good for humans or the environment.

That Prospect article I cited seems to have a number of problems. That post was written not because I was shilling for the big agriculture companies, but because I'd seen contradictory information and wanted to get my facts straight. I spent a good part of my weekend reading research papers on organic agriculture and synthetic fertilizers. This paper by Rodale Institute, a pro-organic policy shop, makes a strong case for organics as a solution to global warming. Here is an important bit about using soil as a carbon sink:

During the 1990s, results from the Compost Utilization Trial (CUT) at Rodale Institutea 10-year study comparing the use of composts, manures and synthetic chemical fertilizershow that the use of composted  manure with crop rotations in organic systems can result in carbon sequestration of up to 2,000 lbs/ac/year. By contrast, fields under standard tillage relying on chemical fertilizers lost almost 300 pounds of carbon per acre per year. Storingor sequesteringup to 2,000 lbs/ac/year of carbon means that more than 7,000  pounds of carbon dioxide are taken from the air and trapped in that field soil.

I seem to have dissed soil micro-organisms too readily. As far as I can tell, the main benefit of non-organic produce has to do with greater yields (though some pro-organic authors will argue otherwise). Here is an excerpt from a book by Vaclav Smil, Professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba in Canada, on nitrogen-based fertilizers. After doing some math, he writes:


My big problem with organic agriculture is the organic/inorganic divide is an imprecise way to determine what food is sustainable. The big GM food companies might not be saints, but I'm wary of writing off all GM technology. The challenges we face agriculturally, especially if you factor in crop disruptions due to global warming, are going to require us to use every trick up our sleeves –and to invent a few new ones. If you only read one paper on the conflict between increasing yields and sustainability, this 2002 Nature article is on the money, as far as I can tell:

There is a general consensus that agriculture has the capability to meet the food needs of 8–10 billion people while substantially decreasing the proportion of the population who go hungry, but there is little consensus on how this can be achieved by sustainable means. Sustainability implies both high yields that can be maintained, even in the face of major shocks, and agricultural practices that have acceptable environmental impacts. The main environmental impacts of agriculture come from the conversion of natural ecosystems to agriculture, from agricultural nutrients that pollute aquatic and terrestrial habitats and groundwater, and from pesticides, especially bioaccumulating or persistent organic agricultural pollutants. Agricultural nutrients enter other ecosystems through leaching, volatilization and the waste streams of livestock and humans. Pesticides can also harm human health, as can pathogens, including antibiotic-resistant pathogens associated with certain animal production practices.

How can such costs be minimized at the same time that food production is increased? In one sense the answer is simple: crop and livestock production must increase without an increase in the negative environmental impacts associated with agriculture, which means large increases in the efficiency of nitrogen, phosphorus and water use, and integrated pest management that minimizes the need for toxic pesticides. In reality, achieving such a scenario represents one of the greatest scientific challenges facing humankind because of the trade-offs among competing economic and environmental goals, and inadequate knowledge of the key biological, biogeochemical and ecological processes.