Earth Day Agriculture and Sustainable Intensification

What’s the most sustainable way to grow the food we eat? The answer environmentalists give is always “local and organic.”  But, increasingly, the answer from the scientists who’ve studied the question is the exact opposite.  A study from England’s Royal Society issued last October concluded that genuinely sustainable agriculture must embrace the use of science and technology for producing more food on less land.  It suggests that a healthy concern for protecting the environment necessitates the greater adoption of sophisticated agricultural technologies, including fertilizers, pesticides, and bioengineered (or GM) crops.  Why?  Because protecting the environment will require growing vastly more food without bringing new land into agriculture–what the report calls “sustainable intensification.”

And, just last week, the US National Academy of Sciences’s National Research Council issued an in-depth study on The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States, concluding that, “when best management practices are implemented, GE crops have been effective at reducing pest problems with economic and environmental benefits”.

Among the reports more specific findings:

  • “Adoption of herbicide-resistant crops could help improve soil and water quality.”
  • “Targeting specific insect pests with Bt toxins in corn and cotton has been successful, and insecticide use has decreased with the adoption of insect-resistant crops.”
  • “Many adopters of GE crops have experienced either lower costs of production or higher yields, and sometimes both.”
  • “Farmers who previously faced high levels of insect pests that were difficult to treat before insect-resistant crops have particularly benefited from applying lower amounts of or less expensive insecticides.”
  • “More effective management of weeds and insects also means that farmers may not have to apply insecticides or till for weeds as often.”

An overwhelming amount of scientific evidence amassed during the past two decades suggests that genetically engineered foods have been a huge boon for American farmers, consumers, and the environment.

Ironically, claims that organic farming is a nearer and dearer friend to the environment are difficult to substantiate because organic practices merely trade some environmental threats for others. For example, organic farms do not generate the same sorts of synthetic chemical run-off as modern, industrialized farms. But organic farms do still need to control pests, weeds, and pathogens. They also need to replace soil nutrients drawn off by growing plants. Judged by the standards of those who criticize modern agricultural practices, the techniques that organic farmers use to accomplish these tasks are far from eco-friendly.

While organic farmers do not use synthetic pesticides, they do use chemicals to control insects and plant diseases – including such potentially dangerous chemicals as copper sulfate, rotenone, pyrethrum, ryania, and sabadilla. These “organic” pesticides are derived from minerals or plants, are lightly processed, and thus are considered to be “natural” for the purposes of organic agriculture. Yet, ounce for ounce, most are at least as toxic or carcinogenic as many of the newest synthetic chemical pesticides.

In addition, because organic farmers must control weeds by using frequent, mechanical tillage – or sacrifice yields – organic agriculture contributes to topsoil erosion and disturbs worms and other soil invertebrates. Compared with modern conservation tillage practices, organic weed control is much more environmentally damaging.  And, instead of soluble nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous fertilizers, organic farmers rely on animal manure and so-called “green manures,” such as legume nitrogen fixation or organic plant matter, to restore soil nutrients. However, plowing legume crops and animal wastes into the soil leads to nitrate leaching into groundwater and streams at rates similar to conventional agricultural practices, and the chemical properties of soluble mineral fertilizers that are prohibited in organic farming are identical to those of that are released in uncontrolled quantities by the mineralization of organic matter.

Ultimately, many Americans have come to believe the organic food industry’s marketing campaign that consuming its products is the environmental way to eat.  But, those claims just don’t stand up to rigorous scientific scrutiny.