June 17, 4:03 AM
“Sustainable” has become one of the buzzwords of the 21st century. Increasing numbers of universities offer courses or even programmes in sustainability and many large companies boast substantial departments devoted to the subject. In April, many of the iconic multinational companies in the agriculture/food sector were represented at a three-day Sustainable Product Expo convened by Wal-Mart — the largest retailer in the United States — at its Arkansas headquarters.
But, as with many vague, feel-good concepts, sustainability contains more than a little sophistry. For example, sustainability in agriculture is often linked to organic farming, whose advocates tout it as a sustainable way to feed the planet’s rapidly expanding population.
But what does sustainable really mean and how does it relate to organic methods of food production?
LOW YIELDS OF ORGANIC PRODUCTION
The organic movement’s claims about the sustainability of its methods are dubious.
For example, a recent study found that the potential for groundwater contamination can be dramatically reduced if fertilisers are distributed through the irrigation system according to plant demand during the growing season. However, organic farming depends on compost, the release of which is not matched to plant demand. Moreover, though composting receives good press as a “green” practice, it generates a significant amount of greenhouse gases (and is often a source of pathogenic bacteria in crops).
The study also found that “intensive organic agriculture relying on solid organic matter, such as composted manure that is mixed into the soil prior to planting, resulted in significant down-leaching of nitrate” into groundwater. Increasing nitrate levels in groundwater is hardly a hallmark of sustainability, especially with many of the world’s most fertile farming regions in the throes of drought.
A fundamental reason that organic food production is far less sustainable than many forms of conventional farming is that organic farms, though possibly well adapted for certain local environments on a small scale, produce far less food per unit of land and water. The low yields of organic agriculture — typically 20 to 50 per cent below conventional agriculture — impose various stresses on farmland, especially on water consumption.
A British meta-analysis published in 2012 identified some of the stresses that were higher in organic agriculture. For example, it found that “ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide emissions per product unit were higher from organic systems”, as were “land use, eutrophication potential and acidification potential per product unit”.
Lower crop yields in organic farming are largely inevitable, owing to the arbitrary rejection of various advanced methods and technologies. Organic practices afford limited pesticide options, create difficulties in meeting peak fertiliser demand and rule out access to genetically engineered varieties. If organic production were scaled up significantly, the lower yields would lead to greater pressure to convert land to agricultural use and produce more animals for manure, to say nothing of the tighter squeeze on water supplies — all of which are challenges to sustainability.
WHY CONVENTIONAL FARMING IS MORE SUSTAINABLE NOW
Another limitation of organic production is that it works against the best approach to enhancing soil quality — namely, the minimisation of soil disturbance (such as that caused by plowing or tilling), combined with the use of cover crops. Such farming systems have many environmental advantages, particularly with respect to limiting erosion and the run-off of fertilisers and pesticides. Organic growers do frequently plant cover crops, but in the absence of effective herbicides, they often rely on tillage (or even labour-intensive hand weeding) for weed control.
At the same time, organic producers do use insecticides and fungicides to protect their crops, despite the myth that they do not. More than 20 chemicals (mostly containing copper and sulphur) are commonly used in growing and processing organic crops — all acceptable under US rules for certifying organic products.
Perhaps the most illogical and least sustainable aspect of organic farming in the long term is the exclusion of genetically engineered (also known as genetically modified) plants — but only those that were modified with the most precise techniques and predictable results. Except for wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the fruits, vegetables and grains in European and North American diets have been genetically improved by one technique or another — often as a result of seeds being irradiated or undergoing hybridisations that move genes from one species or genus to another in ways that do not occur in nature.
[Genetically Modified Plants or GMO plants is a concern to the uneducated (or conspiracy-educated) because they fear "Frankenfood", or genetically modified food. Do they have any specific fear? Yes! The Fear of the Unknown. If you press any of the Anti-Frankenfood crowd for specific fears, their answer will typically be: "They (meaning the Evil Scientists) are just genetically modifying food willy-nilly! We DON'T KNOW what they are doing! Who knows what those GMO food can cause! Cancer or some weird new disease! They haven't been properly tested! And even if they have, what about long term effects? Nobody can be sure what disease or side effects those things can cause 20 years down the road!"
Which just shows the lack of education of the Anti-Frankenfood crowd.
They need to understand the difference between Eating a vegetable and Mating with a vegetable. If you are going to Mate with a vegetable, then yes, you should be concerned about its genes and whether it has been modified, and whether those modifications would be detrimental, and passed onto your offsprings. Not to you.
The simple fact is cooking destroys DNA. Partial or incomplete cooking may partially "unzip" the double helix of the DNA, but even if you eat raw food, the DNA would be destroyed by your digestive system.
All that matters is whether the food taste good. And in any case, all domesticated food (crops and animals) would have been genetically modified. Heck, cooking food incompletely is modifying the DNA of the food. Instead of longer DNA strands, you get shorter strands or "unzipped" strands. But it doesn't matter because once it hits the acid and the enzymes in your digestive system, it all gets broken down to the component parts.
As I said, the fear of GMO food is the Fear of the Unknown, the Fear of the Ignorant, the Fear of the Fearful. And to help you be afraid of it, they had to come up with a frightening name for GMO food - "Frankenfood". And that is the sum of all their arguments. Tell them DNA is digested by your stomach. Their retort, "but... FRANKENFOOD!"
Update 19 June: ST Forum page printed a letter which asked for GM food labelling because
"a recent spate of studies which show that GM food crops containing Bt toxin have caused foetal malformations, sterility and deaths in cattle "The "recent spate of studies" was most likely from discredited studies from 2009 and 2012.]
The exclusion from organic agriculture of organisms simply because they were crafted with modern, superior techniques makes no sense. It not only denies farmers improved seeds, but also denies consumers of organic goods access to nutritionally improved food, such as oils with enhanced levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
In recent decades, conventional agriculture has become more environmentally friendly and sustainable than before. But this reflects science-based research and old-fashioned technological ingenuity on the part of farmers, plant breeders and agribusiness companies, not irrational opposition to modern insecticides, herbicides, genetic engineering and “industrial agriculture”.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, was founding director of the United States Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Biotechnology and is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Richard Cornett is communications director for the Western Plant Health Association, a California-based nonprofit agricultural trade group.
[Not only is Organic food not sustainable, the health benefits from organic food is dubious.
And "Organic" doesn't mean what you think it means. Unless what you think it means is "expensive food that makes me think I'm saving the world from profiteering megacorps".
Megacorps like Walmart. Who have cottoned on to the fact that there are dumb people who will pay MORE money for food that are arguably of the same quality or less.
Find out more about the truth of organic food in an entertaining way.
"Organic salad. No pesticide used. So if you accidentally ingest a worm, it's ok. The worm is organic, too."]