Thursday, February 13, 2014


Can We Live with GMO's?

I have previously summarized Mark Lynas' claims in the God Species (Nov 14 post ) that, with careful use of GMO's, plus a modest level of chemical fertilizer and targeted amounts of water, we can feed the 9 billion demographers expect by mid-century. He argues that the advantage over organic farming comes from much higher yields, requiring far less land and less water, with both resources already pushed to the max. Many think that by then, the population growth curve will be at zero, but the assumptions for that are shaky. On the other hand, famine, war, pandemics and thus an initial population collapse before then could shift the figure in the negative direction.

Organic advocates claim that their yields are about the same, especially over time, as they build the soil micro-organisms and organic matter which are so important to sustained yields. Indeed, one of the reasons that conventional farming may look better is that organic farmers plant legumes to alternate with vegetable crops, cutting the annual yield figure as they build soil. Whatever the figure on yields, the key argument is that organic agriculture takes better care of the soil, and by extension, the waterways which drain and serve the soil.

As for yields, the key study, published in the prestigious journal Nature in July 2012 finds that on average, organic yields are 20% less than conventional farming. But this ranges from 5% with legumes, especially soybeans, to 34%. You may recall that Lynas' figure for the yield difference was 50%, which is not born out by a review of the literature. He is correct that we can ill-afford putting additional marginal land into cultivation to bridge the yield difference, but he obviously needs to do the basic research to get the figures right. And simply comparing yields does not take into account soil, water, or general ecosystem health.

Even more basically, does the industry claim that we need to dramatically increase yields to feed the growing global population hold up? In an article for Mother JonesTom Philpott argues no. Hans Herren, president of the Millennium Institute, says that the world's farms already produce 4600 calories/day, sufficient to feed double our current population. The problem, as many have argued for decades, is distribution, and the profit motive. Herren goes on to say that yields could be doubled “almost overnight” in East Asia, South America and Africa if small farmers had the proper training and seeds, using organic and low-input agriculture. As for the seeds, Philpott quotes organic seed expert Matt Dillon, who argues that virtually no research is being done to produce new organic seed varieties, as opposed to the billions poured annually into industrial seed development. Research at the University of Washington has shown that even wheat seed can be adapted to produce yields on organically managed fields close to those in industrial farming. With the steady growth in sales of organic produce, even the business model says that we should be putting more money into R+D for organic farming. Too bad the farm bill, which has finally passed, does not recognize that. We have five years to change that before the next one.

In terms of soil health, the organic argument is that planting varieties with inbred insecticides via gene-splicing only contributes to insect resistance. This trend is already firmly in place, with insect resistance in 25 species in the the 1950's versus 450 in the 1980's. Similarly, using Roundup-ready grain varieties has led to the creation of superweeds. Furthermore, the trap of terminator genes impoverishes farmers, with the added problem that pollen from these plants is causing havoc in an increasing number of traditional foodplants.

There are serious charges that Lynas's dramatic switch from being an anti-GMO strategist and campaign leader to a GMO advocate was motivated by a shady deal with the industry. At first, I stoutly defended him, and found a video of him with the director of a Midwest agricultural research institute illustrated rational scientific principles that I affirm. But when I did some research, I was surprised to find that the charge was basically correct. Not only does he accept the industry claim that organic yields are 50% less than GMO's, but he trots out industrial agriculture's other arguments about how their methods would save the hungry billions. There is no trail linking Lynas to favors along the lines laid out in the leaked industry memo about recruiting a high-profile enviro, but the fact that he does not give evidence of independent research on GMO's is damning in itself.

But for me, the decisive perspective on this debate comes from Eric Holt Gimenez's article “Of Myths and Men: Mark Lynas and the intoxicating Power of Technocracy.” Though Gimenez, exective director of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, acknowledges Lynas' suspiciously dramatic reversal on GMO's, he says the problem is much more insidious. The Big Three of conservation, have teamed up with corporate agriculture in s deal worthy of Faust. Espousing the quaint theory of “Island Biogeography,” they use Darwin's observations of the species explosion on islands like the Galapogos to argue for large tracts of biodiverse forest hot spots surrounded by vast industrial monocultures, which, the theory goes, replicate the desert-like “matrix” of the ocean surface surrounding such islands. But forest biodiversity is not driven by the same forces as Caribbean islands. If these forests depended upon the industrial wastelands of a few engineered species, devoid of any other plants, most insects, even mammals, then they would starve for continuing genetic diversity. To the contrary, it is the small peasant landholders' highly diverse farms which provide a rich “matrix” for continuing speciation. In an era of rapid extinction driven by climate change and habitat loss, this matrix is crucial just for the biosystem to have a chance to recover from our onslaughts. Gimenez is a respected researcher in tropical agriculture, and cites a key work in the field which overturns the corporate argument which provides the ocean for Lynas' small craft: “Nature's Matrix.”

It is usually the case that the most effective solution lies somewhere in between the extremes. So argues Grist's Nathanael Johnson. He thinks each should do what it does best, and that, though GMO's are “overhyped” and need more regulation, they have an important contribution. He says he finds most inspiration not from ideological purists, but “pragmatists who use whatever tools they can to make their way a little closer to sustainability.” And, contrary to many of my neighbors at our Appalachian land-trust, he thinks glyphosates (Roundup) are one of those tools that do more good than harm.

Dilworth argues at the end of Too Smart that the global capitalist juggernaut is the final expression of the Vicious Circle Principle. We are encircled, global society penetrated by the last vicious circle, which can only be followed by its undoing: “the coming overshoot whill not be that of just one turn of the vicious circle, but ot the circle itself.” (Dilworth, 451). As for GMO's, he summarizes the critique articulated by the organic movement: croplands that have been producing GMO crops will basically become poison for any other uses, and the runoff from these lands will poison streams and aquifers. The concluding sentence to his section on GMO's is “Thus the growing of GMO's places the germ plasms of all plants and thus all crops at risk to genetic contamination, jeopardizing food security on a huge scale.”

We can only hope that those who talk about a middle way are right, and that population checks will proceed before famine and war. But my own conclusion is much closer to the position of the organic advocates. Grist's Johnson is right; we don't need to waste political capital on trying to turn back the best of what agricultural research for large-scale industrial farming has produced. But we do need to halt the exodus of peasant farmers from their landholdings by hugely increasing research and support for this under-appreciated sector that feeds half the population more sustainably than Big Ag. Otherwise, the situation looks grim.

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