What is in this article?:
- Don't fall for the modern myth that organic food production is “more sustainable” in the long run than conventional crop production.
Just the facts
The unfortunate truth is that until organic farming can rival the production output of conventional farming, its ecological cost due to the need for more cropland is devastating.
This shortfall of reduced organic crop yields is driven by limited pesticide options, difficulties in meeting peak fertilizer demand, and in some cases by not being able to use biotech traits. If organic production were used for a significant portion of crop production, these lower yields would increase the pressure for new land-use conversion – a serious environmental issue because of the biodiversity and greenhouse ramifications.
Another consideration regarding organic production is that the best approach to building soil quality is minimizing soil disturbance (e.g. no plowing or tilling) combined with the use of cover crops. Such farming systems have multiple environmental advantages, particularly with respect to limited erosion and nutrient movement into water. Organic growers frequently do plant cover crops, but without effective herbicides, they tend to rely on tillage for weed control. There are efforts under way to find a way to do organic no-till, but they are really not scalable.
Now, turning to genetically modified organisms (GMOs). GMOs have the potential to increase crop yields, enhance nutritious value, and generally improve farming practices while reducing the need for synthetic chemicals – which is exactly what organic farming seeks to do.
At this moment, there are sweet potatoes being engineered to be resistant to a virus that currently decimates the African harvest annually, which could feed millions of some of the poorest nations on the globe. Scientists have created carrots high in calcium to battle osteoperois, and tomatoes high in antioxidants. Also, potatoes are being modified so that they do not produce high concentrations of toxic glycoalkaloids, and nuts are being engineered to lack the proteins which cause allergic reactions in some people. Perhaps even more amazingly, bananas are being designed to produce vaccines against hepatitis B, allowing vaccination to occur where it’s otherwise too expensive or difficult to be administered.
While the benefits of these plants could improve the daily lives of millions of human beings across our planet, there are those detractors who ignorantly refer to them as “Frankenfoods” – unnatural and unsafe, that should be replaced with organic foods.
So, here’s the bottom line. While “only natural” may be appealing as a marketing message, it is certainly not the best guide on sustainability for how to farm with minimal environmental impact. Between rigorous, science-based research and regulation, public and private investments in new technology development and farmer innovation, modern agriculture has been achieving remarkable environmental progress and will continue to be sustainable. To continue to be successful, we need to encourage both systems relying on facts, and not denigrating one system to market another.