Popular wisdom is often wrong. Consider, for example, how it views organic agriculture, which has grown to a $48 billion a year industry in the U.S. Organic products are sold at outlets ranging from local farmers' markets to large supermarket chains, and many people assume that there is something more natural, wholesome, or environmentally sustainable about them. None of that is true.
What's remarkable about this agriculture sector is that the government's extensive promotion has been a hoax from the beginning, having nothing to do with agricultural sustainability, protection of the environment, or food quality. When the organic seal was established in 1990, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman emphasized the fundamental meaninglessness of the organic designation: "Let me be clear about one thing, the organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is 'organic' a value judgment about nutrition or quality."
In fact, the organic seal is a cynical marketing tool, because so many unsuspecting consumers are ripped off by the high prices of organic products, in the absence of palpable benefit.
A prevalent "green myth" about organic agriculture is that it does not employ pesticides. Organic farming does, in fact, use insecticides and fungicides to prevent predation of its crops. More than 20 chemicals are commonly used in the growing and processing of organic crops and are acceptable under the U.S. Department of Agriculture's arbitrary and ever-shifting organic rules. Many of those organic pesticides are more toxic than the synthetic ones used in ordinary farming. Even spinosad, a widely used organic alternative to synthetic insecticides long considered to be less harmful to beneficial insects, has recently been found to have deleterious effects on non-target insects.
But the fatal flaw of organic agriculture is the low yields that cause it to be wasteful of water and farmland. Plant pathologist Steven Savage of the CropLife Foundation analyzed the data from the USDA's 2014 Organic Survey, which reported various measures of productivity from most of the certified organic farms in the nation, and compared them to those at conventional farms. His findings were extraordinary. In 59 of the 68 crops surveyed, there was a yield gap, which means that, controlling for other variables, organic farms were producing less than conventional farms. Many of those shortfalls were large: for strawberries — organic farms produced 61 percent less than conventional farms; for tangerines, 58 percent less; for cotton, 45 percent less; and for rice, 39 percent less.
As Savage observed: "To have raised all U.S. crops as organic in 2014 would have required farming of 109 million more acres of land. That is an area equivalent to all the parkland and wildland areas in the lower 48 states, or 1.8 times as much as all the urban land in the nation."
Perhaps the most illogical and least sustainable aspect of organic farming in the long term will be the absolute exclusion of "genetically engineered" plants modified with the most precise and predictable modern molecular techniques. Except for wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the fruits, vegetables, and grains in our diet have been genetically improved by one technique or another — often as a result of seeds having been irradiated or via "wide crosses," which move genes from one species or genus to another in ways that do not occur in nature. (Paradoxically, these more primitive techniques of genetic modification are acceptable in organic agriculture.)
In recent decades, we have seen genetic engineering advances such as plants that are disease-, pest-, drought-, and flood-resistant. The result has been higher yields for farmers and lower costs for consumers. As genetic engineering's successes continue to emerge, the gap between the methods of modern, high-tech agriculture and organic agriculture will become a chasm, and organic will be increasingly unable to compete.
Another unobvious disadvantage of organic farming is the common use of plastic sheeting as a cover to keep recently seeded crops free from weeds, conserve water, and enhance plant growth, thus avoiding the use of chemical inputs. This might seem to be an environmentally friendly approach, but it raises questions such as how was the plastic made and how will it eventually be disposed of. Often overlooked is that most plastics are created from petroleum products, and after being spread over vast expanses of organic farms, are disposed of in landfills where they contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.
The breakdown of plastic in landfills is a known source of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gasses (GHGs). According to the EPA, in 2019, methane emissions from solid landfills were about the same as GHG emissions from more than 21.6 million passenger vehicles driven for one year, or the CO2 emissions from nearly 12 million homes' annual use of energy.
Representatives from almost 200 countries attended a meeting from February 28-March 2 at a meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA), to create a blueprint for the first-ever global agreement on plastic pollution. The final product will take years to craft.
This is only a small part of the complex relationship between agricultural practices and GHG emissions. Currently, land-use change — from forest to farmland — accounts for over 30% of agricultural GHG emissions. That is important, because it offers an opportunity: Converting agricultural carbon emissions into carbon sinks could help to ameliorate climate change. With this in mind, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently announced funding for projects "aimed at helping farmers and forest owners fight climate change through so-called carbon sinks." Climate-friendly agricultural practices including no-till agriculture, reforestation, and increased use of higher-yielding genetically engineered varieties could contribute significantly to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For example, according to a recent study by Kovak et al, the adoption of genetically- engineered crops across Europe's farmlands would reduce its agricultural GHG emissions by almost 10%.
In addition, a meta analysis by Klümper and Qaim found that the adoption of genetically engineered crops benefits farmers in a variety of circumstances. On average, they increased crop yields by 22% and reduced chemical pesticide quantities by 37%
Crops developed through molecular genetic engineering have been shown in multiple studies to be, on average, 22% more productive than conventional crops, which means that more food could be grown on less land. In addition, herbicide tolerant transgenic crops require less tillage of the soil, thus reducing carbon emissions substantially. For example, eliminating tillage has been shown to transform farms in Saskatchewan, Canada, from sources of carbon emissions into actual carbon sinks. Also, insect resistant GE crops require lower pesticide inputs, which translates into various environmental and human health benefits, and even a reduction in emissions due to reduced tractor use.
The study by Kovak et al predicts what carbon emissions in Europe would be if genetically engineered crops were used widely, and found a whopping reduction of 33 million tons of CO2 a year, or 7.5%. Much of the reduced emissions was the result of lower agricultural land use, and thus a re-growth of wild habitats.
These promising findings contrast with the plans set out by Europe's Farm to Fork strategy, which will attempt to expand organic farming to 20% of all agricultural land by 2030. However, as explained above, organic farming is notorious for producing lower crop yields and would thus expand farmland use and GHG emissions. The EU's Farm to Fork strategy is, in a word, irresponsible.
For a genetically engineered crop to enter the EU marketplace (whether for cultivation or to be used in food or feed, or for other purposes), an authorization is required. Applications for authorization are first submitted to a Member State, which forwards them to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). In cooperation with Member States' scientific bodies, EFSA assesses possible risks of the variety to human and animal health and the environment. The European Parliament itself plays no part in the authorization process, but it can oppose or demand rejection of a new genetically engineered crop based on any whim, prejudice, or the bleating of NGOs in their constituencies, in spite of those crops having been shown repeatedly to pose no unique or systematic risks to human health or the environment.
Another example of such unwise, unrealistic policies is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's extensive subsidization and coddling of the organic agriculture and food industries. Its website is very clear: "Many USDA agencies serve the growing organic sector. Whether you're already certified organic, considering transitioning all or part of your operation, or working with organic producers, we have resources for you." Those taxpayer-provided resources, we hasten to add, encourage farming practices that are inefficient, polluting, wasteful of water and arable land, and promote GHG emissions.
Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack's new funding opportunity should embrace and encourage genetically engineered crops as a viable and credible means for mitigating climate change. Such crops can simultaneously boost yields, reduce carbon emissions, promote reforestation, improve food security, and increase farmer profits. The department should deemphasize organic agriculture and reduce its support for it, to the extent possible under existing legislation. Similarly, the EU needs to abandon its Food to Fork fantasyland, embrace science, and adopt policies that benefit European farmers and consumers.
Kathleen Hefferon, Ph.D., teaches microbiology at Cornell University. Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.