From an environmental standpoint, organic farming isn't all it's cracked up to be.
The marketing of anti-pesticide and anti-GMO propaganda directly to highbrow consumers has carved out a $20- billion niche in America for the organic farming industry.
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But the niche could get a bit sticky if the industry continues to ignore advances in genetic engineering that are steadily providing conventional agriculture with nutritional and productivity advantages.
It also might consider putting the quietus on its claim that organic farming can save the planet based on its environmental footprint.
Research by the Institute for Water Research at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, found that “intensive organic agriculture relying on solid organic matter such as composted manure that is implemented in the soil prior to planting as the sole fertilizer resulted in significant down-leaching of nitrate.”
Agricultural scientist Steve Savage documented on Sustainablog that composting also generates significant amounts of methane and nitrous oxide. Composted manure can also splash up on organic crops during rains, which has caused several cases of food poisoning the United States.
Then there is the labor problem. Modern agriculture’s use of pesticides and biotechnology has allowed modern farmers to work more acres with less labor. If organic farming were to expand significantly, it will be hard-pressed to entice people to return to the farm to do backbreaking work for low wages – save for some sort of apocalyptic event.
As for genetic engineering, Henry Miller, a physician, molecular biologist and founding director of FDA’s Office of Biotechnology, wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, “Perhaps the most illogical and least sustainable aspect of organic farming is the exclusion of ‘genetically modified organisms,’ but only those that were modified with the most precise and predictable techniques such as gene splicing.”
Miller’s point is that except for wild berries and wild mushrooms, “virtually all the fruits, vegetables and grains in our diets have been genetically improved in one way or another, often through wide crosses, which moves genes from one species or genus to another in ways that do not occur in nature.”
To exclude genetic engineering, which is a vast improvement on these methods, Miller says, “makes no sense. It also denies the consumers of organic goods nutritionally-improved foods, such as oils with enhanced levels of omega-3 fatty acids.”
Miller adds that organic farming’s propensity for lower yield “would increase the pressure to convert more land to farming and require more water for irrigation, both of which are serious environmental issues.”
In the future, advances in biotechnology could put organic agriculture even further behind in yield and environmental and nutritional benefits. To keep up, the industry may have to reconsider its objections to biotechnology.