March 11, 2015 Pat Beaujot
Golden Rice- a no-brainer GMO crop, but organic experts disagree?
This article appeared in the Western Producer just before Christmas and it re-invigorated the GMO debate once again. The opinion piece was written about the controversial poster-plant for GMO science “golden rice”, which for many represents a practical way to reduce malnutrition among the world’s most vulnerable people, and for others is a symbol for the evil that tampering with Mother Nature can do.
The fundamental issue concerning our expert, Bill Crabtree and myself, is the tensions that come about between no-till agriculture and organic agriculture whenever these topics come up. Both are touted as “sustainable agriculture”, “conservation agriculture”, or even the relatively new term “climate-smart agriculture”, because of their commitment to preserving soil health, and yet the systems are very different, due to the one’s use of standard best practices of modern agriculture such as pesticides for insects, fungus and weed control, and commercial fertilizers for soil fertility and the other’s reliance on tillage for some of those same controls. As Bill Crabtree put it “I have yet to see an organic farmer effectively control weeds without tillage and so tillage is a huge component of the organic farming system. Tillage does a lot of damage to the soil which can take decades to repair – so therefore, I don’t think organic with tillage is sustainable. I have seen organic farms in Canada, USA, Australia and Europe lose huge quantities of soil through water and wind erosion.”
Putting these two practices in the same category infuriates either side, because they are diametrically opposed. The no-till side will say that in order to produce high yielding, affordable, high quality food, pesticides and commercial fertilizers are a necessary tool, as I describe here “I am not a PHD scientist but I do have a good practical knowledge of agriculture. I would love to be able to take care of my soils and grow high yields (to feed the world) without pesticides and fertilizers, believe me, but that is impossible with the tools we have today. The only way that could happen is with GMO crops alongside GMO cover/companion crops that produce enough nitrogen and provide weed and pest control. GMOs could actually help us go organic or use less pesticides and fertilizers, but unfortunately the organic industry’s position of anti-modern agriculture makes that outcome highly unlikely.”
Find a dedicated no-till organic operation, of which there are few, and you will likely find a lower-yielding farm, and this does not solve agriculture’s task of delivering enough food to “feed the 9” (9 billion people as of 2050), which the majority of farmers will say is their goal.
Both farming practices have some repeated arguments that they like to use against one another. A common accusation from the organic side is to characterize all pesticides used in agriculture as “poisons” which was the word used heavily in the article. Characterizing pesticides in this way is flatly inaccurate and irresponsible. It is this kind of characterization that can influence many with wrong information. The response from the no-till side is to accuse the organic side of using terms such as “poisons” as scare tactics to alarm the public about the potential damage of chemical usage in farming. Bill explains that using terms such as “poisons” “[are] inflammatory and it creates a bigger, scary target than the more precise scientific terms like; fungicide, insecticide, herbicide, nematocide etc are meant for. You may be aware that these poisons have a very specific target and the word “poisons” implies to the lay-ready…that a herbicide is poisonous to people or animals or insects or fungi. This is a common mantra used in the organic industry. Many herbicides struggle to kill many different types of weeds, only a few are broad spectrum. Herbicides are not human poisons any more than caffeine is or household soaps and detergents or dozens of other ingredients used in common healthy living. The poison is all in the dose. Even water at a high enough dose can be toxic and poisonous to people, yet we don’t call it a poison.”
Another strategy on the organic side is to “let the people decide” by encouraging labelling of products, as they are confident that the public will take their side and not want to buy GMO food or food that has been sprayed with pesticides. The no-till side does not adopt the same strategy (would you buy food with a no-till sticker on it?), and considers this approach an attempt to foster doubt. Bill explains “We have GMO labels on food in Australia and I suspect only 1% of the population read them, it seems a waste of time and money and is fear-mongering.” The big problem with labelling is not just the cost of the label, but the additional cost of storing, shipping, and handling these products separately that makes the price of both products go up. These are prices that the average person shouldn’t have to bare because there are absolutely no proven health benefits from eating organic or GMO free.
If the organics’ skepticism campaign has been successful anywhere, it has made significant gains with the public by suggesting that they have the public’s health and well-being as a first priority, and that modern agriculture, (lumping no-till, conventional, factory farming and all negative stereotypes in food production together) is only out for themselves. However this is really the organic industry using fear to profit from a larger market share. They distance themselves ferociously from a group that could be their ally, and could strengthen their own practices and legitimacy through research and progress.
A food system that benefits the most people, fills the most bellies nutritiously and affordably, and does so while preserving the land is certainly something both sides of this debate should agree on, but dogma and finger-pointing continue to prevent progress. Research and the pursuit of facts needs to be the priority of both of these movements, rather than smear campaigns.
There is an opportunity here for the organic community to work with the scientific community to improve their own practices and make them more sustainable. We could also learn from organic farmers’ use of cover/companion crops and crop rotations to control weeds and provide some fertility. This would help bottom lines by increasing yields and improve soil quality. Companion crops have been used successfully in places like France for some time, but think of how much their effectiveness could be improved if we started developing cover crops using GMO technology! Companion crops could provide fertility and pest protection while improving the soil. If the organic industry had soil health and sustainability in mind without the use of pesticides, they would be looking to the GMO industry to provide cover/companion crops that have those traits. I just think their insistence on ignoring scientific advancements undermines their credibility, and will make it very difficult for them to be successful in the future.
I welcome your comments. Tweet @PatrickBeaujot or @NOTILLville