Fri, Jun 20, 2014 - Page 9 News List

The unsustainability of organic farming

The organic movement’s claims about the sustainability of its methods are dubious — from its use of compost to low crop yields and rejection of genetically engineered plants

By Henry Miller and Richard Cornett

At the same time, organic producers do use insecticides and fungicides to protect their crops, despite the green myth that they do not. More than 20 chemicals (mostly containing copper and sulfur) are commonly used in growing and processing organic crops — all acceptable under US rules for certifying organic products.

Perhaps the most illogical and least sustainable aspect of organic farming in the long term is the exclusion of genetically engineered (also known as genetically modified) plants — but only those that were modified with the most precise techniques and predictable results. Except for wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the fruits, vegetables and grains in European and North American diets have been genetically improved by one technique or another — often as a result of seeds being irradiated or undergoing hybridizations that move genes from one species or genus to another in ways that do not occur in nature.

The exclusion from organic agriculture of organisms simply because they were crafted with modern, superior techniques makes no sense. It not only denies farmers improved seeds, but also denies consumers of organic goods access to nutritionally improved foods, such as oils with enhanced levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

In recent decades, conventional agriculture has become more environmentally friendly and sustainable than ever before. However, that reflects science-based research and old-fashioned technological ingenuity on the part of farmers, plant breeders and agribusiness companies, not irrational opposition to modern insecticides, herbicides, genetic engineering and “industrial agriculture.”

Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, was the founding director of the US Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Biotechnology. Richard Cornett is communications director for the Western Plant Health Association, a California-based nonprofit agricultural trade group.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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