EarthTalk: Do you agree with the recent
claim in the Wall Street Journal that organic agriculture
isn’t actually sustainable? —Chuck Romaniello,
from its other benefits to our health and environment,
organic agriculture -- which eschews synthetic pesticides
and fertilizers -- can potentially reduce overall
greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent compared
to conventional farming.
credit: CinCool, courtesy Flickr
Henry I. Miller’s May 15, 2014 opinion piece in the
Wall Street Journal has indeed made waves in the organic
farming community. Miller, former director of the Office
of Biotechnology at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration,
argues that conventional farming—which uses synthetic
pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers and often genetically
modified (GM) seed stock to maximize yields—is actually
better for the environment, producing more food and using
less water compared to organic farming.
farming might work well for certain local environments on
a small scale, but its farms produce far less food per unit
of land and water than conventional ones,” says Miller.
“The low yields of organic agriculture—typically
20 percent to 50 percent less than conventional agriculture—impose
various stresses on farmland and especially on water consumption.”
Miller adds that organic methods can cause significant leaking
of nitrates from composted manure—the fertilizer of
choice for most organic farms—into groundwater, polluting
drinking water. He also cites research showing that large-scale
composting generates significant amounts of greenhouse gases
and “may also deposit pathogenic bacteria on or in
food crops, which has led to more frequent occurrences of
food poisoning in the U.S. and elsewhere.”
the scale of organic production were significantly increased,
says Miller, the lower yields would increase the pressure
for the conversion of more land to farming and more water
for irrigation, both of which are serious environmental
issues.” He adds that conventional farming’s
embrace of GM crops—a no-no to organic farmers—is
yet another way we can boost yields and feed more people
with less land.
the Washington, DC-based Organic Center takes issue with
Miller’s allegations about nitrates polluting groundwater:
“Most studies that examine nutrient runoff show that
organic production methods result in reduced nitrogen losses
when compared to conventional crop production,” reports
Organic Center also disputes Miller’s claims about
the organic farming’s carbon footprint, arging that
overall energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions are much
less from organic farming than for conventional agriculture.
The group also says that taking into account the greenhouse
gas emissions that come from the production (not just the
use) of synthetic fertilizer changes the equation entirely.
The group cites a recent study by the UN Food and Agriculture
Organization which found that organic agriculture can potentially
reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent compared
to conventional farming.
Miller’s statements about GM crops overlook the ecological
problems associated with their use. “For example,”
the Organic Center reports, “transgene movement from
GM crops to wild, weedy relatives could increase the invasiveness
of weeds.” Also, genetic modification has led to higher
pesticide use in agricultural systems and an increase in
herbicide-resistant weeds. Some worry this is leading to
a vicious cycle whereby farmers use more and more chemical
herbicides to battle hardier and hardier weeds.
the price of organic food continues to drop, more and more
people will be able to afford it and the increased demand
may well drive the conversion to organic agriculture more
than policy or philosophy.
Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com;
The Organic Center, www.organic-center.org.
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