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a look at the GM controversy – part two

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GM corn

Okay, let’s go further into what Mark Jensen has to say about GM plants.

Genetic science and manufactured fertilizers and pesticides have enabled farmers to push the limit of what can be sustainably produced on a single plot of land. Increased crop yields have come at significant expense to the environment, the economy and, most importantly, our health. Foods Standards Australia New Zealand [FSANZ] sets a minimum time between the spraying of pesticide and the harvesting of food crops. By the time we eat conventional produce the chemical residue is meant to be negligible. This may be so, but I prefer to eat vegetables grown without chemicals, or, at the very least, vegetables with minimal pesticide exposure. Even produce grown by the most conscientious organic farmer could in all likelihood contain traces of pesticide.

The difficulty with this somewhat ambivalent passage, in which concessions are made to the regulating body, is that it’s barely about GM foods at all, except insofar as GM plants, like conventional [ie non-‘organic’] plants, require pesticides to thrive. Not that organic plants don’t, of course, but that’s a matter I might address later.

Organic farming is an enormously complex issue, and process, not much helped by certain oversimplifying attitudes I’ve come across, which tend to identify organic agriculture as the work of angels, and GM or transgenic agriculture as the work of the devil. One of the obvious issues, it seems to me, is that organic farming is significantly more labour-intensive than conventional farming. Considering that our growing world population, now at 7 billion, continues to drift generally from rural to urban areas, this presents a problem for the continued growth of organic farming. Another hotly contested issue is that of yield, with variously committed organisations and individuals making contradictory claims. For example Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Prize-winning agronomist and father of the ‘Green Revolution’, whose work in helping to double the yield of crops in Mexico, Pakistan and other countries may have saved the lives of up to a billion people, has been a trenchant critic of the organic movement, claiming that organic farming could never hope to feed the world’s population, and that yields could only be increased at tremendous cost to the environment. His opponents claim that he’s an out-of-touch technological determinist, and counter his arguments with research to show that  small farms grow far more per acre than large cash-cropping concerns. Of course all of this is disputed and it’s almost impossible to get to the facts.

Despite the fairly overwhelming hostility towards GMOs of those engaged in organic farming, the two aren’t necessarily incompatible. Andrew Leonard of Salon makes this point and argues for a more open-minded approach:

Where’s the middle ground? Where is the attempt to merge technological innovation with state-of-the-art ecological conscientiousness? Is it, by definition, an unforgivable sin to imagine a genetically modified rice strain that is drought resistant and can handle higher temperatures, farmed sustainably, with a minimum of petrochemical fertilizer inputs? Is it heresy to concede that Borlaug’s contributions contributed immensely to India’s being able to feed itself (something that many critics said was impossible) while at the same time acknowledging that we can do better?

To return now to the passage under analysis, Jensen chooses not to mention the benefits of increased crop yields. They have helped beat off famines and transformed the agricultural production, and thus the economy, of entire nations, saving untold numbers of lives in the process. Jensen’s position has an obvious problem. If increased yields have been costly in terms of our health, our environment, and our economy [this last claim might take some explaining] then presumably the best way to improve our health, environment and economy is to reduce our yield, to grow less food per area. Of course, Jensen would argue that he’s not advocating any such thing. It’s not the high yields that are the problem, it’s the means of achieving them, i.e. chemical fertilizers, pesticides and GMOs. Let’s just get rid of them. Uhhh, but won’t that reduce the yields, and won’t that undo the green revolution and return many peoples to near-starvation?

Jensen so far hasn’t addressed this problem [maybe he will in later paragraphs]. All he says here  is ‘I prefer to eat vegetables grown without chemicals, or, at the very least, vegetables with minimal pesticide exposure’. Wouldn’t we all? Surely few would argue with this. Having said that, the rage against ‘chemicals’ is in some respects more fashionable than justified. With proper monitoring, chemical use in agriculture has not caused any substantial harm so far, and populations raised on these new methods are healthier and more long-lived than ever before. As to environmental effects, all cultivation has environmental effects, and it’s virtually impossible to separate GMOs, the use of fertilizers and pesticides, and other conventional farming practices in terms of their effects upon the environment. I’m inclined to believe that organic farming is the least harmful to the environment, but this comes at a cost, too, in terms of greater labour intensivity [which can also have benefits], lower yields [an admittedly arguable claim] and higher market prices [which may be reduced by more streamlined practices and achieving a critical mass of growers – not very likely in the short or medium term].

So ends my examination of Jensen’s second paragraph. I don’t believe that so far any serious case has been made against GM foods.

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Written by stewart henderson

November 5, 2011 at 2:07 pm

Posted in environment

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