A Natural Obsession

Comment / by Maywa Montenegro /

Organic foods are exploding in popularity. But fears of biotechnology—and a widespread mistrust of science—won’t help efforts to create a truly sustainable agriculture.

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The Original Green

The threat of famine is not new, not even when it encompasses the entire globe. In the early 1960s, the Malthusian catastrophe—mass starvation across much of the planet—looked practically inevitable. President Lyndon Johnson’s Science Advisory Committee summed the situation up thusly: “The scale, severity, and duration of the world food problem are so great that a massive, long-range, innovative effort unprecedented in human history will be required to master it.”

The answer to that call came in the form of an unassuming biochemist named Norman Borlaug. After working for three years at DuPont, the Iowa-born scientist moved to Mexico where he began crossing local wheat with Japanese dwarf varieties with support from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican government. The “miracle seeds” he eventually derived responded better to irrigation and fertilizers: He had effectively up-regulated a gene that allowed the grains to utilize more nitrogen and in turn to bear more fruit. Borlaug’s seeds also grew into plants that were shorter and had stiffer stalks than traditional Mexican wheat, which meant that less precious energy was wasted on producing inedible shafts than on the edible starchy kernels. The sturdier stalks didn’t bend and break quite so easily either, making harvesting more efficient.

Rice, corn, and beans—staple foods across Latin America and Asia—soon received the Borlaug treatment, with results that to this day boggle the mind: Through the 60s and 70s, global grain production rose by 250 percent. India had teetered on the edge of famine; since that time it has nearly tripled it wheat harvest to support a population that has doubled in size. Worldwide, population has tripled since the mid 20th century and yet, on average, we each have 25 percent more food available to eat.

Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his singular contribution to human welfare. Yet as remarkable as the Green Revolution was, it also brought unanticipated costs. Heavy irrigation has led to sinking water tables across India and China. Excessive fertilizer use has released huge amounts of nitrous oxide (a potent greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere and has contaminated waterways with runoff nitrogen, feeding massive algal blooms in coastal areas. When these algae die and sink to the bottom, microbes that feed on them consume vast amounts of oxygen, creating aquatic “dead zones” where ocean ecosystems once thrived.

Today, agriculture—thanks to deforestation, nitrous oxide, methane from cattle and rice paddies—is considered by many experts to be an overlooked environmental disaster. Speaking at a special Earth Institute symposium earlier this month on how to improve global agriculture, economist Jeffrey Sachs told the audience, “Agriculture is the main driver of most ecological problems on the planet. We are literally eating away the other species on the planet.”

These sorts of dark statements generally resonate in one of two ways. To some, it’s a sign that science and technology have failed us; the solution, therefore, is to jettison the technology and “go back to nature.” To others, it’s a call to improve upon the science—to use more sophisticated techniques and a more holistic approach—in tackling future challenges. The organic community, not surprisingly, tends to fall into the former camp: At a recent event sponsored by the environmental website Grist in San Francisco, Pollan argued that we aren’t doing developing nations a favor by bestowing fossil-fuel dependent agriculture just as those fuels are becoming increasingly scarce and more expensive. Pollan says that giving farmers in the developing world the tools to do sophisticated organic agriculture would help solve many of their problems, such as hunger, as well as many of ours, such as undocumented immigration.

But those who have spent their careers studying agriculture in the developing world don’t hold out much hope for a biotech-free farming renaissance. Some become downright irate at the suggestion: “Rich countries have seen the productivity of their own farms increase exponentially through applications of science, so much that they do not really want any more,” writes political scientist Robert Paarlberg in his 2008 book, Starved for Science. “This turn against new agricultural science is an affordable attitude in rich countries, but it becomes dangerous if exported to science-starved poor countries….”

Nina Fedoroff, a plant geneticist and adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, also has little patience for organic proponents. “Investing in biotechnology laboratories and training biotechnology-capable scientists is a big deal,” she says. “It’s expensive, it needs to be done everywhere, it’s a huge investment. So getting over this distaste for modern science because people don’t realize how long we’ve been changing plants to suit our needs is a really critical step.”

Back to Nature?

Indeed, from the perspective of science, there isn’t—and has never been—anything natural about farming. Ever since our Mesopotamian forbears began purposely breeding crops to promote desirable traits, humans have been adding an artificial twist to natural selection. Some anti-genetic engineering activists “talk of defending the ‘intrinsic integrity’ of crop-plant genomes,” writes Stewart Brand in his new book, Whole Earth Discipline. “What integrity? Crop plants have no integrity of their own…. Botanist Klaus Ammann points out that good old wheat, fashioned through good old breeding, has modifications that include ‘the addition of chromosome fragments, the integration of entire foreign genomes, and radiation-induced mutations.’” Next to this orgy of gene swapping, biotechnology offers a precision that makes genetically engineered food look downright tame.

Brand, who has a background in biology, admits to being puzzled by the “hysteria” that ensued when genetic engineering first came along in the 1970s. Rare indeed is the scientist who loses sleep worrying about genetically engineered crops or food. And when champions of the environmental movement, such as James Lovelock, Paul Ehrlich, and Peter Raven, advocate for GM technology, it should give GM’s opponents pause. As is the case with nuclear technology, those who know the most about it are also the least afraid of it.

On the other hand, for a science-skeptical community, the knowledge that scientists are undaunted may not be comforting at all. How then, to begin dispelling some of these organic myths? Most proponents of organic food believe, or hope, that their choices are better for human society and for the planet.

Perhaps learning what gains have already come in a genetically engineered form may sway them. In China, the introduction of insect-resistant Bt cotton curbed pesticide use by 71 million kilograms in just four years, drastically lowering the rate of poison-related illness among farmers. In the US, herbicide-tolerant “Roundup Ready” crops from the agribusiness giant Monsanto have enabled American farmers to essentially put away their plows, thus conserving soil, saving water, and sequestering carbon.

“This is a technology that’s pretty green,” says Paarlberg. “And yet, if you’re a member of an environmentalist organization that took its ideology from Rachel Carson, you’re not going to like it because it is based upon what is seen as an arrogant effort to dominate or engineer nature rather than yield to nature or try to work in harmony with nature.”

Few Americans, most of whom live in cities, took note of the “no-till” revolution, or are aware of the megatons of carbon that have been kept out of the atmosphere due to biotech innovations. Indeed, among the natural foods crowd, Monsanto has become everyone’s favorite whipping boy (and not entirely without reason, as the company’s history is marred by PCB dumping, Agent Orange production, and ruthless legal battles against small farmers).

Yet even if doing good is incidental to making a profit, at “agri-tech” firms like Monsanto, scientists are now keenly aware of agriculture’s oversized ecological footprint. In both the private sector and at top-notch universities and research institutes worldwide, crop scientists—like many climate scientists—have become obsessed both with mitigating damage to the planet and with adapting to the imminent environmental changes due to damage we’ve already done. On the mitigation front, they are creating grains that require less water and that utilize nitrogen more efficiently—a boon for the atmosphere, the oceans, and farmers’ bottom lines. And on the adaptation front, they are developing drought-resistant maize varieties for sub-Saharan Africa, rice that can tolerate flooding in Southeast Asia, and rice that can grow in China’s increasingly salty soils.

Also in the pipeline are the first crops engineered to benefit consumers—chickpea, cassava, and banana, for example, that pack extra protein, iron, or vitamin A. (Bio-fortified foods are carbohydrate-rich staples enriched with scarce nutrients, an almost comical contrast to Splenda with fiber.)

Next month, when experts from across the globe convene in Rome for the annual World Food Summit, they will be discussing how to shore up the long-term food supply and, crucially, how to diminish the number of hungry people in the world, which according to the FAO, rose to an alarming 1.02 billion this year. A vital part of their conversation will be to what extent biotechnology can—or should—play a role in these efforts.

For the rest of us “foodies,” now is the time for some deep soul-searching, to decide whether we will allow ideology to win out over evidence, particularly when the goals of biotech are increasingly aligned with many of the values the organic community allegedly holds dear. In the meantime, let us hope that in between sessions, those food summit officials venture out to sample plenty of local Roman fare, unlike the Copenhagen contingent, which will be served a pseudoscientific view of what sustainable food looks like.

Front page art from avlxyz, reivax, iLoveButter, Titanas, Zoonie, tobybarnes, Crystl, and leunix.

Originally published October 26, 2009

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