The future conservation value of organic and GM agriculture

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Organic food seems to have an overwhelmingly positive reputation in the west. Better for wildlife, better for those eating it, other than a slightly higher price what could you possibly find not to like? On the very face of it, nothing. But begin to use some joined-up thinking, and they’re not quite as benign as may be first thought. There have been a few reviews of intensive, GM and organic agriculture coming online recently, here I’m going to give a biodiversity and conservation perspective, as this is my main background.

Organic and traditional-style farming are known to be at their most beneficial for wildlife in areas where agriculture has been occurring for thousands of years (I.E. most of Europe, parts of Africa and Asia, and I believe some areas of the Americas). Local flora and fauna have had time to adapt the predictable seasonal cycles and environmental conditions that these systems entail, and so thrive with them as a result.  Otherwise, they are greatly reduced in numbers by the heavy use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers that are used in ‘intensive’ agriculture.

In areas where agriculture is a much more recent development (for example, New Zealand) the benefit from organic is less, as the local wildlife is less adapted to agricultural conditions, and so it is inevitably harmed when farming takes place-though of course not to the same extent as whilst being blasted by agricultural chemicals on the side.

But as the reader is likely to be from areas where agriculture has a long history, and so as organic food is in your eyes clearly superior for conservation, why should you care about this non-issue?

It’s been predicted that between 2005 and 2050 global crop demand will have increased by 100-110%. I know, I know, if we all reduce our meat consumption then this figure will plummet, but the simple fact is that there is no sign of this happening-in fact global meat consumption is increasing.

In light of this rise, the fact that organic has been shown to be around 54% less productive than intensive agriculture is a real problem. To use ballpark figures, to have a world fed by organic agriculture in its current state requires twice as much land devoted to agriculture. That’s a real problem when in recent decades roughly 80% of new cropland was claimed at the expense of tropical forests, one of the habitats conservationists are rightly particularly keen to protect. To meet the world’s projected food demand by 2050 without intensifying agriculture will require humanity to clear around 1 billion hectares. With intensification of our food supply, this could be reduced to 0.2 billion. That’s a lot of high-quality habitat conserved at a stroke

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With this in mind the simple ‘organic=good for wildlife, intensive=bad’ mindset is exposed as misleading. Whilst in western countries it causes local rises in biodiversity, this can be viewed as being to the detriment of tropical ecosystems, an effect which is accelerating annually with population rises in tropical regions.

The issue is of course not a simple one, however. Agricultural chemicals can have many severe environmental effects, both on wildlife and people. Though of course we need to feed the world, and do it in an informed manner, doing so in an environmentally degrading way is unwise.

This is why I favour a shift to the use of genetically modified crops-GMOs (GM livestock is an issue that I’m not going to go into here). Many GM crops require far less fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides, and so would have a lower environmental impact than our current agrichemical-heavy system, whilst maintaining that all-important high crop yield.

This is controversial for many environmentalists, but why exactly? After many decades of use worldwide, there remains no sound scientific reason for believing that GMOs have any impact on human health, and why should they? Small changes in a plant’s DNA simply alter it’s physical form very slightly. Mildly altered DNA is broken down in your body just the same as unaltered DNA. As a lot of GMOs are the result of inserting a gene from edible plant A into edible plant B, suggesting that they will be harmful is akin to saying that it’s perfectly healthy to eat a horse, and a donkey, but the DNA of a mule is somehow dangerous.

Mostly these fears seem to be simply a result of a lack of the understanding of science, and play on fears that humanity is ‘playing god’. I’m sure people once thought that vaccinations were ‘playing god’ too, as they are indeed ‘unnatural’. But lives saved with negligible side effects are really not something to be sniffed at, regardless of any misplaced distrust in your notion of ‘scientists’. (I’d like to point out that Mark Lynas recently gave a talk on this matter, which is well worth checking out if you have the time).

Environmentalists (and I count myself as one) rarely discuss GM without quickly bringing up Monsanto. This seems completely disingenuous; rather than a coherent point it’s inevitably just a simple play on many people’s inherent fear of big business. Being your good lefty-type person I’m uncomfortable with how much control companies would gain over our food supply. But this ignores a simple point: agribusiness already has a chokehold over the overwhelming majority of our food, and this seems unlikely to change. We may as well allow them to use this power to feed the world at the least environmental impact possible,.

I feel it seems that thus the only reasons to oppose GM are our own perceptions of the inherent moral goodness of organic and GM, which when balanced against the morals of large-scale deforestation in the next few decades seems frankly absurd. Conservationists and environmentalists are usually the same people, but in actively promoting far-lower agricultural yields for conservation purposes at the expense of huge tracts of rainforest, we seem to be cutting off our nose to spite our face.

Follow me on twitter @goldenmole

Photos by Vampire Bear and markg6

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About hammerheadbat

A conservation biology PhD, I spend my days studying tropical deforestation, bats, and wider ecological questions.
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One Response to The future conservation value of organic and GM agriculture

  1. goldenmole says:

    N.B. I realise that I have assumed for the purposes of this article that the world faces a binary(?) choice between intensive, gm and organic. Obviously a combination-approach is far more likely in the real world, but for this to happen those who are environmentally-literate need to be a bit more considered in their condemnation for a technology with the power for huge conservation impacts.

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