GMOs not needed so why take the risk? (16/7/2005)

Recently we reported news of research showing organic farming in the U.S. can produce the same yields as intensive agriculture for corn and soybeans, but without the pesticides and with lower energy consumption.

Here we have excerpts from 2 relevant articles, neither of them new. The first is from a book review of Mendel in the Kitchen by the GM evangelist Nina Fedoroff. The reviewer, David Pimentel, a professor of ecology and agriculture in the Department of Entomology at Cornell University, is the researcher who's newly published work on the Rodale study has sent pro-GM and anti-organic campaigners into overdrive.

The second article by Jules Pretty, Director of the Centre for Environment and Society at the University of Essex, contains a still more unpalatable truth for GM proponents like Fedoroff - that maximising the use of locally-available and renewable resources through sustainable agriculture works even betteris especially effective for resource - poor farmers.

As Pretty notes, "the best evidence comes from those very countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America that are said to need most the 'modern' technologies produced by large companies". The result is, "More food output from fewer fossil-fuel derived inputs." In resource-poor areas this can mean an astonishing two to threefold increase in food output. (ITEM 2)

The reason GM proponents are so desperate to deny such alternative ways of 'feeding the world', of course, is that they lead on to an inevitable question: Why accept the deep uncertainties surrounding GMOs if they are not actually necessary?

As Dr Colin Tudge recently noted, "The notion that countries such as Angola actually need GMOs to provide sufficient yields is simply a misunderstanding, or a straightforward lie... their introduction suppresses local production and increases the dependency of poor countries on those who supply the new technologies. The argument in favour of GMOs, supported not least by Tony Blair, rests on the assumption that they are necessary. If they are not needed, there is no point in taking any risk at all."

1. excerpt from Changing Genes to Feed the World,
a book review by David Pimentel
Science, Vol 306, Issue 5697, 815 , 29 October 2004

I found the authors' criticisms of organic agriculture surprising. They report that yields from organic farming are significantly lower than those for most conventionally grown crops and therefore conclude that a shift toward organic foods would require significantly more cropland. This is not the case. Long-term experiments (lasting 22 years) conducted at the Rodale Institute that compared conventional corn and soybean production with two different organic technologies found that the yields were approximately the same. In fact, during drought years corn yields from the organic treatments were significantly higher than those from the recommended conventional approach. The organic farming technologies also offered the advantage of avoiding applications of insecticides and herbicides, whereas conventional corn production uses more insecticides and herbicides than any other crop grown in the United States. Overall, organic approaches would reduce the use of fossil energy in corn production by about 30 percent and substantially increase the organic matter in the soil. The authors' discussion of organic farming emphasizes its potential drawbacks while neglecting the opportunities it offers to conserve fossil energy resources, reduce soil erosion, and reduce global warming.

2.Feeding the world?
'SPLICE', August/September 1998 Volume 4 Issue 6

Jules Pretty examines the myths and realities of sustainable farming's quiet revolution

...Poor farmers cannot afford expensive modern technologies that could increase their yields. What they need are readily available and cheap means to improve their farms.

And there are signs that a quiet revolution in the world food system is beginning to occur.

Sustainable highlights

* some 223,000 farmers in southern Brazil using green manures and cover crops of legumes and livestock integration have doubled yields of maize and wheat to 4-5 tons/ha;

* some 45,000 farmers in Guatemala and Honduras have used regenerative technologies to triple maize yields to some 2-2.5 tons/ha and diversify their upland farms, which has led to local economic growth that has in turn encouraged re-migration back from the cities;

* more than 300,000 farmers in southern and western India farming in dryland conditions, and now using a range of water and soil management technologies, have tripled sorghum and millet yields to some 2-2.5 tons/hectare;

* some 200,000 farmers across Kenya who as part of various government and non-government soil and water conservation and sustainable agriculture programmes have more than doubled their maize yields to about 2.5 to 3.3 t/ha and substantially improved vegetable production through the dry seasons;

* 100,000 small coffee farmers in Mexico who have adopted fully organic production methods, and yet increased yields by half;

* a million wetland rice farmers in Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam who have shifted to sustainable agriculture, where group-based farmer-field schools have enabled farmers to learn alternatives to pesticides whilst still increasing their yields by about 10%.

Sustainable agriculture - the quiet revolution has started

Quietly, slowly and very significantly, sustainable agriculture is sweeping the farming systems of the world.

Put simply, sustainable agriculture is 'farming that makes the best use of nature's goods and service whilst not damaging the environment.' It does this by integrating natural processes such as nutrient cycling, nitrogen fixation, soil regeneration and pest predators into food production processes. It minimises the use of non-renewable inputs (pesticides and fertilisers) that damage the environment or harm the health of farmers and consumers. And third, it makes better use of the knowledge and skills of farmers, so improving their self-reliance and capacities.

This sequence is very important. During this century, modern agriculture has seen external inputs of pesticides, inorganic fertiliser, animal feedstuffs, energy, and machinery becom

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