By Elena Day
On October 29, The New York Times published an article titled “Doubts About the Bounty of Genetically Engineered Crops” by Danny Hakim. It compared yields of genetically engineered (GE) corn, rapeseed, and soy in the United States and Canada with yields of these crops (non-GE) in Western Europe. Twenty or so years ago, Europe rejected the “brave new world” of genetically engineered seeds in spite of the promise of higher yields.
According to the article, which used United Nations data, the U.S. and Canada have not reaped an advantage in yields when compared to modernized Western European agricultural producers like France and Germany.
Western Europe led Canada over rapeseed production, before and after Canadian rapeseed became GE. Rapeseed is used to produce canola oil. The cost of a 50,000 seed bag of conventional rapeseed is $85. A 50,000 seed bag of GE is $153.
No difference in corn yields was noted between U.S. and Western Europe. Higher yields for non-GE sugar beets (source of “granulated” as opposed to cane sugar) continue in Western Europe. GE sugar beets have supplanted conventional sugar beets in the U.S. within the last ten years.
A study in 2013 comparing trans–Atlantic yields by Jack Heineman, professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, found that Europe hasn’t been penalized in any way by not making genetic engineering one of its biotechnology choices.
The article also points out that in the U.S. the use of toxins that kill insects and fungi has fallen by one-third, while in France it has fallen by 65 percent. Herbicide use in France has fallen 36 percent while in the U.S. it has risen 21 percent. Monsanto, which is in negotiations to merge with Bayer, has more powerful herbicides coming on line as U.S. and Canadian farm weeds develop resistance to Roundup. By 2025 U.S. corn is projected to have 14 GE traits and it will survive spraying by five different herbicides. Monsanto is already building a factory in Louisiana to manufacture Dicamba, even though GE Dicamba-resistant corn has yet to be approved by the EPA.
Note that the agrochemical giants sell farmers both seeds and herbicide sprays. Expensive “designer” seeds need ever more costly and environmentally questionable herbicide(s). The AgChem companies claim that only by their methods can we hope to feed the projected 10 billion humans who might reside on the planet by 2050.
A close scrutiny of the environmental, social and health consequences of the modern agricultural methods is in order; i.e. how healthy are these humans going to be? Regenerative agriculture has taken on that challenge and is providing an alternative.
Regenerative agriculture seeks to build soil health and regenerate unhealthy soils. Robert Rodale of the Rodale Institute put forward the concept of “organic regenerative agriculture” before his untimely death in 1990. Regenerative agriculture is defined as a holistic approach to growing as much food using as few resources as possible in a way that revitalizes the soil. Synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers are avoided as disrupters of soil life. (Obviously eschewing chemical fertilizers would go far in resolving emissions of nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.) The goal of organic regenerative agriculture is achieved by maintaining a high percentage of organic matter in soils by composting, mulching, cover cropping, crop rotation, green manures, and minimal tillage. Apparently it has been determined scientifically that these practices contribute to carbon sequestration by natural processes of photosynthetic removal and retention of atmospheric carbon dioxide in soil organic matter. The Rodale Institute’s mantra is Healthy Soil = Healthy Food = Healthy People. According to Robert Rodale, with regenerative agricultural practices “Farming becomes, once again, a knowledge intensive enterprise, rather than a chemical and capital intensive one.”
There’s so much to relearn regarding organic/sustainable agriculture, which is what most humans practiced well into the early 20th century.
I read a recent interview on the website of the Organic Consumers Association with a young third generation farmer, Abdellah Boudhira, from Morocco who chose to institute regenerative farming practices beginning in 2012 in an effort to save his family farm. High yields failed to materialize over decades while costs of hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilizers and toxic pesticides got higher. Boudhira and his father grew tomatoes on the same acreage for twenty years. He was spraying chemicals on his tomato plot up to four times a week. Boudhira wanted to avoid ongoing indebtedness to the seed, fertilizer, and chemical companies. He wanted to sell locally at a fair price, not at a low price to intermediaries that sell high to consumers in both Morocco and Western Europe.
Hybrid seeds were first introduced to Boudhira and other farmers in his agricultural community in the 1980’s. The yields were initially higher and the tomatoes were more attractive with uniform size and color. Farmers stopped saving their heirlooms seeds year to year and instead grew only hybrids. Larger agricultural producers depleted the water table. Boudhira’s family pumped from a well that was 8 meters deep in the early 1960’s. Today Boudhira’s well is 120 meters deep. Climate change exacerbated the insect problem as most of the year it is now warm and dry. Wealthier farmers grow tomatoes and other vegetables in isolation in greenhouses to avoid insect pests.
Boudhira no longer monocrops tomatoes year after year. He rotates a variety of vegetables and herbs. He composts garden waste and aged manure. Rotational growing cuts down on insect pests and plant disease. Boudhira says he runs away from anything that warns that a muzzle or gloves are needed for application. He stays away from bank loans as well.
According to 2014 GRAIN, small farmers like Boudhira are producing 70 percent of the world’s food on less than a quarter of all farmland. Boudhira advises other farmers to open their minds and be open to changing their practices. Boudhira says, “I am a farmer by choice. My soul gets inspired when I touch the soil and water and when I plant seeds and watch them grow.” To contact Boudhira in Agadir, Morocco: [email protected]