Agriculture isn’t Natural

By Keith Kloor | June 12, 2014 1:34 pm

In PLOS Biology, a UK geneticist offers some wise suggestions on how to move beyond the simplistic frames that dominate agriculture and the GMO discourse. She writes:

First, it is necessary to move on from the well-worn logical fallacy that anything natural is good, and anything unnatural is bad. The application of this fallacy to agriculture is an excellent illustration of why it is so flawed. Plants evolved by natural selection, driven by the survival of the fittest. As a result, naturally, they are defended to the hilt from herbivores of all kinds, including humans. We know this. No one sends their children into the woods saying “Eat anything you find. It’s all natural, so it must be good for you.

It’s hard to exaggerate just how much romanticized, outdated views of nature influence the discourse on agriculture and other sustainability issues.

A prime example is this recent post from Greenpeace Africa about “ecological farming.” Below the picture of the smiling Kenyan woman, Greenpeace explains the eco-farming she is engaged in.

A woman inspects a crop of sorghum in Kenya

This woman is part of a community-based organisation that trains farmers and promotes ecological agriculture and other development technologies among small-scale farm holders in Kenya. Ecological farming is a way of growing food that works in harmony with nature — not against it. While chemical-intensive agriculture uses artificial fertilizers and pesticides to alter the environment, ecological farming works to enrich the soil and protect crops in ways that don’t destroy the ecology of the surrounding environment.

This mushy notion of nature-friendly agriculture is widely held in green circles. Perhaps “ecological farming” is another way of saying organic is better than conventional, in which case you should read this myth-busting piece by Christie Wilcox.

In this country, we can afford to indulge our ideological predilections and yearning for a mythical agricultural idyll. But as Tina Rosenberg wrote earlier this year in the New York Times:

Pesticides and inorganic fertilizers are bad for the environment. But this is not an argument that anyone who eats in America should be making to African subsistence farmers. In 2006, an African Union Declaration (pdf) on agriculture adopted the goal of 50 kilograms of fertilizer per hectare planted. At the time, Africa was using only eight kilos per hectare; America was using 120. Africa needs vastly more fertilizer use, not less.

Of course, bringing a green revolution to Africa is not as simple as increasing fertilizer use–or working in so-called harmony with nature.

Additional Reading:

“Don’t Mimic Nature on the Farm, Improve it,” by Andrew McGuire at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources.

“Feeding Africa: why biotechnology skeptics are wrong to dismiss GM,” by Calestous Juma, at the Guardian.

“An Unlikely Fix: nitrogen fertilizer and organic agriculture,” by Adam Merberg, at the Biofortified blog.

“The problems with the arguments against GM crops,” by Margaret Karmbu at SciDevNet.

  • http://chrisoestereich.com/ Chris Oestereich

    Instead of blanket call for more fertilizer, I’ll advocate for wiser use of it. Let’s deliver as much as necessary, as precisely as possible, and no more.

    • Matthew Slyfield

      ” I’ll advocate for wiser use of it. Let’s deliver as much as necessary, as precisely as possible, and no more.”

      Before such an approach can be attempted, you would have to define, how much is necessary, and how precisely it can be delivered otherwise your approach devolves in to a blanket call for less fertilizer.

      • http://chrisoestereich.com/ Chris Oestereich

        I agree with the first part of your statement and think we’re continually getting better at that. The latter part of your statement comes off as self-aggrandizing conjecture. Just because I’m a wildly-progressive enviro, doesn’t mean that I’ve been inoculated from adhering to good science. Using more fertilizer is fine with me, IF it’s determined wise use given the available data. As we get better field-level data over time, we should learn where we ought to use more, and where we ought to use less. A call for wise use is not a blanket call for less fertilizer. It is purely a call for wise use, whatever that may be.

        • Matthew Slyfield

          ” It is purely a call for wise use, whatever that may be.”

          The problem is, we have no objective way of defining what wise use of fertilizers is, and there are already people out there advocating that the only wise use of fertilizers is no use of fertilizers.

          I understand that you mean well, but the political process tends to reduce such things to the lowest common denominator.

          • http://chrisoestereich.com/ Chris Oestereich

            “I understand that you mean well.”
            Cute.

  • mem_somerville

    I wonder if that happy woman benefiting from the improved sorghum varieties developed by Gebisa Ejeta. He won a World Food Prize for them a while back: https://www.worldfoodprize.org/en/laureates/20002009_laureates/2009_ejeta/

    The striga story is fascinating. A nasty weed.

    But Ejeta gave testimony to Congress a few years back that I thought was very good, about the issues with African agriculture. http://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/EjetaTestimony090324a1.pdf

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Chi Mel

    Well Wilcox has her own agenda, and her opinion piece is just her own, and skips on several aspects of organic farming either by ignorance or consciously. Vegetable farming for instance is just as intensive and productive in both conventional and organic farming, so we could switch instantly and not decrease production, just grow food that’s better for the farmer, the consumer, the environment and the economy (3 times more jobs per acre, for instance.)

    I support genetic engineering even for organics, but there are also valid reasons why farmers prefer to spray or dip Bt preventively or on demand as opposed to having every single cell of the crop produce the same toxin 24/7 and risk killing “good” insects too (pest predators or pollinators, for instance.)

    But I agree there is nothing natural in agriculture, and there hasn’t been for thousands of years.

    • JH

      “just grow food that’s better for the farmer, the consumer, the environment and the economy”

      Which is better? :) I can’t imagine any reason why organic food should be better for consumers, and it’s certainly not better for the economy. Whether it’s better for the farmer or not depends on how much people are willing to pay for it.

      • Iain Park

        Uhm maybe people don’t want to consume ll those chemicals and drugs involved in the growing f their food.

    • Graham Strouts

      Some vegetable crops can meet conventional yields, but generally require more labor and/or more tilling which is worse for the soil. Also, all Organic ag requires a Nitrogen subsidy from non-Organic manure- there simply is not enough manure to go around, and if Organic production increased much from the very small market share it currently has, this would become an ever increasing problem.

  • Bernie Mooney

    It amazes me that so-called progressives are so regressive when it comes to this issue.

    • Bearpants42

      There’s no better real world example of cognitive dissonance in action.

    • Guy Smith

      It’s also amazing how so called GMO progressives are so reductionist and blinded by their confirmation biases.

  • JH

    I’m so excited! Smiling peasants make me want to reach for my wallet!

    • Bearpants42

      and how!

  • JH

    Keith!

    Did Elon Musk just throw in the towel?

    The market is acting like Musk’s opening up of Tesla’s patents is some sort of amazing shrewdness. Nope. He’s giving away the patents because he knows there is no significant advance in battery technology on the horizon that can drive down the cost of batteries. Unless he can drive a massive increase in EV sales and thereby drive a massive increase in the market for batteries and thus derive some scaling efficiency from increased battery production, there’s no hope that the price of batteries will come down enough to make the EV widely adoptable.

  • Joseph Lang

    Really sloppy reporting….does discover really pay you? (Gee like 4 paragraphs, everything else is cut and paste.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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