The last six months have been tumultuous for anyone working in the food supply chain. From farms to grocery stores, there have been disruptions of all kinds imaginable (and unimaginable), due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Even food systems as simple as the local farmer’s market, found each week in many urban centers across North America and Europe, have felt the impact of COVID-19, as lockdowns made business as usual next to impossible. Social distancing measures have greatly limited these urban markets and as a result, have reduced income for local farmers and artisans who peddle their crafts at these venues. These disruptions denote yet another crack in our food supply chain, another vulnerability which must be addressed to keep produce moving from farm to fork.
This brings to mind Europe’s Farm-2-Fork, which is “at the heart of the European Green Deal,” a recently released agricultural policy plan that is meant to be the future of Europe’s food supply chain, and which is intended to make food systems sustainable, healthy and environmentally-friendly.
According to the EU’s statement, the Farm-2-Fork Strategy will accelerate the transition to a sustainable food system that should:
- have a neutral or positive environmental impact
- help to mitigate climate change and adapt to its impacts
- reverse the loss of biodiversity
- ensure food security, nutrition and public health, making sure that everyone has access to sufficient, safe, nutritious, sustainable food
- preserve affordability of food while generating fairer economic returns, fostering competitiveness of the EU supply sector and promoting fair trade
The problem is that this is wishful thinking — ideological Happy Talk that, by embracing primitive agricultural practices and rejecting modern technologies, will move Europe toward exactly the antithesis of these goals.
To scientists and the agricultural policy community, therefore, Farm-2-Fork is a disappointment. It supports the wider application of organic agriculture, with particular emphasis on the reduction of the use of modern pesticides and attempting to limit the loss of biodiversity, while simultaneously promoting the increase of crop yields. However, as discussed below, those goals are incompatible.
Sadly, the plan also appears to omit the use of new crop-breeding techniques, such as genome editing and genetic engineering (including recombinant DNA technology and synthetic biology), also known as “genetic modification” (a term we dislike), which could help to achieve its ultimate goals.
The new technologies and scientific discoveries which are described in the Green Deal strategy do not seem to embrace modern biotechnology; in fact, the entire action plan only mentions once the word “biotechnology,” in a vague sort of way:
New innovative techniques, including biotechnology and the development of bio-based products, may play a role in increasing sustainability, provided they are safe for consumers and the environment while bringing benefits for society as a whole. They can also accelerate the process of reducing dependency on pesticides.
(It’s unclear who will be anointed to decide whether a new technique “brings benefits for society as a whole” and, therefore, “may play a role” in European agriculture.)
Instead, the Farm-2-Fork strategy seems to strongly support “eco-schemes,” which “will offer a major stream of funding to boost sustainable practices, such as precision agriculture, agro-ecology (including organic farming), the creation of landscape features, carbon farming and agro-forestry.”
It also commits the European Commission to “put forward an Action Plan on organic farming,” because
This will help Member States stimulate both supply and demand for organic products. It will ensure consumer trust and boost demand through promotion campaigns and green public procurement. This approach will help to reach the objective of at least 25% of the EU’s agricultural land under organic farming by 2030 and a significant increase in organic aquaculture.
This is more Happy Talk. Increasing organic food production to 25% from its current 7.5% will not, in fact, result in more sustainable food production, promote biodiversity, or reduce environmental stresses.
A prevalent “green myth” about organic agriculture is that it does not employ pesticides. Organic farming does, in fact, use insecticides and fungicides to prevent predation of its crops. Dozens of synthetic chemicals are acceptable and commonly used in the growing and processing of organic crops under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s arbitrary and ever-shifting organic rules. Many of those organic pesticides are more toxic than the synthetic ones used in ordinary farming.
But the fatal flaw of organic agriculture is the low yields that cause it to be wasteful of water and farmland. Several years ago, plant pathologist Steven Savage analyzed the data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Organic Survey, which reported various measures of productivity from most of the certified organic farms in the nation, and compared them to those at conventional farms. His findings were extraordinary. In 59 of the 68 crops surveyed, there was a yield gap, which means that, controlling for other variables, organic farms were producing less than conventional farms. Many of those shortfalls were large: for strawberries, organic farms produced 61 percent less than conventional farms; tangerines, 58 percent less; cotton, 45 percent less; rice, 39 percent less; and on and on.
As Dr. Savage observed: “To have raised all U.S. crops as organic in 2014 would have required farming of 109 million more acres of land. That is an area equivalent to all the parkland and wildland areas in the lower 48 states, or 1.8 times as much as all the urban land in the nation.” He concluded: “Since the supply of prime farmland is finite, and water is in short supply in places like California, resource-use-efficiency is an issue even at the current scale of organic (1.5 million cropland acres, 3.6 million including pasture and rangeland).”
Perhaps the most illogical and least sustainable aspect of organic farming in the long term will be the exclusion of “genetically engineered” plants that were modified with the most precise and predictable modern molecular techniques. Except for wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the fruits, vegetables, and grains in our diet have been genetically improved by one technique or another—often as a result of seeds having been irradiated or via “wide crosses,” which move genes from one species or genus to another in ways that do not occur in nature. (These more-primitive techniques of genetic modification are acceptable in organic agriculture.)
In recent decades, we have seen genetic engineering advances such as plants that are disease-, pest-, drought-, and flood-resistant. The result has been higher yields for farmers and lower costs for consumers. It is unclear how the transition to low-yield, more tenuous organic farming will empower European farmers or consumers, or increase Europe’s independence with respect to the need to import foreign crops to feed their population.
Although attention is often focused on first generation genetically engineered crops with herbicide tolerance and insect resistance traits, there are important second-generation genetically engineered crops that are or will soon be ready to advance agriculture. These “climate smart” crops include plants that can help to sequester carbon by changing their root architecture, for example, or that can retain moisture and withstand extreme temperatures, drought, or saline conditions. Crops with improved yield, such as those that have larger seeds/leaves/tubers and in higher numbers, or with controlled senescence to provide a longer shelf life, are becoming available. Crops that can better make use of nitrogen in the soil, crops that have improved capacity for photosynthesis, and crops that can improve nutritional status, such as omega-3 oilseed crops and cereal crops biofortified with iron and zinc, are also available.
This new generation of food crops uses biotechnological approaches such as cisgenesis, transgenesis, RNA interference, and, most recently, genome editing. These technologies can advance agriculture in ways that were never believed possible, and at speeds unheard of a few decades ago. Genome editing is especially promising, because many complex traits such as crop yield, photosynthesis, and drought resistance involve multiple genes, and, therefore, would be difficult to achieve through conventional breeding alone. Genome editing could be particularly attractive to Europeans, because it does not require the introduction of new gene sequences but simply directs only one or a few nucleotide changes within a plant genome.(and may, therefore, be more acceptable to regulators and the public).
Unfortunately, none of those technologies is included in the European Green Deal’s plan for advancing agricultural practices. Instead, the Action Plan posits an increase in yield with a concomitant decrease in the use of pesticides, and a further embrace of organic agriculture, with all its disadvantages. Ironically, this initiative was released around the same time as the publication of two lengthy research papers on this topic (here and here) by economists Graham Brookes and Peter Barfoot.
Genetically engineered, transgenic crops that express bacterial toxins from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (“Bt”), developed to kill insects are a good example. These “Bt” toxins are safe for mammals but are lethal to insects that feed on plants containing them. The result has been a tremendous reduction in the use of chemical pesticides in countries such as India and China, where Bt-cotton is widely cultivated, and in Bangladesh, where Bt-eggplant is grown. The health benefits of reduced pesticide use for farming households, including women and children, can be significant. In the case of food crops such as Bt-corn, lessened insect predation has led to decreased levels of mycotoxin, which in turn provides both health and economic benefits to farmers.
Brookes and Barfoot provide detailed data in their article, “Environmental impacts of genetically modified (GM) crop use 1996-2018; impacts on pesticide use and carbon emissions.” For insect-resistant Bt-maize, the authors cite a reduction in active ingredient pesticide usage of 59.7%, an aggregate in all countries growing this genetically engineered crop, with Brazil, Canada and South Africa showing the greatest drops (92.0, 88.7 and 73.3%, respectively).
For Bt-cotton, the authors cite a reduction in pesticide usage of 32.2% for all countries that grow the crop, with Australia, China and India leading the pack (33.9, 30.9 and 30.4%, respectively). For Bt-soybeans, the reduction in pesticides in South American countries is 8.2%.
These genetically engineered crops also promote reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Brookes and Barfoot calculate the percentage increase in carbon storage (due to reduced tractor fuel use and expressed as average family car equivalents removed from the road for a year) as a total of 69,000 for Bt-maize 35,000 for Bt-cotton; and 136,000 for Bt-soybeans.
Thus, it is clear that Bt crops alone substantially reduce pesticide usage and greenhouse gas emissions, which are among the primary goals of Europe’s Farm-2-Fork strategy. (By permitting no-till farming, herbicide-resistant crop plants also decrease CO2 emissions.)
In a second article published simultaneously, the authors analyze the global economic impacts of genetically engineered crops. Yields for insect resistance were most prominent in developing countries (because they start from a lower baseline), and gross income gains for Bt-maize and Bt-cotton, for example, were US$4.53 billion and US$4.38 billion respectively. Perhaps reflecting the triumph of hope over experience, the authors observe that they hope their “analysis continues to contribute to understanding the impact of this technology and to facilitate more informed decision-making, especially in countries where crop biotechnology is currently not permitted.”
The cultivation of insect resistant genetically engineered crops has enabled farmers to markedly decrease chemical pesticide usage, increase their yields and income, enhance biodiversity by preserving wild spaces, and reduce carbon emissions. Although these findings are incontrovertible and widely known, the Farm-2 Fork strategy seems to be deliberately avoiding this success story.
As genetic engineering’s successes continue to emerge, the gap between the methods of modern, high-tech agriculture and organic agriculture will become a chasm, and organic and agroecology will be increasingly unable to compete. By embracing primitive, inefficient technologies, how, then will the EU increase agricultural yields and feed their population? To make up for the yield shortage of domestic organic agriculture, they will presumably have to boost the outsourcing of farming to other countries, which, because of the need to transport products, will consume more fuel and produce greenhouse gas emissions.
In formulating policy that is, or should be, based on science, there is a point at which optimism ends and dishonesty begins. The European Green Deal is a bad deal for everyone.