The Unsustainability of Organic Farming
In recent decades, conventional agriculture has become more environmentally friendly and sustainable than ever before. But that reflects science-based research and technological ingenuity on the part of farmers, plant breeders, and companies, not irrational opposition to insecticides, genetic engineering, and “industrial agriculture.”
Legitimate objections have been raised about the independence and integrity of the commentaries that Henry Miller has written for Project Syndicate and other outlets, in particular that Monsanto, rather than Miller, drafted some of them. Readers should be aware of this potential conflict of interest, which, had it been known at the time Miller’s commentaries were accepted, would have constituted grounds for rejecting them.
STANFORD – “Sustainable” has become one of the buzzwords of the twenty-first century. Increasing numbers of universities offer courses or even programs in “sustainability,” and many large companies boast substantial departments devoted to the subject. In April, many of the iconic multinational companies in the agriculture/food sector were represented at a three-day “Sustainable Product Expo,” convened by Wal-Mart – the largest retailer in the United States – at its Arkansas headquarters.
But, as with many vague, feel-good concepts, “sustainability” contains more than a little sophistry. For example, sustainability in agriculture is often linked to organic farming, whose advocates tout it as a “sustainable” way to feed the planet’s rapidly expanding population. But what does “sustainable” really mean, and how does it relate to organic methods of food production?
The organic movement’s claims about the sustainability of its methods are dubious. For example, a recent study found that the potential for groundwater contamination can be dramatically reduced if fertilizers are distributed through the irrigation system according to plant demand during the growing season; organic farming, however, depends on compost, the release of which is not matched to plant demand. Moreover, though composting receives good press as a “green” practice, it generates a significant amount of greenhouse gases (and is often a source of pathogenic bacteria in crops).