I am always a sucker for a catchy sounding report — like the one the World Business Council for Sustainable Development released last week: “Agricultural Ecosystems: Facts and Trends.” It had it all: the noble sounding “Council,” the association between agriculture and ecosystems, and the appeal to my inner science-geek with words like “facts” and “trends.” I printed it out enthusiastically and got out my highlighter, ready to read all of the fascinating new insights into agriculture, food, and the environment.
I was intrigued by the beginning section on consumer patterns which detailed the increased demand for meat in developing countries and the impact this might have worldwide. One section focused on the role of animal production in climate change. I skipped along to the climate section nodding my head in agreement the entire time: converting grasslands to agriculture is a huge source of carbon dioxide emissions; conventional agriculture can threaten biodiversity; and agricultural greenhouse gas emissions can be mitigated by integrated crop management and minimum tillage. I balked a bit when they cited that agriculture produced 14 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the year 2000 (since then the United Nations has stated that animal production alone produces 18 percent of our global greenhouse gas emissions), but I still felt confident that the report might be worth something.
Maybe I set my expectations a bit high.
The report was in the home stretch and almost had me on board, until it started to mention the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications and biotech crops. The ISAAA, a front group for the biotech industry, has been pushing biotech crops as a solution for climate change because of their supposed reduced tillage (and thus reduced carbon emissions). The report notes that because of biotech crops and reduced tillage, more than 14.8 million tons of CO2 have been removed from the air. Suddenly this report didn’t seem so unbiased anymore.
I must say though, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development wasn’t completely one-sided, they did give a little shout out for those of us who aren’t jumping up and down about GMOs. “Some members of the public have concerns about biotechnology — generally these refer to its perceived negative impact on food safety and the environment.” That’s it — no attempt to counter these “members of the public.” Food safety and human impacts aside, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development has completely overlooked the latest research with regards to no-till and organic agriculture.
For nine years the United States Department of Agriculture conducted a study to examine the difference between conventional no-till agriculture and organic agriculture. The USDA results, out last year, demonstrated that not only does organic agriculture increase soil health but also it offsets more emissions than conventional no-till farming. In laymen’s terms: Even the best conventional agriculture can’t beat organic. The research doesn’t stop there. Last week I attended a Congressional briefing presented by the Rodale Institute discussing their studies over the past 30 years comparing conventional and organic farming methods. Systems using cover crops and compost, combined with no-till organic practices, had the lowest energy inputs when compared to conventional no-till and traditional organic.
Adopting no-till, cover crop and compost farming methods would result in an agricultural system that could mitigate 40 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. It is as far away from the Monsanto monocropped field of corn as you can imagine, and the potential benefits could fundamentally change our nation’s entire agricultural focus.
What the USDA and the Rodale Institute confirmed is that a quick technological fix for our agricultural system does not exist now and never was a viable solution. Those who tout biotech crops as means to reduce climate change have clearly not considered the vast inputs, and consequential emissions, of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, transportation, and farm equipment that come with these seeds. Agriculture has a unique opportunity to mitigate and even reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. To harness that potential, we should begin to promote the methods of farming proven to reduce emissions. Biotech crops: not included.