Myth: UN Calls for Small-Scale Organic Farming

Up till a few years ago, I used to make the natural assumption that organic farming must be better for the environment. Since then I realised that I should be relying on scientific evidence, not merely assumptions. On several occasions I’ve asked people (scientists, organic farmers and supporters) to point me in the direction of evidence on the environmental impacts and sustainability of organic farming. So far that quest hasn’t been very fruitful – I haven’t learned of many scientific papers that would really support that view.

What I have frequently been referred to are a few different kinds of documents instead. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) 2013 report is one of them.

MYTH- UN calls for small-scale organic farming (1)

Does the UNCTAD report constitute good evidence for the benefits of organic agriculture?

This report, as well as similar earlier UNCTAD reports, have been presented – in the media, and by organic supporter organisations (like the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation) – as the word of United Nations.

Example headlines: “UN Report Says Small-Scale Organic Farming Only Way to Feed the World” (Technologywater, a site on aquaponics, self-reliance, and water security – the piece was re-posted on the Huffington Post) and “United Nations Calls for an End to Industrialized Farming” (truth-out.org).

Here is the first hiccup. Despite the claims, this report does not actually represent the views of the UN or the UNCTAD. These myriad reports are presentations made by collections of individual authors. This particular 2013 report is written by a group of organic advocates – these are not the words of institutions, or UN, or scientific organisations, or even agricultural organisations.

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 10.00.12

Disclaimer in the UNCTD report

In the first pages of this report (of all UNCTAD reports, what I’ve checked), the above note can be found (my emphasis). “The views expressed in the articles contained in this Review are the personal views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their respective organisations and institutions.”

Many of the individuals behind this report are working for organic companies or activist organisations, like SEKEM (organisation and trading company driving biodynamic farming and other activities according to Steiner philosophy, called Antroposophy); Heinrich Böll Foundation (a think tank for the German Green party); Regionalwert AG (German organic local food company); and Grolink (Swedish consulting company, motto: “Serving the organic world”); ISIS, (Institute of Science In Society – promotes homeopathy, water memory, and chinese medicine, spreads anti-vaccine articles); and Pesticide Action Network (which makes rather broad claims, “Pesticide corporations distort information to make their products seem safe and necessary”), to name a few.

Among the scientists that do feature among the report authors is New Zealander Jack Heinemann, who has a track record for questionable claims, rejected also by New Zealand and Australia’s food regulatory agency FRANZ. More about Heinemann’s far-out claims in Science-Based Medicine and Biofortified.

The group of authors seems heavily weighed by the presence of advocacy groups. Still, the personal views presented in this report could reflect scientific evidence, and the judgement should be made based on scientific evidence – not based on their word alone. Giving this (or any other UNCTAD) report as a reference for a point about organic or conventional farming, however, seems more an obfuscating than a clarifying tactic, as it requires the reader to sift through some 300 pages of  different individuals’ views on various topics (from trade, forestry, regulation, food waste, to agriculture, with many subtopics on special cases) instead of focusing on presenting the key evidence.

Why turn to UNCTAD to begin with?

Should one be seeking for an organisational statement as an indicator of the usefulness of an agricultural method, if you stop to consider it, the Conference on Trade and Development might not really be the first UN agency to turn to. There are, however, three other UN agencies which deal with questions relevant to agriculture: the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Food Program (WFP), and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Some articles about this UNCTAD report leave the UN department unnamed, claiming simply that the United Nations have announced small scale organic farming to be the solution to feeding the world – although neither UNCTAD nor any of the more agriculture-relevant UN agencies have made such claims. What comes to the claims of the individual author’s in this report, I’m afraid some seem to be making clear leaps of reasoning.

As an example, there is a section in the UNCTAD report about the supposed benefits of biodynamics – that is, benefits of treating the soil as a holistic spiritual organism (see the report for the section about SEKEM).

If you weren’t previously familiar with biodynamic practices, let me give a brief description. I’ve touched on it before, buried organs and the like. As Wikipedia puts it:

One of the first sustainable agriculture movements,[2][3][4] it treats soil fertility, plant growth, and livestock care as ecologically interrelated tasks,[5][6][7] emphasizing spiritual and mystical perspectives. Proponents of biodynamic agriculture, including Steiner, have characterized it as “spiritual science” as part of the larger anthroposophy movement.[1][2][8]

Key methods of biodynamic farming include eight essential preparations (see table).

Components of biodynamic preparations

Key biodynamic preparations. See the paper for a review of biodynamic methods

A literature review of biodynamic farming reports on remarkably ritualistic ways of using the preparations – far removed from basis in evidence:

Essentially, the only difference between organic and modern biodynamic farming lies in the application of Steiner’s preparations (Carpenter-Boggs et al., 2000a; Giannattasio et al., 2013), which must be “applied in minute doses, much like homeopathic remedies are for humans”

And the review mentions more methods adopted by biodynamic farming, which are even further removed from this world:

Other alternative practices not discussed in this review have become part of the biodynamic movement, including use of cosmic rhythms to schedule various farm activities and image formation to visualize nutritional quality of plants.

You can read more about the cosmic rhythms planting calendar at the Biodynamic Association. Let’s just say that the individuals writing this particular UN conference report do not necessarily require sound scientific (or even non-spiritual) grounds for the methods they advocate for. Luckily most of the report is not about biodynamic farming.

The UNCTAD report is about subsistence farming

Most of these cases presented in the UNCTD report look at subsistence farmers in the developing world. This is a very special scenario, where people have extremely limited resources, and are living from hand to mouth – nothing comparable to the more expensive luxury food situation that organic label stands for in the western world. In fact, in 2007 the UN Food and Agriculture Organization touched on this in a UN news piece titled Organic farming alone will not ensure global food security, cautions UN agency. They note:

Generally, products that are grown organically attract higher prices than those grown conventionally, boosting farmers’ incomes. However, the large-scale investments involved in this method of agriculture are often beyond the reach of most poor farmers in developing countries.

In the UNCTAD report, however the authors make an interesting combination of arguments. One, in chapter IX, argues that organic farming is better in the developed world because the farmers can ask for a better premium for their product (luxury product), and goes on to say that organic must also be better in the developing world because of higher price of the produce.

One may ask if more expensive food really is the key for the developing nations food situation, however, and another author makes just this contradictory point in his conclusions on page 209 – that it would be important to lower the price of food, which the poor use most of their meagre incomes on.

Bakweri_cocoyam_farmer_from_Cameroon

Farming in Sub-Saharan Africa. Image from Wikipedia: Subsistence farming, CC BY-SA 3.0

The author of chapter IX lastly says organic is better in the developing world because it has better yield. Interesting. Why would organic give better yield in the developing world, when its yields are consistently lower in the west?

Looking at some of the trials in this report where the authors claim a yield increase (with their respective methods) as high as 180 %, it is important to note that it may not be that hard for organic production trial to yield the same or to outperform conventional subsistence farming, when that subsistence farming has limited access to improved seeds, fertiliser and other inputs – small improvements or access to better materials could make a world of a difference.

If you compare the yield differences presented in these trials to the body of scientific literature, the results are night and day. Reviews of conventional and organic farming in controlled – comparable – situations find that organic yields are consistently a third smaller than conventional (depending on the review, 20-50 % smaller – see more in Delving deeper into the roots of organic, or a review in Nature).

An important thing to keep in mind: the lower the level of production to start with, the easier it is to show a percentage gain, even from a small actual gain. Since these are very poor conditions farming, it is not perhaps so surprising that there is an large variance in yield.

What this report is mainly discussing is that the subsistence agriculture of developing nations doesn’t work well, and is in need of improvement. It doesn’t actually look at developed nations or what we know as conventional agriculture.

Ignoring all this, and using these individual author’s views to draw conclusions about agricultural practices in the western world would be lopsided at best.

How does UN view the role of biotechnology?

This report also makes very little mention of biotechnology, and when it does (in one of the chapters by Jack Heinemann, the scientist with far out claims), they are introduced to the reader in the form of a blanket rejection (page 203). The argument is: we still have problems, ergo, biotechnology has not worked. It should not be used. This is rather interesting.

Why? When you contrast this report on developing nations’ agriculture with the views of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN, you find that excluding GMOs and endorsing only organic methods isn’t the message at all. In fact FAO calls for the inclusion of biotechnology – a “paradigm shift” towards sustainable farming. From a speech by FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva:

Options such as Agro-ecology and climate-smart agriculture should be explored, and so should biotechnology and the use of genetically modified organisms, FAO’s director-general said, noting that food production needs to grow by 60 percent by 2050 to meet the expected demand from an anticipated population of 9 billion people. “We need to explore these alternatives using an inclusive approach based on science and evidences, not on ideologies,” as well as to “respect local characteristics and context,” he said.

This is all we should ask, and all that I am trying to do – explore farming methods based on the science. We must look at the evidence instead of relying on any ideology – including the ideology that whatever ‘natural’ means, that must be best.

You can read the long official FAO statement on Biotechnology. From there:

FAO continues to assist its member countries, particularly developing countries, to reap the benefits derived from the application of biotechnologies in agriculture, forestry and fisheries

What about small-scale farming?

The Director-General also points out:

Subsistence agriculture on small plots of land perpetuates the vicious cycle of poverty.

Small-scale is not a solution to the developing countries agricultural problems. Small scale is the status quo, out of necessity. The necessity of constant farm labour is keeping the population from seeking education and other work. It requires that a majority remains as farmers, their efforts barely fulfilling the needs of their families. Their children can’t go to school if they have to help out on the fields to survive. This is the cycle of poverty.

What comes to small-scale farmers in the developing countries, looking at the data shows that they are the group that has particularly benefited from access to biotech crops – an option organic farming would forbid them.

Biotechnology helping the poor

What comes to helping the situation of the poor, several reports and reviews highlight that contrary to common perception, the greatest benefits from biotech crops come from smallholder farmers in developing countries. Margaret Karembu, Environmental Science Education PhD, writes about the findings of the ISAA report on SciDevNet:

At least 90 per cent of the 18 million farmers who grew biotech crops in 2013 were small-scale resource-poor farmers in developing countries. One of the findings in the ISAAA report, for instance, shows that national benefits to Bt cotton farmers in Burkina Faso were estimated at US$26 million, representing 67 per cent of total benefits with only US$12 million accruing to the technology developers.

Cotton_picking_in_India

Photo from Wikipedia by Claude Renault, CC BY 2.0

A study on Genetically Modified Crops and Food Security surveying Indian households found that:

…the adoption of GM cotton has significantly improved calorie consumption and dietary quality, resulting from increased family incomes. This technology has reduced food insecurity by 15–20% among cotton-producing households. GM crops alone will not solve the hunger problem, but they can be an important component in a broader
food security strategy.

Similarly, a study on the Impact of Genetically Modified Maize on Smallholder Risk in South Africa finds lower risk for farmers using biotech crops, and International Food Policy Research Institute makes the following assessment:

Savings in terms of increased gross margins (114%), reduced pesticide costs (62–96%), beneficial human and environmental effects, and improved yields (18–29%) over conventional crops in the presence of pest pressure have been documented for small-scale African farmers growing commercial GM crops. This despite high variation among crops, time, and geographies.

You might also consider a decade of EU research on biotechnology, which puts a focus on developing nations. The European Academies Science Advisory Council’s (ESAC, representing all EU member state science councils), in their report Planting the Future: opportunities and challenges for using crop genetic improvement technologies for sustainable agriculture, highlights how the very technology that organic antagonises, is offering significant benefits on many sustainability aspects (my emphasis):

Taken together, the published evidence indicates that, if used properly, adoption of these crops [GMOs] can be associated with the following:

• reduced environmental impact of herbicides and insecticides;

• no/reduced tillage production systems with concomitant reduction in soil erosion;

• economic and health benefit at the farm level, particularly to smallholder farmers in developing countries;

• reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural practices.

Excluding the mysticism-based farming ideas, and the general antagonisation of many modern technologies by the organic labels, there may still be interesting research into the organic methods in subsistence farming conditions included in the UNCTAD report. If such studies are included (the reference list is long and much of it not scientific papers), looking at them in the context with all the other evidence is the objective way to evaluate farming methods. Looking at relevant science – and agricultural organisations’ actual views on these questions – is a better start than merely relying on the conclusions of these individual authors.

In other words, if someone presents this report as important evidence, the question we really should be asking is: is this the most relevant evidence that can be found? Why are we not looking directly at scientific reviews or statements from agricultural organisations? It is not enough to make the claim that one method of farming would be more sustainable than another. We should also ask for robust proof of such benefits, which the UNCTAD report does not provide.

Without evidence, sustainability is just a pretty word

For those interested in best agricultural practices from both environmental and humanitarian points of view, the FAO’s work includes projects such as Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agriculture systems (SAFA). Their tool (see the image below) presents the many important aspects which should be taken into consideration when concluding whether a farming style is sustainable or not. Organic farmers, just like all others, should strive to show concrete evidence of benefits or shortcomings concerning factors like human safety and health, climate change and energy, land, accountability, product quality and information, and so forth – not rely on the assumption that their naturalness will automatically result in greater sustainability.

SAFA sustainability circle 1

FAO tool for Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agriculture systems (SAFA). The lined purple area gives a simultaneous overview of all respective indicators, giving an idea of overall sustainability. The further out to the green (red-organge-yellow-green), the better the impacts in each aspects.

From the SAFA indicators publication (my emphasis):

Having a mission which includes sustainability principles is not evidence of sustainable practice. Mission statements can be used to project an image of sustainable practice beyond the actual effort of the enterprise.

The pros and cons of organic

Looking at the body of current evidence, scientists have found reduced environmental impact, reduced GHG emissions, and better situation for the farmers as result of biotechnology – you can read more about these topics in my post GMOs and the environment. When you combine that with the scientific consensus that GMOs are just as safe, and in some cases nutritionally superior to their non-GMO counterparts (see more at Biofortified or Genetic Literacy Project), it is clear that the organic vision is quite unfortunate in its reliance on ideology rather than evidence – what comes to health and environmental questions. As a marketing tool, however, its natural image is increasingly popular.

The full version available here at GLP

The full version available at Genetic Literacy Project

My criticism of organic, what comes to its reliance on ideology, does by no means suggest that all organic methods would be bad. I believe the great majority of farmers want to do what’s best for their land, crops, and consumers. Organic farmers do this by making good use of important methods like crop rotation, Integrated Pest Management (IPM), and cover crops, for instance – methods which are supported by scientific evidence and have documented environmental benefits. This does not necessarily single organic out as better than non-organic, however, as these methods are used by non-organic farmers as well.

The USDA tells us that the majority of cropland in the U.S. is farmed using crop rotations, and that IPM has been incorporated at over 70 % of US farms since the year 2000. Cover-cropping on the other hand is not very widespread – according to USDA, for various reasons, only 3 to 7 percent of farms use cover crops. The majority of these farms, by necessity, are non-organic, as organic farms account for less than 1% of the farms in the US (roughly 14,000 organic farms, or 3.7 million acres vs about 2 million farms all in all, or total 914 million acres).

A large meta-analysis of European research finds that organic farming compares favourably what comes to soil organic content, but its drawbacks are greater land use and higher nitrogen pollution. There are drawbacks and benefits to every method, and only careful evaluation of evidence will help us discern them.

Whenever we make a specific claim, it’s important to remember that we should not assume, but instead try to look for good sources of evidence that confirm or reject that claim. I try hard to follow that principle. I am here for the evidence, and want to find the best way for humans, animals, and nature on this globe to go on living together. I am sure we are all on board with this sentiment – it’s an important common ground, one that we should never forget.


If you would like to have a discussion in the comments below, please take note of my Commenting policy. In a nutshell:

  1. Be respectful.
  2. Back up your claims with evidence.

I would like to thank the many scientists, farmers, and interested lay people at GMO Skepti-Forum and Food and Farm Discussion Lab for their participation and valuable pointers in dissecting topics of contemporary agriculture.

This piece has also had the honour of being published at the sites of the non-profits Biofortified and Genetic Literacy Project, as well as the Skepti-Forum blog.

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About Thoughtscapism

Cell Biologist, volunteer science communicator, and fiction writer.
This entry was posted in agriculture, biotechnology, organic and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Myth: UN Calls for Small-Scale Organic Farming

  1. Pingback: Monocultures – the great evil of modern Ag? | Thoughtscapism

  2. Andrew says:

    “Our AMA recognizes that there is no evidence that unique hazards exist either in the use ofrDNA (GE) techniques or in the movement of genes between unrelated organisms.”

    Really? I think the people affected by Zika since the introduction of Bill Gates’ rDNA modifed mosquitos would disagree with this assessment. Dont piss down my leg and tell me its raining.

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    • Hello Andrew! Please take a note about this blog’s commenting policy (1. Be respectful, 2. Base your claims on evidence, more in: https://thoughtscapism.com/about/commenting-policy/).

      While I don’t really know what you are quoting above, the science on genetic engineering does indeed support the view that no unique hazards exist with the method compared to other breeding methods.

      I also happen to know a virologist who has been closely following the Zika virus, and I thought you might be interested in reading his overview of the topic. It is a very hazy conspiracy theory to begin with, that Zika would have anything to do with modified mosquitos. When making such claims on this blog, please note that quality evidence is required, as well as the ability to present your view points in a friendly and respectful manner.

      Here: “Debunking the myths surrounding the Zika virus outbreak in South America” http://themadvirologist.blogspot.ch/2016/01/debunking-myths-surrounding-zika-virus.html

      Thank you for your interest in my blog and have a great day.
      Iida/Thoughtscapism

      Like

  3. J Hughes says:

    The answer you are looking for is permaculture. If you would like evidence research Sepp Holzer (amongst many many others)

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    • I’m afraid I haven’t seen much to indicate permaculture to be science-based. I know of a permaculture teacher who blogs about it here:

      “the two of main influences on Holmgren- Steiner and Schumacher (“Small is Beautiful”) tell us all we need to know: Permaculture is an ideological movement rooted in the much broader anti-modernist and retro-romantic movements that have been around since the beginning of the modern era.”

      “permaculture has never been a science and is nothing if not an ideological movement.

      Permaculture is not just agriculture ofcourse, and has a heavy focus on urban farms and gardens and small-holdings; and has spread far beyond this to embrace advocacy on everything from sustainable housing to renewable energy to Deep Ecology and airy-fairy “People Care” ; but its origins would seem to be almost identical to what has become the agroecological movement, closely associated with the Food Sovereignty movement (pdf) and the Organics movement, albeit the latter with a narrower and more clearly defined focus.”

      https://skepteco.wordpress.com/2015/09/02/what-is-permaculture/

      Like

  4. Bob says:

    Are you familiar with the Rodale Institute’s Farm Systems Trial? It’s, “America’s longest running, side-by-side comparison of organic and chemical agriculture. Started in 1981 to study what happens during the transition from chemical to organic agriculture, the FST surprised a food community that still scoffed at organic practices. After an initial decline in yields during the first few years of transition, the organic system soon rebounded to match or surpass the conventional system.” You can check out its findings here http://rodaleinstitute.org/assets/FST-Brochure-2015.pdf

    Like

    • Hello Bob!

      I am familiar with the claims of the study, and also some problems with it. To truly be considered as a quality argument, it would have to publish its trial in a peer-reviewed journal, and disclose its full methods. So far, what I know comes partly from an acquaintance on the discussion forum I helped run, who is a geneticist, and had correspondence with the Rodale Institute. They sent him more of their data, and he found several oddities in it.

      He has commented on them as follows:

      “they have released cherry-picked results, like corn yield under “moderate” drought. If you look at yield from all years, conventional corn out yields organic.”

      “The chart they show of organic corn out-yielding conventional corn in “moderate drought” is limited to data from only 5 years that interestingly excludes many years of drought….I suppose because they weren’t “moderate”?”

      “There are other oddities. For instance, they cite a $108-144 herbicide cost for corn per acre. Thats nearly 3-4x cost most conventional farms use”

      A presentation of some of the data in more detail can be found here: http://www.ifoam.bio/sites/default/files/gsw_rodale.pdf

      Another commentary by a agricultural writer pointed out the following differences between a trial and studies of real-world differences.

      “The biggest thing is that labor is higher in the organic trial fields. Well, when labor and skill are at a premium, then trials tend to do much better than the real world. It’s a lot easier to get great results with highly motivated, highly skilled researchers doing the work.

      That is what would explain a lot of the why they get such different results from real world observational data.”

      More on that here: http://www.agbioworld.org/newsletter_wm/index.php?caseid=archive&newsid=2391

      For instance: “As Pimentel put it, “yields per ha between organic and conventional corn for grain may be similar within a given year.” But, on a farm-scale, system-wide basis, the corn yields were nearly double for the old-school conventional. Why? Because the organic system required a legume cover crop, thus eliminating corn growing opportunities such that corn was grown 60% of the time in the conventional system vs. only 33% of the time in the organic. This was partially compensated by a wheat crop – yet not nearly enough to compensate for substantially higher corn yields.”

      If you are interested in joining in, I can send you a link to a Facebook discussion forum where the Rodale Trial has been discussed more.

      Thanks for stopping by!
      Iida/Thoughtscapism

      Like

  5. Pingback: Environmental impacts of farming | Thoughtscapism

  6. Sheila Williamson says:

    What is your take on the sustainability of modern agriculture when you measure the energy input ( machinery fuel fertiliser herbicide pesticide) against the energy value of the output? Modern agriculture is the process of turning oil into food (Jeremy Grantham) Empitical observation rather than scientifically proved

    Like

    • Hello Sheila, and thanks for your interest in my blog!

      I am very interested in sustainability questions, starting with the ways to define sustainability in general, as well as climate effects, carbon emissions, etc.

      This piece which I just wrote actually touches on many of these topics, and may interest you: https://thoughtscapism.com/2016/07/21/environmental-impacts-of-farming/

      What comes to reducing fuel use, biotechnology has had a notable impact there, and pesticide-tolerant varieties have helped reduce carbon emissions. Minimizing run-off is another important factor, also helped by the same crop varieties, as they allow the wider adoption of no-till.

      Another great look at essentials in sustainability are discussed here: https://www.biofortified.org/2015/08/sustaining-agriculture/

      I hope these give you an idea on my thoughts on sustainability concerns. Please let me know if there were some more specific questions you might be interested in discussing!

      Hope you enjoy your day,
      Iida/Thoughtscapism

      Like

  7. Kirk Gillman says:

    Look up Green Gold with John D Liu, it shows a shift to permaculture practices to fix an ecosystem and increase productivity/incomes by multiples. It is a complete system, not just a comparison of yields between mono-cultured crops which is ridiculous if that is the only standard we are going to accept as proof. The other is a report which includes several farms in CA, which includes Singing Frog Farms which has a no-till/no spray methodology which is turning profits minimally 5 times above surrounding farms, that doesn’t happen by accident.

    Like

    • Hello Kirk,

      Thanks for your interest for my blog. It sounds like you are giving me a book recommendation, and while I am thankful for your input, I would be cautious about using books as primary sources of evidence. They can be entertaining and give a good introduction to a topic, but they may also have a liberal relationship to evidence, so to settle a factual claim I would prefer to go directly to peer-reviewed articles. What would be interesting, would be to look at scientific studies evaluating the pros and cons of permaculture. I’m afraid so far I haven’t seen much to indicate permaculture to be science-based. As you might have read from a previous comment, I know of a permaculture teacher who blogs about it here:

      “the two of main influences on Holmgren- Steiner and Schumacher (“Small is Beautiful”) tell us all we need to know: Permaculture is an ideological movement rooted in the much broader anti-modernist and retro-romantic movements that have been around since the beginning of the modern era.”

      “permaculture has never been a science and is nothing if not an ideological movement.”

      https://skepteco.wordpress.com/2015/09/02/what-is-permaculture/

      If there indeed are great environmental and yield benefits to permaculture, it will not be difficult to get farmers or agricultural scientists to take notice, for the practice to spread, and studies to get a larger scope. Happy to hear if you are aware of any existing studies on these lines!

      Thanks for stopping by, hope you have a great weekend.
      Iida/Thoughtscapism

      Like

  8. Jim Northern says:

    Peer reviewed science is of course great, and I would not argue against proven advances in sustainability made by biotech nor can I see how Organic monoculture could ever match yields of conventional farming.
    That said, funding available for scientific research does come mostly from corporations who have products to sell. Research is a costly business. If there is no product to sell at the end of it, then it would take a very altruistic organisation to fund it. Personally I see this as a fundamental flaw with most science – not just agriculture – science is often motivated by profit.
    The 20th century theory of classic neoliberalism still holds sway over most investment and government policy. But are market forces the best method of allocating resources? Because there is a fundamental problem with this approach – as Friedman, one of the main advocates of late 20th century free market capitalism said – a free market only works where you have a level playing field. The very concept of a level playing field in economic terms is clearly a nonsense. Allowing the scope of science to be dictated to by market forces therefore seems equally nonsensical.

    This market driven capitalism has demonstrably affected the global climate. Unfortunately the profit motive blinded the world to the effects of carbon consumption, potentially destabilising the climate for the sake of a few years of relative financial growth in developed nations. Logic was totally absent where climate change was concerned for much of the 20th c. Whilst I applaud genuine developments in biotech, I would just like to see this being driven by logic, not profit.

    Like

    • Hello Jim,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. While short-sightedness and focus on relatively quick gain will undoubtedly be features of human endeavours into the foreseeable future, I also think that in some ways we learn more as we go along. Many of the technological advances in agriculture in the earlier 20th century, for instance, wide-spread use of more harmful chemicals, has changed a lot for the better as our knowledge on those topics has accumulated. On a climate-related field, scientists uncovered the effect freons have on the ozone layer, and now freons have largely been replaced and the ozone layer is clearly recovering. Considering climate change, scientists have actually been consistently warning about the effect of greenhouse gases, also from early 20th century. Politically, the scientific understanding has been more slow to gain ground among decision-makers and among the general public, making appropriate responses to the situation slow.

      Research is also generally always driven by a mix of funding sources. Government grants count for fair amount of research, take for instance the break-down of studies depending on funding when looking at GMO-safety, Marc Brazeau wrote about it here: https://cosmosmagazine.com/biology/gm-food-safe-according-independent-studies
      And you can easily look up the funding information among all the studies listed in the GENERA database for biotech studies.

      If you would like to take a closer look at the studies yourself, I have included some links in my overview here: https://thoughtscapism.com/gmos/

      Biofortified piece: “a collection of 126 studies with independent funding. Not all of the studies are supportive of the position that GMOs are no riskier than their conventionally bred counterparts, but the vast majority support that proposition.”

      GENERA: “There are more than a 1000 peer-reviewed reports in the scientific literature which document the general safety and nutritional wholesomeness of GM foods and feeds. Many of these tests are done as part of a comparative assessment between a GM variety and its non-GM counterpart. About 30% of the safety studies are funded through independent sources.”

      Luckily often logical improvements to farming are inherently improvement to both, farmer effort and resource use as well as the environment. Biotech so far has reduced pesticide use, fuel use, reduced erosion, and enhanced nutrition. This works to make farmers’ situation economically more secure, as well as protect the environment. When it comes to humanitarian values, in the developing world especially, it would be ill-advisable not to include farmer profits as an important part of the equation.

      Iida/Thoughtscapism

      Like

  9. Brian Hicks says:

    I pretty much believe what is in the report, and am very much an advocate. But I appreciate you calling out the way it has been misrepresented. Blind adherence to ideologies of any type (even those close to my heart) are not helpful.

    Like

  10. Pingback: No, the UN did not dismiss pesticides as unnecessary | Thoughtscapism

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