Complete ban on synthetic Pesticides idiosyncratic and at times contradictory
The real advantage of organic produce lies in the fact that often they are free of pesticide residues because truly organic farmers refrain from the use of pesticides as much as possible. Or they resort to botanical pesticides which are often less toxic and less persistent in the environment (albeit less effective) compared with most chemical pesticides.
However, this is not always true.
Methyl bromide is toxic to humans and a known carcinogen but still allowed in organic strawberry production in many jurisdictions.
Pyrethrins from chrysanthemum flowers are safe to humans but very toxic to bees and aquatic life. Rotenone from the derris plant is mildly toxic to humans but extremely toxic to insects and aquatic life and is associated with Parkinson’s disease.
Copper sulfate is a common fungicide allowed in organic farming. It contains copper which is a heavy metal. LD50 is a measure of toxicity; it is the dosage of a poison at which half of a target population die. Copper sulfate has an LD50 of 300 mg/kg of bodyweight. On the other hand, Mancozeb, a chemical fungicide has an LD50 of 4,500 to 11,200. Thus, Mancozeb a forbidden fungicide is 15 to 37 times “safer” than copper sulfate which is allowed.
A chemical is synthetic if it does not exist in the natural world. The basis for prohibiting use of a pesticide is its active ingredient. But the organic label prohibits compounds existing in nature if they are produced by chemical synthesis. Thus prohibition is idiosyncratic, not based on the pharmacology of the chemical, but based on doctrine.
The global chemical industry reeling from massive lawsuits and relentless pressure from environmentalists, the medical profession and the consuming public is turning out chemicals and biostimulants which are increasingly more benign, less persistent and more target specific than the existing traditional organic pesticides. Depriving farmers and consumers of these future potentially more effective, healthier and safer options is myopic and mindless.
Complete ban on GMOs
Bereft of scientific bases
The third prohibition in formal (legal) organic agriculture is the ban on the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Most people associate this ban alone with GM crops but this actually covers as well the use of engineered microorganisms in food fermentation, synthesis of medicines, vaccines, hormones, bio-stimulants, and food and feed supplements.
The argument against GMOs is that they are not “natural” and therefore disruptive of ecology and the balance of nature, unsafe to humans and the environment.
Since 1996, when GMOs were first introduced commercially, 11 species of GM crops have been grown in 26 countries involving 17 million farmers. Over this 22-year period, 2.5 billion hectares of GM crops have been harvested worldwide. But to date not a single instance of alleged allergenicity nor poisoning has been recorded/confirmed.
The brief against GMOs is bereft of scientific bases. Unlike climate change where there are still a few significant scientific hold outs, there is a global scientific consensus on the safety of GM crops relative to their conventionally-bred counterparts.
Following are formal statements from the World Health Organization (WHO) of the United Nations, the European Commission (in spite of prevalent adverse national legislations against GMOs), the Royal Society (UK), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Similar formal declarations of support for safety of GM crops have been issued by the world’s leading national academies of science in the USA, UK, China, India, Brazil, Mexico, the Third World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), and our very own National Academy of Science and Technology (Philippines):
World Health Organization: “GM foods currently available in the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.” (20 questions on genetically modified foods, 2013)
European Commission: “The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are no more risky than conventional plant breeding technologies.” (A decade of EU-funded GMO research, 2010)
The Royal Society (UK): “A previous Royal Society report (2002) and the Government’s GM Science Review (2003/2004) assessed the possibilities of health impacts from GM crops and found no evidence of harm. Since then no significant new evidence has appeared. There is therefore no reason to suspect that the process of genetic modification of crops should per se present new allergic or toxic reactions…. Global food insecurity is the product of a set of interrelated local problems of food production and consumption. The diversity of these problems needs to be reflected in the diversity of scientific approaches used to tackle them.” (Reaping the benefits: Science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture, 2009)
American Association for the Advancement of Science: “… contrary to popular misconceptions, GM crops are the most extensively tested crops ever added to our food supply. There are occasional claims that feeding GM foods to animals cause aberrations ranging from digestive disorders, to sterility, tumors and premature death. Although such claims are often sensationalized and receive a great deal of media attention, none have stood up to rigorous scientific scrutiny. Indeed, a recent review of a dozen well-designed long-term animal feeding studies comparing GM and non-GM potatoes, soy, rice, corn and triticale found that the GM and their non-GM counterparts are nutritionally equivalent.” (Scientific consensus on GMO safety stronger than for global warming, 2015)
National Science Academies: Joint Statement (including the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Indian National Science Academy, the Mexican Academy of Sciences and the Third World Academy of Sciences): “GM technology has shown its potential to address micronutrient deficiencies [in developing nations]. These nutritional improvements have rarely been achieved previously by traditional methods of plant breeding.” “GM technology, coupled with important developments in other areas, should be used to increase the production of main food staples, improve the efficiency of production, reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, and provide access to food for small-scale farmers.” “Decisions regarding safety should be based on the nature of the product, rather than on the method by which it was modified. It is important to bear in mind that many of the crop plants we use contain natural toxins and allergens.” (Transgenic Plants and World Agriculture, 2000)
Global Organic Agriculture in 2017
Despite these challenges on the soundness of the prohibition of use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and GMOs, organic agriculture had been growing spectacularly during the last 18 years. From 11.0 million hectares in 1999, farmlands devoted to organic production has multiplied to 69.8 million hectares in 2017. Organic agriculture for now accounts for only 1.4% of the world’s total farmlands but it is growing rapidly.
In terms of monetary value, organic foods and beverages were worth US$97.8 billion. This was 4.1% of the global agriculture produce of US$2.4 trillion.
Small farmers are increasingly getting engaged in organic farming. India leads with 835,000 small organic growers. The Philippines with 166,000 is fifth among the countries with the largest numbers of organic producers.
Realities of World Agriculture
Thus, there are two opposing views on the future of world agriculture. On one hand is mainstream conventional agriculture which provides the bulk of food for humanity (98.6% of hectarage). And on the other, organic agriculture which claims to address the downsides of the dominant conventional, chemical-based, industrial agriculture. The latter is still very small but growing fast in the developed countries particularly among well-off urban dwellers.
In the global scale, the glaring undeniable reality as well is the need for more food to feed the growing global population which is projected to grow from the present 7.7 billion to 9.8 billion in 2050. This much increase in food production will have to be achieved with increasingly less farmland, less fresh water and diminishing biodiversity.
On the positive side, we are witness to the increasing sophistication in genome editing and synthetic biology, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. These advances in science and technology are anticipated to raise primary productivity in the farms, introduce new tools to address old recalcitrant problems, produce altogether new products, and establish new livelihoods and industries.
Unfortunately, unless the organic farming community relents in its discrimination against synthetic, man-made inputs, these improvements will not pass muster under the organic label.
Domestically, at least in the next two decades unless our economy takes a sharp turn upward, an embarrassing proportion of Filipinos will still be poor and food insecure. With continuing population growth, diversion of precious farm lands to human settlements and industrial uses, our per capita availability of arable land and water for irrigation will worsen.
Thus, the imperative to dramatically raise productivity per hectare per year and per liter of available irrigation water, AND AT A COST AFFORDABLE TO THE POOR.
To be continued . . . Part 3
Dr. Emil Q. Javier is a member of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) and also chairman of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines (CAMP).
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