BEGINNING IN 1997, an important change swept over cotton farms in northern China. By adopting new farming techniques, growers found they could spray far less insecticide over their fields. Within four years they had reduced their annual use of the poisonous chemicals by 156 million pounds – almost as much as is used in the entire state of California each year. Cotton yields in the region climbed, and production costs fell. Strikingly, the number of insecticide-related illnesses among farmers in the region dropped to a quarter of their previous level.
This story, which has been repeated around the world, is precisely the kind of triumph over chemicals that organic-farming advocates wish for.
But the hero in this story isn’t organic farming. It is genetic engineering.
The most important change embraced by the Chinese farmers was to use a variety of cotton genetically engineered to protect itself against insects. The plants carry a protein called Bt, a favorite insecticide of organic farmers because it kills pests but is nontoxic to mammals, birds, fish, and humans. By 2001, Bt cotton accounted for nearly half the cotton produced in China.
For anyone worried about the future of global agriculture, the story is instructive. The world faces an enormous challenge: Its growing population demands more food and other crops, but standard commercial agriculture uses industrial quantities of pesticides and harms the environment in other ways. The organic farming movement has shown that it is possible to dramatically reduce the use of insecticides, and that doing so benefits both farm workers and the environment. But organic farming also has serious limits – there are many pests and diseases that cannot be controlled using organic approaches, and organic crops are generally more expensive to produce and buy.
To meet the appetites of the world’s population without drastically hurting the environment requires a visionary new approach: combining genetic engineering and organic farming.
This idea is anathema to many people, especially the advocates who have helped build organic farming into a major industry in richer countries. As reflected by statements on their websites, it is clear that most organic farming trade organizations are deeply, viscerally opposed to genetically engineered crops and seeds. Virtually all endorse the National Organic Standards Board’s recommendation that genetic engineering be prohibited in organic production.
But ultimately, this resistance hurts farmers, consumers, and the planet. Without the use of genetically engineered seed, the beneficial effects of organic farming – a thoughtful, ecologically minded approach to growing food – will likely remain small.
Despite tremendous growth in the last 15 years, organic farms still produce just a tiny fraction of our food; they account for less than 3 percent of all US agriculture and even less worldwide. In contrast, in the same period, the use of genetically engineered crops has increased to the point where they represent 50 to 90 percent of the acreage where they are available. These include insect-resistant varieties of cotton and corn; herbicide-tolerant soybean, corn, and canola; and virus-resistant papaya.
After more than a decade of genetically engineered crops, and more than 30 years of organic farming, we know that neither method alone is sufficient to solve the problems faced – and caused – by agriculture.
It is time to abandon the caricatures of genetic engineering that are popular among some consumers and activists, and instead see it for what it is: A tool that can help the ecological farming revolution grow into a lasting movement with global impact.
By 2050, the number of people on earth is expected to increase from the current 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion. To feed those people with current crop yields and farming practices, we will need to clear, fertilize, and spray vast amounts of wild land. Millions of birds and billions of beneficial insects will die from lost habitat and industrial pesticides, farm workers will be at increased risk for disease, and the public will lose billions of dollars as a consequence of environmental degradation. Clearly, there must be a better way to boost food production while minimizing its impact.
An alternative is to expand the number of organic farms, which do not use synthetic pesticides and thus support higher levels of biodiversity than conventional farms. Some organic farmers even retain patches of natural habitat on farms to provide shelter for wildlife. But at current crop yields, farming will still need to absorb huge amounts of additional land that is now home to wildlife and diverse ecosystems. A clear challenge for the next century is to develop more productive crops, not just better farming techniques, and genetic engineering has demonstrated great promise here.
One way to boost yields is to develop crops that can survive harsh conditions such as drought, cold, heat, salt, and flooding. Many of the world’s poorest people farm in areas that are far from ideal, and freshwater sources are decreasing in quantity and quality throughout the world. Organic farming can help somewhat: Organically cultivated soil tends to hold water longer because of the higher levels of organic matter. Still this approach has limits. Far more helpful would be new crop varieties designed to survive in difficult environments, and in the future this is where genetic engineering will likely have the most significant human and ecological impact. Crops with enhanced tolerance to drought, for instance, would allow farmers to produce more food using less water. Already there are varieties of genetically engineered wheat that can tolerate drought, as well as rice that can tolerate flooding and tomato plants that can tolerate salt.
Another important challenge is to fight pests and disease, which take an estimated 20 to 40 percent bite out of agricultural productivity worldwide. Reducing this loss would be equivalent to creating more land and more water. But current pesticide use is a health and environmental hazard, and organic and genetic engineering offer complementary solutions. Genetic engineering can be used to develop seeds with enhanced resistance to pests and pathogens; organic farming can manage the overall spectrum of pests more effectively