One of the main concerns about conventional agriculture is pesticide use, specifically runoff and residues. Although these are valid concerns with conventional agriculture, they are prominent concerns with organic agriculture too. Just because organic foods are treated with less pesticides does not mean they are pesticide free.
For instance, according to a European Parliamentary Research Service briefing titled “Organic food: Helping EU consumers make an informed choice” written by Ivana Katsarova, the European Union (EU) allows certain organic pesticides to be used on plants including copper sulfate.
According to the report, this fungicide is thought to bioaccumulate, which means that those toxic compounds build up in the food chain just like how mercury accumulates in fish.
The use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) could have rectified this problem. Based on guidelines set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), however, organic agriculture does not include GMOs.
When I attended Kimberly Parker’s talk the “Environmental Fate of Agrochemicals from Emerging Genetically Modified Crops” as a part of the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering seminar series on Oct. 22, I learned that she developed second-generation GMOs, which change or reinforce a plant’s natural defenses.
The technique focuses on double-stranded ribonucleic acids (dsRNA) biopesticides. It can significantly reduce the amount of pesticide needed using dsRNA biopesticides. These biopesticides are biodegradable and effective, which reduces the need for externally administered pesticides.
Parker investigated the effects of GMOs on the environment and sought to improve GMO strains from their precursors. Bacillus thuringiensis corn (Bt corn) served as a precursor to dsRNA GMOs. Bt corn produces its own pesticide; however, extended use reduced its effectiveness since pests developed resistance.
dsRNA biopesticides are more effective than Bt since it directly affects protein production within the pest. To combat the resistance to dsRNA biopesticides, GMOs are typically given stacked traits. This technique is similar to the way that cancer patients often receive multiple chemotherapy medicines to avoid resistance to any specific one.
Another potential technique is to genetically insert dicamba resistance, which would make the desired crop more resistant to the stronger pesticide dicamba. The main pesticide used with crops is glyphosate, also known as RoundUp. In the past, many crops were modified to achieve glyphosate resistance since it is a relatively mild pesticide. Crops would be modified against pesticides to avoid getting killed by the pesticides.
Like with Bt corn, pests soon became resistant to glyphosate, which meant stronger pesticides needed to be used like dicamba. These stronger pesticides had a higher chance of killing the desired crop.
For instance, Parker claimed that glyphosate was lethal at one-percent concentrations for a non-resistant plant while dicamba was lethal at 0.005-percent concentration. According to Parker, stronger pesticides like dicamba also run the risk of secondary drift. Secondary drift damages or kills crops other than the target. Thus, dicamba resistant plants would allow less dicamba to be sprayed, leading to less secondary drift from excess pesticide and more effective spraying without having to worry about the desired crop dying. Clearly GMOs constitute viable alternatives to pesticide use.
In addition to forbidding the use of environmentally protective options like GMOs, organic farming also uses more land than conventional agriculture.
In the study “Carbon footprints and land use of conventional and organic diets in Germany,” Hanna Treu and colleagues found that the carbon footprint of organic farming was similar to conventional farming, but organic farming used approximately 40 percent more land because of ineffective farming techniques.
According to Treu, an average conventional diet consists of more animal products than an average organic one. In the same token, animals require more land than vegetables since they need space to graze and live. So while data about conventional farming should indicate higher land use than organic farming, it does not.
On the other hand, conventional and organic farming release the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions. The authors concluded that similarity in greenhouse gas emissions must come from organic farming’s higher land use.
In fact, organic milk production needs more land than conventional milk production. Greater land use is environmentally taxing because it often requires deforestation, making fewer trees available to sequester carbon dioxide, thereby increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.
Not only does organic food production use more land, it also provides less food. The world’s food supply is limited, so less food production is an ineffective use of resources.
According to Parker, the world food supply must double to provide food for a population of 10 billion people and address malnutrition. Farming methods that fail to maximize food production per land unit are unacceptable; these ineffective methods increase the environmental impact of agriculture while providing less returns. Therefore, organic food production taxes the environment more than conventional agriculture with higher land usage and less effective pesticides.
Instead of buying organic, buy conventional agriculture to support biotechnology which increases efficiency of food production as much as possible. Organic food’s environmental impact is in many cases worse than conventional food by rejecting innovative biotechnology.