Last week I wrote about three recent rulings that went “against” mainstream agribusiness. The first, by a Californian jury, found that glyphosate, a widely used herbicide, was carcinogenic and should be labeled as such. The second, by the EU Commission, was that partial bans on neonicotinoids, an important pesticide, should be extended and enlarged to prevent harm to bees. The third, by the EU Court of Justice, was that gene editing was a form of genetic modification and should come under existing GMO legislation.
The three rulings, coming as they did in close succession, made some wonder what the world has against agriculture in general and farmers in particular.
However, the rulings show the increasing disconnect between consumers and producers. The strong growth in demand for organic food highlights that consumers, particularly urban dwellers, increasingly want their food to be produced and delivered without herbicides or pesticides, and without its genes being modified or edited in any way. Farmers on the other hand want to produce as much food as they can from as little land as possible, and as cheaply as possible. Herbicides, pesticides and breeding techniques (whether genetic or “natural”) help farmers enormously in this task.
In a piece for Foreign Affairs Bill Gates put the case for research into gene editing, writing
This sort of research is vital, because a cow or a few chickens, goats, or sheep can make a big difference in the lives of the world’s poorest people, three-quarters of whom get their food and income by farming small plots of land…
Improving the productivity of crops is fundamental to ending extreme poverty. Sixty percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa earn their living by working the land. But given the region’s generally low agricultural productivity—yields of basic cereals are five times higher in North America—Africa remains a net importer of food. This gap between supply and demand will only grow as the number of mouths to feed increases. Africa’s population is expected to more than double by 2050, reaching 2.5 billion, and its food production will need to match that growth to feed everyone on the continent.
The challenge will become even more difficult as climate change threatens the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Africa and South Asia. Improving the productivity of crops is fundamental to ending extreme poverty.
Gene editing to make crops more abundant and resilient could be a lifesaver on a massive scale.
In other words, we will have to improve agricultural yields if we want to feed the world and drag people out of poverty. Climate change will make food production even more difficult in the future, while at the same time we need to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint, both in terms of its own emissions and in terms of forest erosion.
So we have a contradiction here: rich world consumers want their food produced organically, but at the same time they want farmers to use less land. This is a tough “ask” when the world’s population is increasing and when people are eating more meat. Adding a third objective of using agriculture to pull the world out of poverty makes the task even tougher.
However Bill Gates makes an important point when he mentions that cereal yields are five times higher in the US than they are in Africa. The EU beet producers were also right to point out that the extended ban on neonicotinoids would adversely affect beet yields. Against that, the recent increase in EU sugar production has helped to drive world sugar prices down to levels where many developing countries can no longer compete. (Huge production increases in India and Thailand were the main drivers, but the EU increase did contribute.)
You could therefore argue that advances in chemical and gene technology have already increased yields to such an extent that the world is producing too much food. You could add that the fact that these technological advances have largely benefited the developed world (and India and Thailand are part of the developed world), driving down production costs to a level at which under-developed countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, cannot compete. This, as Bill Gates realizes, keeps them in poverty.
So maybe technology has got ahead of itself, (baring weather disasters) resulting in us producing too much food, too cheaply.
Some commentators have drawn parallels between the Californian ruling on glyphosate and the recent study that linked mobile phones and cancer. It is indeed curious that the press were quick to discount the mobile phone story on the basis that cancer rates haven’t increased with mobile phone use, but the media ignores the same logic when applied to glyphosate.
The media also ignore that logic when applied to sugar consumption and obesity. (Per capita sugar consumption has been falling for the past half century while obesity has been rising.)
Could it be that we apply different standards to products that we eat as opposed to products that we use? Could it be that we don’t care how the lithium is produced for our car batteries, but we do care how the wheat is produced for our bread?
Finally, there is the question as to whether the world is over-reacting in pushing back against farm chemicals. Some argue that every thing is to some degree carcinogenic (think sunshine and even toast), and that life is not risk-free.
However it may be appropriate to look back at the history of the insecticide Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, commonly known as DDT. It was first synthesized in 1874 and was widely used in the second half of World War II to control malaria and typhus among civilians and troops.
DDT was made available for public sale in the United States in 1945 and was promoted by government and industry as an agricultural and household pesticide. Opposition to DDT was focused by the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which claimed that DDT and other pesticides had been shown to cause cancer, and that their agricultural use was a threat to wildlife, particularly birds. The book’s publication resulted in a large public outcry that eventually led, in 1972, to a ban on DDT’s agricultural use in the United States.
Mosquitoes (not sharks or hippos) are the world’s most dangerous creatures. Over one million people die from malaria each year, mostly children under five years of age, with 90 per cent of malaria cases occurring in Sub-Saharan Africa. Some have argued that that fewer children would be dying if DDT hadn’t been banned.
However, DDT is still used in some parts of the world to combat malaria, and its use has been increasing since it was endorsed in 2006 by the World Health Organization. In many African countries, as well as India and North Korea, the pesticide is sprayed inside homes and buildings to kill mosquitoes. In 2007, at least 3,950 tons of DDT were sprayed for mosquito control in Africa and Asia, according to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme.
A panel of scientists from the United States and South Africa said DDT should only be used as a last resort in combating malaria. The 15 environmental health experts, who reviewed almost 500 health studies, concluded that DDT “should be used with caution, only when needed, and when no other effective, safe and affordable alternatives are locally available.”
The history of DDT may suggest that there is room for compromise on chemicals. Rather than outright bans, perhaps the solution would be to work where possible to reduce the use of chemicals in agriculture. But then compromises never make headlines or pay legal fees.
Images from Pixabay under Creative Commons