“Sustainable” has become a buzzword applicable not only to agriculture and energy production but to sectors as far afield as the building and textile industries. Many large companies tout the concept and boast a sustainability department, and the United Nations has hundreds of projects concerned with sustainability throughout its many agencies and programs. Some universities offer courses or even degrees in “sustainability.” One of Stanford University’s oldest dormitories, Roble Hall, houses an initiative called the Roble Living Laboratory for Sustainability at Stanford (ROLLSS), which includes “undergraduate seminars, a graduate-student speaker series, and activities intended to engage the dorm’s residents in curbing their natural-resource waste.”
So far, so good, but a central part of the initiative is an organic garden — which is not so good, because the students are being schooled in the myth that organic agricultural methods are sustainable and ethical. And that sophistry is by no means limited to one dormitory; all eight of Stanford’s major dining halls maintain an organic “dedicated teaching garden.”
Advocates of organic agriculture tout it as a “sustainable” way to feed the planet’s expanding population. According to the Worldwatch Institute, “Organic farming has the potential to contribute to sustainable food security by improving nutrition intake and sustaining livelihoods in rural areas, while simultaneously reducing vulnerability to climate change and enhancing biodiversity.” This is wishful thinking, if not outright delusion, and unfortunately, it is being promulgated on elite university campuses, including Stanford’s.
The organic movement touts the sustainability of its methods, but the claims do not withstand scrutiny. For example, a study published in Hydrology and Earth System Sciences found that the potential for groundwater contamination can be dramatically reduced if fertilizers are distributed through the irrigation system according to plant demand during the growing season. But organic farming depends on compost, the release of which is not matched with plant demand.
The study found that “intensive organic agriculture relying on solid organic matter, such as composted manure that is implemented in the soil prior to planting as the sole fertilizer, resulted in significant down-leaching of nitrate” into groundwater. With many of the world’s most fertile farming regions in the throes of drought and aquifer depletion — which was the subject of a 60 Minutes segment — increased nitrate in groundwater is hardly a mark of sustainability.
Moreover, although composting gets good PR as a “green” activity, on a large scale it generates a significant amount of greenhouse gases (and is also often a source of pathogenic bacteria applied to crops).
Organic farming might work well for certain local environments on a small scale, but it is hugely wasteful of arable land and water because of its low yields. Organic farms produce far less food per unit of land and water than conventional ones. Plant pathologist Dr. Steve Savage analyzed the data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2014 Organic Survey, which reports various measures of productivity from most of the certified organic farms in the nation, and compared them to those at conventional farms, crop by crop, state by state. His findings are extraordinary. Of the 68 crops surveyed, there was a “yield gap” — poorer performance of organic farms — in 59. And many of those gaps, or shortfalls, were impressive: strawberries, 61 percent less than conventional; fresh tomatoes, 61 percent less; tangerines, 58 percent less; carrots, 49 percent less; cotton, 45 percent less; rice, 39 percent less; peanuts, 37 percent less. These findings are important. As Savage observed:
To have raised all U.S. crops as organic in 2014 would have required farming of 109 million more acres of land. That is an area equivalent to all the parkland and wildland areas in the lower 48 states, or 1.8 times as much as all the urban land in the nation.
The low yields of organic agriculture impose a variety of stresses on farmland and especially on water consumption. A British meta-analysis published in the Journal of Environmental Management (2012) addressed the question of whether organic farming reduces environmental impacts. It identified some of the stresses that were higher in organic, as opposed to conventional, agriculture: “ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide emissions per product unit were higher from organic systems,” as were “land use, eutrophication potential and acidification potential per product unit.”
Lower organic crop yields are largely inevitable, given the arbitrary rejection of various advanced methods and technologies. Organic agriculture affords limited pesticide options, difficulties in meeting peak fertilizer demand, and a lack of access to varieties modified with the most precise and predictable techniques of genetic engineering. If the scale of organic production were significantly increased, the lower yields would increase the pressure for the conversion of more land to farming and the burden on water supplies, both of which are serious environmental issues.
In short, organic practices are to agriculture what cigarette smoking is to human health.
The issue of water conservation, in particular, illustrates an irony in the Stanford ROLLSS program. Consider this from a recent Stanford publication: “Two freshmen particularly active this year [in the ROLLSS program], Raja Ramesh and Kyle Enriquez, have taken it upon themselves to run initiatives encouraging students to conserve water by washing fuller loads of laundry and by taking shorter showers.” Why don’t they, in addition, adopt modern, water-conserving, non-organic farming practices?
Organic production disfavors the best approach to enhancing soil quality — the minimization of soil disturbance (e.g., no plowing or tilling), combined with the use of cover crops. Such farming systems offer multiple environmental advantages, particularly with respect to limited erosion, the runoff of fertilizers and pesticides, and the release of CO2 from tilling. Organic growers do frequently plant cover crops, but in the absence of effective herbicides, they often rely on tillage (or even labor-intensive hand-weeding) for weed control.
Many who are seduced by the romance of organic farming (read: college students) ignore its human consequences. American farmer Blake Hurst offers this reminder: “Weeds continue to grow, even in polycultures with holistic farming methods, and, without pesticides, hand weeding is the only way to protect a crop.” The back-breaking drudgery of hand weeding often falls to women and children.
One prevalent “green myth” about organic agriculture is that it does not employ pesticides. Organic farming does, in fact, use insecticides and fungicides to prevent predation of its crops. More than 20 chemicals (mostly containing copper and sulfur) are commonly used in the growing and processing of organic crops and are acceptable under USDA’s arbitrary organic rules.
Perhaps the most illogical and least sustainable aspect of organic farming in the long term will turn out to be the systematic and absolute exclusion of “genetically engineered” plants – but only those that were modified with the most precise and predictable modern molecular techniques. Except for wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the fruits, vegetables, and grains in our diet have been genetically improved by one technique or another – often as a result of seeds having been irradiated or via wide crosses, which move genes from one species or genus to another in ways that do not occur in nature.
The exclusion of certain organisms from organic agriculture simply because they were crafted with superior molecular techniques makes no sense. In recent decades, we have seen advances in agriculture, such as plants that are drought- or flood-resistant, that make farming more environmentally friendly and sustainable than ever before. But they have resulted from science-based research and technological ingenuity on the part of farmers, plant breeders, and agribusiness companies, not from ignorant, arrogant social elites disdainful of modern insecticides, herbicides, genetic engineering, and “industrial agriculture.”
And here’s another cosmic irony: The co-discoverer in 1973 of recombinant DNA technology — the prototypic, iconic molecular technique for genetic engineering — was Stanford biochemist Dr. Stanley N. Cohen, who is still a professor of genetics and medicine at the university. I wonder how many of the New Age sustainability advocates involved in the ROLLSS program have even heard of him.
As genetic engineering’s successes continue to emerge, the gap between modern, high-tech agriculture and organic methods will become a chasm. Genetically engineered, drought-resistant, flood-resistant and “fortified” crops have begun to emerge from the development pipeline, and genetically engineered potato varieties in the marketplace are bruise-resistant and contain 50 to 70 percent less asparagine, a chemical that is converted to acrylamide, a probable carcinogen, when heated to high temperatures.
The advantage of lower levels of acrylamide is obvious, but the bruise resistance is important to sustainability: According to Simplot, the developer of the genetically engineered “Innate” varieties, “with full market penetration for its varieties sold in the U.S., Innate will reduce annual potato waste by an estimated 400 million pounds in the food service and retail industries and a significant portion of the estimated 3 billion pounds discarded by consumers.” And a second generation of Innate potatoes now completing regulatory review contains an additional trait: resistance to a destructive fungus called “late blight,” which caused the Irish potato famine of the mid-19th century and is still with us.
Potatoes that resist bruising and late blight are major advances in sustainability, because every serving of French fries or mashed potatoes made from them requires less farmland and less water. But none of these varieties can be used by organic farmers, including the Stanford students at Roble Hall. The ROLLSS program claims to have “drawn support and involvement from institutions across Stanford,” and lists them, but the entities that contain the university’s eminent genetic engineers and plant scientists don’t seem to be participating.
One has to wonder how one of the world’s preeminent research universities, which regularly produces breakthroughs across the entire spectrum of science, technology, and engineering, could so blindly embrace and endorse destructive practices worthy of the 19th century.
In an article titled “The Organic Fable,” New York Times columnist Roger Cohen had some pithy observations about the popularity of organic food, including this one: “Organic has long since become an ideology, the romantic back-to-nature obsession of an upper middle class able to afford it and oblivious, in their affluent narcissism, to the challenge of feeding a planet whose population will surge to nine billion before the middle of the century and whose poor will get a lot more nutrients from the two regular carrots they can buy for the price of one organic carrot.” Here’s a suggestion for a new tradition at Roble Hall: Ditch organic agriculture, begin taking advantage of modern technologies to boost yields, and commemorate that decision each year with an event called “Two Carrot Day.” (It could be co-sponsored by Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.)
Sustainability has been defined this way:
the ability to provide for the needs of the world’s current population without damaging the ability of future generations to provide for themselves. When a process is sustainable, it can be carried out over and over without negative environmental effects or impossibly high costs to anyone involved.
That definition is compatible with the notion that sustainable farming is favored by maximizing human ingenuity and the quest for progress — that is, for inventing processes and products that are more efficient, less costly, and at the same time, less harmful to the environment. In other words, exactly the kinds of things that come from universities’ chemistry, plant-science, and molecular-biology labs. But organic farmers, including Stanford’s, can forget about using them.
A version of this article appeared in National Review as “How College Students Are Being Misled About ‘Sustainable’ Agriculture” and has been republished here with permission from the authors and the original publisher.
Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. Follow him on Twitter @henryimiller.