Viewpoint: Farm to Fork failure—How Europe’s ‘obsession’ with organics undermines the global sustainable farming movement

dreamstime farm to fork supply chain

Europe’s quest to confront climate change and achieve carbon neutrality is being undermined by “Big Ag”? That’s not my claim. It’s the latest in a series of attacks on those who question whether the European Union’s Farm to Fork policy recommendations, cobbled together mostly with input from green activist groups, have any chance of achieving its sustainability goals.

The latest attack on conventional agriculture and its embrace of cutting-edge biotechnology comes in a scathing piece last week by openDemocracy headlined: “How the agricultural lobby is sabotaging  Europe’s Green Deal”.

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Its basic premise: “Big Farming” is forging nefarious alliances to block agriculture’s necessary role in ‘transforming Europe’ into a ‘climate neutral’ economic bloc by 2050. These are serious, sweeping charges…and clearly not true.

Most politicians on the Continent embrace the goal to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the next three decades. Agriculture can play a key role. But thoughtful questions have been raised about how to achieve the broad sustainability goals outlined in the F2F policy, as it calls for dramatically increasing food production while scaling up organic farming and slashing synthetic pesticide use, all without any clear plan as to how to address agricultural pests and productivity challenges. The gap between aspiration and action appears huge. 

Getting this right is critical as Europe’s global policy influence is huge. Too much is at stake to turn this serious challenge into a political football. Rather than critics of conventional agriculture offering mostly bromides and broadsides, we would all be better served by applying science rather than innuendo and hyperbole.

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Addressing food insecurity

Reading the F2F document, I was struck by one insight. Although we occasionally see scenes on the news of malnourished children in distant countries, most people in Europe and the wealthier parts of the world believe that we are well on our way to solving what has for most of human history been life’s primary challenge: producing enough food for a growing global population.

We are told that we already grow enough food to feed everyone, but much of it is wasted—88 million tons of food annually in Europe alone. So, increasing production, food activists say, is itself wasteful. Rather than increasing food production, activists claim, we should create a  “sustainable agricultural system.” That claim would be true if people could eat statistics. Green advocates offer no concrete plan as to how we can transport food scraps from western households, restaurants and grocery stores to under-developed countries. 

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Credit: Reuters

In the real world, capping food production at current levels, which would happen with the spread of organic farming, would work if crops were never lost to pests in the field or spoiled in storage before they got to market, if the massive global challenges of transportation and distribution just magically disappeared, and we assigned a food monitor to every home, farm and restaurant to collect the world’s scraps after we ate our assigned calorie allotment for the day. 

Here’s a wake-up call. Food security is emerging as the number one issue of our time. F2F’s central premise is a need to steer farming  in Europe and the world away from conventional methods that rely on high technology tools such as pesticides, genetic engineering, key elements of precision farming.

Yet many people who embrace the same sustainability goals say these recommendations, taken as a whole, are a prescription for disaster. They will not only increase hunger, they will undermine the climate change environmental goals as well.

It’s time we got a reality check on food insecurity, and how we’ve managed to reduce world hunger over the last 90 years. It wasn’t until after World War II and the widespread adoption of agricultural technologies, including the genetic manipulation of plants to create advanced hybrid crops, modern chemical pesticides, and synthetic fertilizer, that everyone in Europe—not just the upper classes—had enough to eat. Cultural memories of hunger grow fainter after a few generations, but as late as the early 20th century, malnutrition was still widespread in Europe. 

The UN estimates that 821 million people are suffering from hunger. The number was rising before COVID, but the pandemic is making it even worse. An additional 10,000 children every month are expected to die from malnutrition as farms are cut off from markets and food aid no longer reaches hungry populations.

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Malnutrition in India. Credit: 2020 Global Nutrition Report

Reckoning on farming and food

The novel coronavirus may seem like a once-in-a-century disaster, but plenty of food and farm crises roil the world. Most frighteningly, the Middle East, much of India and East Africa are being ravaging by a Biblical scale, crop-destroying locust plague. It threatens some 22 million people in Africa alone with starvation. And only the widespread deployment of insecticides have been able to get it under control.

That’s just one of the many scourges threatening agriculture and biodiversity. Myriad other plant pests, viral, bacterial, and fungal crop diseases, droughts and other weather events threaten agricultural production. And don’t assume this is just happening in Africa and Asia. The Varroa parasite that sickens and kills honeybees is an invasive species that only arrived in Europe in the 1960s before spreading to the United States in the late 1980s. The massively destructive Fall Army Worm which jumped across the Atlantic to Africa a few years ago could reach Europe any moment. So could the locusts.

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Add to this the fact that climate change could drastically alter growing conditions, increasing drought and other destructive weather patterns, and Black Swan events, like COVID, are inevitable. Consider these threats in light of the fact that we will need to increase food production between 70 and 100 percent by 2050. This is not a prediction; this is a fact.

We face two challenges: a fast-growing population and a gradual demand for more and higher caloric food in developing countries in Asia and Africa who now subsist on 1,000 calories a day, and won’t be satisfied with their meagre bowls of rice. In other words, they’ll be eating more like Americans and Europeans. 

Certainly, we can and should cut food waste. But that’s not a game changer when it comes to making food and farming both more sustainable and more productive. We need to decide whether we are going to address the issue seriously, or if we’re just going to pretend that this perfectly predictable crisis, like the next pandemic, isn’t going to happen.

Which brings us back to Farm to Fork. The broad goal, according to F2F, is to “reduce the environmental and climate footprint of the EU food system in the face of climate change and bidoversity loss.”

It’s an impressive manifesto. As we’d say in America, that broad goal is an ‘apple pie’ aspiration; everyone embraces that. But how to achieve that is where F2F careens off course. But as you drill down into the details, examining it with the eyes of someone who has struggled with sustainability challenges for upwards of 30 years, it is deeply disappointing. The entire strategy, in the end, is predicated on the idea that we can address food security with agricultural strategies that have already come up short—despite their faddish popularity. Most eyebrow-raising: the primary tool to transform European farming is to embrace organic farming and food.

Most significantly, F2F does not provide for the embrace of advanced farming and food technologies, such as transgenic GMOs and CRISPR gene editing of seeds, which offer the only suite of tools proven to increase food production while decreasing the use of unnecessary chemicals.

It even advocates for a labeling system for foodstuffs such as the Nutri-Score system which France is promoting. This kind of “traffic light” labeling scheme purports to regulate Europeans’ plates and is based on a controversial algorithm which denigrates some kinds of foods as unhealthy—slapping a red label on them—while giving others the green light. A number of nutritional allege that Nutri-Score gives an advantage to some categories of foodstuffs over others—for example, French industrial foods over products such as olive oil, one of the building blocks of the healthy Mediterranean diet.

It’s filled with ‘solutions’ that sound great on paper but defy definition, things like promoting a “circular bio-based economy” and developing an “integrated nutrient management action plant.” It’s mostly aspiration and verbiage, demonizing agricultural technology when it should be science based. Environmental activists, say, farmers globally should expand the model pioneered in Europe, where organic farming is almost religion. But as in many cases, below the surface of environmental platitudes the reality is complicated.

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In fact, Netherlands (24), Belgium (28), Ireland (29), Italy (31), Portugal (36), Switzerland (41) Germany (44) and France (47)—indeed, almost every country in Europe—uses far more toxic pesticides per hectare of available cropland than the US, which ranks 59th. 

Those statistics are shocking to many, as there is a widespread misconception that Europe is on the cutting edge of sustainable farming, when the opposite is the case. Let’s explore why that is so.

Synthetic chemical myths

As part of this new sustainability equation, there are calls to cut conventional pesticide use by 50 percent, regardless of their effectiveness or toxicity. Why? That’s never addressed scientifically. It can’t be over concerns about health or environmental impacts.  Many people, including it appears the drafters of F2F, do not even realize that organic farming uses dozens of approved synthetic chemicals and hundreds of natural chemicals. 

But aren’t synthetic pesticides, which are most commonly used by conventional farmers, more harmful than natural ones? Many people believe that, and environmental advocacy groups based their fund raising almost entirely around convincing people they should be ‘scared to death’ by chemicals. But the science answer is ‘no’. The most toxic chemicals in the world are natural, and more than 99% of the pesticides we eat are produced naturally. 

Science has come a long way since synthetic agricultural chemicals were first introduced in mid-last century. Early, crude chemicals have been phased out. Functionally, the newer ones are targeted, designed to prevent specific plant diseases, kill weeds, and kill or repel harmful insects without harming beneficial ones, and overwhelmingly they do that.

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The overall toxicity of synthetic pesticides has decreased steadily over the decades as technology has improved. Despite epidemiological studies finding that some pesticides have deleterious effects, in almost all cases that’s based on levels of exposure that we just don’t encounter in the real world.  

Overall per acre toxicity levels on US farms begin declining dramatically in the 1960s, and dropped again with the introduction of genetically engineered crops in the 1990s, although the volume of chemical usage has stayed about the same—primarily because of the introduction of low toxic pesticides, such as glyphosate.

Another key driver has been the introduction of crops engineered to express natural insecticides.  Insecticide use on American farms has dropped more than 90% since the mid-1990s spurred by the introduction of GMO corn, soybeans and cotton that produce the insect-repelling natural bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).

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The sustainable GMO technology is spreading to the developing world. Bangladesh eggplant farmers have cut insecticide use by more than 75% with the introduction of Bt brinjal and India has become a world leader in the production of cotton. The transition from old-line farming techniques to the use of bioengineered seeds has dramatically improved the health of tens of thousands of women and children who do much of the farming.

It’s all part of a global move away from toxic chemical usage spurred by biotechnology innovation that is expected to accelerate dramatically with advances in gene editing that could eliminate some harmful chemicals altogether.

Meanwhile, the organic movement remains wedded to the past. It is addicted to ‘technology’ that is a century old or even older, even when the health and environmental consequences can be catastrophic. Consider copper sulfate, used by organic farmers, particularly in the wine industry, and some conventional farmers to limit fungus on wine grapes. It’s highly toxic.

Unfortunately, it also kills beneficial insects and is a human carcinogen. Only strong lobbying by the Europe’s organic industry, which has helped shape the Farm to Fork strategy, has prevented copper sulfate from being banned by the European Union because of its “particular concern to public health or the environment,” according to the European Food Safety Authority. So much for Europe’s model organic farming practices.

Copper sulfate is also far more toxic than the herbicide glyphosate whose use has set off paroxysms of hysteria across Europe. Glyphosate is less toxic than salt and has been found safe by 18 major global health and environmental safety organizations, including four in Europe.

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Although glyphosate accounts for one quarter of herbicides applied by weight to corn, it only accounts for one tenth of one percent of the chronic toxicity hazard associated with weed control in corn. Put another way: The other 74% of herbicides accounted for 99.9% of chronic toxicity hazard in weed control for corn. Or to put it yet another way, taking glyphosate out of the picture could raise the toxicity hazard in corn by 26%, 43% in soybeans, and 45% in cotton. Yet, green groups want to ban it, which directly contradicts the science goals of F2F and the Green Deal.

How to achieve sustainable farming

F2F gets sustainability backwards. Rather than set a goal—sustainable agriculture that results in increased food production while moderating inputs—and figure out what tools best work, F2F elevates facile proposals that only appear to support what it seeks to achieve. Organic agriculture is held up as both a European goal—F2F proposes to more than triple its implementation in ten years—and as a global model, but its bereft of actionable, toxicity-reducing specifics. 

Which brings us to the most egregious problems with the Farm to Fork fantasyland. What would happen if a country—say the United Kingdom— fully embraced organic farming, the ultimate goal of Green Deal backers? As there is almost no arable land left in the world, the move to organic would result in a shift in production to the developing world, which would lead to the clear-cutting of forests to create more farmland. In essence, the EU would be exporting to the poorest regions of the world its environmental “externalities”, as economists calls them, all because of its organic fixation.

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That’s exactly the question asked and answered by researchers in a state-of-the-art study published last year in the prestigious journal Nature Communications comparing conventional and organic agriculture and its impact on carbon emissions. As the organic industry itself acknowledges, they found organic farming is as much as 40 percent less productive than conventional farming. Transitioning from conventional farming to organic would pump somewhere between 20 and 70 percent more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than conventional farming. 

Just to meet the current demand for food (It’s actually expected to increase steadily in the years ahead) and make up this 40 percent shortfall, the independent research team found the UK would have to dramatically increase its import of food.

“This has an associated impact on the environment, adding potentially unnecessary food miles and greenhouse gas emissions to our food systems,” said Philip Jones, from the University of Reading, one of the authors of the groundbreaking study.

According to a BBC analysis, “due to significantly lower productivity in other countries, this would require five times the amount of land that is currently used for food in England and Wales, consuming 6 million more hectares of land.”

Organic production and greenhouse gases

The questions surrounding F2F multiply exponentially when you consider greenhouse gas emissions. Growing concerns about climate change—and estimates that one third of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture—have helped fuel the market for organic foods, which is perceived as reducing environmental impacts. Many scientists contest those claims. 

One of the great early advances of organic farming was the use of compost to promote soil health. But there are sustainability trade-offs. During the process of composting, methane is emitted, a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.  Methane is also released in catastrophic amounts by flatulent cows, the primary generator of organic waste for use as fertilizer on organic farms. Cattle livestock is already blamed for generating nearly 20% more greenhouse gases in terms of carbon equivalency as compared to driving automobiles. The use of organic fertilizer often results in the release of nitrous oxide, a highly potent greenhouse gas.

Organic farmers also rely on tillage far more than their conventional counterparts. Many conventional farmers have switched to no-till, ridge-till, and mulch oil (reduced plowing up of the soil) practices, facilitated by the use of GMO crops, because tillage contributes to soil erosion and the release of greenhouse gasses. No-till practices allow the soil structure to stay intact, protecting beneficial microorganisms, fungi and bacteria. It also conserves water, reduces erosion, and unnecessary labor to ride carbon-belching machinery so common in large scale organic farming. The use of no-tillage farming has grown sharply over the last two decades in the US, in step with the growth in GMO farming, accounting for more than 35 percent of cropland. 

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One study estimates that using glyphosate herbicide in conjunction with GMO glyphosate-resistant corn and soybean has prevented 41 billion lbs. of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere between 1996 to 2013. A 2016 study by Purdue University researchers found that agricultural greenhouse gas emissions would increase by nearly 14 percent if there were a ban on GMOs in the countries now using them. These figures help explain why the US is so far ahead of Europe in toxic pesticide reduction.

Beyond Farm to Fork: How do we put agricultural sustainability ahead of ideology?

If the supporters of the Farm to Fork strategy take seriously their desire to ‘export’ the organic agricultural model to ‘the rest of the world’, they have to soberly reassess the impact of their carbon-increasing strategy. Boutique ideas like urban farming and local production or reverting world agriculture to more “natural” low-yield, land intensive and disease-vulnerable farming methods—are the fantasies of an affluent society. Organic farming is like an impulse buy, and such thinly supported decision-making has no place in a document that purports to seriously address the enormous challenges facing the world.

Related article:  Why Brexit could jump start UK GMO, CRISPR research—once stifled by 'dead hand' of EU regulation

Here is my disappointment with the notions promoted by F2F. They don’t address the real complexity of food and farming; they are bereft of nuance and a science-based understanding of environmental and economic tradeoffs. Synthetic chemicals are only part of the sustainability equation. Eco-responsibility means different things to different experts. Greenhouse gas emissions? Productivity per acre? Land usage? Labor intensive vs. mechanized agriculture? These and other factors should be part of a complex, value-based assessment of what constitutes agricultural sustainability.  

We could actually begin solving many challenges if we stopped choosing methods based on superficial notions of sustainability and instead looked to outputs and goals. Do we want to feel virtuous or actually solve real-life problems? Modern technology offers solutions, first and foremost: gene-editing that can make plants more resistant to disease, drought, and pests; more nitrogen efficient (meaning they would need less or no chemical fertilizer); safer (peanuts without the harmful proteins that can kill; wheat without the gluten that is deadly to people with celiac disease); healthier (crops with heart-healthy omega 3s). The advantages are endless—if we don’t regulate this promising technology to death.

It may not be fashionable to say this, particularly in Europe, but we will continue to need targeted chemical pesticides. A lot of them. Complemented by a new suite of genetically engineered products based on synthetic biology with little to no toxic footprint. The toxicity of modern pesticides has dropped 98% since the 1960s, and is being reduced every year. Organic pesticides toxicity has dropped zero percent since 1960. Should we be judicious and careful going forward? Yes. But let’s listen to the science here, not to chemophobic scaremongering, when it comes to setting farm production policy.

We need a food system that is efficient, productive, environmentally sustainable, and can provide nutritious food with an increasingly tinier environmental footprint. That can only happen if it is based in reality, not wishful thinking.

Jon Entine is founder and executive director of the Genetic Literacy Project. Jon is also known for his research and writings on corporate social responsibility and environmental sustainability, and was US editor for 15 years of the UK-based publication Ethical Corporation. Find Jon on Twitter @JonEntine

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