Viewpoint: Stanford is a world-class science institution … except when it comes to critical thinking about the ‘sustainability myth’ of organic agriculture

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Stanford, which consistently ranks among the top U.S. colleges and universities, is one of the great research institutions in the world. But it is also the source of profound paradoxes — superb science in academic departments, but often uncritically defaulting to embrace trendy, socially attractive notions that actually contradict its well-earned reputation as a cutting-edge, science-grounded institution.

Hardly a month passes without news of a genuinely significant breakthrough in some field of science or technology. One week it might be the discovery of an unorthodox arrangement of wind turbines that increases energy output; the next, a new healing and antibiotic compound from scorpion venom or the application of artificial intelligence to enable people who are paralyzed to communicate by text. But too often, the university allows its relentless virtue signaling to overwhelm rationality and a commitment to science.

Consider the issue of ‘sustainable agriculture,’ a fungible, feel-good term that allows anyone of any ideological persuasion to endorse enthusiastically; after all, who doesn’t want an ecologically healthier world? 

Stanford is all in with the symbolism. It’s created a website, “Sustainable Stanford”, where it extols the university as “living laboratory for environmental action” focused on food and farming. The university even offers the O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm, “for hands-on-learning in sustainable agriculture” where students, staff, and faculty grow organic produce. And one of the university’s top initiatives is to “support a sustainable food system through its purchasing practices and menu options.” How does Stanford do that? It buys and serves organic foods whenever possible. 

O’Donohue family farm. Credit: Stanford University

What’s so striking about these initiatives is the disconnect between Stanford’s heavily promoted good intentions and the fast-evolving science surrounding sustainability. Universities are supposed to be a place where faculty and students seek hard truths, a respite from the mob of misguided, feel-good populism, but that’s becoming less attainable all the time. In fact, when it comes to the issue of agricultural sustainability, Stanford lives in an unreal “green” cloud.

What could be more important to sustainability than climate change? Yet, from a climate change perspective — which is front and center at Stanford — innumerable studies show organic farming is actually a laggard compared to conventional agriculture. Its yield lag tops 30%; tilling the soil (which is not required with farming using genetically modified seeds that provide weed control) results in huge releases of CO2 (5% of all carbon releases); and methane gas release from livestock, which is used to generate fertilizer for organic farming, is the single biggest agricultural contributor to greenhouse gases.

While Stanford wallows in sustainability wokeness, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (my undergraduate alma mater) gets it right. A 2019 article in MIT Technology Review, headlined “Sorry, organic farming is actually worse for climate change,” details the myriad ways organic farming, beyond its trendy populism among the chattering classes, is a sustainability red herring. The article summed up extensive research on this issue, included a now iconic UK study that showed organic farming, if widely instituted in England, would lead to increased imports of food, clear-cutting of rainforests and overall increase greenhouse-gas emissions by 21%.

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But Stanford students are not exposed to any of that on the Sustainable Stanford website or at the O’Donohue sustainable farm. Nor are there informed scientific discussions at the dorms’ organic farms that use boutique ‘agroecological’ farming practices (vide infra). That approach to farming might be a gratifying pastime for wealthy students and farm-rich countries like the United States, but it would devastate developing countries if the Stanford sustainability model were to become the global norm. The fact is, Stanford embraces a view of agricultural sustainability that came into fashion in the 1980s and 1990s, was flawed then, and is even more obviously so, now. The university is all about “science” for academic research, but when it comes to digging below the surface and challenging their students to think out-of-the-box, political correctness reigns.

It gets worse

Consider Stanford’s invitation last year to Vandana Shiva, a so-called environmental activist, to present the prestigious 8th Annual Stephen H. Schneider Lecture. Shiva’s talk, “Soil not Oil: Biodiversity-based Agriculture to Address the Climate Crisis,” called for an end to large-scale industrial agriculture because of the effects she claimed these methods have on climate change, biodiversity, and food security. All three of her assertions are demonstrably wrong.

In a 2014 article for The New Yorker, “Seeds of Doubt,” investigative journalist Michael Specter called into question a number of Shiva’s repeated claims regarding genetic engineering, as well as her ethics and judgment. Specter writes:

At times, Shiva’s absolutism about [modern genetic engineering] can lead her in strange directions. In 1999, 10,000 people were killed and millions were left homeless when a cyclone hit India’s eastern coastal state of Orissa. When the U.S. government dispatched grain and soy to help feed the desperate victims, Shiva held a news conference in New Delhi and said that the donation was proof that ‘the United States has been using the Orissa victims as guinea pigs’ for genetically engineered products. She also wrote to the international relief agency Oxfam to say that she hoped it wasn’t planning to send genetically modified foods to feed the starving survivors. When neither the U.S. nor Oxfam altered its plans, she condemned the Indian government for accepting the provisions.

These very same products are widely consumed in the U.S. and elsewhere, which perfectly illustrates Shiva’s blatant dishonesty and disingenuousness.

Vandana Shiva visits Stanford. Credit: Mauricio Tellez-Sanchez/The Stanford Daily

Others have criticized Shiva in (appropriately) blunter terms. The Genetic Literacy Project describes, in detail, her “anti-science” history:

Vandana Shiva’s advocacy focuses on opposition to intellectual property rights, capitalism, free trade, and corporations. Shiva is noted for making extreme statements linking the use of GMOs to rape; calling for criminal destruction of GMO crops and research and, prosecution of corporations that develop GMOs. Her claims of harms associated with GMOs, particularly claims they are failing and causing farmers to commit suicide, have consistently been debunked as false by independent academic peer-reviewed published research.

They add that “Shiva openly supports, defends, and has encouraged acts of eco-terrorism and sabotage against GMO plants and research justifying them by claiming one can only commit violence against people, not against things.”

In December 2019, scientists and bioengineers from around the world issued an open letter criticizing Stanford for inviting Shiva to speak on campus—despite her “constant use of anti-scientific rhetoric to support unethical positions.” The university group that invited her stood their ground, remonstrating that “The goal of this lecture was not, and is not, endorsing a single individual, ideology, or solution. On the contrary, we aimed to provoke critical thought—to spur nuanced conversations that help students examine their own values.” That response is, as the Brits would say, thin gruel, indeed. The reality is that Stanford invited to the campus a notorious liar and anti-science advocate to spew her venom, and with a handsome honorarium, to boot.

Miseducating students

Despite all the virtue-signaling about “sustainability” — a search for the word on Stanford’s website yields no fewer than 103,00 hitsthe fact of the matter is that university is rather selective in its commitment to it. For instance, housed in one of the oldest dormitories, Roble Hall, is 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, meaning the students of this world-class research institution are being schooled in the myth that organic agricultural methods are sustainable. That sophistry is by no means limited to one dorm; at least up until students departed during the COVID-19 pandemic, all eight of Stanford’s major dining halls maintained an organic “dedicated teaching garden.” In 2014, thanks to a generous gift from two New York-based benefactors, one of whom owns an organic farm, the university turned the nearly six acres adjacent to Stanford’s historic Red Barn into the “O’Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm,” to “produce a bounty of edibles as well as a new generation of leaders in sustainable food systems.” These programs, as I’ve described before, are anti-scientific and otherwise flawed.

Although the organic movement touts the sustainability of its methods, its claims do not withstand scrutiny. For example, in a 2014 study published in the journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, researchers 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. Unlike conventional agriculture, organic farming depends on compost, the release of which is not matched with plant demand. “Surprisingly,” the study found, “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 extreme drought and aquifer depletion, increased nitrate in groundwater is hardly a mark of sustainability.

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Moreover, although composting gets good PR as a “green” activity, at large-scale, it can generate significant amounts of greenhouse gases. Composting can also be a source of pathogenic bacteria applied to crops. In 2009, a study published in the Journal of Food Protection sampled non-sludge recycled organic matter composts produced in Washington, Oregon, and California and found “a wide range of fecal coliform results for all regions.”

Organic farms also produce far less food per unit of land and water than conventional ones, making them a huge waste of arable land. Plant pathologist Dr. Steve Savage analyzed the data from USDA’s 2014 Organic Survey, comparing various measures of productivity from most of the nation’s certified-organic farms 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 shortfalls were impressive: strawberries, 61% less than conventional; fresh tomatoes, 61% less; tangerines, 58% less; and so on.

The implications are sobering. As Dr. 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.”

The organic hoax

The low yields of organic agriculture impose a variety of stresses on farmland, especially on water consumption. A 2012 British meta-analysis found that “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.”

Organic production disfavors the best approach to enhancing soil quality—namely, the minimization of soil disturbance (e.g., avoidance of plowing or tilling), combined with the use of cover crops. Such farming systems offer multiple environmental advantages, particularly with respect to limiting erosion, the runoff of fertilizers and pesticides, and the release of CO2 from tilling. Organic growers frequently plant cover crops, but in the absence of effective herbicides, they often have to rely on tillage (or even labor-intensive hand-weeding) for weed control.

The destructive tilling in organic agriculture was the subject of a recent blockbuster National Public Radio story, entitled, “A Giant Organic Farm Faces Criticism That It’s Harming The Environment.” “Giant” is right: the organic Gunsmoke Farm, near Pierre, South Dakota, covers 53 square miles. “Harming the environment” is also right: tillage breaks down parts of the soil that are richest in carbon and nutrients and shakes soil loose from the plant roots that help to keep it together. That makes the soil vulnerable to being carried away by rain or wind, which is exactly what happened at Gunsmoke Farm—it became a dust bowl.

Wind-blown soil fills a ditch between a road and the fields of Gunsmoke Farm, a large organic farm northwest of Pierre, S.D., in early March. Credit: NPR

One prevalent “green myth” about organic agriculture is that it does not employ “harmful chemicals” such as pesticides. Organic farming does, in fact, use insecticides and fungicides: dozens of synthetic chemicals are permitted in the growing and processing of organic crops under USDA’s arbitrary rules. Copper sulfate, the most popular pesticide used in organic farming, is a carcinogen, kills beneficial insects, decimates soil, and is persistent.

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 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.)

Therefore, the exclusion from organic agriculture of organisms simply because they were crafted with superior molecular techniques makes no sense. Over three decades, the newest, most precise techniques have yielded advances in agriculture, such as plants that are drought- or flood-resistant, that have been more environmentally friendly and sustainable than ever before. Shiva, in a response to Specter’s New Yorker article she called “Seeds of Truth,” dismissed these advances as “mechanistic thought and manipulated facts.”

The irony of all this is that a 1973 co-discoverer 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 those involved in the ROLLSS program have even heard of him.) One person who has heard of him is Stanford’s president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, a neuroscientist who was previously Chief Scientific Officer at Genentech, one of the world’s foremost biopharmaceutical companies. And yet, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne knowingly perpetuates this pro-organic, anti-science, reactionary nonsense on his campus—to say nothing of permitting Vandana Shiva to speak.

The organic fable

As genetic engineering’s successes continue to emerge, the gap between modern, high-tech agriculture and organic methods is becoming a chasm. Genetically engineered potato varieties already in the marketplace are bruise-resistant and contain 50-70% 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.”

Genetically engineered potatoes that are resistant to bruising and to the late blight fungus represent the very essence of sustainability—every serving of French fries or mashed potatoes made from them represents less farmland used and less water consumed. But none of these varieties can be used by organic farmers.

A genetically modified Victoria potato variety with blight resistance genes (left) provide much greater yields. Credit: CIP

How could one of the world’s preeminent research universities, which regularly produces breakthroughs across virtually the entire spectrum of science and technology, embrace and endorse anachronistic, destructive practices?

A 2012 New York Times article entitled “The Organic Fable,” by columnist Roger Cohen provides the answer. In it, he offered some pithy observations about the popularity of organic food:

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.

Sustainable farming should mean maximizing and capitalizing on the ability of human ingenuity to invent processes, products, and approaches that are more efficient, less costly, and at the same time, less harmful to the environment. In other words, exactly the kinds of advances that come from university chemistry, plant science, artificial intelligence, engineering, and molecular biology labs. But organic farmers, including Stanford’s, can forget about using them.

The organic movement and “green sensibility” have become rooted in society over the past quarter century or so, and Stanford has uncritically gone along. It’s both unscientific and unbecoming.  

Acknowledgement: The author thanks Michelle Sheldon and Jon Entine for excellent suggestions on the text.

Related article:  How a rare bird and the coronavirus remind us that our safety depends on science—not wishful thinking

Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, was a research associate in molecular genetics at the NIH and the founding director of the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Biotechnology. Find Henry on Twitter @henryimiller

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