Sustainable farming needs bioengineering

The recent discussion surrounding Berkeley dining hall begs a larger debate about sustainable food at Yale and “sustainable agriculture” in general. The food purchased by Berkeley, farmed using organic methods, is supposedly more Earth-friendly than the food served elsewhere on campus. But in pushing the theory that organic farming is the solution to humanity’s agricultural problems, proponents of those methods have blinded the public and Yale’s administration to both the disadvantages of organic techniques and the viable alternative; though organic farming can be less damaging than chemical-intensive industrial agriculture, it has three major disadvantages.

First, organic farms require the use of manure as fertilizer. Implemented on the scale necessary to feed 250 million Americans, manure fertilizer — and associated biotoxins — would pose a significant public health problem. E. coli is a danger when it taints our (organically farmed) strawberries; imagine what would happen if it tainted our water supply. Any complete transition to organic farming would result in high levels of biologically hazardous runoff pollution from manure, as well as the peripheral pollution involved in its transportation.

The second major problem with organic farming is that it is till-intensive: without herbicides, tilling is the only way to remove weeds. The impact of tilling on cultivated land is perhaps humanity’s oldest environmental problem. Tilling disrupts topsoil, making it incredibly susceptible to erosion. The regular churning of soil also releases greenhouse gas; tilling is a major component of agricultural pollution. More importantly, tilling devastates the ecological fabric of topsoil, displacing organisms — like earthworms — which bring about natural soil rejuvenation. Farming of any kind taxes the land, and the impact of tilling has been a fundamental human problem for millennia. It is the impetus for the “fallow field” and rotating-crop methods which stretch back to the Old Testament. These methods, however, are imperfect — over the long run, organic methods slowly deplete formerly fertile fields.

Finally, one should realize that more than 38 percent of the world’s land area is already cropland or pasture. As world populations continue to expand, and as the global standard of living rises, the demand for food — and for cultivated area — will only increase. Organic farming only exacerbates this problem because the yield of organically farmed land is far lower than that of land farmed using modern methods, particularly since organic guidelines prohibit bioengineered crops. If we allow organic fields to lay fallow and regenerate — as we must to combat erosion and nutrient loss — the yield is lower still. According to a United Nations commissioned report on world resources, we lose 33.8 million acres of rainforest each year to human cultivation — not to mention the millions of acres of other forms of wilderness. If the goal is to preserve our natural resources, balance the global ecosystem, and feed a numerically burgeoning humanity, then organic farming is the very antithesis of sustainability.

What solutions, then, exist to the problem? The answer is not the factory farm as it exists today. The chemicals necessarily employed in industrial agriculture pollute the environment, place on undue burden on natural resources, and are harmful to farmers’ health; sustainability advocates are right in rejecting it. Speaking as both a pragmatist and an environmentalist, there is only one solution to our current agricultural dilemma.

We must embrace biotechnology and bioengineered foods; they are the crux of a modern sustainability. Writer Jonathan Rauch, in an October Atlantic Monthly article, cites a variety of miraculous success stories, all of which center around genetically engineered food crops. One such example is the case of salty soil. Irrigation, an almost universal necessity in agriculture, slowly raises the salinity of fields. This is no small problem. Every year, nearly 25 million acres are lost to salt — or 25 million more acres of wilderness are cut down for farming. Scientists have recently developed a transgenic tomato plant which not only can grow in briny soil — soil with a salt content 50 times higher than tomatoes can normally tolerate — but which actually reduces the salinity of the soil as it is farmed, reclaiming the fields for re-use and preserving land elsewhere. Furthermore, scientists expect the gene to work in nearly any plant, which would allow reclamation of fields nearly anywhere on the planet, not just where tomatoes grow.

Crops have also been engineered to resist specific herbicides, one application that has environmentalists up in arms. They see it as double-sacrilege — engineering crops only to coat them in herbicide. But they miss the point: the bioengineering of crops to be resistant to a particular herbicide allows the creation of “designer” herbicides with no lasting ecological impact. These herbicides — many of them also safer for farmers to use — kill the weeds but not the resistant plant, and then biodegrade into harmless components. Targeted designer herbicides are the biggest revolution in farming technology since the invention of the plough: they permit “no-till” farms. Without any tilling, topsoil ecosystems are allowed to flourish, and fields are actually enriched with nutrients as they are farmed, increasing crop yields while eliminating the need for any fertilizer.

Here at Yale, the sustainability focus should shift from organic farms to those which responsibly embrace biotechnology as a means of reducing the environmental impact of farming. As an institution, we should encourage research into new applications of bioengineering, and perhaps studies committed to proving its safety and effectiveness. Genetic engineering has no proven disadvantages, but the moral outrage of the mainstream environmental movement knows no bounds. It would behoove the advocates of sustainability to reasonably consider the long-term implications of the alternatives. If we choose otherwise — if we continue to push for organic farming or if we stay content with the reality of industrial agriculture today — we will leave behind a legacy of ecological and agricultural disaster unmatched in human history.

L. David Peters is a junior in Davenport College.