Last words on l’affaire Lynas

Three last things on the Mark Lynas story (some of which is reprised by the CBC here). First, thanks to Daniel “Foodieana Jones” Bowman Simon for observing that I have, contrary to a previous statement, heard of Mark Lynas. I’ve even cited him, in an academic piece on food rebellions. Although his original ‘Selling Starvation’ piece in CorporateWatch magazine isn’t on the original site, the good folk at the Internet Archive have it here.

Second, again with thanks to DBS, is this piece, following up on a series of emails leaked to the Guardian from the innards of the EU biotech industry, suggesting that Lynas’ recent conversion may have something to do with his being recruited as a GM ‘ambassador’.

The last word goes to Anthony Flaccavento, who offered these responses to Lynas’ speech.

1. The consistent equating of organic farming as “anti progress”, unscientific, pre-modern. He uses the frequently employed stunt of using yields from 1961 as a proxy for “organic” in order to show that it is “40% to 50% less productive” and would therefore require far more land for the same yield. In fact, published, peer-reviewed studies of many different cropping systems – rice, corn, wheat, soybeans, several different vegetables – show that organic production can meet or exceed modern chemical production on a per acre basis for most if not all major crops. Organic production systems are particularly strong – and superior to conventional systems – during periods of drought, something which is becoming increasingly commonplace.

2. Far from being unscientific, organic and sustainable farming has been at the forefront of innovation and research in agriculture. When you realize that until about 10 years ago, most major universities, USDA and Cooperative Extension largely ignored organic production, it is actually quite amazing that organic research and practices have advanced as much as they have. Perhaps that is why, in my experience, a far greater proportion of organic and sustainable farmers hunger for and read the latest research on new varieties (or breeds), practices, equipment and farming systems.

3. There is an unstated premise throughout that GM technology has significantly increased production of many major crops and is therefore an
utterly essential weapon against hunger and famine. If fact, studies of GM corn and soy production – the two GM crops with which we have the most experience – show minimal if any increases in yield per acre, at best in the 5% range and often not exceeding the latest hybrid varieties. He mentions how production increases have leveled off in recent years, somehow citing that as further reason to expand and accelerate the use of GM crops, yet this is the very period where GM corn and soy varieties have become utterly dominant in the major grain producing countries (US and Canada in particular). If GM technology were so effective in increasing output, we should have seen major yield increases over the past 15 years, but instead, yields have largely plateaued.

4. His statement that glyphosate (Round Up) is “completely harmless” is contradicted by studies of both health impacts and the impact on soil biology, a critical part of soil fertility and yield potential.

5. While using GM to impart pest fighting capabilities into a crop – for example Bt corn or Bt cotton – has reduced the use of some chemical
insecticides, there are serious problems with this. First, evidence is growing that it propels the development of resistant pests much more quickly
than when used selectively. Enabling a corn plant to produce its own Bacillus Thuringensis (Bt) is analogous to doctors prescribing too many
antibiotics, speeding the development of resistant strains of bacteria. This resistance is beginning to show up in the lepidoptera pests of corn and
cotton; it is already widespread as weeds now immune to glyphosate. So, farmers have responded by using more, not less, Roundup, and now Monsanto is working on a new GM corn that can withstand much more potent herbicides than glyphosphate. There is no doubt that weeds will also become resistant to these, more toxic herbicides, and far more quickly and pervasively than if farmers were using them selectively.
He also dismisses concerns about GM crops pollinating other farmers’ crops, as though this was some sort of elitist issue. This is ludicrous.
Monsanto and its ilk, whom he casts as farmer advocates, routinely sue farmers whose crop is pollinated by a neighboring farm using one of their GM varieties. Several hundred farmers have been sued by Monsanto, with the majority settling out of court and losing a great deal in the process.

6. His statement that scientific studies prove that organic is no better nutritionally than conventional, is at the very best a gross overstatement.
In fact, the studies present a mixed picture with some (peer reviewed) showing organic with significantly higher levels of various minerals,
vitamins and anti-oxidants, while others showing no significant differences. Logically, organic almost has to improve overall nutrient density for this reason: The nutritional value of a specific leaf or fruit is partly determined by its own genetics – a tomato has different nutrients than
broccoli – and partly by the mineral and micro nutrients of the soil in which it is grown. The steady decline in soil organic matter over the past
60+ years of “modern agriculture” is well documented. Along with that has been a decline in available nutrients for plants, leading both to greater
dependence on fertility inputs and to an overall decline in the vitamin and mineral content of the produce we eat, estimated to be about 25% (the
decline). Organic farming or using organic practices restores those nutrients by building up the organic matter and improving soil microbiology
(also a critical component of plant health and nutrient uptake).

7. The greatest advantage of organic and sustainable farming, whether for crops or livestock, over industrial and GM methods is that over time you can achieve comparable productivity, sometimes greater, while becoming more self-reliant. This is no small thing, for any farmer, and certainly an enormous and critical need for the farmers and people in developing countries the author claims he wants to help. Organic farmers build their own fertility by building up the organic matter, which serves as a “bank” for nutrients and water, and by increasing the biological health of the soil, ie the beneficial fungi, bacteria, worms and other organisms that then both provide and recycle nutrients. Livestock farmers using management intensive grazing and multi species systems end up with far more productive pasture land (that is, they can support more animals per acre), with dramatically fewer inputs, whether fertilizer or herbicide or corn for feed.

Numerous studies show that ecologically diverse, organic or sustainable farms have lower levels of pests and disease, reducing the need for
interventions of whatever type. You don’t have to be certified organic to employ such practices, but most larger scale, conventional farmers, become reliant on inputs to a much greater degree, a dependence that eventually becomes both financial and agronomic.

I don’t know anything about the author, but in my assessment – based on experience and a pretty extensive reading of the research over the years – it was much more of a rant than a thoughtful contribution to the debate. It certainly was not science-based, and the author’s obvious exasperation with what he considers to be an emotionally driven, irrational group of people – environmentalists and organic advocates – led him to his own semi-hysterical tone and poor quality analysis.

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