Feeding the world without chemicals or GMOs: attainable prospect or naive fantasy?

Image credit: flickr.com

Thanks to the green revolution, there has been a dramatic increase in food production over the past century. However, this growth has slowed enough to cause many people to worry that current agricultural yields will soon fall short of feeding the world’s rapidly increasing population. Companies that produce agricultural chemicals are quick to offer their products as a solution to fight pests and soil nutrient deficiencies which they claim are sure to doom us all. They present chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and genetically modified crops as the only ways to feed the world. These corporations have even persuaded farmers that the right thing to do is buy their products so they can increase yields and do good for humanity. Synthetic chemicals and genetically modified crops have been widely adopted throughout the world, but do they really result in higher yields?

GMOs have not increased yields

Image credit: Union of Concerned Scientists

Supporters of using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in agriculture are quick to point out problems farmers have with pests and weeds. They claim that crops that have been genetically modified to resist pests will increase yields. Crops can also be engineered to be resistant to weed killers, meaning farmers can target weeds without worrying about harming their crop. Advocates claim that GMOs have the power to feed the world. However, in areas where GMOs have been widely adopted, yields have not increased.

Genetically modified versions of corn and soy have both been adopted and extensively used in the United States. Research on these crops has demonstrated that GM corn and soy do not reliably increase yields compared with traditional corn and soy. For example, corn yields in Europe, where GMOs are prohibited, are not significantly different than yields of genetically modified corn grown in the U.S.

A popular genetically modified soy variety has been engineered to resist glyphosate, a popular weed killer. Glyphosate-resistant soy is popular in the United States because farmers like the convenience of being able to spray their fields with glyphosate without fear of harming their crop. But the research shows that this technology has not improved yields. Studies on the yield differences between GM and non-GM soy have mixed results, some indicating better yields, and others showing decreased yields. It is far from certain that genetically modified soybeans are increasing yields in any significant way.

Obviously, glyphosate-resistant crops don’t work as well as advertised because weeds eventually develop resistance to glyphosate. These “superweeds” force farmers to change tactics and apply different herbicides to their crops, including ones that may harm the crop.

Traditional crossbreeding works better

So far, genetically modified crops have not produced higher yields. Instead, traditional crossbreeding has been a big contributor to yield increase. People have been breeding crops for millennia, and have developed local varieties that are adapted to environmental pressures such as drought. The Union of Concerned Scientists recommends that donors such as the United States Department of Agriculture and universities should fund research on projects that are more promising in improving yield than GMOs, including traditional crossbreeding.

Poisoning the environment is not the answer

Agricultural chemical companies claim that the only way to improve crop yields in nutrient-poor soils is to use more chemical fertilizers. They try to discredit findings of how their products are harmful to the environment, all while pushing their propaganda that chemicals are needed to feed the world. In reality, the only way for agriculture to feed the world is by not destroying it. Agricultural practices that deplete the soil and poison the environment are more likely to lead to long-term declines in productivity rather than the dramatic increases that will be needed to feed the future world.

Chemical runoff from farms is polluting aquatic environments around the world, poisoning organisms that depend on these ecosystems, including humans. Fortunately, there are alternatives to chemical fertilizers. For example, integrated nutrient management is a practice which uses organic matter on fields to replenish nutrients. A study found that in developing countries, organic farmers could produce higher yields than chemical farmers, especially if they practiced crop rotation and used cover crops and organic fertilizers. The researchers concluded that organic farming methods could feed a growing population without having to expand farm land. Polyculture (growing multiple crops at the same time) and crop rotation are traditional methods to prevent the problem of soil depletion, increase yields, and in many cases, ward off pests.

Can organic, non-GMO farming really feed the world? It’s not only possible, but farmers from around the world are already participating. The next step is for the rest of the world to join in.