Environment

Agriculture isn't Natural

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJun 12, 2014 5:34 PM

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In PLOS Biology, a UK geneticist offers some wise suggestions on how to move beyond the simplistic frames that dominate agriculture and the GMO discourse. She writes:

First, it is necessary to move on from the well-worn logical fallacy that anything natural is good, and anything unnatural is bad. The application of this fallacy to agriculture is an excellent illustration of why it is so flawed. Plants evolved by natural selection, driven by the survival of the fittest. As a result, naturally, they are defended to the hilt from herbivores of all kinds, including humans. We know this. No one sends their children into the woods saying “Eat anything you find. It's all natural, so it must be good for you.

It's hard to exaggerate just how much romanticized, outdated views of nature influence the discourse on agriculture and other sustainability issues. A prime example is this recent post from Greenpeace Africa about "ecological farming." Below the picture of the smiling Kenyan woman, Greenpeace explains the eco-farming she is engaged in.

This woman is part of a community-based organisation that trains farmers and promotes ecological agriculture and other development technologies among small-scale farm holders in Kenya. Ecological farming is a way of growing food that works in harmony with nature -- not against it. While chemical-intensive agriculture uses artificial fertilizers and pesticides to alter the environment, ecological farming works to enrich the soil and protect crops in ways that don't destroy the ecology of the surrounding environment.

This mushy notion of nature-friendly agriculture is widely held in green circles. Perhaps "ecological farming" is another way of saying organic is better than conventional, in which case you should read this myth-busting piece by Christie Wilcox. In this country, we can afford to indulge our ideological predilections and yearning for a mythical agricultural idyll. But as Tina Rosenberg wrote earlier this year in the New York Times:

Pesticides and inorganic fertilizers are bad for the environment. But this is not an argument that anyone who eats in America should be making to African subsistence farmers. In 2006, an African Union Declaration (pdf) on agriculture adopted the goal of 50 kilograms of fertilizer per hectare planted. At the time, Africa was using only eight kilos per hectare; America was using 120. Africa needs vastly more fertilizer use, not less.

Of course, bringing a green revolution to Africa is not as simple as increasing fertilizer use--or working in so-called harmony with nature. Additional Reading: "Don't Mimic Nature on the Farm, Improve it," by Andrew McGuire at Washington State University's Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. "Feeding Africa: why biotechnology skeptics are wrong to dismiss GM," by Calestous Juma, at the Guardian. "An Unlikely Fix: nitrogen fertilizer and organic agriculture," by Adam Merberg, at the Biofortified blog. "The problems with the arguments against GM crops," by Margaret Karmbu at SciDevNet.

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