Dr. Henry Miller (physician and molecular biologist, founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology, and research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution) writing about the non-sustainability of organic farming in today’s WSJ (“Organic Farming Is Not Sustainable: More labor with lower yields is a luxury only rich populations can afford“):
The Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group, says that organic farming “has the potential to contribute to sustainable food security by improving nutrition intake and sustaining livelihoods in rural areas, while simultaneously reducing vulnerability to climate change and enhancing biodiversity.” The evidence argues otherwise.
Organic farming might work well for certain local environments on a small scale, but its farms produce far less food per unit of land and water than conventional ones. The low yields of organic agriculture—typically 20%-50% less than conventional agriculture—impose various stresses on farmland and especially on water consumption. A British meta-analysis published in the Journal of Environmental Management (2012) found that “ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide emissions per product unit were higher from organic systems” than conventional farming systems, as were “land use, eutrophication potential and acidification potential per product unit.”
Lower crop yields are inevitable given organic farming’s systematic rejection of many advanced methods and technologies. If the scale of organic production were significantly increased, the lower yields would increase the pressure for the conversion of more land to farming and more water for irrigation, both of which are serious environmental issues.
Perhaps the most illogical and least sustainable aspect of organic farming in the long term is the exclusion of “genetically modified organisms,” but only those that were modified with the most precise and predictable techniques such as gene splicing. 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, often through what are called wide crosses, which move genes from one species or genus to another in ways that do not occur in nature. Therefore, the exclusion from organic agriculture of organisms simply because they were crafted with modern, superior techniques makes no sense. It also denies consumers of organic goods nutritionally improved foods, such as oils with enhanced levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
In recent decades, we have seen advances in agriculture that have been more environmentally friendly and sustainable than ever before. But they have resulted from science-based research and technological ingenuity by farmers, plant breeders and agribusiness companies, not from social elites opposed to modern insecticides, herbicides, genetic engineering and “industrial agriculture.”