As I speak out about diet, climate change and the potential of regenerative agriculture, I find myself on a collision course with other dietitians and many scientists. The pro GMO contingent focuses narrowly on the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMO/GM) in humans, effectively sealing themselves from larger questions about environmental costs and the increasingly questionable benefits from genetic engineering in agriculture.
This past spring the Academy of Sciences released an extensive report insisting on the safety of genetically modified organisms. A two year long effort produced a 388 page document claiming that “Genetically engineered (GE) crops are safe for humans and animals to eat and have not caused increases in cancer, obesity, gastrointestinal illnesses, kidney disease, autism or allergies.”
WHAT DOES “SAFE” MEAN?
Scientifically it is not possible to test food or anything else for absolute “safety”. One can only say that all the testing so far demonstrates no risk at this time.
Many foods are inherently unsafe. We usually have take care not to cultivate, prepare and store them safely. We need to eat food before it “goes bad.” The only reason we some berries and not others is because those other berries caused harm to some living thing at some point in time. Everyone else in the tribe took note. All communities establish what is “safe to eat” based on empirical evidence.
The current debate regarding the safety of GMO reveals more complicated issues beyond the simple question of food safety. I can’t agree more with this statement by Charlie Arnot, the CEO of the Center for Food Integrity: “What we have found is that the debate about GM is a debate about today’s food system, more than it is about the GM crops themselves.”
GLYPHOSATE AND THE HARM OF GE IN AGRICULTURE
Glyphosate is the active ingredient found in Roundup, the ubiquitous herbicide used commercially on farms. Genetically modified corn and soy are engineered to withstand treatment with glyphosate while other plants and pests die. Effectively 99% of all GE crops boast this advantage, which is what seduced farmers in the first place.
Today, we recognize that the promise of GE products has failed on every front. It is true that many foods are cheaper, however the excessive quantity of cheap starch, sugar and fat on our supermarket shelves poses some of the greatest harm of all. Even if we never uncover health risks specifically linked to the genetic manipulation of genetically engineering crops, the metabolic and environmental costs are great.
When Monsanto introduced genetically modified seeds the world was promised greater yields, reduced pesticide use, and the end of hunger. Twenty years later, the experiment has failed. There is still hunger, conventional farmers use more pesticide than ever, and organic agriculture proves to be as productive and resilient as industrial farming, even more so during drought and other times of environmental stress.
In addition, the increased use of pesticides and industrial fertilizers linked with GM crops drives weed resistance (now at 27 different varieties), compromises soil ecology, increases water toxicity, and does next to nothing to enhance organic matter in the soil. Both conventional farming and feedlots drive greenhouse gas emissions. as well. Thankfully, renewed interest in regenerative agriculture and effective grazing solves for all the x’s.
We don’t need much motivation for change with increasing concerns about a growing population, climate change, and the ability to grow enough food. I observe innovation at every step, with our food supply changing faster than I ever imagined.
In 2012 Adam Davis published research showcasing Marsden Farms. He demonstrated that growing soy and corn using non GMO seed could reduce use of fossil fuels by 45%, and reduce use of pesticides and NPK fertilizer by 85 and 95% respectively while producing just as much food at no greater cost. Impressive enough, however the mind blowing data showed a full 400 times (not percent) decrease in water toxicity. The message that we could step away from some of the greatest negatives of Big Ag without completely stepping away from conventional farming, encouraged many.
Even the USDA embraces a more sustainable mode, encouraging farmers to abandon their time honored plowing practices and convert to a no till system. One remarkable video demonstrates how poorly disrupted soil holds water, leading to greater floods and damage from flooding anywhere tilled land lies fallow. It seems every effort to regenerate our land starts with soil
Greater biodiversity, healthier soils, and increased soil carbon all contribute to enhanced soil ecology. Regenerative agriculture taps the inherent synergies of nature cycling nutrients from soil to plant to animal and back to soil. Ideally the waste (plant matter) from one stage feeds the need (animals); animal waste feeds the soil and the nutrients liberated by microbes in soil feed the plant.
Regenerative farming and grazing hinge on these basic biodynamic principles, recharging the engine of farm and grazing land everywhere. I like to say nature gets the science right. Effectively managing cropland and grazing allows the synergies to impact crop yield, animal welfare, and soil ecology. Whats the best that could happen? The potential carbon sequestration from effectively managed agriculture increases organic matter and promises to reverse climate change.
Want to see for yourself? Just watch the almost magical transformation of Apricot Lane Farms in their video short titled, Reimagining ALF. Thanks to Molly and John Chester and their entire team for keeping me inspired. We can feed ourselves and save the planet, and many will do it with a fork and a knife.