Written by Iida Ruishalme
Some have claimed the the United Nations advocates a pro-organic, anti-biotechnology stance. The evidence shows that the UN actually advocates careful use of all technologies to improve the sustainability of agriculture.
I used to make the natural assumption that organic farming must be better for the environment, but I realised that I should be relying on scientific evidence, not merely assumptions. On several occasions I’ve asked people (scientists, organic farmers and supporters) to show me evidence of the environmental impacts and sustainability of organic farming. So far that quest hasn’t been very fruitful – I haven’t learned of many scientific papers that would really support that view.
I have frequently been referred to a few different kinds of documents instead. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) 2013 report is one of them.
Does the UNCTAD report constitute good evidence for the benefits of organic agriculture?
Let’s take a look. It is important to note that this report, as well as earlier UNCTAD reports, have been presented – in the media, and by organic supporter organisations (like the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation) – as the word of United Nations.
Example headlines: “UN Report Says Small-Scale Organic Farming Only Way to Feed the World” (Technologywater, a site on aquaponics, self-reliance, and water security – the piece was re-posted on the Huffington Post) and “United Nations Calls for an End to Industrialized Farming” (truth-out.org).
Here is the first hiccup. Despite the claims, this report does not actually represent the views of the UN or the UNCTAD. These myriad reports are presentations made by collections of individual authors. This particular 2013 report is written by a group of organic advocates – these are not the words of institutions, or UN, or scientific organisations, or even agricultural organisations.
In the first pages of this report (of all UNCTAD reports, what I’ve checked), this note can be found (my emphasis). “The views expressed in the articles contained in this Review are the personal views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their respective organisations and institutions.”
Many of the individuals behind this report are working for organic companies or activist organisations, like SEKEM (organisation and trading company driving biodynamic farming and other activities according to Steiner philosophy, called Antroposophy); Heinrich Böll Foundation (a think tank for the German Green party); Regionalwert AG (German organic local food company); and Grolink (Swedish consulting company, motto: “Serving the organic world”); ISIS, (Institute of Science In Society – promotes homeopathy, water memory, and chinese medicine, spreads anti-vaccine articles); and Pesticide Action Network (which makes rather broad claims, “Pesticide corporations distort information to make their products seem safe and necessary”), to name a few.
Among the scientists that do feature among the report authors is New Zealander Jack Heinemann, who has a track record for questionable claims, rejected also by New Zealand and Australia’s food regulatory agency FRANZ. More about Heinemann’s far-out claims are in Science-Based Medicine and Biofortified.
The group of authors seems heavily weighed by the presence of advocacy groups. Still, the personal views presented in this report could reflect scientific evidence, and judgement should be based on scientific evidence – not based on their word alone. Giving this (or any other UNCTAD) report as a reference for a point about organic or conventional farming, however, seems more an obfuscating than a clarifying tactic, as the reader must sift through some 300 pages of different individuals’ views on various topics (from trade, forestry, regulation, food waste, to agriculture, with many subtopics on special cases), instead of focusing on key evidence.
Why turn to UNCTAD to begin with?
If one is looking for an organisational statement as an indicator of the usefulness of an agricultural method, the Conference on Trade and Development might not be the first UN agency to turn to. There are three other UN agencies which deal with questions relevant to agriculture: the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Food Program (WFP), and the World Health Organization (WHO).
Some articles about this UNCTAD report leave the UN department unnamed, claiming simply that the United Nations have announced small scale organic farming is the solution to feeding the world – although neither UNCTAD nor any of the more agriculture-relevant UN agencies have made such claims. However, some individual authors in this report seem to be making leaps of reasoning.
As an example, there is a section in this UNCTAD report about the supposed benefits of biodynamics – that is, benefits of treating the soil as a holistic spiritual organism (see the report for the section about SEKEM).
If you weren’t preciously familiar with biodynamic practices, let me give a brief description. I’ve touched on it before, buried organs and the like. As Wikipedia puts it:
One of the first sustainable agriculture movements, it treats soil fertility, plant growth, and livestock care as ecologically interrelated tasks, emphasizing spiritual and mystical perspectives. Proponents of biodynamic agriculture, including Steiner, have characterized it as “spiritual science” as part of the larger anthroposophy movement.
Key methods of biodynamic farming include eight essential preparations (see table).
A literature review of biodynamic farming reports on remarkably ritualistic ways of using the preparations – far removed from basis in evidence:
Essentially, the only difference between organic and modern biodynamic farming lies in the application of Steiner’s preparations (Carpenter-Boggs et al., 2000a; Giannattasio et al., 2013), which must be “applied in minute doses, much like homeopathic remedies are for humans”
And the review mentions more methods adopted by biodynamic farming, which are even further removed from this world:
Other alternative practices not discussed in this review have become part of the biodynamic movement, including use of cosmic rhythms to schedule various farm activities and image formation to visualize nutritional quality of plants.
You can read more about the cosmic rhythms planting calendar at the Biodynamic Association. Let’s just say that the individuals writing this particular UN conference report do not necessarily require sound scientific (or even non-spiritual) grounds for the methods they advocate for. Luckily most of the report is not about biodynamic farming.
This report is about subsistence farming
Most of these cases presented in the UNCTD report look at subsistence farmers in the developing world. This is a special scenario, where people have extremely limited resources, and are living from hand to mouth – nothing comparable to the expensive luxury food the organic label stands for in the western world. In chapter IX, the author makes an interesting combination of arguments. First: organic farming is better in the developed world because the farmers can ask for a better premium for their product (luxury product). Second: in the developing world organic is also better because of higher price. But is more expensive food really what developing nations need for food security? Another author makes just this contradictory point in his conclusions on page 209 – that it would be important to lower the price of food, which the poor spend most of their meagre incomes on.
The author of chapter IX lastly says organic is better in the developing world because it has better yield. Interesting. Why would organic give better yield in the developing world, when its yields are consistently lower in the west?
The authors claim a yield increase as high as 180% for organic production. It is important to note that the cited trials are comparing organic production to subsistence farming, and subsistence farming has limited access to improved seeds, fertiliser and other inputs. It is not that hard for organic production to yield the same or outperform conventional subsistence farming, because small improvements or access to better materials could make a world of a difference.
If you compare the yield differences presented in these trials to the body of scientific literature, the results are night and day. Reviews of conventional and organic farming in controlled – comparable – situations find that organic yields are consistently a third smaller than conventional (depending on the review, 20-50% smaller – see more in Delving deeper into the roots of organic, or a review in Nature).
Keep in mind: the lower the level of production to start with, the easier it is to show a percentage gain, even from a small actual gain. Since these are very poor conditions to start with, it is not so surprising that there is a large variance in yield.
What this report mainly discusses is that the subsistence agriculture of developing nations doesn’t work well, and is in need of improvement. It doesn’t actually look at developed nations or what we know as conventional agriculture.
Ignoring all this, and using these individual authors’ views to draw conclusions about agricultural practices in the western world, would be lopsided at best.
How does UN view the role of biotechnology?
This report makes very little mention of biotechnology, and when it does (in one of the chapters by Jack Heinemann, the scientist with far out claims), they are introduced to the reader in the form of a blanket rejection (page 203). The argument is: we still have problems, ergo, biotechnology has not worked and should not be used.
Why? When you contrast this report on developing nations’ agriculture with the views of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN, you find that excluding GMOs and endorsing only organic methods isn’t the UN’s message at all. In fact, FAO calls for the inclusion of biotechnology – a “paradigm shift” towards sustainable farming. From a speech by FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva:
Options such as Agro-ecology and climate-smart agriculture should be explored, and so should biotechnology and the use of genetically modified organisms, FAO’s director-general said, noting that food production needs to grow by 60 percent by 2050 to meet the expected demand from an anticipated population of 9 billion people. “We need to explore these alternatives using an inclusive approach based on science and evidences, not on ideologies,” as well as to “respect local characteristics and context,” he said.
This is all we should ask, and all I am trying to do – explore farming methods based on the science. We must look at the evidence instead of relying on ideology – including the ideology that ‘natural’ must be best.
You can read the long official FAO statement on Biotechnology. From there:
FAO continues to assist its member countries, particularly developing countries, to reap the benefits derived from the application of biotechnologies in agriculture, forestry and fisheries
What about small-scale farming?
The Director-General also points out:
Subsistence agriculture on small plots of land perpetuates the vicious cycle of poverty.
Small-scale is not a solution to the developing countries agricultural problems. Small scale is the status quo, out of necessity. The necessity of constant farm labour is keeping the population from seeking education and other work. It requires that a majority remains as farmers, their efforts barely fulfilling the needs of their families. Their children can’t go to school if they have to help out on the fields to survive. This is the cycle of poverty.
Without evidence, sustainability is just a pretty word
For those interested in best agricultural practices from both environmental and humanitarian points of view, the FAO’s work includes projects such as Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agriculture systems (SAFA). Their tool (see the image below) presents the many important aspects which should be taken into consideration when concluding whether a farming style is sustainable or not. Organic farmers, just like all others, should strive to show concrete evidence of benefits or shortcomings concerning factors like human safety and health, climate change and energy, land, accountability, product quality and information, and so forth – not rely on the assumption that their naturalness will automatically result in greater sustainability.
From the SAFA indicators publication (my emphasis):
Having a mission which includes sustainability principles is not evidence of sustainable practice. Mission statements can be used to project an image of sustainable practice beyond the actual effort of the enterprise.
Biotechnology helping the poor
What comes to helping the situation of the poor, consider a decade of EU research on biotechnology, which also puts a focus on developing nations. The European Academies Science Advisory Councils (ESAC, representing all EU member state science councils), in their report Planting the Future: opportunities and challenges for using crop genetic improvement technologies for sustainable agriculture, highlight how the very technology that organic antagonises, is offering significant benefits on many sustainability aspects (my emphasis):
Taken together, the published evidence indicates that, if used properly, adoption of these crops [GMOs] can be associated with the following:
• reduced environmental impact of herbicides and insecticides;
• no/reduced tillage production systems with concomitant reduction in soil erosion;
• economic and health benefit at the farm level, particularly to smallholder farmers in developing countries;
• reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural practices.
Excluding the mysticism-based farming ideas, and the general antagonisation of many modern technologies by the organic labels, there may still be interesting research into the organic methods in subsistence farming conditions included in that UNCTAD report. If such studies are included (the reference list is long and much of it not scientific papers), looking at them in the context with all the other evidence is the objective way to evaluate farming methods. Looking at relevant science – and agricultural organisations’ actual views on these questions – is a better start than merely relying on the conclusions of these individual authors.
In other words, if someone presents this report as important evidence, the question we really should be asking is: is this the most relevant evidence that can be found? Why are we not looking directly at scientific reviews or statements from agricultural organisations?
The pros and cons of organic
Looking at the body of current evidence, scientists have found reduced environmental impact, reduced GHG emissions, and better situation for the farmers as result of biotechnology. When you combine that with the scientific consensus that GMOs are just as safe, and in some cases nutritionally superior to their non-GMO counterparts (see more at Biofortified or Genetic Literacy Project), it is clear that the organic vision is quite unfortunate in its reliance on ideology rather than evidence – when it comes to health and environmental questions. As a marketing tool, however, its natural image is increasingly popular.
My criticism of organic, when it comes to its reliance on ideology, does by no means suggest that all organic methods would be bad. I believe the great majority of farmers want to do what’s best for their land, crops, and consumers. Organic farmers do this by making good use of important methods like crop rotation, Integrated Pest Management (IPM), and cover crops, for instance – methods which are supported by scientific evidence and have documented environmental benefits. This does not necessarily single organic out as better than non-organic, however, as these methods are used by non-organic farmers as well.
The USDA tells us that the majority of cropland in the U.S. is farmed using crop rotations, and that IPM has been incorporated at over 70 % of US farms since the year 2000. Cover-cropping on the other hand is not very widespread – according to USDA, for various reasons, only 3 to 7 percent of farms use cover crops. The majority of these farms, by necessity, are non-organic, as organic farms account for less than 1% of the farms in the US (roughly 14,000 organic farms, or 3.7 million acres vs about 2 million farms all in all, or total 914 million acres).
A large meta-analysis of European research finds that organic farming compares favourably what comes to soil organic content, but its drawbacks are greater land use and higher nitrogen pollution. There are drawbacks and benefits to every method, and only careful evaluation will help us discern them.
Whenever we make a specific claim, it’s important to remember that we should not assume, but instead try to look for sources of evidence that confirm or reject that claim. I try hard to follow that principle. I am here for the evidence, and want to find the best way for humans, animals, and nature on this globe to go on living together. I am sure we are all on board with this sentiment – it’s an important common ground, one that we should never forget.
I would like to thank the many scientists, farmers, and interested lay people at GMO Skepti-Forum and Food and Farm Discussion Lab for their participation and valuable pointers in dissecting topics of contemporary agriculture.
Written by Guest Expert
Iida Ruishalme is a writer and a science communicator who holds a MSc in Biology from Sweden. She thinks nature is pretty awesome, and that it only gets more awesome the more you learn about it. She writes at Thoughtscapism.
Thanks, a good reference article.
I really like the sustainability diagram proposed by the FAO. It’s got a great wide swath of characteristics of agriculture, each one important. The one thing that I think is missing is animal welfare, but perhaps FAO included that in another characteristic. I’m going to download the tool and see what sorts of questions are in there. Depending on how the rating scales are designed, this could be a pretty amazing way to compare very diverse agricultural systems.
Thanks. A usual will have to read again to make sure I understood correctly.
Thanks for bringing clarity to what the UNCTAD report is and actually said. It parallels the repeated claim in comment boards that the New England Journal of Medicine has called for gmo labeling. The NEJM has done no such thing. In a recent publication, the NEJM did include an opinion article submitted by Charles Benbrook and another author that presented a case for mandatory labeling. But it is incorrect to represent that article as the position of the publishers of the NEJM or of scientists and other authors who have submitted works to the journal.
The FAO diagram is a very helpful way of visualizing and weighing the merits of alternative approaches to agricultural production. I think we get too caught up as a society in viewing major issues as a false dichotomy between two distinct choices. In agriculture, the false choice is organic vs. industrial, and that we as a society must declare one to be more sustainable, socially equitable, more apt to achieve food security and safety, more environmentally compatible, more socially equitable, etc., one is right and one is wrong and to regulate the other out of existence. I first suggest it is incorrect to say that we are limited to only these two choices, that agriculture is divided between two extremes. It is probably a more accurate description that individual farming operations fall somewhere along a spectrum of husbandry practices and philosophies and incorporation of technology. And as you conclude, there are tradeoffs among various agronomic practices and technologies available to and adopted by farmers with respect to how well they meet societal values and expectations that are represented on the chart. What we call industrial, capital and technology intensive agriculture may be superior in some measurements of food security, resource use efficiency, environmental impact, etc. (i.e. bulge out toward the green band on some areas on the chart) etc. but be inferior in other measurements. The same would be true for what we might loosely categorize as organic.
Yes, I was really happy to find work that actually takes on the task of defining what sustainable is. It’s a big topic, and I haven’t read much about it yet, but I’ve collected a couple of sources – apart from the SAFA project, I’ve found 2 papers so far:
This one looks at different organisations takes on this (like WWF) and also goes more into how the indicators are measured from what I can tell. Doesn’t take social factors into account, I think:
and this paper (also more environment based though income and economics feature in at least in the discussion) is about “Agricultural Sustainability Index” http://www.iisc.ernet.in/currsci/aug252006/439.pdf
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