Europe’s Green Deal ‘Farm to Fork’ Plan: How Not to Grow Food Sustainably
Science for Sustainable Agriculture
Taking aim at the EU’s ‘Farm to Fork’ plan, US science journalist Jon Entine warns that reverting agriculture to low-yield, land intensive and disease-vulnerable farming methods is the fantasy of an affluent society. Scaling up organic farming and slashing synthetic pesticide and fertiliser use in Europe will not only increase hunger, but undermine climate and environmental goals as well. We need a food system that is efficient, productive, environmentally sustainable, and can provide nutritious food with an increasingly small footprint. We could actually begin solving many challenges if we stopped choosing methods based on superficial notions of sustainability and instead looked to outputs and goals. That can only happen if it is rooted in scientific reality, not wishful thinking, he suggests.
The sustainability goals outlined in the EU’s Farm to Fork (F2F) policy, as it seeks to tackle global hunger, climate change and biodiversity loss while scaling up organic farming and slashing synthetic pesticide and fertiliser use in Europe, raise fundamental questions.
Without any clear plan as to how to address agricultural pest and productivity challenges, the gap between aspiration and action appears huge.
Many people who embrace the same sustainability goals believe the F2F approach, taken as a whole, is a prescription for disaster. It will not only increase hunger, but undermine climate and environmental goals as well.
In terms of food security, we face two key challenges: a fast-growing population and a gradual demand for more and higher calorific food, especially in developing countries in Asia and Africa.
Certainly, we can and should cut food waste. But that’s not a game changer when it comes to making food and farming both more sustainable and more productive.
We need to decide whether we are going to address the issue seriously, and in line with the science, or just pretend that a perfectly predictable crisis, like the next global pandemic, isn’t going to happen.
SYNTHETIC CHEMICAL MYTHS
The F2F sustainability equation includes plans to cut conventional pesticide use by 50 percent, regardless of their effectiveness or toxicity. Why? That’s never addressed scientifically. It can’t be over concerns about health or environmental impacts.
Science has come a long way since synthetic agricultural chemicals were first introduced in mid-last century. Early, crude chemicals have been phased out. Functionally, the newer ones are targeted, designed to prevent specific plant diseases, kill weeds, and kill or repel harmful insects without harming beneficial ones, and overwhelmingly they do that.
Overall per acre toxicity levels on US farms begin declining dramatically in the 1960s, and dropped again with the introduction of genetically engineered crops in the 1990s - although the volume of chemical usage has stayed about the same - primarily because of the introduction of low toxic pesticides, such as glyphosate.
And CRISPR gene editing is poised to gradually eliminate most highly toxic chemicals, and in some cases, synthetic chemicals, altogether. But organic agriculture rejects GMOs, even those engineered to produce the insect-repelling natural bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which is widely used in sprays by organic.
Meanwhile, the organic movement remains wedded to the past, addicted to ‘technology’ that is a century old or even older, even when the health and environmental consequences can be catastrophic.
Consider copper sulfate, used by organic farmers, particularly in the wine industry, to limit fungus on wine grapes. It’s highly toxic. Unfortunately, it also kills beneficial insects. Only strong lobbying by Europe’s organic industry, which helped shape the Farm to Fork strategy, has prevented copper sulfate from being banned by the European Union, despite its “particular concern to public health and the environment,” according to the European Food Safety Authority. So much for Europe’s model organic farming practices.
Copper sulfate is also far more toxic than the herbicide glyphosate whose use has set off paroxysms of hysteria across Europe. Glyphosate is less toxic than salt and has been found safe by 18 major global health and environmental safety organisations, including four in Europe, and most recently the European Food Safety Authority itself.
Although glyphosate accounts for one quarter of herbicides applied by weight to corn in the US, it only accounts for one tenth of one per cent of the chronic toxicity hazard associated with weed control in corn. Put another way: The other 74% of herbicides account for 99.9% of chronic toxicity hazard in weed control for corn. Or to put it yet another way, taking glyphosate out of the picture could raise the toxicity hazard in corn by 26%, 43% in soybeans, and 45% in cotton. Yet, green groups want to ban it, which directly contradicts the science goals of F2F and the Green Deal.
HOW TO ACHIEVE SUSTAINABLE FARMING
Organic agriculture is held up as a European goal - F2F proposes to more than triple its implementation by 2030.
But what would happen if a country fully embraced organic farming? As there is almost no arable land left in the world, the move to organic would result in a shift in production to the developing world, which would lead to the clearing of natural habitats to create more farmland. In essence, the EU would be exporting to the poorest regions of the world its environmental “externalities”, as economists call it, all because of its organic fixation.
That’s exactly the question asked and answered by researchers in a state-of-the-art study published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications, who compared conventional and organic agriculture and its impact on carbon emissions in England and Wales.
As the organic industry itself acknowledges, they found organic farming is as much as 40 percent less productive than conventional farming. Transitioning from conventional farming to 100 percent organic would pump somewhere between 20 and 70 percent more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than conventional farming.
Just to meet the current demand for food (it’s actually expected to increase steadily in the years ahead) and make up this 40 percent shortfall, the independent research team found the UK would have to dramatically increase its food imports.
“This has an associated impact on the environment, adding potentially unnecessary food miles and greenhouse gas emissions to our food systems,” said Philip Jones, from the University of Reading, one of the authors of the study.
According to a BBC analysis, “due to significantly lower productivity in other countries, this would require five times the amount of land that is currently used for food in England and Wales, consuming 6 million more hectares of land.”
ORGANIC PRODUCTION AND GREENHOUSE GASES
The questions surrounding F2F multiply exponentially when you consider greenhouse gas emissions. Growing concerns about climate change - and estimates that one third of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture - have helped fuel the market for organic foods, which is perceived as reducing environmental impacts. Many scientists contest those claims.
One of the great early advances of organic farming was the use of compost to promote soil health. But there are sustainability trade-offs. During the process of composting, methane is emitted, a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Methane is also released in catastrophic amounts by flatulent cows, the primary generator of organic waste for use as fertiliser on organic farms. Cattle livestock is already blamed for generating nearly 20 percent more greenhouse gases in terms of carbon equivalency as compared to driving automobiles. The use of organic fertiliser often results in the release of nitrous oxide, a highly potent greenhouse gas.
Organic farmers also rely on tillage far more than their conventional counterparts. Many conventional farmers have switched to no-till, ridge-till, and mulch oil (reduced ploughing) practices, facilitated by the use of GMO crops, because tillage contributes to soil erosion and the release of greenhouse gasses. No-till practices allow the soil structure to stay intact, protecting beneficial microorganisms, fungi and bacteria. No-till also conserves water, reduces erosion, and unnecessary labour to ride carbon-belching machinery so common in large scale organic farming. The use of no-tillage farming has grown sharply over the last two decades in the US, in step with the growth in GMO farming, accounting for more than 35 percent of cropland.
One study estimates that using glyphosate herbicide in conjunction with GMO glyphosate-resistant corn and soybean have prevented 41 billion lbs. of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere between 1996 to 2013. A 2016 study by Purdue University researchers found that agricultural greenhouse gas emissions would increase by nearly 14 percent if there were a ban on GMOs in the countries now using them. These figures help explain why the US is so far ahead of Europe in toxic pesticide reduction.
BEYOND FARM TO FORK: HOW DO WE PUT AGRICULTURAL SUSTAINABILITY AHEAD OF IDEOLOGY?
If the supporters of the Farm to Fork strategy take seriously their desire to ‘export’ the organic agricultural model to the rest of the world’, they have to soberly reassess the impact of their carbon-increasing strategy. Boutique ideas like urban farming and local production or reverting world agriculture to more “natural” low-yield, land intensive and disease-vulnerable farming methods - are the fantasies of an affluent society. Organic farming is like an impulse buy, and such thinly supported decision-making has no place in a policy that purports to address seriously the enormous challenges facing the world.
Here is my disappointment with the notions promoted by F2F. They don’t address the real complexity of food and farming; they are bereft of nuance and a science-based understanding of environmental and economic trade-offs. Synthetic chemicals are only part of the sustainability equation. Eco-responsibility means different things to different experts. Greenhouse gas emissions? Productivity per acre? Land usage? Labour intensive vs. mechanised agriculture? These and other factors should be part of a complex, outcomes-based assessment of what constitutes agricultural sustainability.
We could actually begin solving many challenges if we stopped choosing methods based on superficial notions of sustainability and instead looked to outputs and goals. Do we want to feel virtuous or actually solve real-life problems? Modern technology offers solutions, first and foremost: gene-editing that can make plants more resistant to disease, drought, and pests; more nitrogen efficient (meaning they would need less or no chemical fertiliser); safer (peanuts without the harmful proteins that can kill; wheat without the gluten that is deadly to people with coeliac disease); healthier (crops with heart-healthy omega 3s). The advantages are endless—if we don’t regulate this promising technology to death.
It may not be fashionable to say this, particularly in Europe, but we will continue to need targeted chemical pesticides. A lot of them. Complemented by a new suite of genetically engineered products based on synthetic biology with little to no toxic footprint. The toxicity of modern pesticides has dropped 98% since the 1960s, and is being reduced every year. Organic pesticides toxicity has dropped zero percent since 1960.
Should we be judicious and careful going forward? Yes. But let’s listen to the science, not to chemophobic scaremongering, when it comes to setting farm production policy.
We need a food system that is efficient, productive, environmentally sustainable, and can provide nutritious food with an increasingly small environmental footprint. That can only happen if it is based in reality, not wishful thinking.
Jon Entine is an American science journalist with almost 50 years’ experience in both broadcast and print media. He has written several books on genetics and agriculture, and is a regular contributing columnist to newspapers and magazines. He is the founder and executive director of the non-profit science advocacy platform the Genetic Literacy Project.
A version of this article first appeared on the European Scientist website here. This adapted version is reproduced by Science for Sustainable Agriculture with the author’s permission.