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The unnatural nature of food (Part 4)

Matt Ridley

February 2023

Science for Sustainable Agriculture

In the fourth and final part of his exploration of the concept of ‘naturalness’ in food and farming, science writer Matt Ridley concludes by warning that what those arguing in favour of more ‘natural’ ways of farming really mean is rejecting modern agricultural science and technology, and turning instead to old-fashioned, less productive and less efficient forms of food production. Ironically, in a world with more than 8 billion mouths to feed, this more ‘traditional’ approach to feeding people poses the most serious risks to nature and the planet, and at greater cost to humanity, he suggests.


Looking back over two million years of human evolution, I have previously argued that there is no moment, or red line, when food suddenly became unnatural, when we stopped doing natural things and started doing unnatural ones.


A key way to judge the human food system is how good it is at leaving space for nature, while keeping a rapidly expanding world population free from hunger and malnutrition. 


Consider the case of Bt crops, plants genetically modified with a gene derived from a bacterium that kills insects. Because a Bt crop needs much fewer chemical sprays, there has been a noticeable increase in wildlife on farms adopting Bt technology, as well as a reduction in accidental poisonings of farmers themselves by sprays.


In Chinese studies, a doubling of natural insect predators such as ladybirds, lacewings and spiders was recorded in Bt cotton fields, meaning better control of all crop pests by natural predators.


Researchers at the University of Maryland also found that cultivating Bt crops creates a ‘halo effect’, in which surrounding fields not growing Bt crops also have reduced pest problems. Over a 20-year period following the introduction of Bt crops, the populations of two common pests, the European corn borer and the corn earworm, both of which attack other crops as well as maize, declined so much in three American states that even organic and non-GM farmers were able to use less insecticidal sprays than before: 79% less on sweetcorn and 85% less on peppers.        


And a comprehensive study of the effects of Bt technology concluded that after a billion acres had been planted, there were zero unintended consequences, fewer sprays, and large benefits for non-target insects.


Surely what makes farming and food production better for nature makes it more, not less, ‘natural’?


Bt technology is proving especially useful in poorer countries. Africa is facing an intense crisis following the arrival on the continent in 2016 of a pest from the Americas – the fall armyworm – which is now devastating maize crops across the continent. The pest is no longer a problem in Brazil because of the widespread use of Bt maize there, but African countries, under pressure from well-funded ideological opponents of genetically modified crops, have been much slower to allow the technology, even in famine relief food.


Anti-GMO groups such as Greenpeace have also devoted huge resources to blocking the development and testing of vitamin-enhanced ‘Golden Rice’, developed specifically in non-profit institutions by the Swiss scientist Ingo Potrykus as a humanitarian project to alleviate high rates of mortality and morbidity caused by a reliance on rice for food among very poor people in parts of Asia.


It was in response to this shocking campaign that 134 Nobel Prize winners called on Greenpeace in 2017 to ‘cease and desist in its campaign against Golden Rice specifically, and crops and foods improved through biotechnology in general’, insisting that ‘opposition based on emotion and dogma contradicted by data must be stopped.’


And they ended: ‘How many poor people in the world must die before we consider this a crime against humanity?’           


Thankfully there are at last some encouraging signs of progress on that front, with an increasing number of African and other developing countries now legislating to allow the cultivation and import of GM foods, and the first commercial-scale crop of Golden Rice, just under 70 tonnes, safely harvested in the Philippines.          

But Greenpeace’s campaign continues.


Like many other environmental NGOs, their obsession with opposing specific technologies or farming systems, regardless of the application or outcome, and their fixation with a particular concept of ‘naturalness’, is preventing our food from being both healthy and good for nature, which are surely what actually matters. The more concentrated and productive we make our farming systems, the less land we need, the less water and the fewer natural resources. The more land we can then leave to nature, and set aside for biodiversity.


This was spelled out very clearly in a 10-year study by Professor Andrew Balmford of Cambridge University, who led a team of 17 organisations around the world studying different farming systems, producing a comprehensive body of evidence showing that more productive farming results in ‘land sparing’, and that this is a far better way of conserving biodiversity than ‘land sharing’ with more extensive agricultural practices.


Balmford’s team found that this was the case not just for land use but for other environmental issues too: per unit of output, intensive farming results in fewer pollutants, causes less soil loss and consumes less water. They found that applying inorganic nitrogen boosts yields with little or no greenhouse gas ‘penalty’ and results in lower water use per tonne of rice. And they found that organic dairy farms cause at least 30% more soil loss, and take up twice as much land, as conventional dairy farms for the same amount of milk produced.


‘These results add to the evidence that sparing natural habitats by using high-yield farming to produce food is the least bad way forward,’ said Professor Balmford.


The logical end-point of land sparing is the urban, vertical farm factory.


Techno Farm Keihanna in Japan is a vertical farm producing 30,000 lettuce heads a day. It uses automated cultivation, water recycling and LED lighting tuned to just the right wavelength for lettuce. Yet it’s arguably the most sustainable farming on the planet: it uses around 300 times less land than outdoor farming per mouthful of lettuce produced, much less water, quite a bit less energy – the LED lights use less energy than tractors -- and no pesticides at all because it’s hermetically sealed to keep out insects and other pests. In every conceivable sense, it’s a good thing as far as people and the planet are concerned, but it’s a long way from being ‘natural’.


So here is a toast to the unnatural nature of all food.



This is the fourth in a series of articles by Matt Ridley exploring ‘naturalness’ in food and farming. Read Part 1 , Part 2 and Part 3.  


Matt Ridley is the author of numerous books on science. He has been a journalist and a businessman and served for nine years on the House of Lords. He lives on a farm in Northumberland.  Matt is a member of the Science for Sustainable Agriculture advisory group. 

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