TCS Daily

Farming On Trial

By Alex Avery - October 23, 2003 12:00 AM

British farmers must be wondering if they've been transported to Alice's Wonderland. Suddenly, normal farm activities like combating weeds in the fields are akin to crimes against nature.


Last week, the UK government released the results of its 3-year farm-scale evaluations (FSEs) supposedly examining the environmental impacts of genetically modified, or "GM" crops. According to the headlines in scores of UK newspapers, the results indicate that two of the three GM crops were "damaging to wildlife."


The Guardian headline read, "Two GM crops face ban for damaging wildlife." Commentator John Vidal says the trials provide "a legal basis for banning the two crops under European Union rules, which say that either health or environmental detriment must be proved."


This is a sham. They aren't talking wildlife; they're literally talking about weeds. The FSE measured the number and density of weeds and associated insects in the crop fields. The researchers call it "farmland biodiversity" and assume that fewer weeds and dependent bugs in farm fields means fewer birds and other critters off the farm. The FSE researchers refer to this assumption as "the negative impacts of cleanliness."


Clare Oxborrow of the activist group Friends of the Earth commented, "weeds are a crucial part of maintaining farmland diversity." What's next, Greenpeace praise for livestock diseases?


If the British really believe that weeds are a better use of cropland than crop yields, then their farm surpluses and farming ignorance have made them a danger to the whole world's natural biodiversity.


Farm fields are not natural ecosystems harboring critical natural biodiversity. Farm fields are human food and fiber factories. Every acre of farmland, no matter how weedy or organic, is one less acre of natural wildlife habitat. The more weeds we tolerate in our fields to serve "farmland biodiversity," the lower farm productivity becomes and the more land we must steal from nature to feed and clothe humanity.


Government rejection of biotech cropping systems based on these results of the FSE would establish a de facto government mandate for both weeds in crop fields and lower yields. It's an absurd precedent.


In effect they are putting farming itself on trial. Farmers have rightly been at war with weeds in their fields since the dawn of agriculture. Weeds in the fields squander soil nutrients, water, and sunlight; reducing crop yields proportionately. Combating weeds conserves these resources, thereby increasing the fuel economy of our "agricultural machinery."


Are organic farmers who plow, till, hoe, and hand weed to aggressively weed their fields perpetrating a holocaust on nature? In some sense, they are. Organic farming's "bare-earth" weed control methods cause significant soil erosion and runoff, polluting rivers and streams with sediment and nutrients.


Herbicides have allowed modern farmers to do "no-tillage" farming; killing weeds without disturbing the soil. This drastically reduces soil erosion while improving soil structure and storing carbon, making no-till farming the most sustainable agriculture in human history. Organic farmers have spent years attempting to develop no-till systems of their own -- despite their self-imposed restriction against using herbicides -- because of the undeniable agronomic and environmental superiority of no-till.


GM technology now allows no-till to work with a much larger array of crops and with safer herbicides. The GM crops tested in the FSE were in fact engineered to work with low-toxicity herbicides that require fewer sprays. The FSE showed they performed exactly as advertised: lower soil erosion, more flexible and effective weed control using fewer sprays of a less toxic herbicide. Somehow all these environmental successes still add up to failure in the Wonderland of today's UK.


The bigger picture here is that according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, humanity is already farming nearly half the non-ice-covered land area of the earth. Over the next 50 years, population growth and higher incomes in the developing world will combine to at least double annual food and fibre demand. Without still higher yields on our existing farmland, even more natural habitat will be turned over to "farmland biodiversity."


Was I kidding about UK government weed mandates? The FSE researchers conclude, "If the environmental disbenefits of very clean fields are in future judged to be unacceptable... band spraying [herbicides] or leaving unsprayed strips along field margins, could be used to reduce the negative impacts of cleanliness."


Meanwhile, in Wonderland: "'Let the jury consider their verdict,' the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.


'No, no!' said the Queen. 'Sentence first --- verdict afterwards.'


'Stuff and nonsense!' said Alice loudly.


Alex Avery is Director of Research at the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues in Churchville, Virginia, USA.


TCS Daily Archives