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Going green requires new crop technology

In the days leading up to Earth Day I watched several television shows, listened to as many radio reports and read a half-dozen or so articles on the need to go green.

I don't disagree with the philosophy behind the information blitz that accompanied Earth Day 2008. I'm a bit of a tree hugger myself. Some of the most memorable experiences I've ever had took place on a stream, a lake, or in a forest. I believe strongly that we, as a nation, and as a global community, must find more efficient, less polluting, renewable sources of energy.

We also have to limit the damage we do to the planet; we have to get a handle on our wasteful natures and find ways to do more than token recycling to protect the only home we have. We have to get green. And, as the famous 20th century philosopher Kermit the Frog said: “It isn't easy being green.”

It's made even more difficult when those self-proclaimed defenders of the earth, Green Peace, the Environmental Working Group and others, indict sound environmental farming practices, such as transgenic crop production — as evil incarnate, the road to perdition, and the end of life on earth as we know it.

Environmentalists should embrace transgenics. As much as anything that has come along in the last 50 years, genetically modified crop production paves the way to a greener, more environmentally friendly means to produce enough food and fiber to satisfy a growing world population's needs.

Transgenics will prove to be one of the best advances in crop production in our lifetime. It's part of what is likely to be a complex solution to global hunger.

Organic agriculture is not.

During the few days preceding Earth Day, April 22, news venues bombarded us with tidbits about how to become greener. Part of almost every message was to go organic.

I have no problems with organic farming. I've interviewed several farmers in the past few years that produce crops and livestock organically. They do excellent jobs and they receive premiums for their efforts.

But the assumption that organic agriculture will be the solution to a greener world ignores a few essential truths. Farms can and do produce organic crops: fruits, vegetables, grains, and even livestock. But eliminating all pesticides and synthetic fertilizers from these operations comes with trade-offs.

Organic production demands more labor costs for pest control, especially to manage weeds. Instead of one or two trips over transgenic crops with herbicides, organic producers may need several more trips to cultivate, requiring more energy, more fossil fuel, a larger carbon footprint.

Reduced tillage, while maybe not impossible in organic farming, may be less practical, so tillage requirements will increase, meaning even more fuel use, more hardware depreciation, and less green advantage.

Organic production demands more land to produce the same amount of food and fiber. That means fewer acres devoted to conservation, more forests cut down, less permanent vegetation to replenish oxygen and capture carbon dioxide. It means more potential erosion, more sediment in rivers and streams, and eventually less productivity.

Most farmers I talk to are green. They use only what's necessary to produce a crop. They conserve soil. They are mindful of water resources and protect them. The farmers I know who grow organic crops share those sentiments and most admit that they fill only niche markets.

Those markets attract customers, and growers who fill that demand are providing a valuable service. But feeding the world requires a more complex solution. Hunger isn't green.

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