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Sustaining Agriculture Part II
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For detail please refer to last week’s column. Today focuses on the factors traditional agriculture uses the Sustainable Food Movement objects to. First though a reminder of what is defined as sustainable:
• Any of a number of environmentally friendly farming methods that preserve an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.
• The production of food, fiber, or other plant or animal products using farming techniques that protect the environment, public health, human communities, and animal welfare.
Now, for the sake of argument, let’s accept that everyone from traditional agriculture to Chipotle agrees these are proper goals. If you speak with producers you will find they basically agree with this but would add sustainability includes economic sustainability. The disagreement between the opposite ends of the spectrum involves the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, GMOs, etc. This week – what is the purpose of technologies used by “unsustainable” agriculture? Space doesn’t allow for great detail.
First, the easiest one, public health and GMO foods. There is absolutely no scientifically validated evidence that GMO foods pose any health risk when consumed. Complex meta-analysis of all research studies confirm this. We have over twenty years and billions of meals with GMO foods that confirm this. There are serious health risks from certain pesticides but changes in regulations and usage combined with new chemistries have significantly lessened the risk and pesticide residues are closely monitored. These are used to increase production, decrease the time needed for food to get to the table while increasing quality and overall efficiency.
Farmers and the environment has benefitted greatly from the adoption of GMO technology for crops. Bt and herbicide resistant technologies have allowed for the decreased use of many pesticides, especially insecticides, and the increased use of more environmentally friendly, less hazardous, pesticides. These technologies have the added benefits of increasing production per acre and improving the quality of foodstuffs. GMO technology has also increased water use efficiency, allowed for increased nutrition in developing countries, and improved shelf life. There are issues of concern dealing with insects like bees and Monarch butterflies. For the Monarchs the problem isn’t the insecticide technology but the Roundup Ready® technology that is destroying their food source – milkweed. This can be addressed. The other problem is the development of pesticide resistant insects and weeds. A great deal of research has and is being conducted to address this.
Hormone usage, where appropriate and allowed, helps livestock grow more efficiently while using less feed which decreases the acreage needed to produce feedstocks. Appropriately used antibiotics there are quite strict regulations regarding the use of the products.
Synthetic fertilizers allow for increased production per acre. Crop plants take up nutrients in the inorganic form. Some of these are manufactured and some are mined. Proper fertilization insures proper nutrition of plant products consumed by humans and livestock. This also decreases stress on plants allowing for better disease resistance and water use efficiency.
Herbicides, among other things, allow for increased crop yield, improved quality, decrease plant stress and improve water use efficiency. They further decrease secondary hosts for insects and diseases.  
Next week – What happens to sustainability if we don’t use these “unsustainable” technologies and where the sustainable movement may be right?