Recall our last “What Does Organic Mean, Anyway?” blog post where we discussed the effects that GMOs are having on our bodies and our environment. We talked about GMOs being bad for our health, bad for the environment, bad for farming and bad for business.
If all of this or part of this isn’t enough to make you pause and question whether our current agricultural practices are sustainable, more alarming is the development that in order to combat superweeds, Monsanto has developed an even more powerful herbicide which it is intending to introduce to the market with tolerant seeds. In order to preserve its market share Monsanto and other companies are in constant development of new and more powerful herbicides. Initially herbicide formulas would increase in the amount of glyphosate used and then new crop seeds would have to be designed.
But as noted above superweeds have developed that are tolerant to glyphosate. So, altogether new herbicides are needed to kill those weeds. Monsanto has developed and has been approved to commercialize the use of a herbicide and tolerant seeds made from a chemical known as 2,4-D which is, in fact, one of the two active ingredients in Agent Orange, a biological chemical used by the United States in as chemical warfare during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Agent Orange was a defoliant used to kill the crops and vegetation in the Vietnamese country side. In addition to killing all of the vegetation, the second chemical compound, 2,4,5-T, which through manufacturing processes was contaminated with Dioxin, severely wounded innocent people and caused birth defects in their children and in the children of soldiers who served there, a haunting phenomenon that continues to this day. Dioxin is universally acknowledged to be toxic to humans and has myriad serious health risks, including being carcinogenic.
Unfortunately, there is no guaranty that 2,4-D manufacturing will not contain the same contaminant, Dioxin, as 2,4-D also has a history of contamination. Although 2,4-D is already one of the most widely used herbicides in the world, it has never been sprayed directly on a plant that would then be consumed by humans. When you purchase 2,4-D to rid your yard of dandelions you don’t later eat those dandelions because they are dead. If suddenly the dandelion survives after you spray it with the herbicide would you really want to put it on your plate and eat it? No, in fact you make sure that your kids and pets aren’t anywhere near the yard when you spray the stuff. Why? Because we know there are health hazards to exposure to 2,4-D such as fertility issues in humans and increased rates of cancer in dogs. In addition, there have been incidences in Australia where the chemical was indeed contaminated with dioxin. As recently as 2013, elevated levels of Dioxin were found in generic 2,4-D.
Do I really want the corn field down the road being sprayed with a chemical linked to these health issues, this history, and to the pain and suffering of so many people and to the potential pain and suffering of so many more? From our perspective, there are many negatives that stack up against the modern-day use of agrochemicals.
But do the positive effects outweigh the negative side effects? This is usually the next argument. We need to increase yields to feed the world. Are agrochemical companies such as Monsanto causing a little bit of harm in order to do a great deal of good? It’s essentially a utilitarian argument. The truth is that crop to crop conventional farming is producing higher yields. For cereal crops it is something like 20-25% higher yields per acre. However, when we look at small farms, similarly situated farms, the yield gap is much smaller. We are finding that organic farming can produce as high or higher yields as similarly situated conventional farms do. Typical conventional farm systems are much larger than what can be measured for an organic farm.
With only 1% of farmland in the United States meeting the qualifications to be considered organic, it isn’t hard to imagine that finding comps is challenging. In fact, conventional farm systems covering vast amounts of acreage that would require manure availability that may not be deliverable. So should we be advocating wholesale ban in the use of agrochemicals and their partner seeds when we do not completely understand the needs of humongous corporate farms to meet organic standards?
Resist the temptation to listen to the interests that are trying to simplify this issue. To be engaged citizens we must take the time to consider the complexity of things. And indeed, this is complex which is why we are taking the time to write about it in the first place. Next time you can look forward to a discussion about food production and more.