15 November 2016
Updated 16 November 2016
When it’s assumed that food grown using modern high-tech agriculture, including GMO crops and greater reliance on chemical pesticides, is absolutely necessary to feed a growing world population, one might be tempted to question that assumption when the most populous nation in the world rejects such food.
There are some angry farmers in the U.S. who, in 2013-2014 were unable to sell their GMO corn to China – angry enough to file a class action suit against the large Swiss agribusiness company called Syngenta. Syngenta makes agro-chemicals and GMO seed. If you do a web search of “Syngenta litigation updates,” you’ll find links to many law firms representing thousands of farmers suing for economic damages. Click on a link and you may get an online chat window popup with a law firm representative ready to provide immediate assistance with your case. Damage and claims estimates run in the $billions. According to University of Nebraska Professor J. David Aiken reporting in this document (pdf):
Syngenta is being sued by thousands of corn producers,
exporters, grain elevators and shippers regarding GMO seed varieties approved for sale in the US but not approved for import into China. In November 2013 China rejected US corn shipments, as possibly containing corn grown from the unapproved Syngenta seed. Corn prices dropped by more than half between summer 2012 and fall 2014. In response, grain exporters, corn producers and others have sued Syngenta, contending that China’s rejection of US corn imports caused much or most of the price decline.
Biotech Crops and Herbicides
Genetically modified (aka “biotech”) crops have been developed to improve yields (and profits) by making them resistant to insects, compatible with herbicides, or by improving water use efficiency. For example, “Roundup Ready” GMO corn and soybeans are left unharmed in the field after the herbicide application kills weeds competing for water and nutrients. Genetically modified crops and pest management go hand-in-hand and have been proven largely effective at least until weeds develop resistance to the herbicides. While I’m no expert on biotech crops, GMO food doesn’t scare me. I’m more concerned about the health risks of the pesticides that go along with them. A concise summary of the case against “industrial agriculture” is available here.
Why else is this important and deserving of attention on an AGU soil blog? Biogeochemistry.
Interference with Nitrogen Fixation in Legumes
For example, increased use of pesticides has been linked to interference with the natural symbiotic relationship between leguminous plants (e.g., beans) and nitrogen-fixing bacteria present in root nodules. To compensate for this loss of plant-available nitrogen naturally produced in root nodules, growers need to add more nitrogen fertilizer, which increases cost and potentially causes more pollution of water resources.
Feeding the World as Justification for Industrial Agriculture
“American farmers feed the world” has become a proud mantra for farmers whose goal it is to maximize yields and sell food to a hungry world. The phrase is so popular, in fact, it is embossed on stylish belt buckles available from online retailers here, here, and here with that phrase proudly displayed in metallic repoussé (links do not represent a product or vendor endorsement).
Not everyone, including some farmers, agrees that America is the breadbasket of the world, without which, millions would starve. It may be that American products, including shipping and other costs, are just too expensive for many poor and hungry people overseas as suggested here, here and here.
If the world is not in desperate need of American grain grown in vast industrial monocultures, do we really want to continue farming that way? Are dead zones and harmful algal blooms justified to create a surplus commodity that ultimately, when sold, won’t even pay the farmers’ bills?