Biotechnology is a band-aid approach to “fix” long-term problems with short-term solutions. Much has been written on agricultural sustainability, leaving us with a word that now has tremendous baggage. Many have rushed to claim a piece of this term since there is not only great marketing potential in the concept of sustainability, but also great political leverage. But agriculture can only be sustainable when the primary resources used in the system (soil and water) are regenerated from within the system.
Sustainability needs to consider more than simply yield in tons. By concentrating our efforts solely on yield and not on building and improving the health of our soils, we have missed the main opportunity to be sustainable. Biotechnology has focused our attention on the wrong goal—merely yields alone—and has convinced many that sustainability can be achieved through large scale monoculture production systems of genetically modified (GM) crops that deplete the nutritional value of our soils and our food.
A truly sustainable agriculture can both deliver strong yields and improve soil quality and fertility over time, offering a solid
network of roots for a thriving agricultural community. Our Farming Systems Trial—a 30-year research project comparing organic and conventional practices, side by side—has shown that organic yields can match those from conventional systems. And organically managed soil is healthier, more biologically active, drought resistant and more resilient.
Even a poor or damaging system can be sustained for a short time, relative to the history of modern agriculture. Within roughly seventy years, our current chemical-based agricultural system is already showing its weaknesses—depleted soil, poisoned water, negative impacts on human and environmental health, and broken rural communities. Sustainable production should look out 100 years or more to determine if a production system is really on the right road.
Sustainable agriculture shouldn’t just feed the world’s growing population today, or tomorrow, but far into the foreseeable future. Biotechnology and the associated methods often have a negative effect on soil and water health, minimizing their potential to serve us over time. By building and improving soil health, utilizing organic practices to fix nutrients in the soil, encouraging biodiversity, and greatly minimizing synthetic inputs, organic producers are ensuring the sustainability of the system indefinitely.
Today we produce food within a system that is broken. While the points of breakage can be defined within the context of sustainability, they cannot be fixed with biotech solutions. They can only be repaired by addressing the fundamentals that restore and regenerate the resources of soil and water. By artificially sustaining a poor system, we have created a model that divorces biology from the system and replaces it with costly and damaging external inputs.
Conventional biotech methods could be forgiven if they were improving the quality of the food, improving the health of our soils and water, improving the biodiversity of our nation’s rural areas, building truly sustainable communities, or improving the lives of farmers.
In every category, we continue to fall short of our goals of feeding the world indefinitely, yet we continue to move down this road holding onto the false promises held out by the biotech community claiming cheap food—which isn’t really cheap—as the primary reason to accept all those negative consequences. All the while, we squander valuable time and resources that could be better spent working towards a truly sustainable food production system based on sound biological principles. To repair it, we must focus on the basics—soil health and water quality—and how we can improve upon these natural resources so that we return as much as we take, thus ensuring our future.
If farmers are challenged to continuously improve the resources they depend on, and look beyond the farm gate at the impacts their decisions have on the total supply chain, then sustainability moves far beyond the need for biotechnology.