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[SANET-MG] no such thing as natural farming
Highly paid academic pr guys like to raise questions about what is
natural. The conclusion that natural farming does not exist is a truly
silly one. The fact that synthetic copies of bacterial genes with highly
altered genetic codes leading to genes never before facing evolution are
used in GM crops and that the bacterial products not their altered
synthetic products are tested for safety was ignored by this weird
advocate of unnatural "natural" genes.Like the cigarette pr guys the
biotechnology pr guys do not know the meaning of natural or of shame at
their silly presumptions.
No such thing as natural farming
- The San Diego Union-Tribune, Maarten J. Chrispeels, June 16, 2004
News reports about the recent demonstration in San Francisco against
genetically engineered crops and Mendocino County's ban on such crops
suggest to the casual observer that we would all be better off by
avoiding the application of new agricultural technologies, while
embracing "natural farming" techniques.
But what, exactly, do we mean by natural? And what would be the costs to
society of abandoning our current technology?
Right now, the food available in our stores is cheaper, more plentiful
and more nutritious than ever before in our history. Yet we worry about
the way food is produced on farms and about the genetic makeup of the
plants used by our farmers. "Are they using natural plants and farming
the natural way?" we ask ourselves.
Perhaps it is time to kill off a few myths about farming. There is
nothing natural about farming. An agricultural landscape may look
attractive -- a vineyard in the San Diego backcountry for example, or a
sunflower field in full bloom in the Provence in France -- but its
creation required the complete destruction of the natural ecosystem and
its replacement by an agricultural ecosystem.
Further, to grow so many of the same plants in one field while at the
same time suppressing the growth of other plants -- in this case, weeds
-- is not natural. This is true even if farmers practice crop rotation,
or "inter-cropping," the practice of growing two or three crops at the
same time. Such an ecosystem is not what nature intended, and as a
result we must continuously supply fertilizers, and apply weed control,
disease control and insect control measures to keep that artificial
The most important question is not whether it is natural, but whether it
is sustainable in the long run. Do our practices destroy the resource
base, or do they maintain it for future generations?
And what about the plants? Are they natural? Well, our crop plants were
domesticated 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, and in the process their genetic
makeup was changed considerably and irreversibly. Changed so much in
fact that crop plants generally cannot survive in nature.
Although all the plants in our canyons and mountains are not native --
there are many invaders -- there are no runaway crop plants to be found.
They simply can't survive there.
Further, the genetic makeup of our crops keeps on changing. This is true
whether a San Diego tomato farmer buys the latest hybrid seeds from a
crop breeding company or whether a corn seed selector in Chiapas,
Mexico, selects seeds from this year's harvest for planting the next season.
In subsistence farming communities all over the world, seed selectors --
usually women -- carefully select seeds from the best plants and keep
them for planting. This does not maintain the genetic "purity" of these
land races but rather produces constant genetic change so that the crop
remains adapted to its ever-changing environment.
In our society, ever since the 1900s, plant breeders have been making
new gene combinations to produce the best planting materials. The
so-called genetically manipulated or "GM crops," sometimes referred to
as "GMOs," are simply the latest expression of plant breeders' desires
to produce the best crops for the farmers. In such GM crops, new genes
are introduced by a combination of molecular techniques and traditional
Because molecular techniques are used at the start, the genes can come
from any organism: another plant species, a microbe or even an animal.
Animal genes will not be used to create new food plants but may be
introduced to create plants that manufacture pharmaceuticals. The
productivity of our agriculture, whether conventional or organic, can
only be maintained by constant genetic improvement because the disease
organisms and crop pests keep on evolving.
Which brings me to the recent vote in Mendocino County to reject the
growing of genetically manipulated crops in the county. This was another
battle pitting organic farmers against biotech companies. We love these
David and Goliath stories.
The campaign and the vote were discussed recently in this newspaper
under the headline "For Mendocino County, natural's the only way to
grow." Without being explicit, the headline reinforced the popular
belief -- not based on scientific evidence -- that some types of
agriculture -- in this case, organic -- are somehow more natural than
The use of manure, that symbol of virtuous farming, does not make those
practices any more natural. Instead of worrying about what is natural,
which is impossible to define, we should worry about sustainability.
If certain farming practices are unsustainable -- irrigation with
groundwater that is not replenished, for example -- they should be taxed
rather than subsidized to make them less attractive to farmers. If
certain new pesticides are less toxic to people and the environment than
the traditional ones used by organic farmers, their use should not be
stigmatized by those seeking economic advantage for their own farming
practices. If certain GM crops make agriculture more sustainable because
they permit less pesticides to be used or conserve water they should
certainly not be banned but embraced by society.
Rejecting modern technologies would be a disastrous development if we
are to help feed the 9 billion people who soon will inhabit our planet.
To achieve that goal, we must seek out the best agricultural practices
and combine them with the best genetic crop varieties -- whether
produced by molecular and/or traditional means -- so as to achieve food
security for all, including the 800 million who are now without a secure
The organic farmers of Mendocino County and elsewhere are shrewd
business people. By sticking to manure and certain older chemical
fertilizers and pesticides, by banning newer ones and by banning GM
crops, they have hoodwinked the public into believing they are "natural"
farmers. The public is willing to pay a premium for their organic wines,
and they are happy for anyone to spread their groundless message that
they are farming in nature's way and others are not.
Chrispeels is a professor of biology and director of the San Diego
Center for Molecular Agriculture at the University of California San Diego.
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