Time for TIME to Get Real

Published on: 23:17PM Aug 25, 2009

By Matt Bogard

In a recent article in Time Magazine, ( Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food) I think that I have witnessed one of the worst pieces of pseudo science I've seen in a long time.

Isn't obesity the result of diet, genetics, and exercise? Personal choice and genetics are the drivers, not agricultural production practices as the author seems to claim. There are some other 'unbalanced' assertions made in the article as well:

'He's fed on American corn that was grown with the help of government subsidies and millions of tons of chemical fertilizer. '

From this statement one might think that 'subsidies' are leading farmers to produce corn instead of healthy apples and spinach. The reason we produce so much corn is not due to the subsidies, the reason we have the subsidies is that we produce so much corn ( and thus have strong lobbying arms for production and processing industries). Grains are a worldwide food staple. They would be produced with or without government programs.

A main assertion made in the article is that modern science based agriculture ( or 'industrial agriculture' if you prefer the more negative connotation) is leading to ever more use of ever more toxic chemicals and environmental degradation. On the contrary modern agriculture is becoming more sustainable every day. Biotechnology, a key factor in modern agriculture, is not mentioned at all in the entire article. The adoption of biotechnology has led to decreased levels of chemical applications and in some cases the elimination of certain pesticides completely. 1.04 million fewer pounds of insecticide are applied each year as a result of biotech Bt cotton alone. With Bt cotton, 4 million gallons of fuel and 93.7 million gallons of water are saved on the farm each year from fewer insecticide applications.In addition, Bt corn also has reduced levels of carcinogenic toxins produced by fumonisin . Last year, in Britain, two organic corn meal products were recalled because testing showed that they had unacceptably high levels of fumonisin. Roundup Ready technology has allowed for glyphosate herbicide to substitute for 7.2 million pounds of other chemicals that are more toxic and persistent in the environment.There are also economies of scope or synergies between sustainable production practices such as crop rotation and reduced or no tillage farming and biotech plantings. As a result biotechnology has also contributed to increased biodiversity among pest populations while maintaining yield gains. Further, with fewer chemical applications and less tillage, energy inputs to grain production are down, while yields continue to increase, reducing the overall environmental impact and carbon foot print. Between 1987 and 2007 energy use per unit of output for cotton, soybeans and corn has decreased  by nearly 40% . Irrigated water use per unit of output decreased by 20 percent . In addition there has been about a 30% decrease in carbon emissions per unit of output for corn, soybeans and cotton as well ( see here from Truth About Trade and Technology).  In addition to the lower carbon and water foot print, these practices have also decreased groundwater pollution.  The use of biotechnology in the livestock industry has demonstrated similar environmental gains. ( see here -from  Science Daily, here  from PG Economics,  here from the Journal  Science  for more examples. )

'The UCS estimates that about 70% of antimicrobial drugs used in America are given not to people but to animals, which means we're breeding more of those deadly organisms every day.'

This is meaningless. What matters is of the antimicrobials given to animals, what % actually target pathogens that affect humans. Resistance requires selection pressure, and if the majority of antimicrobials used in livestock production are not selecting against deadly pathogens, then the risks are overblown. What we have observed is that in countries where food grade antimicrobials used in livestock production have been more heavily regulated or banned, the resulting increase in livestock illness has lead to an increased use of antibiotics actually used in human medicine. This policy results in increased selection pressure for antibiotic resistance among pathogens dangerous to humans and should be avoided. The article also avoids to mention the environmental benefits of antimicrobials as well as the benefits of other pharmaceutical products such as growth enhancing hormones. On a pound for pound basis, reasearch indicats that beef produced using grain and growth hormones leads to a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a  two-thirds reduction in land use vs. organic grass-fed beef.

'Worldwide, organic food — a sometimes slippery term but on the whole a practice more sustainable than conventional food '

There is little scientific consensus on this conclusion. There is certainly evidence to the contrary, and while there are very desirable qualities associated with organic food ( some of my favorite frozen foods are Amy's brand of organics) organic should not be sold as a panacea in contrast to modern agriculture. The fact that many organic producers are now (  see here from the Journal Science) considering adopting biotech options indicates that organic alone as it stands today is not a solution. Reduced yields ( see Science link)  as a result of organic practices imply a larger carbon footprint and decreased biodiversity compared to biotech crops. No where in the article did I find the author mention any of the downsides of organic production such as toxic biological controls( see  About.com) used in organic production including nicotine* sulfur, pyrethrum, neem, sabadilla, and rotenone*    that government regulators don’t even track data for.These can be just as persistent in the environment and detrimental to biological diversity as some conventional products. Nor does the author mention increased risks of E coli   contamination  (  Science).  Instead  the author of the Time piece attributes increased risks to conventional agriculture.

I agree that our food choices certainly have impacts on the environment. However, the impacts in the TIME article seem a little more exagerrated than the science supports. Regardless of anyone's opinion, food choices should remain just that,  'choices.' Nothing in my writing should be misconstrued to be anti-organic or taken to mean  that people should be stigmatized for 'eating for social justice.' This is fine as long as people don't  take thier religion  little too far and impose it on the rest of us through an act of congress. 


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