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High-tech farming

Modern societies have an ambivalent relationship with agriculture. In poor countries, farming families may still make up the majority of the population, and agriculture remains the largest part of the economy, whereas in the rich world the great majority of us are disconnected from the reality of growing and harvesting food.

This leads to a romanticised view of the sector, with a perceived ideal of happy and healthy farmers growing nutritious and tasty food without the need for pesticides and other modern technology. This is the underpinning of the organic movement, which has managed to convince significant numbers of consumers that their produce is worth the premium price.

Organic farmers take a particular view of their business, eschewing ‘unnatural’ (ie, synthetic) inputs while using such naturally-extracted materials such as sulphur, phosphate rock, certain biological control agents (including Bacillus Thuringiensis) and copper salts. Also, while happily growing crop varieties produced through chemical- or radiation-induced mutagenesis, genetically modified plants are rejected.

When it comes to formalising a set of rules, distinctions are made which may not always seem well-founded, but which suit the ethos of the people making them. So, the various decisions now incorporated into regional organic standards are essentially those wanted by the various members of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM), whose founders had a vision of a more sustainable approach to agriculture.

Although the principles of organic farming are well-intentioned, and the standard of care for the land can be excellent, the lower yields and therefore more extensive nature of such systems requires more land to produce the same amount of food. Even more importantly, there is insufficient fixed nitrogen available in our soils each year to produce the amount of food harvested from ‘conventional’ agriculture. Organic farming relies heavily on animal manure or ‘green manure’ – legume crops such as clover which are ploughed in to boost fertility. In the latter case, the land produces nothing while the green manure crop is being grown.

There are two basic misconceptions that underlie the split between conventional and organic agriculture; the first is that farming is in some way natural and the second is that all things natural are safer than all things synthetic. In fact, these are unhelpful distinctions that don’t necessarily help to achieve the overarching objective of producing sufficient quality food on the minimum area of land while doing as little unintended harm to wildlife and habitats as possible.

This unfortunate doctrinaire attitude leads to a rejection of potentially helpful new technologies (for example, the organic sector urges the Commission to classify new genetic engineering techniques as GMOs). Having rejected rDNA technology, they now want the products of such gene editing techniques as CRISPR/Cas9 to go through the same highly politicised approvals process, which would effectively block their commercialisation on this side of the Atlantic.

Although it’s still early days, this set of emerging technologies can make highly targeted changes to the genome, in principle without the extraneous genetic material and potential disruptive effects of what we currently understand as genetic modification. If potentially higher-yielding, stress-tolerant or disease-resistant plants can be bred by this route, it seems a pity to reject them on the basis of philosophy rather than science. There is a danger that the organic standards will become more akin to religious dietary laws than something with any real positive impact on either human or environmental health.

There is a very real risk not just that promising new technologies get sucked into a regulatory system not designed to accommodate them, but also that the rapid evolution of technology makes existing legislation generally inadequate. Doing something about it can potentially make a difficult situation worse, since regulators more often tighten than loosen regulations (the move to a hazard-based system for pesticide approvals being a case in point).

But there are voices that argue for a more objective approach (see, for example, decades-old GMO regulation unfit for 21st century). This is the argument put forward by two experts in the field, but parliamentarians can also sometimes make a positive contribution to the debate. The UK House of Lords is a well-respected source of expertise, free from the day-to-day pressures experienced by the lower house. In December, the Science and Technology committee gave their opinion on the use of genetic engineering to control insect pests (EU law ‘woefully inadequate’ for GM insects, Lords say).

Despite such arguments, the pressure on agricultural technologies continues, not least in the crop protection sector. Last year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organisation, declared glyphosate (perhaps the most-used herbicide globally) to be ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’ (putting it in the same category as, for example, shift working) and is now engaged in a spat with the European Food Safety Authority, who see little risk in glyphosate’s continued use (EU food safety watchdog hits back at scientists in glyphosate spat).  And we also see that France debates the future of bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides, although there is no real evidence that these insecticides have any significant bearing on colony collapse disorder.

No doubt these tensions between the farming sector and regulators (keen on eliminating all perceived risk) will continue in societies that are disengaged from the early part of the food chain. But the challenges of population growth and land, water and nutrient availability for farming will mean that even sceptical Europeans will have to embrace proven new technologies before too long.