The COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage our lives through diminished social contact, disrupted commerce and illness and death. One unobvious example has been interruptions in food supply chains, from farmers' markets to large food manufacturers. To respond to crises, agriculture must be as efficient, innovative and resilient as possible.
Even in California, whose agriculture is the world's envy because of huge volume, high yields and sophistication, activists are promoting primitive, or "alternative," practices that would obstruct innovation and resilience. These practices fall under the wastebasket rubric "agroecology." Why a "wastebasket?" The study of agroecology has numerous definitions, many of which are idealistic blather and conjecture, much of which should be discarded.
The term "agroecology" was first used a century ago to describe the integration of agronomy and ecology into a single discipline. The misnamed Scientific Society of Agroecology (SOCLA) transformed the discipline into something "concerned with the maintenance of a productive agriculture that sustains yields and optimizes the use of local resources while minimizing the negative environmental and socio-economic impacts of modern technologies."
But further down in their mission statement, SOCLA stumbles: "In industrial countries, modern agriculture with its yield-maximizing high-input technologies generates environmental and health problems that often do not serve the needs of producers and consumers. In developing countries, in addition to promoting environmental degradation, modern agricultural technologies have bypassed the circumstances and socio-economic needs of large numbers of resource-poor farmers."
In fact, not all industrialized countries' "yield-maximizing" technologies have detrimental environmental or health effects (often, the opposite); nor do they ignore the "circumstances and socio-economic needs" of resource-poor farmers. Where agroecology breaks down is in its embrace of organic agricultural practices, which fails the test of rigorous science.
Agroecology programs at University of California campuses illustrate the concept's expansiveness. The Berkeley Food Institute at the University of California Berkeley cites professor Stephen Gliessman, who writes, "agroecology is not only a science and a practice but a movement for social change."
And Berkeley agronomist Dr. Miguel Altieri argues, "agroecology provides the basic ecological principles for the design and management of agroecosystems that are both productive and natural resource conserving...and that are also culturally sensitive, socially just, and economically viable."
The Advancement Project's "Reshaping Kern County's Agricultural Approach to Pesticides and Health" calls for "ending the use of pesticides and introducing alternative methods for managing and developing crops." As if the seemingly simple removal of pesticides wouldn't impact Kern County's economic standing, and more than $7.4 billion in agriculture production based on the latest numbers, as one of the top agriculture communities in California.
The Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California, Santa Cruz boasts of on-campus "examples of organic soil management, alternative pest control measures, water conservation, and biodiversity on both home garden and commercial scales," touting their work as "flourishing demonstrations of what can be accomplished with organic management techniques."
The problem with emphasizing organic agriculture is that it is fundamentally a hoax, a feel-good but meaningless designation originally created by the federal government as a marketing tool.
The narrow range of permitted practices – which prohibit using state-of-the-art insecticides and herbicides and cultivating plants made with modern genetic engineering techniques – ensures lower yields and poses a hazard both to farmers' financial success and the environment.
Organic agriculture's ban on genetically engineered plants is particularly bizarre, because they are part of a seamless continuum that extends and refines earlier genetic modification techniques.
Except for wild berries and mushrooms, virtually all the fruits, vegetables and grains in our diet have been genetically improved. Without genetically engineered (GMO) plants and the incentives for innovation from intellectual property protection and the profit motive, farmers will be stuck with primitive practices indefinitely.
Recent research illustrates how genetic improvements in subsistence crops can mitigate pest infestations. Water stress arising from drought conditions, which currently plague California and the western U.S., can trigger outbreaks of bark beetles, wood borers, and sap feeders such as spider mites. Plants that are bred, including by genetic engineering, to resist drought also enables them fend off insects.
A recent research article reported that a genetically-engineered cotton variety containing a pesticidal bacterial protein has eradicated an important agricultural pest, the pink bollworm: "The removal of this pest saved farmers in the United States $192 million from 2014 to 2019. It also eliminated the environmental and safety hazards associated with insecticide sprays that had previously targeted the pink bollworm and facilitated an 82 percent reduction in insecticides used against all cotton pests in Arizona."
For some agroecology activists, social justice means rejecting modern agricultural technologies, although it denies farmers relief from grueling manual labor and makes their harvests less reliable and threatens their livelihoods. Where is the social justice in that?
Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was the founding director of the U.S. FDA's Office of Biotechnology. Kathleen Hefferon, Ph.D., teaches microbiology at Cornell University.