Could agriculture without chemicals mean a world without food?

United Nation’s Human Rights Council corrupted by environmental activists

If you enjoy eating a broad palate of healthy, nutritious foods, then you can thank the contributions from agricultural chemicals. The use of chemicals in crop production allows farmers to produce up to 67% more food than would be the case without their use. Organic or agroecology yields lag that of conventional agriculture by 5-34%, and as high as 67%, depending on the crop type. For most of the core foods that our daily diet is based upon, removing chemicals could reduce food supplies by one-quarter to one-third.

An estimated 800 million people globally are food insecure today, with a further 1.2 billion being micronutrient deficient. This means that, on a daily basis, one-quarter of the planet’s population doesn’t receive adequate food (either in quantity or nutritive value). The moral cost of this situation is staggering, as 2 million children die every year due to malnourishment.

Global food insecurity is one of the top agenda items that governments and institutions grapple with in the 21st century. After a half-century of technological advancements, production capacity gains and trade liberalization, the absolute and relative incidence of malnutrition and food insecurity declined until 2000. But accelerating demand, due to population and income growth, along with slowing productivity growth in yields due to climatic and agronomic change, has led to a rise in absolute and relative food insecurity, predominantly in developing countries.

It is astounding that any organization would advocate for increasing food insecurity at a global level. Yet this is exactly what the Human Rights Council (HRC) of the United Nations has done in its January 24, 2017 ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food’. They have done so by calling for the removal of chemicals in the agricultural production of food. The HRC observes that “with minimal use of toxic chemicals, it is possible to produce healthier, nutrient-rich food, with higher yields in the longer term…”

Three crucial aspects of the HRC’s call for the removal of chemicals in food production would affect food security, and bear greater scrutiny:

  • The use of “toxic chemicals”;
  • Producing healthier food; and
  • Creating higher yields.
Chemical use

Genetically modified (GM) herbicide tolerant crops have been very successful at reducing overall pesticide use, transferring protection to neighboring non-GM crops. Hutchinson et al. in the USA and Huang et al. in China have reported substantial chemical reductions by non-GM crop producers. In the USA, GM corn benefits were estimated to be $6 billion (US) in 2010, with $4.3 billion going to non-GM corn adopters, due to the area-wide suppression of corn borers. Almost 75% of the economic benefits (higher yields and lower input costs) from GM corn in the American Midwest are going to non-GM corn farmers. Similar results have been found in China, where the amount of insecticide in kilograms per hectare dropped from over 40 kg/ha to less than 10 kg/ha in non-Bt cotton fields. Across the entire sample region, insecticide applications dropped from 14 kg/ha to 4 kg/ha. Reduced weed and insect pressure allow crop yields to be higher, contributing to food security. Removal of chemicals would allow insects and weeds to flourish, reducing yields.

Food health and safety

One of the most serious food safety issues in the world is aflatoxin contamination. Aflatoxin, which is produced by fungus Aspergillus, is known to cause liver cancer (as well as esophageal/oesophageal cancer). Maize aflatoxins in the Qidong region of China resulted in 1 out of 10 men dying from liver cancer before the age of 45. Bt maize is protected from this fungus and therefore contains lower levels of this carcinogen. Using pesticides to control this fungus, along with crop innovations (like GM corn) and improved diet, have helped to reduce this rate. Without agricultural chemicals, aflatoxins presence in our foods could increase again and so could cancer rates.

Yields

Twenty-five years ago, South African researcher JN Marais argued that poor weed control is the single biggest contributor to low maize yields for African smallholder farmers. In an assessment of 147 peer-reviewed articles reporting impacts following the adoption of GM crops, Klümper and Qaim (2014) found declines in chemical use of 37%, yield increases of 22% and farmer profit increases of 68%. GM crop yields are 22% above the yields of conventional crops, while organic yields lag conventional yields by one-quarter to one-third. Organic crop yields lag those of GM crops by 36-45%.  Simply put, organic crop yields are 60% of a conventional crop yield, while GM crops are 20% higher, resulting in GM crop yields being double those of organic agriculture.

The suggestion by the Human Rights Council that a global ban on chemicals and a shift to agroecology farming will increase yields is dangerously naïve and dismisses the agricultural reality of present day farming practices. The reality is that the use of chemicals in crop and food production improves crop yields, allowing farmers in developing countries to increase their domestic food security. Removing the use of agricultural chemicals would be devastating for these farmers, and lead to millions of needless deaths due to malnourishment or starvation. It is unfathomable that any organization would encourage the development of this type of situation.

One Comment

  1. It is true that we are increasingly depending on agrochemicals to improve productivity, But this brings a negative effect to the farms, environment and quality of products we consume. I support agroecology farming, but this might not be able to sustain the world population in terms of food security

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