There's a really easy way to understand the difference between sustainable and chemical agriculture. We can either let all of the life in the soil do the heavy lifting, or we can kill them all and invent chemicals or tinker with DNA to replace everything they do. I'm for the former. After all, it requires about less oil, it produces healthier food with higher yields, and it doesn't result in dead zones in the Gulf or the Chesapeake.
But, if you reject the idea that nature has a system figured out that works pretty well (even for large-scale grain farming), then Monsanto has something for you. Drought tolerant corn.
(For more coverage on topics like this, please check out my blog, La Vida Locavore)
Nobody can build up a straw man as well as Monsanto and its fellow biotech giants. According to them, we need enough food to feed a growing population. Thus far, I'm in agreement - but that's where my agreement with them stops. You see, I've read that food per capita has increased as hunger has increased over the past several decades. That's because our problem has to do with distribution, not production. We'd rather put corn in our cars than feed it to starving people. And, a recent study found that organic agriculture can feed a growing world population using only the land that's in cultivation today.
Despite those facts, you will hear from Monsanto that we need to grow more food to feed the world. And that growing more food without increasing yields will mean plowing up rainforests in order to have more land for crops. Neither of those things are true - even though the sure sound plausible! And if you believe those myths, then who are you to say no to Monsanto as it offers you a solution?
But let's say that we need to boost yields. And let's say that we're going to have increased drought and heat in the future due to global warming. Is the best way to do that via drought resistant seed? I still say no.
Like I said before, sustainable or chemical ag is all one or all the other. Either you nourish soil life or you kill it. If you kill it, you need to do something to replace the functions it provided you - and our current set of tools doesn't do that very well. We've got fertilizer, we've got pesticides, we can till the soil, and now we can genetically modify our seeds. Drought-resistant seeds are modified in a way that addresses the plant's reaction to stresses like heat or drought. They'll still wilt away like a normal plant if you keep them in high heat with no water for a while, but if you water them they magically spring back to life whereas a regular plant wouldn't.
That may work (although Natasha's post on Change.org makes the case that these seeds basically shift losses from bad years onto good years). And if it does and it's truly the solution, it means that we would need to come up with drought-tolerant varieties of every single plant we grow. That's gonna take a lot of R&D, a lot of money, and a lot of time. And it will absolutely kill biodiversity because let's face it, it's not so profitable to come up with 300 different varieties of GM heirloom tomatoes if you can just make one and sell it to everybody.
The alternative approach would be switching to sustainable agriculture. Done right, it will make plants more resistant to drought, heat, flood, and cold. This approach is free, legal, time-tested, safe, and available NOW. It WILL take farmers a few years to improve their lifeless soil to a point where sustainable ag is giving them the yields they need, but I think that's worth it in the long run. And what's more, due to the increased carbon sequestration and the need for MUCH less oil, sustainable ag won't just help farmers tolerate the effects of global warming but it will take the first steps in preventing it.
UPDATE: I just want to say (in response to some of the comments below) that I do believe that many people in the biotech industry mean well, and I think that most of them probably believe that the world needs more food and biotech is the way to do it.
Also - for those who've asked, my book is now available for pre-order. You can get it on Amazon ($10.85), Barnes & Noble ($10.76 members, $11.96 otherwise), or at Powells ($15.95). If you want to be alerted if/when I'll be speaking or signing books in your area, email me at OrangeClouds115 at gmail dot com and tell me what city you live in or nearest to.
UPDATE 2: I've received an email suggesting that I do a better job citing my sources. It's well-deserved criticism in this case. I've also got several sources that I don't quite know how to share - audio recordings of several panels at BIO 2008, last year's international biotech conference, including one about drought tolerant seeds. If you want these, please email me and I can send them to you. The last source that I wish I could share but can't is my trip to the Rodale Institute last year. I have a recording of a talk there that I can send (email me) but we also took a tour and I didn't record that part. I couldn't even get a decent picture showing how the organic corn stood a few feet taller than the conventional corn... hard to get good pics when you're being pulled along by a tractor in a wagon.