There Is No Need For GMO Maize: Regenerative Organic Agriculture Produces Higher Yields

Introduction

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the President of Mexico, announced the phasing out of glyphosate and the cultivation and importation of GMO corn. He stated, “With the objective of achieving self-sufficiency and food sovereignty, our country must be oriented towards establishing sustainable and culturally adequate agricultural production, through the use of agroecological practices and inputs that are safe for human health, the country’s biocultural diversity and the environment, as well as congruent with the agricultural traditions of Mexico.”

The pesticide cartels of Bayer-Monsanto and Dow have been actively undermining this policy. This includes using the US government to pressure Mexico to reverse the policy and launching over 40 lawsuits to stop it.

This includes a fear campaign that phasing out glyphosate and GMOs will lead to food shortages and insecurity.

GMO corn not only uses high amounts of glyphosate, but it also uses a range of other toxic pesticides and fertilizers that cause serious health problems for humans, especially children, and the wider environment. The fact is there is no need for these toxic and environmentally damaging industrial agriculture monocultures. Regenerative and organic systems based on the science and practices of agroecology will produce higher yields and income for Mexican farmers and wider health benefits for the Mexican community.

Higher Net Incomes

A viable income is an essential part of farm sustainability. Published studies comparing the income of organic farms with conventional farms have found that the net incomes are similar, with best-practice organic systems having higher net incomes (Cacek 1986, Wynen 2006).

The study by Noémi Nemes from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) analyzed over 50 economic studies. She stated that the data, “… demonstrates that, in the majority of cases, organic systems are more profitable than non-organic systems. Higher market prices and premiums, or lower production costs, or a combination of the two generally result in higher relative profits from organic agriculture in developed countries. The same conclusion can be drawn from studies in developing countries, but there, higher yields combined with high premiums are the underlying causes of their relatively greater profitability.’” (Nemes 2013)

The report by UNEP and UNCTAD found that not only did organic production increase the amount of food production it also gave farmers access to premium value markets and to use the additional income to pay for education, health care, adequate housing and achieve relative prosperity (UNEP-UNCTAD 2008). The LTAR project of Iowa State University found that cost-wise, on average, the organic crops’ revenue was twice that of conventional crops due to the savings from the non-utilization of chemical fertilizers and pesticides (Delate, 2010).

Greater Resilience in Adverse Conditions

Published studies show that regenerative organic farming systems are more resilient to the predicted weather extremes and can produce higher yields than conventional farming systems in such conditions (Drinkwater et al., 1998; Welsh, 1999; Pimentel, 2005). For instance, the Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trials found that organic yields were higher in drought years and the same as conventional in normal weather years (Posner et al., 2008).

Improved Efficiency of Water Use

Research shows that organic systems use water more efficiently due to better soil structure and higher levels of humus and other organic matter compounds (Lotter et al., 2003; Pimentel, 2005). Lotter and colleagues collected data over 10 years during the Rodale Farm Systems Trial (FST). Their research showed that the organic manure system and organic legume system (LEG) treatments improve the soils’ water-holding capacity, infiltration rate, and water capture efficiency. The LEG maize soils averaged 13% higher water content than conventional system (CNV) soils at the same crop stage, and 7% higher than CNV soils in soybean plots (Lotter et al., 2003). The more porous structure of organically treated soil allows rainwater to quickly penetrate the soil, resulting in less water loss from run-off and higher levels of water capture. This was particularly evident during the two days of torrential downpours from Hurricane Floyd in September 1999, when the organic systems captured around double the water than the conventional systems captured (Lotter et al., 2003).

Long-term scientific trials conducted by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) in Switzerland, a European mountain country, comparing organic, biodynamic, and conventional systems (DOK Trials) had similar results showing that organic systems were more resistant to erosion and better at capturing water. (Mader et al 2009)

The higher levels of organic matter allow the soil in the organic field to resist erosion in heavy rain events and capture more water. (Source: FiBL DOK Trials)

 

This is consistent with many other comparison studies that show that organic systems have less soil loss due to better soil structure and higher levels of organic matter. (Reganold et al. 1987, Reganold et al. 2001, Pimentel 2005) “We compare the long-term effects (since 1948) of organic and conventional farming on selected properties of the same soil. The organically farmed soil had significantly higher organic matter content, thicker topsoil depth, higher polysaccharide content, lower modulus of rupture, and less soil erosion than the conventionally farmed soil. This study indicates that, in the long term, the organic farming system was more effective than the conventional farming system in reducing soil erosion and, therefore, in maintaining soil productivity (Reganold et al. 1987).


The same soil with different levels of organic matter. The higher levels on the left make the soil more resistant to erosion and give a higher water-holding capacity. The soil on the right with low levels of organic matter is more prone to erosion, and dispersion and holds less water. Source: Rodale Institute

 

Humus, a key component of soil organic matter, is one of the main reasons for the ability of organic soils to be more stable and to hold more water. This is due to its ability to hold up to 30 times its own weight in water and is a ‘sticky’ polymer, gluing the soil particles together and giving greater resistance to water and wind erosion (Stevenson 1998).

Humus can hold up to 30 times its own weight in water. It is a polymer that binds the soil together to give it stability and holds many of the nutrients that plants need to grow well

 

Drought Resistance

Published studies show that organic farming systems are more resilient to weather extremes and can produce higher yields than conventional farming systems in such conditions (Drinkwater et al., 1998; Pimentel, 2005). For instance, the Wisconsin Integrated Cropping Systems Trials found that organic yields were higher in drought years and the same as conventional in normal weather years (Posner et al., 2008).

The Importance of Organic Matter for Water Retention

There is a strong relationship between the levels of soil organic matter and the amount of water that can be stored in the root zone of the soil. The table below should be taken as a rule of thumb, rather than as a precise set of measurements. Different soil types will hold different volumes of water when they have the same levels of organic matter due to pore spaces, specific soil density, and a range of other variables. Sandy soils as a rule hold less water than clay soils.

The table below gives an understanding of the potential amount of water that can be captured from rain and stored at the root zone in relation to the percentage of soil organic matter.

This table is designed to be a rule of thumb. The precise amount of water stored is dependent on soil type, specific soil density, and a range of other variables, and consequently, the amount could be higher or lower. This table is sufficient to allow an understanding of the concept, though. (Adapted from Morris, 2004.)

 

There is a large difference in the amount of rainfall that can be captured and stored between the current SOM level in most traditional farms in Asia, Latin America, and Africa and a good organic farm with reasonable levels of SOM. This is one of the reasons why organic farms do better in times of low rainfall and drought.

The Rodale Farming Systems Trials (FST) showed that the organic systems produced more corn than the conventional system in drought years. The average corn yields during the drought years were from 28% to 34% higher in the two organic systems. The yields were 6,938 and 7,235 kg per ha in the organic animal and the organic legume systems, respectively, compared with 5,333 kg per ha in the conventional system (Pimentel, 2005). The researchers attributed the higher yields in the dry years to the ability of the soils on organic farms to better absorb rainfall. This is due to the higher levels of organic carbon in those soils, which makes them more friable and better able to store and capture rainwater which can then be used for crops. (Rodale 2011)

This is very significant information as the majority of the world’s farming systems are rain-fed. The world does not have the resources to irrigate all of the agricultural lands. Nor should such a project be started as damming the world’s watercourses, pumping from all the underground aquifers, and building millions of kilometers of channels would be an unprecedented environmental disaster. Improving the efficiency of rain-fed agricultural systems through organic practices is the most efficient, cost-effective, environmentally sustainable, and practical solution to ensure reliable food production in the increasing weather extremes being caused by climate change.

Pesticides and Human Health

The chemical-based conventional agriculture industry claims that pesticides such as herbicides, and insecticides are safe when used as directed. Given that all surveys show pesticide residues in conventional food, such as 77 percent of all foods in the United States, and that most people get their pesticide exposure from food, it is important to have a critical look at the published science. (Reuben 2010)

The body of published science shows that agricultural chemicals are responsible for declines in biodiversity and environmental and health problems continue to grow. These toxic chemicals now pervade the whole planet, polluting our water, soil, air, and most significantly the tissues of most living organisms.

The issue that inadequate pesticide regulation is resulting in major environmental and human health problems has been validated by several recent studies. The most significant has been the latest Report by the US President’s Cancer Panel. This report was written by eminent scientists and medical specialists and published by The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, The National Institutes of Health and The National Cancer Institute clearly stated that environmental toxins, including chemicals used in farming, are the main causes of cancers. (Reuben 2010)

Pesticides and Children’s Health – The need to protect our children

Of particular concern is that science shows that unborn and growing children are the most vulnerable to the current levels of pesticides in our food and environment. A large body of published, peer-reviewed scientific research shows that pesticide exposure in is linked to:

•Cancers
•Thyroid disorders
•Immune system problems
•Lower IQs
•Attention deficit hyperactive disorder
•Autism spectrum disorders
•Lack of physical coordination
•Loss of temper—anger management issues
•Bipolar/schizophrenia spectrum of illnesses
•Depression
•Digestive system problems
•Cardiovascular disease
•Reproductive problems (as adults)
•Deformities of the genital-urinary systems
•Changes to metabolic systems, including childhood obesity and diabetes (Leu 2014)

The Special Needs of the Developing Fetus and Newborn

Many scientific researchers have expressed concern that the current pesticide testing methodologies are grossly inadequate for children. The US President’s Cancer Panel (USPCP) report, written by eminent scientists and medical specialists from the US Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Cancer Institute, stated, “They [children] are at special risk due to their smaller body mass and rapid physical development, both of which magnify their vulnerability to known or suspected carcinogens, including radiation.” (Reuben 2010)

According to the USPCP, “Further, chemicals typically are administered when laboratory animals are in their adolescence, a methodology that fails to assess the impact of in utero, childhood, and lifelong exposures.” (Reuben 2010)

This is a very important issue given that, according to the USPCP around eighty percent of cancers are from environmental causes including pesticides. The report stated, “Approximately 40 chemicals classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as known, probable, or possible human carcinogens, are used in EPA-registered pesticides now on the market.” (Reuben 2010)

This is a critical issue as there is a large body of published science showing that the fetus and the newborn are continuously being exposed to numerous chemicals. The USPCP stated, “Some of these chemicals are found in maternal blood, placental tissue, and breast milk samples from pregnant women and mothers who recently gave birth. These findings indicate that chemical contaminants are being passed on to the next generation, both prenatally and during breastfeeding.” (Reuben 2010)

The US President’s Cancer Panel not only expressed concern about the level of these chemical contaminants, but they also pointed out that this issue is being ignored by regulators due to the critical lack of knowledge and researchers. “Numerous environmental contaminants can cross the placental barrier; to a disturbing extent, babies are born ‘pre-polluted.” Children also can be harmed by genetic or other damage resulting from environmental exposures sustained by the mother (and in some cases, the father). There is a critical lack of knowledge and appreciation of environmental threats to children’s health and a severe shortage of researchers and clinicians trained in children’s environmental health.” (Reuben 2010)

A number of studies show the link between chemical exposure, particularly exposure to pesticides, and the increase of cancer in children. The USPCP report states, “Cancer incidence in US children under 20 years of age has increased.” (Reuben 2010)

The information from USCP shows that current regulatory systems have failed to protect unborn and growing children from exposure to a massive cocktail of toxic pesticides. This has many serious implications, especially the increase in a range of serious health issues in children and adults later in life.

Developmental Neurotoxicity

Scientific research shows that many pesticides affect the normal development of the nervous system in fetuses and children. The brain is the largest collection of nerve cells, and there are several scientific studies showing that when the fetus and the newborn are exposed to minute amounts of these pesticides, below the current limits set by regulatory authorities, they can significantly alter brain function (Qiao et al. 2001).

Researchers at the Duke University Medical Centre found that the developing fetus and the newborn are particularly vulnerable to amounts of pesticides that are lower than the levels currently permitted by regulatory authorities around the world. Their studies showed that the fetus and the newborn possess lower concentrations of protective serum proteins than adults. A major consequence is called Developmental Neurotoxicity, where the poison damages the developing nervous system. This damage interferes with the normal development of the brain and other parts of the nervous systems such as auditory nerves, optic nerves, and the autonomous nervous system resulting in the health challenges mentioned previously, such as:

•Lower IQs
•Attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD)
•Autism spectrum disorders
•Lack of physical coordination
•Loss of temper—anger management issues
•Bipolar/schizophrenia spectrum of illnesses
•Depression
•Problems with eyesight and hearingv (Qiao et al. 2001).

This means that contact with chemicals at levels well below the currently permitted residues in food can harm the fetus and breastfeeding children, even if the mother shows no side effects from the contact. Eating food with pesticide residues can harm young children as they are still developing their nervous systems.

Brain Abnormalities and IQ Reductions in Children

Studies conducted independently by researchers at the Columbia University Centre for Children’s Environmental Health, the University of California, Berkeley, and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine found that fetal exposure to small amounts of organophosphate pesticides caused a range of brain abnormalities that resulted in children with reduced IQs, lessened attention spans and are more vulnerable to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (Pastor et al. 2008, Rauh et al. 2011, Engel et al. 2011).

Parents should have considerable concern that the studies found no evidence of a lower-limit threshold of exposure to organophosphates in the observed adverse impact on intelligence. This means that even very low levels of exposure could lead to reductions in a child’s intelligence.

The study by Rauh et al., published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, has confirmed the findings of the previous studies. The researchers used MRI scans that revealed a large range of visible brain abnormalities present in children who had been exposed to chlorpyrifos (CPF) in utero through normal, non-occupational uses. (Rauh et al. 2012)

Exposure to CPF in the womb, even at normal levels, resulted in “…significant abnormalities in morphological measures of the cerebral surface associated with higher prenatal CPF exposure” in a sample of forty children between five and eleven years old. (Rauh et al. 2012) The researchers stated that the current regulatory safety limits and testing methodologies are inadequate for determining safe exposure levels for children.”

It is important to note that most children are exposed to pesticides in utero by the residues in their mothers’ diets.

Some of the most concerning studies show that pesticide damage can be passed on to the next generation. Not only are the offspring born with damage to the nervous system, the reproductive system, and other organs, the great-grandchildren can be as well. (Manikkam et al. 2012 a, Manikkam et al. 2012 b, Guerrero-Bosagna et al. 2012)

Researchers in a 2012 study found that pregnant rats and mice exposed to the fungicide vinclozolin during the period when the fetus was developing reproductive organs, found spermatogenic cell defects, testicular abnormalities, prostate abnormalities, kidney abnormalities, and polycystic ovarian disease were significantly increased in future generations. (Manikkam et al. 2012 a)

Another study showed that when pregnant rats were exposed to a combination of permethrin, a common insecticide, and DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide), the most common insect repellent, pubertal abnormalities, testis disease, and ovarian disease (primordial follicle loss and polycystic ovarian disease) were increased in future generations. (Manikkam et al. 2012 b)

The critical issue with these two studies is that small exposures to pesticides at critical times in the development of the fetus can cause multiple diseases that are passed on to future generations. It means that pregnant women eating food with minute levels of pesticides could be inadvertently exposing their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to permanent damage to their reproductive systems and other organs.

This study is particularly distressing because DEET is the most common repellent used for mosquitoes and other insects. It is widely used on children and pregnant women.

Endocrine Disruption

Children are more vulnerable than adults to the effects of endocrine disrupters because their tissues and organs are still developing and are reliant on balanced hormone signals to ensure that they develop in orderly sequences. Small disruptions in these hormone signals by endocrine-disrupting chemicals can significantly alter the way these body parts and metabolic systems will develop. These altered effects will not only last a lifetime; they can be passed on to future generations. (Bergman et al. 2013, Vandenberg et al. 2012, Colborn et al. 1996, Cadbury 1998)

A meta-study by United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) written by over sixty recognized international experts who worked throughout 2012 to contribute to the meta-analysis to ensure that it was an up-to-date compilation of the current scientific knowledge on endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), including pesticides, found, “…we now know that there are particularly vulnerable periods during fetal and postnatal life when EDCs alone, or in mixtures, have strong and often irreversible effects on developing organs, whereas exposure of adults causes lesser or no effects. Consequently, there is now a growing probability that maternal, fetal, and childhood exposure to chemical pollutants play a larger role in the etiology of many endocrine diseases and disorders of the thyroid, immune, digestive, cardiovascular, reproductive, and metabolic systems (including childhood obesity and diabetes) than previously thought possible.” (Bergman et al. 2013)

The fetus is most vulnerable during the times when genes are turned on to develop specific organs. Small amounts of hormones give the signals to genes to start developing various body parts and systems such as the reproductive tract, the nervous system, the brain, the immune system, hormone systems, limbs, etc. Small disruptions in these hormone signals can significantly alter the way these body parts and systems will develop, and these altered effects will last a lifetime.

“This does not diminish their [EDCs] importance [in adults], but contrasts with their effects in the fetus and neonate where a hormone can have permanent effects in triggering early developmental events such as cell proliferation or differentiation. Hormones acting during embryonic development can, cause some structures to develop (e.g. male reproductive tract) or cause others to diminish (e.g. some sex-related brain regions). Once hormone action has taken place, at these critical times during development, the changes produced will last a lifetime.” (Bergman et al. 2013)

The actions of EDCs on the development of endocrine and physiological system in fetuses are considered to be programming events. They set how these systems will function in adults. The WHO and UNEP study found that up to 40% of young men in some countries have low semen quality as well as an increase in genital malformations in baby boys such as non-descending testes and penile malformations. There is an increase in adverse pregnancy outcomes such as preterm birth and low birth weight. There is an increase in neurobehavioral disorders in children that are associated with thyroid disruption. The age of breast development in girls is decreasing and this is considered a risk factor for developing breast cancer later in life. Breast, endometrial, ovarian, cervical, prostate, testicular, and thyroid cancers are increasing. These are endocrine system-related cancers (Bergman et al. 2013, Vandenberg et al. 2012, Colborn et al. 1996, Cadbury 1998).

Protecting Our Children

Currently, for consumers, the only way to avoid synthetic pesticides is to eat organically grown food. Most children get their pesticide exposure from the residues in food – either directly by consuming food with pesticide residues or through the placenta and breast milk due to the pesticides in their mothers’ food. Several scientific studies show that eating organic food is the best way to protect children as most pesticide exposure comes from eating food from conventional farming systems.

A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that children who eat organic fruits, vegetables, and juices can significantly lower the levels of organophosphate pesticides in their bodies. The University of Washington researchers who conducted the study concluded, “The dose estimates suggest that consumption of organic fruits, vegetables, and juice can reduce children’s exposure levels from above to below the US Environmental Protection Agency’s current guidelines, thereby shifting exposures from a range of uncertain risk to a range of negligible risk. Consumption of organic produce appears to provide a relatively simple way for parents to reduce their children’s exposure to OP [organophosphate] pesticides.” (Curl et al. 2003)

Researchers in a 2006 study found that the urinary concentrations of the specific metabolites for malathion and chlorpyrifos decreased to undetectable levels immediately after the introduction of organic diets and remained undetectable until the conventional diets were reintroduced. The researchers from Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia; the University of Washington, Seattle, Washington; and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia, stated, “In conclusion, we were able to demonstrate that an organic diet provides a dramatic and immediate protective effect against exposures to organophosphorus pesticides that are commonly used in agricultural production. We also concluded that these children were most likely exposed to these organophosphorus pesticides exclusively through their diet.” (Lu et al. 2006)

Conclusion

A comprehensive body of published studies shows, that building up soil organic matter through organic agriculture can deliver many benefits including higher water absorption, resistance to erosion, higher yields in droughts, and adequate soil nitrogen without the need for synthetic chemical fertilizers.

Despite the large body of scientific evidence showing the harm that pesticides are causing to human and environmental health when pesticides are being reviewed by regulators for adverse effects on human health and the environment, industry groups always warn that they have no alternative but to use these toxic chemicals as crop protection tools as the justification for not banning them. In the final outcome, it is usually business as usual, or regulators may decide to modify the way pesticides are used to lessen some negative impacts. They are rarely withdrawn from use to ensure no adverse impacts on human health and the environment. (Leu 2014)

Trillions of dollars have been spent on research into conventional agriculture while at the same time in the last hundred years there has been almost total neglect of research into organic agriculture. A significant proportion of this research funding has been to develop and test the efficacy of synthetic toxic chemicals as pesticides such as herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides. (Leu 2014)

Some comparison meta-studies, such as the recent ones published in Nature and Agricultural Systems, suggest that, on average, organic yields are 80 percent of conventional yields. (de Ponti et al. 2012, Seufert et al. 2012) On the other hand, a meta-study by Badgley et al. suggests that the average organic yields are slightly below the chemical-intensive yields in the developed world and higher than the conventional average in the developing world. (Badgley et al. 2007) Assuming that the analyses in the journals Nature and Agricultural Systems are correct, 80 percent is an incredibly small yield gap in relation to the enormous level of research and resources that have been spent to achieve it.

The surprising fact is that millions of organic farmers have worked out how to get reasonable yields without the assistance of scientific research or the regular extension services that conventional agriculture receives.

The main reason for the lower yields in some organic systems has been the fact that research and development into organic systems have been largely ignored. More $50 billion is spent annually on agriculture research worldwide. Less than 0.4 percent (four dollars in every thousand) is spent on solutions specific to organic farming systems. (Niggli 2014)

Yet despite this lack of funding, all the data sets from the global meta-comparison studies have examples of regenerative and organic systems that have the same or higher yields than conventional agriculture. Research into regenerative and organic agriculture has been chronically underfunded. Trillions of dollars have gone into conventional and GMO research; the regenerative and organic sector receives a tiny fraction of this. This situation needs to be rectified so that the need for toxic synthetic pesticides is significantly reduced.

Given the small yield difference that has been achieved with trillions of dollars and countless thousands of researchers compared to what organic farmers have achieved when left largely to their own devices, it would have to be argued that the substantial proportion of the funding into industrial agriculture has been a very poor use of valuable research funds. Also given that the new research into organic systems is starting to show very impressive increases in yields, it is logical to argue that research into organic agriculture is a far better use of these research funds.

Mexico is to be congratulated for adopting regenerative and organic systems based on the science and practices of agroecology. This pathway will produce higher yields and income for Mexican farmers including wider health and biodiversity benefits for the Mexican community.

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