On GMO and Organic Crops

Having been told for the umpteenth time that GMO crops outyield conventional hybrids by 30% The Git went looking for independent studies to either confirm or disconfirm the claim. Such studies are extremely rare; not surprising when you understand that Monsanto et alia “own” the genes in the seeds they sell you. If you upset them, you might see your seed supply cut off. Monsanto can be vicious as the Percy Schmeiser story revealed. Schmeiser’s neighbour grew Roundup Ready (RR) canola, that is canola resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup (glyphosate), the bees cross-pollinated Schmeiser’s crop and the neighbour’s, thus Schmeiser was found to be illegally in possession of Monsanto’s property (the genes in his crop). He was successfully sued by Monsanto despite having never benefited from the RR genes in the seed he saved since he never sprayed the crop with herbicide.

Schmeiser’s experience played a pivotal role in Tasmania’s farmers’ insistence that the government put in place a moratorium on GMO crops. Tasmania’s major markets demand GMO-free produce. GMO-contamination would eliminate those markets and necessitate finding new markets, a far from trivial exercise. For example, Tasmanian fruit-grower Tim Reid spent six years to establish permission for exporting a single variety of apple (Fuji) to Japan despite Tasmania’s excellent reputation overseas for not just being “clean and green”, but also mercifully free of many pests and diseases rampant overseas. And of course we can sell GMO-free into markets that would happily accept GMO produce. There are no markets demanding GMO to be found.

Despite the general antipathy to GMO crops, a small number of farmers were quite vocal in their support and a limited licence for a single trial of GM Canola was granted. The crop was to be well-isolated to ensure that no other farmer’s crops would be cross-contaminated. Spraying of roadside weeds with glyphosate is a common practice by Tasmanian local councils and patches of RR canola were discovered on the road leading to the farm where the trial was taking place. The spillage was said to have been “accidental”.

Anyway, after much Gurgling and Goggling, The Git found this:

Manganese Nutrition of Glyphosate-Resistant and Conventional Soybeans

This study was widely reported as confirmation that GMOs do not increase yields. If you read to the end of the document (there’s a story Setting the Record Straight on page 3) you will discover that’s not the case. Or more accurately, not necessarily the case. This trial as the headline states is about relative manganese needs between two closely related strains of soybean. Both the RR strain and the conventional hybrid plots were hand-weeded, a fact not reported in the original story. What the trial doesn’t tell us is what the result would be if the RR crop had been sprayed with glyphosate versus hand-weeding the comparison. RR crops are glyphosate resistant, not immune. Even then, what we would really like to know also is the relative costs of weed control. The Git has come across far too many crop trials where essential data was gathered but not published because the company supplying the product for trial decides what is published.

More Gargling and Giggling revealed:

Value of modified corn is more in reducing losses than boosting yields

By analyzing two decades worth of corn yield data from Wisconsin, a team of UW-Madison researchers has quantified the impact that various popular transgenes have on grain yield and production risk compared to conventional corn. Their analysis, published online in a Nature Biotechnology correspondence article on Feb. 7, confirms the general understanding that the major benefit of genetically modified (GM) corn doesn’t come from increasing yields in average or good years, but from reducing losses during bad ones.

Sounds like good news, but we don’t grow much corn here. What we do grow a lot of is canola, a vastly different crop. It should be noted that breeding crops conventionally did not cease with the introduction of GMO techniques.

Canola will shatter (scatter its seeds) both prior to and during harvest. Buried canola seed will mostly germinate in the following season, but the period of dormancy can last for 10 years. See: Seed bank persistence of genetically modified canola in California. The problem here is that the contract between grower and Monsanto stipulates that you cannot save seed from a Monsanto GMO crop; you must purchase fresh seed from the company every year you grow canola. Monsanto randomly samples fields of canola to detect whether you are growing their seed outside the terms of the contract. If you grow Monsanto canola for one season, you will have up to a decade of volunteer canola plants illegally containing Monsanto’s patented and protected-by-law genes. It sounds awful like once you’re in, you are there forever — serfdom anyone? One supposes you are offered the opportunity to buy your way out, but isn’t GMO supposed to increase profits, not decrease them?

Organic farming supposedly has yields ~25% less than conventional and thus is supposed to require considerably more land. One problem here is that comparative yield is a notoriously difficult quantity to measure. Of primary importance to the commercial grower is the yield of dollars at the bank, not the tonnage per hectare. The world record for a single potato plant was 168 kg according to The Idaho Potato Museum, having been achieved in 1974 by Englishman, Eric Jenkins. Locally, that is in Tasmania, famers’ average potato yields are ~35 tonnes/ha, at 40,000 plants/Ha. That’s just 0.875 kg/plant, considerably better than the 0.2 kg/plant that was typical a century ago, but way short of Eric Jenkins. It’s also way short of The Git’s 4.5 kg/plant (26,900 plants/Ha) grown with organic inputs only. Furthermore, if yield were the only criterion for growing a crop, then no-one would grow Tasmanian Pink-eyes, Up-to-dates, Tasmans, Kipflers, Bismarks, King Edwards, Sapphires etc.

We don’t know what Eric Jenkins did to achieve his monumental achievement, but a good guess would be using the following technique. Take a car tyre and place it on the ground. Place your potato seed-piece in the middle and fill with compost. When the plant has reached double the height of the tyre, place another tyre atop the first and fill with compost. Rinse and repeat until the end of the growing season. Depending on the length of your growing season, the stack of tyres can become quite tall. Providing adequate moisture is available, the stack will be chock-a-block with spuds; many kilograms of spuds. Probably not the 168 kg achieved by Eric Jenkins, but certainly many times more than a commercial farmer achieves in such a small area. That’s a method to attain maximum yield, but has no bearing whatsoever on farming spuds for a living. The maximum yield for tomatoes is held by Charles H. Wilber, an organic grower in Alabama. The Git very much doubts that there are any commercial growers using Wilber’s exact techniques.

But this isn’t commercial organic farming. Like their conventional counterparts, organic farmers make their living from their farms. The Git did too for a decade as a market gardener. While the initial breaking of the ground was performed by a neighbour with tractor and disc plough, followed by rototilling with a borrowed tiller, ongoing soil management relied entirely on hand tools. The vegetables were grown in long narrow (1.2m wide) raised beds with permanent footpaths between. Yields were typically four or more times the average yield per Hectare for the state. The most arduous task was making the compost from poultry deep litter, the cheapest source of nitrogen per kilo by far; less than half the cost of sulphate of ammonia from memory. This was supplemented by animal manure from the goats, sheep and latterly cattle grazing our grass paddocks.

It is possible to mechanise this system; it’s called tram-tracking. The wheels of the tractor and implements always follow what are footpaths in the manual system. Tram-tracking is reported to allow the farmer to either double the amount of work performed per hour, or reduce tractor horsepower by 50%. Unfortunately, the distance between the tractor wheels and various implements do not match, even decades after the original research. All of your implements need to be customised, an expensive operation. The great advantage to intensive vegetable production is that uncompacted soil is very much more productive than compacted soil. Water infiltrates more rapidly and gas exchange between atmosphere and soil is much improved, critical for root health. Yields are 4 – 6 times conventional row cultivation and up to 30 times has been reported for some crops.

So, how did my market garden compare with conventional market gardens? The Git truly has no idea. His income was above the median income for farmers in Australia, but then the average Australian farm income is notoriously low. His first major garlic harvest was sold to Hobart’s biggest vegetable wholesaler, not as organic, but entirely on its own merits. Michael Chung paid twice the growing rate per kilo. The Git discovered, Tasmania being averysmallplace, that it was all sold to restaurants serving à la carte meals. So it was that he began selling the high quality vegetables such places demand direct. That was back in the beginning of things before organic certification and its attendant bureaucratisation. The total value of the organic industry in Australia was an estimated $1.276bn in 2012. The average growth projection for the coming years was 10–15%, reflecting the two years of per annum growth from 2010. And those figures hide the production from growers who, while they qualify for certification, choose not to. It sounds like a healthy industry to be part of.

So, finally, what about health. Are GMOs bad for us? Is organically grown food better for our health than conventional? Basically The Git doesn’t give a fuck. What he cares about is “does it taste good?” The difference in flavour varies considerably between different meats and vegetables, but there are few who will forget their first taste of free-range chicken or pork, or organic peas and carrots. Subjective? Indeed, but real nevertheless. One of The Git’s restaurant customers rang and asked for more carrots. He said he never ate carrots, but out of curiosity had tried some of The Git’s while preparing them. He managed to eat half of what he had me deliver the previous day.

Some years ago Tasmania had a visit from a Vermont organic market gardener, Eliot Coleman. He was asked what he thought of organic certification and his response was: “Just make sure you know the first name of the person growing your food”.

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