Biotech, Conventional, Organic: Agricultural Systems Compared
In October 2011, the United Nations (UN) announced that the global population has reached 7 billion and is expected to reach 9 billion by 2043. With this population growth rate, the UN has called world leaders to action to meet the challenges that a growing population poses, from ensuring adequate food and clean water to guaranteeing equal access to security and justice.1 Yet, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that a total of 925 million people are undernourished.2 Feeding all of these people and eliminating hunger will require advances in food production and distribution that increase the amount of food grown without taking up more land in the process.
How do we accomplish this goal? Let’s look at the different types of production methods currently being utilized and evaluate their key attributes:
Conventional Agriculture: It is difficult to put a single definition on conventional farming, as the term is used to describe a wide range of agricultural practices. In general, conventional farming uses methods that maximize the amount of crops that are produced per unit of land while conserving resources like soil and water. Conventional crops are grown using common materials like fertilizers to promote plant growth, herbicides to reduce weed growth, and insecticides to prevent insects from feeding on and damaging crops. These materials are a life-saver to farmers and are extensively tested and approved by the government before use.
Organic Agriculture: Unlike conventional agriculture, the term organic is defined by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and is regulated by the National Organic Program under USDA. Organic crops are produced without the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, no antibiotics or growth hormones, bioengineered ingredients, or ionizing radiation. Organic farms use renewable resources and employ conservation soil and water techniques on the farm. An organic farmer must obtain USDA organic certification before being able to sell or label their products as organic. Organic standards require that the land and soil be free from synthetic pesticides or fertilizers for three years prior to planting any crops. Yields on organic crops can be lower than conventional or biotech crops. For example, soybean producers gain an average yield of 31 bushels per acre on an organic farm versus 47 bushels per acre for conventional soybeans.3 Organic soybean operations can incur higher production costs, which is why organic soybeans command a premium in the marketplace. Most farmers and companies using organic ingredients do want to label their products as such to clearly identify their unique product. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans state that it is premature to conclude that the nutritional value and health benefits of organic foods are better than those produced through conventional agricultural practices.4
Biotechnology: Although farmers have been practicing biotechnology in the broadest sense (i.e., plant and animal breeding to achieve certain traits) for thousands of years, it is the recent use of genetic engineering that has moved this technology into the forefront of agriculture. Genetic engineering is achieved by selecting and introducing beneficial traits from one crop or species and inserting it into another. This process is done with the seed so the resulting plant will grow with the desired trait just like with traditional breeding, only biotechnology achieves faster and more precise results. A current example of how biotechnology is improving the soybean for health is the development of soybeans with enhanced fatty acid profiles. Biotechnology was used to lower the linolenic acid (an essential fatty acid that must be consumed for proper health) profile in the soybean seed. This process eliminates the need to hydrogenate oils for stability, therefore eliminating trans fats from foods. This same product has an increased oleic acid (a fatty acid that occurs naturally in various animal and vegetable fats and oils) profile, which decreases the saturated fat content of resulting products. This new biotech soybean is already in use in the marketplace and is a viable option for food manufacturers looking to eliminate trans fats in their products, while simultaneously reducing saturated fat content. Biotechnology has also been shown to improve the environment. Some soybean crop examples are decreased use of pesticide applications, 93% reduction in soil erosion, preservation of 1 billion tons of top soil due to use of no-till agriculture, and 326 million pound reduction in CO2 emissions.5
Conventional, organic, and biotech systems are all viable farming methods and can co-exist. To meet the world’s projected food needs, methods that produce food more efficiently, use less land and water, and employ new technologies to increase yield for an ever-growing world population will certainly be required.
1 United Nations. “As World Passes 7 Billion Milestone, UN Urges Action to Meet Key Challenges” October 31, 2011; http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=40257
2 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. “Global Hunger Declining, But Still Unacceptably High,” September 2010, http://www.fao.org/docrep/012/al390e/al390e00.pdf
3 US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. June 2009. Emerging Issues in the US Organic Industry. http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/eib55/eib55.pdf
4 USDA Center for Nutrition Policy Promotion, Food Safety & Technology Subcommittee of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee; “Resource 3: Conventional and Organically Produced Foods,” http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/Publications/DietaryGuidelines/2010/DGAC/Report/Resource3-Organics.pdf
5 Heatherly, Larry G., PhD. “A Comparison of Sustainable Production Systems for Conventional, Biotech, and Organic Soybeans.” Council for Agricultural Science and Technology’s Special Report 30. April 2009.
About the Author
Lisa Katic, RD, is principal of K Consulting, a practice based in Washington, DC specializing in food policy, communications and health professional education. She focuses on scientific and regulatory programs in nutrition, biotechnology, food labeling, obesity, and on global food policy issues. She is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh.