Dear EarthTalk: Do you agree with the recent claim in the Wall Street Journal that organic agriculture isn’t actually sustainable? — Chuck Romaniello, Pittsburgh, PA
Dr. Henry I. Miller’s opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (May 15, 2014) has indeed made waves in the organic farming community. Miller, former director of the Office of Biotechnology at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, argues that conventional farming — which uses synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers and often genetically modified (GM) seed stock to maximize yields — is actually better for the environment, producing more food and using less water compared to organic farming.
“Organic farming might work well for certain local environments on a small scale, but its farms produce far less food per unit of land and water than conventional ones,” says Miller. “The low yields of organic agriculture — typically 20 percent to 50 percent less than conventional agriculture — impose various stresses on farmland and especially on water consumption.” Miller adds that organic methods can cause significant leaking of nitrates from composted manure — the fertilizer of choice for most organic farms — into groundwater, polluting drinking water. He also cites research showing that large-scale composting generates significant amounts of greenhouse gases and “may also deposit pathogenic bacteria on or in food crops, which has led to more frequent occurrences of food poisoning in the U.S. and elsewhere.”
“If the scale of organic production were significantly increased, says Miller, the lower yields would increase the pressure for the conversion of more land to farming and more water for irrigation, both of which are serious environmental issues.” He adds that conventional farming’s embrace of GM crops — a no-no to organic farmers — is yet another way we can boost yields and feed more people with less land.
But, the Washington, DC-based Organic Center takes issue with Miller’s allegations about nitrates polluting groundwater: “Most studies that examine nutrient runoff show that organic production methods result in reduced nitrogen losses when compared to conventional crop production,” reports the group.
The Organic Center also disputes Miller’s claims about the organic farming’s carbon footprint, arguing that overall energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions are much less from organic farming than from conventional agriculture. The group also says that taking into account the greenhouse gas emissions that come from the production (not just the use) of synthetic fertilizer changes the equation entirely. The group cites a recent study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization which found that organic agriculture can potentially reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent compared to conventional farming.
Also, Miller’s statements about GM crops overlook the ecological problems associated with their use. “For example,” the Organic Center reports, “transgene movement from GM crops to wild, weedy relatives could increase the invasiveness of weeds.” Also, genetic modification has led to higher pesticide use in agricultural systems and an increase in herbicide-resistant weeds. Some worry this is leading to a vicious cycle whereby farmers use more and more chemical herbicides to battle hardier and hardier weeds.
As the price of organic food continues to drop, more and more people will be able to afford it and the increased demand may well drive the conversion to organic agriculture more than policy or philosophy.
Dear EarthTalk: What are the environmental implications of the so-called “driverless car” that Google and others are working on right now? — April Jackman, Barre, MA
Just a decade ago most of us wouldn’t have dreamed we’d live to see driverless cars whisking people around, but things are changing fast and analysts now think they will be common by 2020 and account for the majority of cars on the road by 2040. And with Google’s recent unveiling of its latest prototype — complete with no pedals or steering wheel — the future is indeed closer than we ever imagined.
Proponents argue that driverless cars — also called “autonomous cars” — are inherently more sustainable than their manned counterparts. For one, they say, once they are widely available many of us will forego owning our own cars in favor of car-sharing, whereby the autonomous vehicle comes to you, charged and ready to go, as needed. Thus the result could be far fewer cars on the road than today. According to Steve Gutmann of the Seattle-based sustainability think tank Sightline Institute, such a car-sharing scenario would also obviate the need for many parking spaces. Today the typical private car spends upwards of 90 percent of its time parked. Once we have more driverless cars, we’ll need far fewer parking spaces, leading to less land being paved and reducing storm water runoff and heat island effects accordingly.
The networked brains of these vehicles will also reduce inefficient routes and decrease overall driving time, leading to better air quality and lower carbon emissions. Also, the increased safety of driverless vehicles — they obey speed limits, can sense people, bikes and other cars coming towards them, and accelerate and brake much more gradually than human drivers — will mean that the cars can be lighter and require far fewer resources in manufacturing, reducing their overall environmental impact even further.
On the flip side, the advent of driverless cars means that many of us now not able to drive because of age or physical handicaps will be able to use these cars to get around, potentially leading to an increase in the number of cars on the road. And Chandra Bhat of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas points out that just because a car is driverless doesn’t mean we’ll want it to be smaller, lighter and more fuel efficient. He fears that driverless cars will engender a return to larger vehicles because people will want “more comfortable space” when they are free to stretch out, relax, read, videochat, text or even nap during their trips. He adds that driverless cars could lead to more urban sprawl as car commuting becomes more tolerable without the hassle of actually driving.
Bhat also wonders what will become of the public transit systems we’ve invested so heavily in if driverless cars offer the same advantages — using the time en route to do whatever one pleases — with the added benefit of privacy and route/timing flexibility.
Today four U.S. states — Nevada, Florida, California and Michigan — allow driverless cars on their public roads for the purpose of testing; several other states are considering similar allowances. Likewise, in 2013 the United Kingdom began allowing the testing of driverless cars on its public roadways. Besides Google, several leading automakers and other companies have developed their own prototypes. Car enthusiasts can expect to see such examples from the likes of Mercedes-Benz, General Motors, Nissan, Toyota, Audi, Volvo, Tesla and others at auto shows over the next few years, and can look forward to getting “behind the wheel” of one within a decade. Whatever happens, it certainly is going to be quite a ride.
Dear EarthTalk: A recent study showed that Bisphenol A (BPA) was hardly the human health risk researchers once believed it to be. Should I still try to avoid products that may contain it? — Carolyn Danes, Waukesha, WI
Some 93 percent of us carry traces of the synthetic compound Bisphenol A (BPA) in our bloodstreams, so it’s no wonder that public health advocates are concerned about its potential effects. Developed in the 1950s to strengthen plastics and epoxy resins, BPA is today used in a wide range of products, including many plastic food and drink containers, the lining of most cans, some paper products, and dental sealants.
But with widespread use of BPA has come increased scrutiny regarding its potential impact on human health. When ingested, BPA mimics naturally occurring human hormones and thus can potentially interfere with the body’s endocrine and reproductive workings. According to the nonprofit Breast Cancer Fund, previous research has linked BPA exposure to with increased risk for cardiovascular disease, miscarriages, decreased birth weight at term, breast and prostate cancer, reproductive and sexual dysfunctions, altered immune system activity, metabolic problems and diabetes in adults, and cognitive and behavioral development in young children. These concerns have led the European Union, Canada — and more recently the U.S. — to ban the use of BPA in baby bottles and other items geared toward babies and children.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) maintains that typical low-level BPA exposure does not pose any health risk. A February 2014 study by FDA researchers found that low doses of the compound did not affect the health of rats over a 90-day study period. While study rats exposed to higher doses of BPA had lower body weights, abnormal female reproductive development and altered hormone levels, there were no such effects in rats exposed to lower doses more akin to what humans experience.
But critics point out some flaws in that study, which call its conclusions into question. For one, a control group of rats that was supposed to remain unexposed to BPA somehow had levels of the compound in their blood equivalent to the lowest-dose study population. FDA researchers maintain that this contamination of the control group did not affect their results because neither group of rats showed any effects given their low-dose exposure. Another issue is that the researchers did not look at neurological effects such as changes in learning, memory and behavior.
“What needs to follow is whether these exposures are causing neurobehavioral changes,” Harvard epidemiologist Joe Braun told Environmental Health News, adding that previous research has shown that estrogen receptors in the brains of rats were triggered by low doses of BPA. “Hopefully [the FDA] will address that down the road.”
More research is underway still. The February 2014 FDA study is part of an ongoing two-year assessment of the toxicity of BPA. Dozens of university studies are also in progress to shed more light on just how risky our use of BPA may be. Consumers should continue to take precautions to limit their intake of BPA by avoiding polycarbonate plastic food and drink containers and metal cans, and by refraining from putting plastic items in the microwave — a process that can expedite the leaching of BPA into food.
Dear EarthTalk: How is it that our more effectively managing ocean resources could help us better feed the world? — Missy Jenkins, Boone, IA
Hunger is a growing problem around the world, in both developing and developed countries. As our population continues to rise, the amount of arable land per capita is declining and climate change is either drying out or flooding many formerly productive agricultural belts, making it more and more difficult to keep up with the growing demand for food. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that we must produce 70 percent more food globally if we are to feed the world’s increasing numbers of hungry people in the coming decades.
While more efficient agricultural practices can help, conservationists are increasingly looking to the ocean as a potential way out of our hunger woes. According to Oceana, a leading non-profit dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans and marine biodiversity, wild seafood “requires no fresh water, produces little carbon dioxide, doesn’t use up any arable land and provides healthy, lean protein at a cost per pound lower than beef, chicken, lamb and pork, making it accessible to the world’s poor.”
But like other natural resources, fish stocks have also been in decline in recent years as a result of decades of overfishing. “The global fish catch peaked in the late 1980s and has been declining ever since,” reports Oceana. Indeed, data show the amount of fish caught around the world has fallen by some 18 percent over the last three decades. “If current trends continue, we’ll only have enough wild seafood to feed half the world’s population in 2050,” says the group.
But that downward trend could be reversed by overhauling fisheries management, protecting fish spawning and breeding habitat and reducing by-catch (the incidental catch of species not targeted by fishermen). In areas where fisheries managers have been able to set catch limits based on fish biology instead of industry interests, seafood populations have started to bounce back. Likewise, fish stocks have recovered significantly in the water column in and around Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and other critical “no-fish” zones.
“These are steps that have been proven to restore stocks of fish wherever they have been implemented,” adds Oceana. “While it’s counterintuitive, by imposing limits to what we catch today we will actually be able to increase the amount of fish that we catch tomorrow.” The group cites research showing that “sensible management” could increase fish yields up to 40 percent and increase the biomass in the oceans by almost 60 percent. “If managed wisely, our fisheries could provide the world with 700 million nutritious meals every day.”
Through its “Save the Oceans, Feed the World Campaign,” Oceana is focusing its efforts on convincing national governments in countries that dominate the world’s fish catch to manage their own fisheries better. The fact that each coastal country is in control of an “exclusive economic zone” extending 200 nautical miles from shore and that these shallow near-shore waters contain the vast majority of marine life means that convincing a few key governments to reign in overfishing can make a world of difference.
CONTACT: Oceana, www.oceana.org