Written by Tom Steward | January 3, 2018

Strib’s Sustainable food series panned by ag experts

The Star Tribune recently featured a high-profile series on Minnesota’s most important industry–agriculture. But right off the top the paper’s coverage appeared to be driven largely by the tastes of organically inclined subscribers.

Much of the food industry has rallied around the idea of “sustainability,” which in the most precise definition refers to the ability of a food system to last over time. But the word has become a broad banner for issues like animal welfare, soil management, fair farm wages or climate change.

A blatant political agenda tainted “the future of food” coverage for some readers. Turning to a fringe group like the Union of Concerned Scientists for quotes hardly enhances the report’s credibility.

The largely one-sided environmentalist viewpoint underpinning the series prompted a scathing response from Minnesota agricultural experts George Rhem and Don Reicosky.

Incorrect conclusions based on emotional perceptions dominated the four-part series on food production and food safety (“The Future of Food,” Dec. 17-20). Rather than presenting a balanced approach to the issue, the series focused entirely on the supposed advantages of the use of sustainable/organic farming practices for production of safe food. Science-based facts as we know them were largely ignored, while the emotional opinions of a selected few were taken as the truth.

However, one known fact stands out from all others. There is general agreement that within the next 20 years or so the world’s population will increase from the current 7.6 billion to 9 billion, leading to a staggering increase in the demand for food. In our view, responsibility for meeting this demand will fall on the backs of the American farmer, including those in Minnesota.

Rhem and Reicosky, both soil scientists, point out that the survival of billions of people depends on modern agriculture. Organic methods fall far short of providing the yields necessary to feed our planet. But their strongest criticism comes over dubious claims over food safety.

The last article in the series makes an unsuccessful attempt to associate GMO crops with negative effects on food safety. The opposite is true.

For example, if GMO corn is planted, there is no need to use chemicals for control of corn rootworm, corn borer and corn cutworm. Weed control is no longer a major problem if GMO traits are combined with soil health management, minimum soil disturbance and the use of cover crops.

In addition, the use of GMO traits in combination with other good management practices reduces the amount of money needed for pest control, thereby improving farm profitability. And chemicals once needed for pest control before GMO crops do not enter the environment.

Their final point:  farm-to-table may be gaining in popularity in wealthy, industrialized societies. But the rest of the world can’t afford that luxury.

If all decisions were based on emotion and perception, there would be very little progress in meeting the challenge of providing food for 9 billion people. Use of the principles of science to produce healthy food in an economical manner without environmental degradation is critical. We cannot afford to go backward.

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