Tuesday, August 26, 2014

New Yorker on GMO and the State of Agriculture

Here's last week's New Yorker article on GMO's and Dr. Vendana Shiva.  While it's a good takedown of some of her positions I do have a couple quibbles with the writer's understanding of modern agriculture:
  • "For most of the past ten thousand years, feeding more people simply meant farming more land. That option no longer exists; nearly every arable patch of ground has been cultivated, and irrigation for agriculture already consumes seventy per cent of the Earth’s freshwater."
I won't quarrel with the water point, but there's a lot of land which once was farmed and no longer is. (About 20 acres of the former Harshaw farm, for one.)  Much of the land once farmed in the Northeast has now reverted to forest or brush.  I can't find the set of maps demonstrating this fact so you'll have to take my word for it.  After the USSR broke up, a lot of farmland was abandoned.  Here's a quote from the abstract of a scholarly article:
'"The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to widespread abandonment of agricultural lands, but the extent and spatial patterns of abandonment are unclear. We quantified the extent of abandoned farmland, both croplands and pastures, across the region using MODIS NDVI satellite image time series from 2004 to 2006 and support vector machine classifications. Abandoned farmland was widespread, totaling 52.5 Mha, particularly in temperate European Russia (32 Mha), northern and western Ukraine, and Belarus. Differences in abandonment rates among countries were striking, suggesting that institutional and socio-economic factors were more important in determining the amount of abandonment than biophysical conditions. Indeed, much abandoned farmland occurred in areas without major constraints for agriculture"
Granted the fact that land was abandoned probably means it's less productive than that which is still cultivated, but the right prices will bring it back into production.
  • The only commercial farmers in the United States without crop insurance are those who have a philosophical objection to government support.  
The statement may be true for production agriculture of field crops, but I don't believe it's true for other crops, nor for organic farmers.

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