Greenpeace Farming Plan Would Reap Environmental Havoc around the World

Published March 1, 2008

A new report from Greenpeace International, Cool Farming, includes organic farming recommendations that would impose severe hunger on half the world’s humans or force the clearing of the world’s remaining forests to plant more low-yield crops.

The report was released on January 8, around the same time Arcadia Biosciences of Davis, California announced a set of new genetically engineered seed varieties that will radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution from world crop production.

Reduces Nitrogen Use

Growers of Arcadia’s new rice will need only half as much nitrogen fertilizer, and virtually all the nitrogen applied will be taken up by the plants.

Arcadia is working with a Chinese province (Ningxia) to offer United Nations-approved carbon offsets for encouraging Chinese farmers to plant Arcadia’s new nitrogen-efficient biotech rice seeds.

The world uses 80 million tons of industrial nitrogen per year, and the crops typically take up only half of it. The rest may leach into streams or go into the air as nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times as potent as carbon dioxide (CO2).

In rice alone, the new seed variety could ultimately prevent emission of 100 million tons per year of nitrous oxide. It also will eliminate any problem with nitrogen polluting waterways and slash by half the natural gas needed in fertilizer production.

Greenpeace Opposes

Ultimately, most of the world’s crops may be made similarly nitrogen-efficient. Arcadia already has begun transformations for nitrogen-efficient wheat, sugar beets, and canola. Corn varieties already have doubled in nitrogen efficiency and weed and pest control in recent years, thanks to hybrid seeds, and Arcadia’s new technology promises further gains in nitrogen efficiency for corn.

These genetically modified seeds will make high-yield farming far more environmentally friendly than organic farming.

Greenpeace, of course, has long and loudly opposed biotechnology in agriculture, claiming it is not safe for the environment.

Low Yields from Organic

The biggest problem with Greenpeace’s organic “cool farming” remains its low yields per acre. Turning exclusively to organic farming would yield half as much food, produced less sustainably, after plowing down most of the world’s current wildlands.

Organic farmers refuse to use nitrogen fertilizer. Instead, they use cattle manure or green-manure crops such as clover to replace the soil nitrogen taken up by crops. Both approaches require large amounts of additional land.

Replacing the current annual use of 80 million tons of nitrogen fertilizer with cattle manure would require another five to seven billion cattle–and another 25 to 35 billion acres of forage to feed them. Green-manure crops can sometimes be effective, but most farmers find they take field space, soil nutrients, sunshine, and moisture away from the food and feed crops.

Greenpeace’s organic demands are even less feasible in light of the organization’s opposition to cattle confinement and beef cattle growth regulators, as these practices use two-thirds less cropland per pound of beef produced and the cattle emit 40 percent less greenhouse gas than cattle “organically raised” on pasture.

UN Rejects Organic Farming

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has weighed in heavily against organic farming. “FAO has no reason to believe that organic agriculture can substitute for conventional farming systems in ensuring the world’s food security,” FAO said in a December news release.

FAO Director-general Jacques Diouf said, “You cannot feed 6 billion people today and 9 billion people in 2050 without the judicious use of chemical fertilizers.”

Dennis T. Avery ([email protected]) is a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC and director of the Center for Global Food Issues. ( He was formerly a senior analyst for the U.S. Department of State. Readers may write him at P.O. Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421.