David Montgomery — The Future of Farming and the GMO Sideshow

LC: Now you’ve written about the need to change farming techniques and practice worldwide. It seems like a pretty big challenge to change worldwide or even national standards for farming.

DM: True.

So I think back to these two aspects to the sciences of geology and biology that you’ve brought up, the historical aspect (ie how the Earth has changed, how organisms evolved) and the modern (ie mineralogy, seismology, biotechnology). It seems you’re making an argument for using the historical aspect of our knowledge of farming. Do you think the modern aspects of this science, agricultural technology, GMOs, etc…, are going to be an easier solution?

In my most recent book, Growing a Revolution, there’s a subheading called the GMO sideshow. The attitude I took in it is basically that the discussion we’ve been having socially about GMOs is not the right one, and that there are all kinds of different ways to look at GMOs. There were lots of promises that were made when they were first introduced which mostly haven’t been met—yield increases or reduced pesticide use, although they have gotten some of the worst pesticides off the market. It’s kind of a mixed bag in terms of net benefit.

What I argued in Growing a Revolution was that we need to think about taking the ancient wisdom of crop rotations, diversity of crop rotations, cover crops, things that end up feeding what we now know of as the soil microbiome, and we need to combine that with modern technology, which could be no-till planters, GMO, drought-resistant crops, or a number of other things.

If you imagine the case that the first GMO on the market that went big time wasn’t glyphosate resistant corn and soybeans, but instead it was corn that would actually fix nitrogen because it had a gene from a bacterium. Imagine that the fertilizer industry being absolutely replaced by a GMO—we would be having a completely different conversation about GMOs.

As you know, technology has a lot to contribute to the future of agriculture whether it’s through precision agriculture or conceivable advances in genetic engineering, but the biggest tool we have at our disposal is the one we are not using which is combining no-till with cover crops and diversities of rotations. Instead we are still plowing most everything up, using way too much fertilizer, and growing one or two crops.

If our philosophy that underpins agriculture went 180 degrees on those three points so we minimized disturbance, we use cover crops, and we planted a diversity of crops on farms, plus or minus bringing livestock back on farms, you could actually rebuild soil fertility while maintaining more profitable farms and comparable outputs to what we are getting with conventional agriculture. We could still be having the GMO versus organic argument, but we could solve the bigger problems along the way.

Technology has a lot to contribute, but to me the real opportunity lies in marrying ancient wisdom and modern technology. Unfortunately, we tend to focus on one or the other.

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