I had the opportunity to spend the first two weeks of May exploring London, England, and Edinburgh, Scotland. I majored in history for my undergraduate degree and have a keen interest in British history. For me, the highlight of the trip was touring castles and marveling at cathedrals. It was absolutely amazing to see and touch the physical locations where so many of my historical heroes lived and breathed.
Oh, and the accents!
Naturally, as the farmer’s daughter, I was also interested in experiencing the cuisine of the two countries, and getting a sense for their food culture. As a blogger, I have been told so many times that Europeans are better at farming, better at being environmental stewards, and better at food. In the United States, so many people attribute our societal ills, such as obesity, on our food and production methods. Obviously, they must be doing it better across the pond, right?
Recycling is mandatory by law. Toilets have low water flushes. Plastic bags cost 5 pence each. Paper straws are the norm. Parks are not always mowed. Restaurants boast about being carbon neutral. It is true that the United Kingdom takes environmental stewardship seriously.
At least, they think they do.
They have certainly embraced many practices that seem green. However, they have also embraced organic agriculture and rejected genetically modified foods. Both positions are counterproductive to the goal of reducing environmental impact of civilized society.
Genetically modified crops, which have been widely adopted in the United States, actually come with environmental benefits. They reduce the use of pesticides. They reduce the amount of fossil fuels needed to produce a crop, while also allowing farmers to more easily adopt practices that sequester carbon. Some GMOs, such as the Arctic Apple, promote less food waste.
To the contrary, organic agriculture is not always the best option. It can result in lower yields, requiring the cultivation of additional acres to meet demand. It can rely on “natural” pesticides, which are sometimes harsher than synthetic versions. It can require many more passes across the field, resulting in the burning of additional fossil fuels. Despite all of these downsides, it does not produce more nutritious food.
At times, this paradox was a bit frustrating for me. I wasn’t allowed to have a plastic bag to carry the items I purchased at the store (someone, ahem, forgot to pack certain items of clothing for the excursion up to Scotland), but I was being served organic coffee each morning. Public toilets were often clogged because of the low water flushes, but the restaurants claimed the food they cooked up was “all natural.”
It was most frustrating to see that the measures taken for environmental stewardship were being counteracted by misinformation. Had the NGOs and so-called environmental groups not lied to the European public about genetically modified crops, maybe they would have adopted them. Had celebrities and certain royals, like Prince Charles, not latched on to organic farming, maybe the United Kingdom wouldn’t feel like organic was better. Instead, they could have embraced modern agricultural production methods that are actually green. They wouldn’t be contradicting themselves every time they took a sip of soda made with non-GMO sugar beets through a paper straw.
Although many parts of the world accuse Americans of being big polluters, I’m actually really proud that our farmers have adopted GMOs and embrace conventional agriculture. We are making a difference in favor of the environment, not just paying it lip service. There are certainly activists working to change public perception and, ultimately, dictate choices on the farm, but so far they have been mostly unsuccessful.
I do wonder if, in the future, Europe will be eventually forced to switch to higher-yielding production to meet demands and avoid mass starvation as the Earth’s population balloons. Or whether clever scientists will create a GMO that has such undeniable environmental benefits that even the staunchest opposition is unable to deny it. Perhaps then we will see a shift in the public perception that resolves this large contradiction.
Amanda Zaluckyj blogs under the name The Farmer’s Daughter USA. Her goal is to promote farmers and tackle the misinformation swirling around the U.S. food industry.