Bacillus thuringiensis

Along with population growth, think about basic resources, like potable water, and The Future….

Intensification of production generally entails increased costs, of one form or another. In agriculture, say you are a subsistence farmer, and you decide you need to expand your field into an area you previously avoided because of its slope. So you get out the kids and uncles and other hangers-on, and put together a work party and grub up some rocks and do some terraforming and, presto, you have some terraces that make your new field flatter and allow it to retain more moisture.

Here, Henry I. Miller and Gregory Conko (never heard of them, but Miller is at the Hoover Institution at Stanford) discuss several facets of modern agricultural intensification. They make some points I’ll summarize here about two big crops here in North America: maize and potatoes (both new world species, let me add).

Maize (you may call it corn) is susceptible to a mold called Fusarium, which produces a deadly fungal toxin, especially in grains damaged by insect invaders. This is just the situation in the Third World—and organic fields in our own US (and Canada). Thus, organic maize is more likely to be hazardous to your health from eating it than non-organic cornmeal grown from seeds that are genetically resistant through gene-splicing to corn borers (called Bt corn).

Similarly, potatoes are a mega-crop in the US that supplies French fries to every mouth around nearly once a day on average. Potatoes can be gene-spliced with a gene from the same bacterium used for the maize mentioned above (Bacillus thuringiensis) and another gene from elsewhere and they will be more resistant to the Colorado potato beetle and another the potato leaf roll virus, meaning reduced use of insecticides that endanger the health of farm workers.

Cautious consumers have rejected both genetic alterations.

See, more food production is necessary to support a burgeoning population, and sometimes easy, low-impact changes can be instituted at first to kick up production, but then it gets more complicated. Even making a bigger garden can have a downside—fewer trees for firewood, for example, or medicinal plants (“weeds�?) being squeezed out, or fewer pollinating insects. When you get to monocropping, the only way we now have to feed the global population at current levels (and they’re still rising, mind you), you’re facing a wealth of ethical decisions with unending implications.

So, if you buy organic because you think it’s better for the environment, you better rethink that. If you buy organic because you think it’s better for your health, which I used to think was a good argument, you have to rethink that, too. If you buy organic because you think it sends a message to policy-makers, you’d best put at least some of your $$ toward various population control programs, it seems to me. And, hey, good luck. To all of us.


  1. kayak woman says:

    There’s that word “terraform” again. A hot topic in my family of late.

  2. Sammy says:

    Dictionary says \”(esp. in science fiction) transform (a planet) so as to resemble the earth, esp. so that it can support human life\” although I hear it used to mean large-scale earth-moving….
    And, click here for more on the etymology of terraforming.

  3. gg says:

    I remember the old Michigan Agricultural College (turned Michigan State University) bumper sticker that poked fun and the University of Michigan (Maize and Blue). It said, “Some call it Maize. We call it corn.”

    What a dilemma. Farm larger amounts of land to produce “organic” pesticide-free and fertilizer-free crops .vs. farming smaller amounts of land with higher yields by using pesticides and fertilizers. Which option results is less environmental damage?

    Farming is a major source of pollution and/or environmental damage any way you go.