Doug Gurian-Sherman is director of Sustainable Agriculture and senior scientist at the Center for Food Safety. He studies agriculture’s impact on the environment and human health.
At a recent conference of Ohio farmers, Gurian-Sherman issued warnings in his keynote speech about innovations in industrial agriculture.
He’s worried about major food companies engineering the genetic material of crops without sufficient research into the effects.
And he says when soy and corn growers use “no-till” farming to curb soil erosion, letting farm waste run off into lakes and streams, it causes water crises like the one last summer in Toledo.
But in an interview with WKSU, the scientist said sustainable agriculture might ultimately prevail if citizens stay involved.
“People are becoming more conscious of where their food comes from. My sense is that most of the interest in local foods and farmers’ markets has been from a personal health perspective, which is important. But I think people need to start taking it the next step and thinking about where their food comes from and how it’s grown. And not just organic production from the perspective of not using pesticides, which consumers are worried about consuming, but from all these other impacts that farming has depending on the way it’s done.
"And if that attention and awareness grows along with the food movement, I think it will put pressure on policy makers to change these policies. But ultimately we need a research establishment that doesn’t just provide 2 to 5 percent of its research budget to sustainable agriculture and the rest to industrial.
"We need to make these practices more efficient, more farmer-friendly and so on, and we need subsidies that support them instead of industrial ag. So at the policy level we need changes as well, but that again is going to have to come from the grass roots, because unfortunately the stereotypes that we hear about Washington are often too true, and I think the politicians and the regulatory agencies are going to have to be pushed to change.
Here in Northeast Ohio we’ve seen a tremendous growth in farmers’ markets, and we’ve seen young people shopping at those farmers’ markets. What’s your perspective? Will this food revolution continue? Or are there too many warring sides?
"We really have to work together. The farmers have to work with the local foods people and the urban farming folks who are often people of color. Those communities often don’t talk and they have a lot they could share with each other, and they could have a lot of mutual benefit. The eaters have to be concerned about the growers. Together I think we have a lot of power potentially.
"And I’m optimistic that that will happen because I think these are people who are generally more and more concerned about the world around them, not just their food.
"And I also think that these food issues are not just a fad. It goes a lot deeper than that. So I’m optimistic that things will improve, but it will be critical that some of these next steps occur ... that these different interests recognize that we’re all in it together.
"Certainly Big Ag understands that. ... It marshals the policies by lobbying the regulators and the Congress and so on. What they don’t have on their side is the populace. Monsanto for example is routinely pegged as the most evil corporation in the world by, who knows exactly what standards, but those folks don’t have the citizens behind them. And ultimately I think the citizens can win out if we organize, and if we work together and recognize what the problems are and what the solutions are.
"But I think we do need to understand that Big Ag interests are not stupid. They aren’t sitting still either. They recognize that there are these problems ... are threatening to them, so they’re trying to re-frame these issues and say that they have the answers through genetic engineering or precision agriculture or no-till. But the science suggests that while some of those things can provide some benefit, we need some fundamental change.”
Doug Gurian-Sherman, of the Center for Food Safety was one of the first scientists to look at the impact of farming practices on human health while he was on the FDA’s first food technology committee.