Stanford University’s Fickle Commitment to Science, Part 2

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Part 1 of this two-part series described the “Stanford University paradox” – the uncritical embrace of politically correct concepts that contradict its reputation as a cutting-edge, science-grounded institution. I described the contrast between the university’s outstanding research and its dubious view of “sustainability,” which includes a commitment to organic farming practices. I elaborate on the latter here, in Part 2.

A good example of Stanford's embrace of radical, anti-scientific views was the university’s invitation in 2020 to notorious charlatan Vandana Shiva to present the prestigious 8th Annual Stephen H. Schneider LectureShiva's talk, "Soil not Oil: Biodiversity-based Agriculture to Address the Climate Crisis.” In it, she called for an end to large-scale industrial agriculture because of the effects she alleged these methods have on climate change, biodiversity, and food security.

All three of those claims are demonstrably wrong.

In a 2014 article for The New Yorker, "Seeds of Doubt," investigative journalist Michael Specter called into question a number of Shiva's repeated claims regarding genetic engineering, as well as her ethics and judgment. Specter writes:

At times, Shiva's absolutism about [modern genetic engineering] can lead her in strange directions. In 1999, 10,000 people were killed and millions were left homeless when a cyclone hit India's eastern coastal state of Orissa. When the U.S. government dispatched grain and soy to help feed the desperate victims, Shiva held a news conference in New Delhi and said that the donation was proof that 'the United States has been using the Orissa victims as guinea pigs' for genetically engineered products. She also wrote to the international relief agency Oxfam to say that she hoped it wasn't planning to send genetically modified foods to feed the starving survivors. When neither the U.S. nor Oxfam altered its plans, she condemned the Indian government for accepting the provisions.

These very same products are widely consumed in the U.S. and elsewhere, illustrating Shiva's blatant dishonesty and disingenuousness.

Others have criticized Shiva in blunter terms. The Genetic Literacy Project describes, in detail, her "anti-science" history:

Vandana Shiva's advocacy focuses on opposition to intellectual property rights, capitalism, free trade, and corporations. Shiva is noted for making extreme statements linking the use of genetically engineered (GE) organisms to rape; calling for criminal destruction of GE crops and research and prosecution of corporations that develop GE organisms. Her claims of harms associated with such organisms, particularly claims they are failing and causing farmers to commit suicide, have consistently been debunked as false by independent academic peer-reviewed published research.

This grotesque tweet by Shiva speaks for itself:

#MarkLynas saying farmers shd be free to grow #GMOs which can contaminate #organic farms is like saying #rapists shd have freedom to rape — Dr. Vandana Shiva (@drvandanashiva) January 5, 2013

In 2019, scientists and bioengineers from around the world issued an open letter criticizing Stanford for inviting Shiva to speak on campus—despite her "constant use of anti-scientific rhetoric to support unethical positions." The university group that invited her stood their ground, remonstrating that "[t]he goal of this lecture was not, and is not, endorsing a single individual, ideology, or solution. On the contrary, we aimed to provoke critical thought—to spur nuanced conversations that help students examine their own values."

That response is, as the Brits would say, thin gruel, indeed. The reality is that Stanford invited a notorious liar and anti-science advocate to the campus to spew her venom, and with a handsome honorarium, to boot.

Shortchanging students

Despite all the virtue-signaling about "sustainability" — a search for the word on Stanford's website yields no fewer than 170,000 hits — the university is rather selective in its commitment to it. For instance, housed in one of the oldest dormitories, Roble Hall, is an initiative called the Roble Living Laboratory for Sustainability at Stanford (ROLLSS), which includes "undergraduate seminars, a graduate-student speaker series, and activities intended to engage the dorm's residents in curbing their natural-resource waste."

So far, so good, but a central part of the initiative is an organic garden, meaning the students of this world-class research institution are being schooled in the myth that organic agricultural methods are sustainable. That sophistry is by no means limited to one dorm; at least up until students departed early in the COVID-19 pandemic, all eight of Stanford's major dining halls maintained an organic "dedicated teaching garden." In 2014, the university turned the nearly six acres adjacent to Stanford's historic Red Barn into the "O'Donohue Family Stanford Educational Farm" to "produce a bounty of edibles as well as a new generation of leaders in sustainable food systems." These programs, as I've described previously, are anti-scientific and otherwise flawed.

Although the organic movement touts the sustainability of its methods, its claims do not withstand scrutiny. For example, in a 2014 study published in the journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, researchers found that the potential for groundwater contamination can be dramatically reduced if fertilizers are distributed through the irrigation system according to plant demand during the growing season. Unlike conventional agriculture, organic farming depends on compost, the release of which is not matched with plant demand. "Surprisingly," the study found, "intensive organic agriculture relying on solid organic matter, such as composted manure that is implemented in the soil prior to planting as the sole fertilizer, resulted in significant down-leaching of nitrate" into groundwater. High nitrate levels can damage humans' respiratory and reproductive systems, the kidneys, spleen and thyroid, and is particularly harmful to infants. With many of the world's most fertile farming regions in the throes of extreme drought and aquifer depletion, increased nitrate in groundwater is hardly a mark of sustainability.

Moreover, although composting gets good PR as a "green" activity, at a large scale, it can generate significant amounts of greenhouse gases. Composting can also be a source of pathogenic bacteria applied to crops. A study published in the Journal of Food Protection sampled non-sludge recycled organic matter composts produced in Washington, Oregon, and California and found "a wide range of fecal coliform results for all regions."

Organic farms also produce far less food per unit of land and water than conventional ones, making them a huge waste of arable land. Plant pathologist Dr. Steve Savage analyzed the data from USDA's 2014 Organic Survey, comparing various measures of productivity from most of the nation's certified-organic farms to those at conventional farms, crop by crop, state by state. His findings are extraordinary. Of the 68 crops surveyed, there was a "yield gap" (inferior performance of organic farms) in 59. And many of those shortfalls were impressive: strawberries, 61% less than conventional; fresh tomatoes, 61% less; tangerines, 58% less; and so on.

The implications are sobering. As Dr. Savage observed, "To have raised all U.S. crops as organic in 2014 would have required farming of 109 million more acres of land. That is an area equivalent to all the parkland and wildland areas in the lower 48 states."

The organic hoax

The low yields of organic agriculture impose a variety of stresses on farmland, especially on water consumption. A 2012 British meta-analysis found that "ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching, and nitrous oxide emissions per product unit were higher from organic systems," as were "land use, eutrophication potential, and acidification potential per product unit."

Organic production disfavors the best approach to enhancing soil quality—namely, the minimization of soil disturbance (e.g., avoidance of plowing or tilling) combined with the use of cover crops. Such farming systems offer multiple environmental advantages, particularly concerning limiting erosion, the runoff of fertilizers and pesticides, and the release of CO2 from tilling. Organic growers do frequently plant cover crops, but without effective herbicides, they often must rely on tillage, or even labor-intensive hand-weeding, for weed control.

The destructive tilling in organic agriculture was the subject of a blockbuster National Public Radio story entitled "A Giant Organic Farm Faces Criticism That It's Harming The Environment." "Giant" is right: the organic Gunsmoke Farm, near Pierre, South Dakota, covers 53 square miles. "Harming the environment" is also correct: Tillage breaks down parts of the soil that are richest in carbon and nutrients and shakes soil loose from the plant roots that help to keep it together. That makes the soil vulnerable to being carried away by rain or wind, which is exactly what happened at Gunsmoke Farm—it became a dust bowl.

One prevalent "green myth" about organic agriculture is that it does not employ "harmful chemicals" such as pesticides. Organic farming does, in fact, use insecticides and fungicides: dozens of synthetic chemicals are permitted in the growing and processing of organic crops under USDA's arbitrary rules. Copper sulfate, the most popular pesticide used in organic farming, kills beneficial insects, decimates soil, is toxic to humans, and is persistent.

Perhaps the most illogical and least sustainable aspect of organic farming in the long term will turn out to be the systematic and absolute exclusion of "genetically engineered" plants—but only those that were modified with precise and predictable modern molecular techniques. (Except for wild berries and wild mushrooms, virtually all the fruits, vegetables, and grains in our diet have been genetically improved by one technique or another.)

Therefore, the exclusion from organic agriculture of organisms simply because they were crafted with superior molecular techniques makes no sense. Over three decades, the newest, most precise techniques have yielded advances in agriculture, such as drought- or flood-resistant plants, that have been more environmentally friendly and sustainable than ever before. Shiva, in response to Michael Specter's New Yorker article she called "Seeds of Truth," dismissed these advances as "mechanistic thought and manipulated facts." Of course, that was before she encouraged the leaders of Sri Lanka to adopt her “organic is best” philosophy by forcing every farmer in the country to adopt its primitive practices and reject synthetic fertilizers and crop-protection devices. The policy didn’t go well. It precipitated a food, fuel and economic crisis that forced the country's president to flee the country.

Stanford’s sad irony

The irony of all this is that a 1973 co-discoverer of recombinant DNA technology, the prototypic, iconic molecular technique for genetic engineering, was Stanford biochemist Dr. Stanley N. Cohen, who is still a professor of genetics and medicine at the university. I wonder how many of those involved in the university's ROLLSS program have even heard of him. One person who has heard of him is Stanford's president, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, a neuroscientist who was previously Chief Scientific Officer at Genentech, one of the world's foremost biopharmaceutical companies.

Stanford scientists have made other advances in genetically engineering plants. Last August, professors in the departments of biology and bioengineering reported that they had discovered a way to genetically reprogram plants so that they grow roots in desired shapes -- long or short, branched or slender — which changes the ability to gather nutrients or water. The ability to control root growth could offer a powerful new tool for farmers, especially in drought or flood-prone areas with poor soil. And yet, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne knowingly perpetuates this pro-organic, anti-science, reactionary nonsense on his campus—to say nothing of permitting Vandana Shiva to speak there.

The organic fable

As genetic engineering's successes continue to emerge, the gap between modern, high-tech agriculture and organic methods is becoming a chasm. Genetically engineered potato varieties already in the marketplace are bruise-resistant and contain 50-70% less asparagine, a chemical converted to acrylamide, a probable carcinogen, when heated to high temperatures. The advantage of lower levels of acrylamide is obvious, but the bruise resistance is important to sustainability: According to Simplot, the developer of the genetically engineered "Innate" varieties, "with full market penetration for its varieties sold in the U.S., Innate will reduce annual potato waste by an estimated 400 million pounds in the food service and retail industries and a significant portion of the estimated 3 billion pounds discarded by consumers."

Genetically engineered potatoes resistant to bruising and to the late blight fungus represent the very essence of sustainability — every serving of French fries or mashed potatoes made from them represents less farmland used and less water consumed. But none of these varieties can be used by organic farmers.

How could one of the world's preeminent research universities, which regularly produces breakthroughs across virtually the entire spectrum of science and technology, embrace and endorse anachronistic, destructive practices? A 2012 New York Times article entitled "The Organic Fable," by columnist Roger Cohen provides the answer. In it, he offered some pithy observations about the popularity of organic food – for example, “Organic has long since become an ideology, the romantic back-to-nature obsession of an upper middle class able to afford it and oblivious, in their affluent narcissism, to the challenge of feeding a planet whose population will surge to nine billion before the middle of the century and whose poor will get a lot more nutrients from the two regular carrots they can buy for the price of one organic carrot.”

Sustainable farming should mean maximizing and capitalizing on the ability of human ingenuity to invent processes, products, and approaches that are more efficient, less costly, and at the same time, less harmful to the environment. In other words, exactly the kinds of advances that come from university chemistry, plant science, artificial intelligence, engineering, robotics, and molecular biology labs. But organic farmers, including Stanford's, can forget about using them.

The organic movement and "green sensibility" have become rooted in society over the past quarter century or so, and Stanford has uncritically gone along. It is both unscientific and unbecoming.

Note: This article is based on an earlier version published by the Genetic Literacy Project in July 2021.