A Quick Word with Jack Heinemann International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability

Published in June 2013, the article Sustainability and innovation in staple crop production in the US Midwest rapidly became the most read paper in International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, going viral on social media sites and securing in excess of 8,000 article views in just two weeks. The research was conducted by Melanie Massaro, Dorien S. Coray, Sarah Zanon Agapito-Tenfen, Jiajun Dale Wen and Jack Heinemann, who offers his thoughts on the paper and how it may be applied to future study in the field.
Name: Jack Heinemann
Current role: Professor
Current organisation: University of Canterbury, New Zealand
Current project(s): Research topics include within host competition during horizontal gene transfer; evolution of ancient reactions in protein translation; food safety and risk assessment.

T&F: Briefly, can you summarise what you have been able to conclude from your paper, Sustainability and innovation in staple crop production in the US Midwest?

Jack Heinemann (JH): The central question addressed was: To what degree is the US (and the North American in general) agroecosystem meeting the dual demands of production and sustainability? The agroecosystem is determinately the product of how a country innovates in agriculture. National ‘innovation’ policies determine what kind of products industry provides to agriculture. To answer the main question, we examined the products being used by the US and Western European agroecosystems. We compared selected crops grown at significant scales in both agroecosystems for the last 50 years. The outcome of the different innovation policies for producing high yield/low input and sustainable products was measured by the parameters: yield, pesticide use and germplasm diversity.

These two agroecosystems make among the best possible matches. However, they differ in the adoption of GM crops and the management practices associated with GM crops. Rapeseed and maize (as well as soybeans and cotton) are effectively only GM in North America and effectively only conventional in Western Europe, and wheat is non-GM in both regions.

Innovation policies that are compatible with GM, as indicated by early and large adopters of GM-led biotechnology packages in one agroecosystem but not the other, do not appear to be compatible with fostering other kinds of science-based agricultural alternatives. For example, in the earliest adopting and largest adopter of GM, the United States, there is evidence of a contraction in farmer choices in seed types and no evidence of an increase in genetic diversity under the innovation rules where GM prospers. That trend is different for Europe (see: Hilbeck, A., Lebrecht, T., Vogel, R., Heinemann, J.A. and Binimelis, R. Farmer’s choice of seeds in four EU countries under different levels of GM crop adoption. Environmental Sciences Europe 2013, 25:12.) 

Our most significant findings were that:

  • GM cropping systems have not contributed to yield gains, are not necessary for yield gains, and appear to be eroding yields compared to the equally modern agroecosystem of Western Europe. This may be due in part to technology choices beyond GM plants themselves, because even non-GM wheat yield improvements in the US are poor in comparison to Europe.
  • Herbicide reductions can be achieved in European countries that do not adopt GM crops. In contrast, use is rising in the US, the major adopter of GM crops. Chemical insecticide use is decreasing in both agroecosystems, but more more profoundly in France (also Germany and Switzerland) that do not use GM plants and only modestly in the US. Total insecticide use is not decreased in the US when insecticidal plants are included in total insecticide use.

The agricultural system of Western Europe appears to be reducing chemical inputs and thus is becoming more sustainable than the US, without reducing germplasm diversity or sacrificing yield gains.

T&F: How important is your paper in influencing future research in the field?

JH: The paper is only a few weeks old, so it is hard to gauge. One paper will likely have little influence. However, we hope that this paper will be counted along with the findings of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development report and the growing number of reports of the achievements in agroecological agriculture (some of which we cite and apologies to the many we could not!) to build some consensus on a roadmap for agriculture of the future. That roadmap is sorely needed and long overdue.

T&F: The paper has become very popular in an extremely short space of time. With such publicity, how do you envisage this paper making an impact on the agriculture industry?

JH: While indeed it has become the most downloaded, I only hope that it is also being read! The attention this paper is getting is gratifying. I am glad to know that at least some things I do as a research scientist can have broad relevance to society and be timely. Will it cause change? Scientists are increasingly aware that publishing papers is not enough to make their work relevant to policy and decision makers. The scale of the uptake of this paper gives me some cautious hope that among the downloaders and the readers will be those who will make a difference in converting the agriculture we do now to the one we need for the future. These may be active citizens, civil society leaders, the many relevant industries or governments.

T&F: The high readership figures of your article can, in part, be attributed to the paper being published Open Access. Why did you opt to publish your research in this way?

JH: For several reasons. First, I would like the results of the science paid for by the public to be freely available whenever I can manage that outcome. The cost of accessing most of the primary scientific literature makes it only available at scale to those of us lucky enough to work at a place like a university or big company. This can also be a barrier for politicians, scientists and regulatory officials in poorer countries. Second, this paper was not so technical that only extreme specialists could read it. So we thought that the up-front costs of making it open access would be justified.

T&F: Finally, what attracted you to publish the article in International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability?

JH: This is my first article in a specialist agricultural journal. I really didn’t know where to go with this work. So I did some searches and looked at where papers in my bibliography were published. This journal kept coming up. Ultimately, the most important factor was the chief editor (Jules Pretty). I was very familiar with his work and I assumed that if this journal was important enough to him to edit it, then I should at least try to get published by it.