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Saving People and Wild Lands with Global Modern Agriculture

by Dennis T. Avery, Director of the Hudson Institute

What if a far-sighted UN Environmental Commission in 1947 had asked a panel of world farming experts to develop a model world agriculture designed to enhance consumer safety and environmental sustainability rather than profits? What would that safe and environmental ideal agriculture looks like today? How would it differ from today's profit oriented farming? What more would it do to protect the public? How would it preserve the natural resources, wildlife species, ecosystems and the quality of life?

The answer: the best possible agriculture for people and the environment would look amazingly like modern, high-yield, technologically-supported farming - only more so.

  • We need still more technology in our food safety regime. Namely, irradiation to deal with the new risk of E. coli 0157:H7, and to reduce our other long-standing risks from food-borne bacteria and more research on our new understanding that a tiny thing called a prion causes "mad-cow disease"-and that it may be transmissible to humans.
  • We need to extend modern farming technology to Africa so that continent can protect its unique wild species from habitat loss as its population redoubles.
  • We urgently need freer trade in farm products, so Asia will not be tempted to feed its dense and newly affluent populations by clearing tropical forests for low-yield crops.
However, the achievements of the last 50 years are truly remarkable - especially considering the attempts by the environmental movements to discredit high-yield farmers.

Modern farming must get environmental credit for three major contributions:

  1. The higher yields achieved with modern plant breeding, fertilizers and pest control;
  2. The improved efficiency of meat production due to modern veterinary medicine, lower animal disease and death rates, improved feed conversion ratios due to more complete nutrition, and confinement meat production which takes less land and makes better use of the animal wastes;
  3. The impact of modern food processing both in cutting post-harvest losses and in allowing food to be produced where its yields are higher rather than where the consumer happens to be living.
In total, modern high-yield farming is probably saving close to 20 million square miles of wildlands for nature.

Modern high-yield agriculture is producing the safest food in world history.

Modern high-yield agriculture has given today's consumer the highest level of food safety the world has ever seen. Populations served by modern agriculture are living longer than any people have ever lived. The rate of non-smoking cancer deaths has declined 16 percent in America since 1950, the heyday of pesticides. Stomach cancer, in particular, has been reduced by three-fourths - in part because pesticides are helping to protect consumers from toxins that would otherwise be produced by fungi infecting in our crop fields and food storage.

Modern agriculture has also lowered the cost of humanity's strongest weapon against cancer - fruits and vegetables. Eating five fruits and vegetables per day cuts our total cancer risk in half - whether the produce is grown organically or with chemicals. Today's farmers, supported by chemists, plant breeders, agronomists, food processors and refrigerated transport, provide those fruits and vegetables at lower cost, more attractively presented, more days of the year, than ever before in history.

Modern high-yield agriculture also permits people to get the vital amino acids that they cannot synthesize themselves from meat, milk and eggs - without losing millions more square miles of wildlife habitat to pastures and feed crops.

Our environmentally ideal agriculture uses modern medicines to keep livestock and poultry healthy and productive. It also develops the best livestock and poultry genetics. Both increase feed conversion efficiency.

Veterinary medicines relieve or eliminate needless suffering among domestic animals and poultry. (Very few human parents brag that they raise their children with vaccines or medications to deal with life's inevitable pests and diseases).

Secondly, the medicines lower poultry and livestock death rates. Otherwise, farmers would have to start with at least 50 percent more birds and animals to produce today's meat, milk, and eggs. That would mean far higher feed tonnage, requiring far more land, in addition to needless animal suffering.

The medicines are also critical in modern confinement meat production. If the world expands from the current 1 billion sows to the expected 3 billion sows to supply a peak world population of 8.5 billion people in 2035-outdoors-it would take 8million square miles of land just for the additional hog pasture. We will also expand from about 13 billion chickens to 50 billion. If the United States produced its poultry today on free range, the "chicken pasture" would require all of the crop land in the state of Pennsylvania.

Researchers at Cornell University have calculated that if New York State produced milk today the way that it did in 1960, the state would need an additional 19 million acres to produce the current supply. That is about nine times the land area of New York City.1

Equally bad, the wastes from all these outdoor hogs and chickens would wash into the nearest streams with every storm, representing a huge pollution problem rather than the production of organic crop fertilizer.

Saving Wildlife with Free Farm Trade

The world needs to use its best and safest cropland to meet the 21st century food challenge. That will take the fewest acres, displace the fewest wild species and cause the least erosion. But the world's good farmland is inequitably distributed to supply the food needs of many countries in the 21st century. North America and Europe both have more than their share of the world's best and safest farmland for the decades ahead.

The critical region is Asia, which will have eight times as many people per acre of cropland as North America, and which is already using its cropland far more intensively than any other part of the world. If today's pervasive farm trade barriers persist, they will try to maintain national food self-sufficiency to placate big farm populations made restless by urban income gains.

China is the most vivid case in point: its population is nearly stabilized, but its meat consumption is rising by 4 million tons per year. Chinese farmers are already using high-yield seed and double or triple-higher yields-but it also needs to consider the economic and environmental benefits of importing part of its diet improvement from high-yield farmer with export potential, such as the U.S., Argentina, France, Brazil, Poland and Turkey.

Research is the most important investment the world can make in the future of the global environment.

Our environmentally ideal agriculture would pursue agricultural research more aggressively than we are doing today, because the world is beginning its biggest-ever surge in food demand. It often takes decades to develop and extend key new technologies. This is public investment in science to save wildlands from the plow.

Biotechnology must be high among the research priorities, for its potential environmental benefits. Nothing else on our existing shelf of knowledge promises so much for future crop and livestock yields increased, wildlife habitat saved, and pollution avoided. Since no plant or livestock genetics are immune from pest evolution, our environmentally-ideal agriculture must use genetics and chemistry to keep crop and livestock varieties evolving faster than the pests can adapt. That means continuing to develop new pesticides and pest control strategies. Sustainability lies in the research process, not the individual genetic strains or chemical. As an example, an international research consortium has recently created a genetic block against a new strain of barley striped rust that has been moving northward from Columbia. The researchers used both standard plant breeding and biotechnology to create a resistance in 3-4 years that would have taken 20 to 30 years with traditional plant breeding, and perhaps hundreds of year with farmer-saved seed.

Modern high-yield agriculture not only leaves more land for nature, but also leaves the land with the greatest biodiversity.

If the world has 30 million wildlife species, more than 25 million of them are in the tropical forests. Other biodiversity "hot spots" include coastal wetlands, inland swamps, mountain microclimates and other places we shouldn't farm. Researchers have discovered more wild species in three square kilometers of the Peruvian Amazon than we have found in the whole of North America.2

Ecologist Michael Huston points out in his book Biological diversity that the poorest lands have always harboured the greatest variety of wildlife species, all over the word.3 Good quality land typically has thriving populations of a few wild species. In rain forests and swamps, the tough conditions force wildlife into narrow niches - producing lots of species.

Huston notes that America cleared about 100,000 square miles of wild forest in Ohio and Indiana during the 19th century and apparently lost no wildlife species. Neither Ohio nor Indiana today has any unique native plant species. In contrast, Florida had 385, Texas 389 and California 1517-because those states: Have warmer climates and lots of poor quality land.

Is High-Yield Agriculture Sustainable?

The first and foremost issue of agricultural sustainability is preventing the plow-down of the world's remaining wildlands for low-yield food production.

Agriculture dominates the world's land use. Cities take only 1.4 percent of the earth's land area, and will occupy less than 4 percent in 2030.4 Agriculture (with pastures) takes about one-third of the land area, and its high yields have kept another third for forests-on the land left over we have "enough" food.

We must remember that land is the scarcest natural resource of all, and high-yield farming is how we conserve it.

The world's population today is 80 percent bigger than in 1960. The environmental wonder of the 20th Century is that today's farmers are feeding better diets to almost twice as many people from virtually the same cropland base. We used 1,394 million hectares of land for crops in 1960-and only 1,441 million hectares in 1992 to get twice the grain and oilseeds.5-6

In addition, the average Third World citizen is getting 28 percent more calories, including 59 percent more vegetable oil (twice the resource cost of cereal calories) and 50 percent more animal calories (three times the resource cost of cereals).7

The world's population is likely to re-stabilize at roughly 9 billion people, about the year 2040.8 Most of these people will be affluent, demanding much more meat and milk, along with more fruits, vegetables and cotton. Thus, the world's agricultural output must increase by at least 250 percent, and may need to triple.9

Moral concerns aside, famine is not an option for saving the environment. Poor people in the newly emerging countries are clearly willing to chop down forests and kill wildlife to get adequate calories-or even to get high-quality protein.

  • India is trying to produce its own milk, even though it has to steal one-third of its dairy fodder from the forests and another third in the form of its crop residues from its soil tilth.
  • Indonesia is clearing tropical forest to grow low-yielding soybeans for chicken feed.
If the world shifted to organic farming tomorrow, it would almost immediately have to clear 5 to 6 million square miles of forest for green manure crops and organic nitrogen. Then, since the evidence is strong that organic yields are substantially lower, we would have to plow additional wildlands to make up for the low yields.

The second most serious threat to arming sustainability is the ancient enemy, soil erosion.

High-yield farming is the soil-safest agriculture mankind has ever developed, far surpassing organic farming in its broad-gauge ability to prevent erosion, improve soil tilth and quality, and prevent both runoff and erosion from fields.

  • When we tripled the yields on the world's best and safest cropland over the past 35 years, we cut the erosion per ton of the food produced by at least two-thirds. (We also avoided extending farming to more highly erodable land, cutting erosion per ton still further).
  • Today, conservation tillage systems are cutting those already-lowered erosion rates by another 65 to 95 percent, with chemicals. We are controlling weeds with herbicides rather than with "bare-earth" farming systems like plowing and fallow.
  • These new conservation-farming systems also deliver more soil tilth, more earthworms and more soil bacteria.
  • Conservation tillage is already being used on hundreds of millions of acres of land in Canada, the U.S., Western Europe, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, and even in Africa. It is probably a key to sustainable farming for most of the world.
Pesticides and Sustainability

Pesticides are one of the most hotly debated farm sustainability issues. Fortunately, the assertions that farm chemicals damage the environment and reduce long-term sustainability is refuted by the ever-increasing yields on our fields. Pest damage worldwide has increased dramatically despite pesticide use-but that is mainly a factor of redoubled production. How high would crop and livestock losses have mounted without the pesticides? Pest resistance is a sustainability issue, but we can develop new pest resistance in crops and livestock, pesticides with new modes of action, and prudent ways to slow the development of resistance.

The positive impacts of pesticides on human health are huge. Their potential risks are tiny.

I recently debated a Greenpeace staffer, who declared angrily that "Captan causes cancer". I noted that Captan is about one ten-millionth as carcinogenic as safe drinking water- and asked how much wildlife Greenpeace is willing to plow down for cancer risks so small. The reality is that the natural chemicals in our foods-such as limonene in orange juice and caffeic acid in most green vegetables-carry 10,000 times as much cancer risk as the pesticide residues.

Our cancers today are the result of living longer, smoking, fat in our diets, alcohol, AIDS and sun-tanning. (Better detection has created the appearance of increase in breast and prostrate cancers.) One person in four dies of cancer in the First World because we have eliminated most other causes of death.

The impacts of farm chemicals on wildlife are almost entirely beneficial.

Today's highly specific, low-volume, and short-lived pesticides do not "wreck havoc" on the wildlife. The newest compounds are no more toxic than aspirin or table salt, a couple of ounces treats a whole hectare, and the compound has biodegraded within weeks. The safety of the modern pesticide is so great that eco-activists today have been reduced to lumping pesticides with PCBs (not used as pesticides) and DDT (banned for decades) and such toxic heavy metals as lead and mercury-to achieve guilt by association. This is no more valid than lumping garter snakes with cobras.

Now that the public is learning the real causes of cancer, the eco-zealots are trying a new scare tactic: endocrine disruption. But they base their scare story heavily on a report that male sperm counts around the world have declined by half since 1950. Then it turned out that the study has assumed male sperm counts were the same around the world. In reality, the men of New York--heavily represented in fertility studies-have sperm counts twice as high as elsewhere (for reasons unknown). With the New York factor eliminated there is no decline in male sperm count.

The endocrine disruption theory got a boost from Tulane University, which announced it had found a huge synergy in endocrine disruption - 1600-fold increase-when two pesticides were tested together. The study created pandemonium among scientists and politicians-until it had to be withdrawn because neither Tulane nor any other research team could replicate the results. (Only after it was withdrawn did readers of the Detroit News learn that Tulane had accepted a grant from the W. alton Jones Foundation-which sponsored the major scare book on endocrine disruption, Our Stolen Future.)

What About Organic and alternative Agriculture?

Data from eight countries endorse the experience of a British farm manager who told me his 50,000-acre farm is "lucky to get half as much yield" from its organic fields as from its chemically supported crops.10

Worse, the world lacks the organic nitrogen to support current crop output organically, let along tripling it for the future. The U.S. apparently has less than one-third of the organic nitrogen that would be needed today.11 Targeting all of America's sewage sludge for farm use would make up for only 2 percent of the current chemical nitrogen being used, even as it carried risks from pathogens and heavy metals.12 The rest of the world has less organic nitrogen per capita than America.

The only realistic way to let huge increases in organic N? clear more forests to grow lots more clover, trading wildlife for legumes.

Low-input farming is either organic farming gone wrong, or high-tech farming without enough confidence to conserve much wildlife.

Still Short of Environmental Perfection.

Of course there are still environmental shortcomings in modern high-yield agriculture: for example, we need still more effective pesticides that are even safer for applicators. We need more attention to soil compaction and preserving water quality.

The panel of experts might even have avoided some of high-yield farming's real-world environmental mistakes. They would not have set high price supports to tempt hi-tech farmers into maximum yields that aggravated pollution and erosion. They would have encouraged more crop rotation, and a wider range of crops, than the subsidy structures have done. They would have priced irrigation water at its real cost, permitting the irrigation of much larger acreages with far less waterlogging and salinization.

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 King Orchards Copyright 2003 Apple Journal
updated- February 14th, 2003
 Apple Journal
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