America has had a proud two centuries of world leadership in high-yield agricultural research and technology. It stretches back to George Washington’s farming experiments and Abraham Lincoln signing the Morrill Act to create the land-grant colleges and agricultural experiment stations. It includes the hybrid seeds, mechanization, and pesticides that produce ample American ample food-while retaining more forest than we had in 1900 with one-fourth today’s population.
America’s agricultural research leadership fostered the high-yield Green Revolution in the Third World. That Green Revolution saved billions of people from starving in Asia and Latin America, and preserved huge amounts of wildlands from being cleared for low-yield crops. My peer-reviewed estimate is that with 1950s crop yields, the world would have needed another 12 million square miles of cropland to produce the 1992 food supply. (If we factor in today’s larger demand and the land saved by high-efficiency confinement livestock, modern farming may well be saving wildlands equal to the world’s total forest area-about 16 million square miles.)
The American tradition of high-yield agricultural research lay behind this country’s recent world-leading investments in agricultural biotechnology, both public and private. Such biotech investments were once the best hope that the world could triple crop yields again in the next 40 years, to feed a peak population of 8 to 9 billion affluent people and their pets without clearing the world’s remaining wildlands. (We’re already farming half the land on the planet not covered by deserts and glaciers.)
America’s agricultural leadership should be one of this country’s proudest achievements.
The stark reality, however, is that this proud tradition may be ending now, just as the world is facing its biggest agricultural challenge of all time.
America’s high-yield agriculture no longer has the support and confidence of the urbanites that make up 95 percent of this country’s voters. In this affluent, risk-averse, farming-ignorant era, American farmers need an operating permit from the city folks-and they don’t have it.
Well-fed urban Americans are convinced that modern, high-yield agriculture is too risky to their health and the environment. They want farmers regulated back into the safety of low-yield organic production. After all, America has plenty of food and farmland. We don’t need to spray pesticides that “might someday be linked to cancer.” We don’t need even the perception of wastes from factory farms spewed into our rivers.
U.S. agriculture cannot get public approval for biotechnology, and every other element of high-yield agriculture is under regulatory threat as well. A vocal minority overwhelms the uncaring majority, and drives regulators toward more and more constraints on pesticides, confinement feeding, Diesel fuel, dust, water, and even plant food.
In 1958, I wrote a paper for a political science class at Wisconsin on the agricultural research and extension system. The professor criticized me for not listing the system’s opponents. I said, “Professor, there aren’t any.” In 1958, that was almost literally true. But that was long ago.
Recently, a consortium of foundations, The Collaborative for Health and the Environmnent, with total assets of $3.5 billion has reportedly begun talking of a ten-year campaign to convince medical students that pesticides must be banned. Their hope is that these impressionable students will ultimately develop into a condemning majority within the medical profession.
In the last decade, I’ve come to understand much more clearly how China in the 12th century and Japan in the 17th century could have closed their borders and frozen their technology levels. In both countries, the ruling class began to feel trade and technology getting beyond their control. Rather than let commoners run amuck with dangerous ideas about gunpowder and ships’ compasses,the elites shut everything down.
We’re seeing much the same sort of syndrome in Europe today, with the European elites putting up the “precautionary principle” as their response to “overpopulation,” immigration, urban sprawl, fast-food restaurants, and other discomforting trends. American elites are very much tempted to follow in their path.
Agricultural research and technology cannot survive the precautionary principle. No technology can prove the negative of doing no harm, ever, to any person or thing in the environment. Not electricity, not antibiotics, not fertilizer.
North Carolina’s Theft of Farmers’ Rights
Today, the state of North Carolina maintains a moratorium on new confinement hog houses that has been in place since 1997. The public reason is that factory hog farms threatened the water quality in local streams and rivers. However, the state has never released any water quality data supporting the claims of river pollution from well-run (and state-regulated) confinement hog farms.
Outdoor hog farms, as we all know, let their wastes wash into the nearest stream with every storm event. But confinement hog farms are managed essentially on a zero-discharge basis. There should be no stream pollution.
For more than a decade, however, activists have charged huge pollution levels from confinement hogs.A North Carolina State scientist, Dr. Joanne Burkholder, claimed that the hog manure fostered “the cells from hell,” fish-toxic dinoflagellates called Pfiesteria. Bobby Kennedy Jr. called confinement hogs a bigger threat than Osama Bin Laden.
Finally, this year, the Cape Fear River Assembly asked if our Center could do an objective analysis of the state’s water quality data. We agreed; but we had to threaten legal action before the state would release the water data. The pattern from the data was very clear. The quality of the rivers is good and not declining. (The primary “hog river,” the Black, is rated an outstanding resource water.) The nutrient levels in the North Carolina “hog rivers” are just about what they were 15 years ago before the hog expansion. The nutrient spikes in the rivers are not downstream from the hog farms, but immediately downstream from the sewage treatment plants.
For ten years or more, the government of North Carolina has been living a lie to the farmers in its poorest counties. These farmers weren’t able to grow affluence from cotton, tobacco, or peanuts. Until the hog expansion, they had to move to the cities to make money. Hogs have moved them up to the median income for all North Carolina counties.
But the city folks don’t like hogs in their state, even when they’re out of sight and beyond olfactory range. The city newspapers wrote alarmingly about the hog farms. In response to perceived voter opinion, the politicians decided to stop hog expansion. And for ten years, no one in the North Carolina governmental structure has been willing to tell the truth-that the confinement hog farms are fine for the environment, good for the state’s economy, and an asset to a bacon-loving nation. (Other academic researchers have been unable to replicate Dr. Burkholder’s toxic Pfiesteria, with or without hog manure.)
Are Farmers Killing the Salmon in the Pacific Northwest?
Out on the West Coast, for decades farmers have been accused of causing the decline of the region’s fabulous salmon runs. The myth is that farmers demanded dams to irrigate their crops; the crops stole the salmon’s river water while the dams and sediment from the crops stifled the salmon’s reproduction.
Today, seventeen eco-groups are suing to breach four federal dams on the Snake River, which they say are direct salmon-killers. This spring, a federal judge rejected a federal salmon rescue plan because it did not include breaching the dams.
Amid the debate, no one seems to notice that the salmon are recovering on their own. I predicted this three years ago. The salmon run last year was the biggest in a decade. The reason? There’s a 25-year cycle in Pacific salmon. For 25 years, Oregon and Washington have lots of salmon-while the salmon canneries in the Gulf of Alaska don’t. Then the cycle reverses, as it did in 1977. For the last 25 years, the Alaskan fishermen have had lots of salmon, but now Oregon and Washington’s turn.
Fishermen have known about this remarkable 25-year cycle for a century. Now, even the academics are beginning to write learned papers about “co-variance” between the Alaskan and Oregon fisheries, and the salmon’s linkage to the huge Pacific Decadal Oscillation.
Did the Sierra Club know about the 25-year cycle before the suits were filed and not tell us? Or just not know?
The Mild, Unstoppable Global Warming That Will Be
Virtually all of the warming that’s occurred in the past 120 years occurred before 1940, before much greenhouse gas was emitted by human industries and autos. Thereafter, the climate stubbornly refused to warm for 40 years, despite huge greenhouse emissions.
The world’s known temperature history includes a Medieval Warming of perhaps 3 degrees Fahrenheit (950 to1300 AD), followed by the much-colder Little Ice Age, from 1300 to 1850 AD. History also tells us about a Roman Warming, from 200 BC to 400 AD, followed by an Ice Age from 400 to 950 AD. The world has been moderately warming and cooling for as far back in history as we have records.
Last year, an elegant and careful analysis of iceberg debris from the floor of the North Atlantic showed that the world has had nine moderate global warmings and nine global coolings in the last 12,000 years-coinciding exactly with a known cycle in the magnetic activity of the sun. By this analysis, we are about 150 years into a mild, natural, global warming that will last another 500 years. The cycle will return us to what history calls the Medieval Climate Optimum-the finest weather humanity can remember.
The Great Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone Syndrome
During the Clinton Administration, a White House task force was all set to impose a 30 percent cut in farmers’ fertilizer use on half a billion square miles of the American heartland between the Appalachians and the Rockies- the most productive agricultural region in the world. They were willing to order this massive land-use change on the basis of 15 years of data from a single source: one annual small-boat voyage by a Louisiana scientist, Dr. Nancy Rabelais, to measure the low-oxygen zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River.
Never mind that virtually all the nutrients for the Gulf of Mexico’s rich marine come down the Mississippi, and no one knows how much nitrogen the Gulf fish need. Or, that there are hypoxic zones at the mouths of some 40 major world rivers. (The laws of biology and physics dictate it.)
Never mind that huge loads of nutrients came down the Mississippi before Columbus, from 60 million bison, 100 million antelope, billions of birds, and trillions of grasshoppers all munching and defecating on the grasses of the Great Plains.
Never mind that even Rabelais’ own data show the size of the hypoxic zone in the Gulf varying primarily with the river’s flow. It nearly disappeared in the 1988 drought year, and surged in size for three years after 1993′s “flood of the century.”
Never mind that nitrogen fertilizer use on Midwest farms plateaued two decades ago while corn yields have since risen 20 percent. That means more of the fertilizer is being harvested as corn, leaving less to leach into the river. More of the region’s poultry and livestock are being raised indoors, and their wastes applied as organic fertilizer in zero-discharge management. Where would the N come from to drive an expanding “dead zone” at the mouth of the Mississippi?
Even the Clinton White House Task Force could find no ecological or economic damage to the Gulf-but they were willing to force a huge constraint on modern farming because we’ve let modern farming be perceived as a problem in itself.
The Organic Illusion
Virtually every urban resident in the First World today has widespread praise for organic food and organic farming. Rachel Carson’s misinforming book, Silent Spring, published in 1962, played on our fears of lurking, man-made carcinogens. But in the intervening years, non-smokers’ cancer rates have trended down where pesticides have been used.
In fact, the British Advertising Standards Authority has forbidden the organic industry to make any claims about better health or better nutrition for organic foods. In the movement’s 60 years, it has never been able to provide any evidence of such benefits.
The U.S. media ignored the news when the head of the Foodborne Diseases branch of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the International Federation of Food Technologists both warned publicly that organic food is more likely to carry dangerous pathogens such as salmonella and E.coli O157 since it is commonly fertilized with animal manure. (Composting is an erratic process not guaranteed to consistently protect consumers from such bacteria.)
The real problem with organic farming, however, is the huge global shortage of organic nitrogen. The world has less than one-third of the organic N to produce today’s crops, let alone tripling food output for 2050.
A high-level technical committee appointed by the Danish government reported in 1999 that all-organic farming would cut Danish food production by 47 percent. Under an organic mandate, most of Denmark’s farmland would be planted to forage crops, to feed the cattle to provide the millions of tons of manure for crop nitrogen. Denmark would become a “manure landscape,” with the forage hauled to cattle feedlots, and then the manure hauled back out to be spread thickly over the countryside.
Dr. Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba (author of Feeding the World: the 21st Century Challenge, MIT Press, 2001) estimates that the United States would need the manure from another 900 million to one billion cattle, at perhaps three acres of forage per beast. Since the United States has only 2.1 billion acres in its lower 48 states, America would have room for its cities and cattle forage, but no room for food production, forests, or Yellowstone National Park.
Yet the New York Times, the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and a wide range of other urban “thought leaders” are falling over themselves to recommend organic farming. It vividly demonstrates the agricultural ignorance of today’s urban elite.
Trade and the Biggest Agricultural Challenge in History
In December 1999, activists took over the streets of Seattle to protest world trade. They demanded, among other things, that everyone have the “right” to produce their own food.
The world’s good farmland, however, is not well distributed to meet the challenge of feeding 9 billon affluent people and their pets in 2050. China, for example, has 20 percent of the world’s population, but only 7 percent of the world’s arable land, and a similarly tiny percentage of its water. Such densely populated tropical countries as Indonesia and Bangladesh, and such arid countries as Egypt and Morocco will have severe difficulty providing high-quality diets to their 2050 populations from their own farms.
Meanwhile, in many countries where high-yield agriculture has been especially successful, farmers are able to produce more food than their consumers want. The marriage made in economic and environmental heaven is between the unmet demand for high-quality diets in densely populated Asian countries and the surplus productivity of North America, South America, and Europe.
Yet, while the world trade organization helped cut the average nonfarm tariff from 40 percent to 4 percent since 1947, the average farm product tariff is still more than 60 percent. Agricultural trade has been stifled by more than $300 billon per year in rich-country farm subsidies that would be essentially unnecessary if we had free trade.
The eco-groups and “social justice” groups claim to be blocking farm trade to save small family and traditional farms from corporate monopolies. But most of Europe’s peasant farmers have already moved to the cities, and the American family farm has grown larger to match rising urban incomes. The real impact of the Luddites is to block the changes in global farming patterns that are urgently needed to protect the very wildlife they claim to revere.
Rich Countries Are Destroying the Environment – Or Are They?
One of the eco-movement’s biggest falsehoods is that affluent nations are the enemies of environmental conservation.
Jared Diamond notes in his Pulitzer-winning book, Guns, Germs and Steel, that when Stone Age hunters reached North America, they wiped out more than 40 of its large, huntable mammal species in a historian’s eyeblink. Similar surges of extinctions occurred when skilled hunters reached Australia and New Guinea.
Today, in places like Southern Africa and Southeast Asia, the world’s remaining hunter-gatherers are peddling supposedly aphrodisiac rhinoceros horn and “bushmeat” from endangered gorillas and rare civet cats-harvested with AK-47s.
The International Conservation Union (ICUN) warns that more than one billion people are trying support families in the world’s biodiversity hotspots with hunting and low-yield slash-and-burn farming. Mexico is losing three million acres of forest per year to the expansion of peasant farming. More than half of the forestland cleared in Honduras in recent decades has been “steepland,” with a slope of more than 30 degrees; every few years, a hurricane washes the steeplands into the valleys.
Yet the eco-movement presents hunter-gatherers and peasant farmers as the guardians of the world’s environmental future.
Most of the Third World is already in the most polluting phase of industrialization- burning huge amounts of coal to smelt massive amounts of iron, cooking food with wood from trees that aren’t replanted and caring too little about water pollution.
But there is hope for both humanity and Nature, thanks primarily to the affluence generated by knowledge, technology, and trade. A World Bank staff team has documented a bell-shaped curve in environmental protection. In the early years of industrialization, forests die and pollution surges. Rising populations (due to lower death rates) and higher incomes (better diets) demand more farmland. But when per capita incomes reach a level of $5,000 to $8,000 (Brazil and Malaysia now) a different set of factors take over. People are already well-fed and birth rates fall rapidly. With better inputs and management, crop yields rise, so no additional land is needed for food. Diesel fuel substitutes for firewood, even as forests are replanted. Affluent people want cleaner air and are willing and able to pay for it. They begin to demand clean rivers, for both health and aesthetics.
Dasgupta et al. find no hordes of high-pollution industries fleeing to unregulated Third World countries. (Such labor-intensive industries as garments, shoes, and computer services are not heavily polluting.)
Dr. Bjorn Lomborg’s widely publicized book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, has been fiercely condemned by eco-groups, but they have not been able to shake his key point: An objective analysis of the world’s available eco-data shows virtually all of the First World environmental trends are virtuous.
Biotechnology and the Biggest Agricultural Challenge in History
One of the most serious endemic problems for Africa farmers is a parasitic weed called witchweed. It invades Africa’s staple grain crops, corn, and sorghum, through their roots, so weeding doesn’t help. The farmers don’t even know witchweed is there- until their cornstalks sprout bright-colored flowers instead of grain. Witchweed can take half, or all, of a small farmer’s corn crop. But if herbicide-tolerant biotech corn is soaked in a systemic herbicide before planting, the witchweed invading the sprouting corn plant may killed internally.
This one off-the-shelf adaptation of a biotech transformation could add millions of tons to Africa’s annual grain production. The cost of the biotech corn seed would be low, and the amount of systemic herbicide needed to soak the seeds would be minimal. This one is waiting permission for field trials.
But, will African countries dare to permit biotech corn in their fields? Last year, the activists took their biotech scare campaign to drought-stricken southern Africa, and convinced the governments of some starving countries to ban the U.S. corn offered as food aid. The president of Zambia said he’d been told it was “poison.” Other African politicians feared that they would lose European export opportunities-and even European aid-if they permitted biotech crops to be grown or eaten.
Yet current food production and population trends would drive Africa to clear a Texas worth of its wildlands over the next 20 years, and still leave 200 million malnourished Africans.
Biotech firms have lost $30 billion in equity since the activists launched their biotech scare campaign. Public support for biotech crop research has been decimated. Europe is still banning the import of any biotech products, warning export farmers not to plant the biotech seeds. Any hope that biotech can lead us to re-tripled crop yields, eliminating hunger, and saving wildlands, is on hold.
Why do They Hate Farmers?
Actually, city folks don’t hate farmers. They just don’t understand farming. Our cities’ agricultural ignorance has gotten steadily worse as fewer of us grow up on farms, and modern agriculture transforms itself far beyond the postcard-friendly, traditional red-barn-and-white-fence pattern of the 19th century farm.
All today’s urban consumers know about farming is what they’ve been told by farmers and activists. Farmers tell them there’s a food surplus and that farm prices are too low. The activists tell them we should have organic farming to protect the environment. The city folks figure we can solve both problems with low-yield organic farming.
Professional agriculturists have never told the urban public anything coherent and consistent. We criticize the activists for telling falsehoods-but we don’t tell the public about our core motives: making sure that all the little kids in the world get high-quality nutrition while protecting the wildlands from expanded low-yield farming.
What Can Agriculturists Do?
In the beginning of the eco-attacks, agriculturists assumed that the eco-groups had done their homework and were focused on real problems in agriculture. Our response was to apologize. Now, we know that some eco-groups put their agenda before reality.
Agriculturists need to become more proactive. While giving eco-groups full credit for their conservation intent, agriculturists need to aggressively make the case that high-yield farming is the greatest humanitarian triumph in history; and, at the same time, mankind’s greatest environmental achievement. We must urgently remind the public of the billions of people not malnourished, millions of kids not starved, millions of pets well-fed, and millions of square miles of wildlands not plowed.
It may not be fair that agriculturists should have to take on this huge public service task. We aren’t really trained or equipped for it; and, we have crops to grow, livestock to feed and agribusinesses to run.
But the world has never before faced such levels of consumer ignorance on farming. Or the massive, amply-funded, media-connected phenomenon of non-governmental organizations completely lacking the checks and balances we put on governments, businesses, and academics.
If agriculturists-including all of the professional societies, all of the farm groups-and all of the companies do not become far more proactive, then high-yield agriculture in America will be truly lost.
Confronting the Organic Icon
High-yield agriculturists also need to ensure that organic food and farming is presented accurately to the urban public. We need to do this, not because of organic’s tiny fraction of the food market is important, nor because high-yield farmers are jealous of the organic price premiums. We need to confront the organic myths because organic food has been turned into an icon for both the public and its government regulators at the federal, state, and even local level.
The activists use the organic icon to promise not only “adequate” food, but better food even as they undercut the very basis of current world food output. They say organic food will be full to bursting with richer nutrients, and will bring the pink glow of health to our indoor children’s cheeks. It will disarm the dreadful, lurking cancer epidemic. And of course, it’s kinder to the environment, so we’ll have more butterflies and birds flitting through the fields. One shopper even told ABC-TV that her kids behaved better when she fed them organic food!
The activists’ real, oft-stated goal, is a world with fewer and less-materialist humans, living far lower on the food chain. When they talk about “adequate” food from organic farming, the diet may resemble the meager Cuban diet currently being produced mostly with organic farming-for the lucky two billion chosen to continue living on the planet.
The organic icon has already proven that it has the power to deny high-yield agriculture’s inputs and farming systems. Even where the farming changes reduce human food security and threaten to clear more farmland. (It might take the land area of Pennsylvania to put all our hogs outdoors, and the land area of New Jersey to put the chickens outdoors, but the city folks won’t believe it until the forest trees are actually being cut.)
The clincher on the organic sales pitch has always been fear: The lurking cancer threat of pesticide residues, key nutrients lost, massive soil erosion, lack of sustainability. None of these assertions is true, but the media cut scaremongers a lot of slack, and the assertions are repeated over and over.
Misrepresentation: Synthetic fertilizer poisons soils. The whole organic movement began with the falsehood that synthetic fertilizer (actually, natural nitrogen captured from the air through an industrial process) would poison the soil. No such soil poisoning has been documented. In fact, some of the plots at Britain’s famed Rothamsted experiment station have gotten inorganic fertilizers for more than 150 years with rising yields.
Misrepresentation: Pesticides cause cancer: The American Cancer Society says, “. . . the very low concentrations [of pesticides] found in some foods have not been associated with increased cancer risk. In fact, people who eat more fruits and vegetables, which may be contaminated with trace amounts of pesticides, generally have lower cancer risks than people who eat few fruits and vegetables.” When activists assert that pesticides are “linked to cancer,” they mean that high doses of the chemicals cause tumors in rats. So does over-feeding, and we overfeed the rats to maximize dosage. At high doses, half of everything tested, natural and man-made, causes tumors in rats.
Misrepresentation: Organic is better for the environment. If all-organic farming required the world to give up nitrogen fertilizer, and it took the manure from another 7 to 8 billion cattle to replace it, every bit of forest and wild meadow on the planet would have to be converted to cattle pasture. That hardly seems “better for the environment.”
Is it time for a congressional hearing on the claims and merits of organic food and farming?
We have an official new U.S. Department of Agriculture Organic Seal. When Secretary of Agriculture Glickman announced the organic standards, he said, “Organic is about how it is produced. Just because something is labeled as organic does not mean it is superior, safer or healthier than conventional food.”
The National Food processors Association asked the USDA to require that the organic labels include a statement saying the products are no more safe or nutritious than conventional foods. Is such a disclaimer still needed to prevent the seal from misleading consumers? About two-thirds of U.S. consumers in polls say the USDA organic seal means organic is better.
Britain’s No-Nonsense Organic Advertising
You’ll be interested in some of the British Advertising Standards Authority’s recent rulings on organic:
Claim: “Organic. As natural as nature intended. It’s the environmentally friendly alternative to chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides that can damage the soil and kill off nature’s own nutrients.”
ASA ruling: Misleading. The EU permits organics to use chemicals including slag, crude potassium salt, elemental sulphur, and insecticides such as Derris dust. Most readers would understand these substances to be “chemicals,” “fertilizers” or “pesticides.”
Claim: “[Organic food] is the safe choice for your family.”
ASA ruling: Misleading. Implies, without proof, that non-organic food is unsafe.
Claim: “You can taste the difference [in organic food].”
ASA ruling: Misleading. The advertisers sent the results of a poll in which 43 percent of consumers who expressed a preference for organic food said they preferred it because it tasted better. However, the ASA said it needed more rigorous evidence, such as blind taste tests.
Claim: “It’s healthy.” [referring to organic food]
ASA ruling: Misleading. People’s health depends more on the composition of their diets than on the nature of individual foods. Moreover, the advertisers had sent no clinical evidence to show that a diet of organic products was more healthy than the same diet consisting of non-organic food.
Claim by a supermarket selling conventionally-grown chickens: “All our chickens come from good homes.” A complainant stated that many of the chickens were reared intensively in broiler houses.
ASA ruling: Acceptable. Even in confinement, the conditions for the chickens were carefully regulated and monitored, and the supermarket’s animal welfare specifications exceeded Government guidelines.
The Bottom Line:
High-yield agriculture’s first task is to convey to the urban public the massive benefits of high yields that have saved billions of people, millions of pets and millions of square miles of wildlife.
I see in my mind’s eye a set of full-color magazine ads, showing kids around the globe with their pets and some wild babies (a baby elephant, lion cub, baby egret). The cut line would say, “Let’s be sure we can feed them all in the 21st century.”
Then, we must make certain that the public understands the real limits of organic food and farming.
This is all outside our job descriptions. But there is no other line of defense for today’s American society against a future of hunger, malnutrition, and environmental desolation.