Defending the bounties of modern farming

If someone were to ask you to rattle off some of the not-so-pleasant thoughts that occupy your mind day to day, nagging back pain, getting the kids to soccer practice on time, your old clunker about to go kaput, or your baseball team being fifteen games back at the All-Star break might be some of the things you would mention.  But whether or not there’ll be enough food to buy tomorrow — well, that’s hardly something over which you or anyone you know probably loses any sleep. Sure when there’s a blizzard, hurricane, or Teamsters’ strike, supermarket aisles get raided for milk, bread and eggs (and who can forget the toilet paper) and everyone is abruptly reminded that food doesn’t just magically appear on the shelves.  And every now and then, we hear about famines and mass starvation in places like
Ethiopia or read about the great Irish potato famine in our Time-Life history books and briefly appreciate just how good we’ve got it.  But other than those rare instances, most people living in the modern world don’t really give our supply of food a second thought, and they certainly don’t appreciate modern agriculture’s astounding feats.

Perhaps by leaving us too cozy for too long, however, it has become a victim of its own success.  People have simply forgotten from whence their bounty has come and now, modern farming is being criticized by some who claim the practice is what they term “unsustainable.” Claiming that modern farming is not only poisoning
both the land and the men and beasts that live on it but also taking up too much room and thereby causing a devastating loss of wildlife habitat and fertile soil, some are demanding an end to the way we currently grow our food.  But with scant evidence to back up these claims and a whole lot of potentially hungry mouths
hanging open in the balance, it appears some are simply hoeing down the wrong row.

The emergence of the issue

The first and perhaps most famous negative critique of modern agriculture came from the pen of Rachel Carson.  In her 1962 book, Silent Spring, she took issue with the use of synthetic chemicals on the land and with poetic style, waxed eloquent about how in certain places, it was causing a “strange stillness” and a “spring
without voices” where “the few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly.”

In January, 1970, New Republic magazine typified the growing alarm set off by Silent Spring by telling its readers the U.S. “will be so contaminated with pesticides, herbicides, mercury, [and] fungicides…that it may be unable to sustain human life.”

And more recently, Vice President Al Gore, who actually has a picture of Ms. Carson hanging in his office, wrote in his bestseller, Earth in the Balance, about how many of the compounds “streaming out of laboratories and chemical plants…have left a legacy of poison that we will be coming to terms with for many generations.” Now all this, not to mention the ongoing campaign against pesticides being waged by groups like Greenpeace and the NRDC, certainly gives room for pause.  The misuse or overuse of chemicals is a serious issue, as many of these groups rightly point out, which ought to be addressed.  However, modern agricultural chemicals offer some tremendous benefits, and many of the charges against them are not supported by sound science.

Concerning the dangers to people, Dr. Elizabeth Whelan of the respected American Council on Science and Health flatly states in her book, Toxic Terror, “There has never been a documented case of human illness or death in the United States as the result of the standard and accepted use of pesticides.” The American Medical Association has gone on record as saying there is no evidence of any overall increase in cancer related to pollutants or contaminants in the environment.
Former-surgeon general Dr. C. Everett Koop asserts, “People who are so worried about pesticides fail to realize that cancer rates have dropped over the last 40 years.  Stomach cancer has dropped more than 75% while rectal cancer has dropped more than 65%.”

And since the average person ingests 10,000 times more natural pesticides every day than man-made ones, the regulated use of safe chemicals to get rid of harmful bugs, weeds and fungi seems like nothing but a good deal. As for the effects of pesticides on animals, concerns are generally reserved for their impact on birds.  But the fact is that since the Pilgrims dropped anchor at Plymouth Rock, only four species — the Labrador duck, great auk, passenger pigeon, and Carolina parakeet — have gone extinct, and these were well before the use of agrochemicals. Even more significantly, there are now two billion more songbirds in the U.S. than there were in the late 16th Century, and according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, most of the 254 bird species monitored over recent decades have been on the rise.

Eroding soil and habitat

The second major criticism leveled against modern farming is that the amount of agriculture needed to feed the world’s growing population is simply using up too much land.  The “Agenda 21” platform from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit warns “massive erosion is causing a rapid loss in the fertile soil of our planet,” while
environmental leader Jeremy Rifkin blames farming, among other things, for destroying “the flora and fauna of the planet at a breathtaking pace.”  But just what are the facts?

Well first of all, erosion is always occurring.  It is what is making the Appalachian Mountains smaller as time continues to go by.  The question is, is topsoil being lost quicker than it is being naturally replenished? According to Dr. Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute, two technologies currently in use are working toward this end.
“Conservation tillage” cuts soil erosion by 65% by leaving a heavy layer of crop residue in the upper soil.  And “no-till” farming, which keeps a layer of sod on the field throughout much of the year, can cut soil erosion by 98%.

This all means that while topsoil eroded in the early half of this century at a rate of some 30 to 40 tons/acre/year, current no- and low-till methods, where employed, have slowed erosion down to 1 ton or less.  Since topsoil is replenished at the rate of 2 to 4 tons per year, modern agriculture apparently can be quite sustainable after all.

Finally, for those concerned about wildlife habitat, modern agriculture should be the last thing they oppose because unless they want to eliminate the vast number of people living on the earth, these high-tech methods are the best way to grow the most food on the least amount of land.

Since the advent of modern farming, nations including the U.S. and some in Europe have actually increased, not decreased, the size of their forests.  And now, thanks to efforts like the Conservation Reserve Program, the U.S. is even setting aside hundreds of thousands of acres of previously farmed land to be reverted back to duck-happy wetlands.

It should further be noted there is little direct conflict between farming and efforts to preserve biodiversity because, as explained by Michael Huston of the Oakridge National Laboratory, the best areas for farming, like Kansas, Iowa, and Indiana, just happen to be the regions with the least variety of species while those with poorer soil, like Texas and Florida, are exactly the opposite.

Ehrlich was right, kinda

In his famous 1968 work, The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich concluded “the battle to feed humanity is over.” Well as it turns out, Ehrlich was just about right, but not quite in the way he intended.  Modern agriculture, coupled with new technologies such as food irradiation and the seemingly unlimited prospects of biotechnology, could more than feed ten times the number of people currently alive on not very much more land than is now in use.  Indeed, it is nothing short of an unequivocal blessing for all of mankind.


July, 1996


About the Author: CFACT

CFACT defends the environment and human welfare through facts, news, and analysis.