Farmers have been accused of hurting the environment many times over the past few decades but most of its not true, says Dennis Avery, director of global food issues at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic: The Environmental Triumph of High-Yield Farming. He recently spoke at the CAAR (Canadian Association of Agri-Retailers) convention in Winnipeg. The title of his talk was “It’s Time to Tell the World How High-Yield Farming Saves Nature.”
Averys main message for farmers was not to hide behind a bushel basket. He says you need to step up and tell the world that what youre doing on the farm is good for people, good for the environment and certainly good for nature and all its animals. Its a story he’s told before but it often gets buried, as the daily press hammers out doom and gloom headlines about high-production agriculture and the use of pesticides to produce food.
Tell your farmers that they need to hold their heads high and be proud of what they do for mankind and the world in which we live, says Avery.p>
Dennis tackled a number of myths and set out to show how they’re full of mistruths, half-truths or outright lies. Following is a brief write-up about each myth as he presented them.
1. High-yield farming threatens frogs
This one came about when Minnesota schoolchildren took a field trip to a local pond. The kids discovered frogs with too many legs or too few. They reported their findings on the internet and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency decided it must be from pesticides in the water. Millions of dollars were spent trying to prove the theory. It made headlines until it was discovered that the frogs were deformed because of a natural parasite, the trematode. This parasite burrows into the developing leg joints of tadpoles and creates deformities. When the trematode outbreak subsided, frogs returned to normal.
2. Farming and logging caused the salmon decline in the Pacific Northwest
When salmon numbers dropped in the Columbia River of Oregon and Washington in 1977, environmental groups blamed overfishing, logging and farming. The use of water for irrigation for farming and the pollution it was supposed to have caused were blamed for reducing salmon populations. Anti-pesticide headlines again hit the daily press. Billions of dollars were spent on logging restrictions, fish ladders and barging fish out to sea. None of these interventions worked. Then in 2002 the Columbia River had a record salmon run.
Why? Because salmon populations follow a 25-year cycle. For 25 years, Pacific currents take salmon food out to the Gulf of Alaska and of course the salmon follow. Fishing there flourishes. Then the salmon food rides currents back to Columbia River. Fishing falls off in Alaskan waters and flourishes in the Columbia River basin.
Avery says that if environmental groups didn’t know of the 25-year cycle, then how can we trust what they say about fish management? If they did know about the cycle and didn’t tell anyone, then how can we trust what they say about fish management?
3. Fertilizer from the Midwest threatens the Gulf of Mexico
During the Clinton administration, a White House task force recommended a 30% cut in fertilizer use in the Midwest. It was claimed that runoff in the Mississippi River from fields in the Midwest was responsible for an algae bloom (thought to be a dead zone) at the Gulf of Mexico. Such rich zones are found at the mouths of 40 major rivers in the world where fresh nutrient-laden water hits the salt water of the ocean.
Avery says the yields of corn in the Midwest have increased since the 1980s but fertilizer use has remained at almost the same levels. So, newer high-yielding corn varieties use more of the applied nitrogen and less ends up in runoff.
If there’s more nutrients in the area where the Mississippi joins the Gulf of Mexico, its possible it could be as much from sewage treatment plants from St. Louis or Kansas City as from the farms of the Midwest, says Avery.
4. Modern farming causes soil erosion
Much has been written about the Coon Creek watershed in southern Wisconsin. This is an area that suffered from severe erosion, and in 1938 a Soil Conservation Survey discovered how bad the erosion was.
Environmental groups still talk about it as if erosion was still a problem in that area. But Dr. Stanley Trimble from UCLA did soil surveys in the area in the 1970s and 1990s and found that the watershed is losing only 6% as much topsoil as it did during the Dust Bowl era. Through the use of crop rotations, contour tillage and conservation tillage, the Coon Creek watershed is building topsoil while farmers harvest crops that yield 4 to 5 times more than they did in the past.
If there are high levels of erosion taking place in the Coon Creek watershed as is claimed, then we need the physical evidence, says Dr. Trimble. We cant find the gullies, the sediment-filled creeks and the dust clouds. Why? Because under today’s modern farming practices, that just isn’t happening.(Ed. note: Check the website at www.lwcd.org/cc_now.htm for pictures and a story about the Coon Creek watershed.)
5. Farmers cause overpopulation by producing too much food
The reality is that population growth started before the Green Revolution. It started because modern society introduced vaccinations, clean water, sewage treatment, antibiotics and DDT to control malaria-infected mosquitoes. Lower death rates led to population growth, not high crop yields.
High crop yields started a circle of reduced hunger, more food to support off-farm jobs and affluent urban couples having only 1.7 births each, says Avery. In 1960, the average woman in the Third World had 6.2 children. Now she has 2.7. That’s a huge reduction over a 40-year life span.
6. Modern farming destroys the world’s plant diversity
Eco-activists worry that the way farming is done today destroys the worlds seed biodiversity. They fret that were losing valuable seed banks from distant civilizations. But a Global Crop Diversity Trust has been set up to identify plant material that’s in danger of being lost. The trust has also raised money to fill in gaps in gene banks and to make sure there’s a high level of seed retention. It also oversees grow-out facilities in the Third World and other locations to build up stocks of seeds for future generations.
Also, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico was able to restore genetic crop diversity with modern plant breeding techniques. The center created synthetic bread wheatsby crossing the original wild parents of durum wheat and then crossing the offspring with another wild wheat. This genetic crossing actually duplicated natural events that occurred 10,000 years ago that gave rise to bread wheat.
7. Organic farming is kinder to the environment
Organic farming is an environmental fraud, says Avery. That’s because you cant use industrial fertilizer under the organic system. So to produce the amount of food the world needs you need more land for green manure crops or more cattle to produce more manure.
Dr. Vaclav Smil from the University of Manitoba says that total organic farming would need manure from another 900 million to one billion cattle. And they’d need 3 to 30 acres each, which would mean getting rid of half our human population or seeding all the forests of the world down to pasture grass. These are totally unacceptable solutions.
Organic farming could be as kind to the environment as high-yield farming only if we were able to reduce the worlds population by 2/3 and the organic rules were changed to allow conservation tillage (which would need herbicides),says Avery.
8. DDT is dangerous to people and birds
Rachel Carson has been hailed as the expert on the environment since she wrote the book Silent Spring in the early 60s. But Avery says much of what she wrote was not accurate. For instance she wrote that Dr. Dewitt’s now classic experiments (on quail and pheasants) established the fact that exposure to DDT, even when doing no observable harm to birds, may seriously affect reproduction. Quail into whose diets DDT was introduced throughout the breeding season survived and even produced normal numbers of fertile eggs. But few eggs hatched.
Ms. Carson was lying, says Avery. Dr. Dewitt’s study actually showed no significant difference in hatching rates between quail fed DDT (80%) and the control quail (83.9%).
When Dr. Dewitt tested pheasants, he found that those fed DDT hatched more than 80% of their eggs and control birds hatched 57%. So, pheasants fed DDT actually hatched a higher percentage of their eggs than the control birds.
Many studies on eagles, Peregrine falcons and other birds that were fed large doses of DDT didn’t show thin eggshells. Only when calcium was kept from these bird’s diets did they show evidence of thin eggshells. Stress, old age and mercury pollution have been shown to produce thin eggshells but DDT has not.
Yet the myth that DDT causes declines in bird populations has been allowed to ruin a billion lives, says Dennis. There still are a million deaths a year from malaria, most of them African children. That has much to do with the fact that DDT is not allowed to be used indoors. Of all insecticides, it works the best and is the most cost-effective mosquito killer and repellent ever discovered. But the eco-activists have done their part to prevent the use of DDT in developing countries.
Why are we so inhumane?
9. Modern farming is a major contributor to global warming
Avery refutes the idea that farms are a major contributor to global warming. He says that the earths climate has always been changing and will continue to do so. In fact, the earth is governed by an irregular 1,500-year cycle and has been for a million years.
The evidence of the Earths past climate shows were 150 years into a moderate, cyclical warming caused by the sun, says Avery. When the number of sunspots is low, the earths climate is cold. When the number of sunspots is high, the earth is warmer. Right now, the number of sunspots is higher than its been for 1,200 years.
So, Dennis says, your tractors, fertilizers, pickup trucks and cows are not causing global warming the sun is. And itll continue for the next 500 years.
But remember, the Medieval Warming period was also known to history as the Medieval Optimum, says Avery. It had the best weather that humanity has ever experienced. So if its happening again, the true challenge will be the Ice Age that follows.