November 13, 2003
by Dennis T. Avery
Maybe it’s the more serious mood of the country since terrorists hit the World Trade Center. Maybe it’s the now-foreseeable end of the global population surge (about 2035, at 8–9 billion people). Whatever the reason, American “thought leaders” are saying good things about high-yield farming for the first time since Paul Ehrlich’s book, The Population Bomb, scared us senseless about overpopulation in 1968.
It seems only yesterday that media billionaire Ted Turner recommended that we eliminate 95 percent of the earth’s humans to save the environment. He also funded a book for U.S. schools (Ishmael) blaming farmers for causing the overpopulation by growing too much food. (It was actually improved medical care in Third World Countries that allowed more babies to live)
But the tide seems to be turning back to real problems in the real world. The October issue of The Atlantic Monthly carries an article by the Brookings Institution’s Jonathon Rauch, “Will Frankenfoods Save the Planet?” Rauch argues that genetic engineering could feed humanity while solving a “raft of environmental ills.” He further makes a compelling case that environmentalists should be encouraging both biotech and no-till farming.
Rauch interviewed me, my son Alex, and our chairman emeritus, Dr. Norman Borlaug, winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for breeding the “miracle wheat” that tripled grain yields during the Green Revolution of the 1960s. Dr. Borlaug, in 1986, was the first to state publicly that higher yields allow us to grow more food on less land thus leaving more room for nature. (My peer-reviewed estimate is that with the lower crop and livestock yields of 1950, the world would have had to clear all of its remaining 16 million square miles of wildlife habitat to produce today’s food supply.)
Rauch keys in on how no-till farming and biotechnology reinforce each other. No-till maintains peak yields while cutting soil erosion by up to 95 percent. Biotech seeds (Roundup-tolerant corn, soybeans, and cotton) have radically encouraged farmers’ use of no-till, because they permit effective weed control even without plowing to bury the weed seeds.
People benefit from higher, more sustainable yields. The environment benefits from reduced soil erosion (gained with glyphosate one of the safest chemicals man has developed). Because organic farmers refuse to use herbicides they have to plow and plowing encourages erosion.
Recently, the New York Times effectively endorsed modern agriculture twice in the space of ten days.
Michael Lind of the fashionably liberal New America Fund writes (New York Times, September 12), “High-tech agriculture wastes fossil fuels—but it spares land, by growing more food on less acreage. . . . If third world agriculture is industrialized, then much Third World wilderness will be saved from the plow.”
Then, on September 21, the New York Times completed one of the most significant about-faces in the modern history of American journalism. The Times has enthusiastically recommended organic farming for decades, at least since the legendary Phil Shabecoff became the paper’s environmental writer in 1977. (He is now publisher of Greenwire.)
I personally made a presentation to Shabecoff on the concept of high-yield conservation more than a decade ago. He rejected the idea. I talked to his successor, Bill Stevens, who sometimes quoted me on world hunger issues (based on my credentials as a former State Department agriculture expert) but refused to write about high-yield conservation.
Marion Burros, the Times food editor, has written hundreds of columns praising organic farming, despite its low yields. Ms. Burros has told us she is not impressed by the estimate that organic farming in America would need the manure from another one billion cattle to replace the nitrogen fertilizer used by mainstream farmers.
But on September 21, the editorial section of the Times recommended Rauch’s article to its readers: “Here’s something for the Greens of the world to ponder: ‘genetic engineering may be the most environmentally beneficial technology to have emerged in decades, or possibly in centuries,’ Jonathon Rauch writes in The Atlantic Monthly. . . . Noting that ‘world food output will need to at least double and possibly triple over the next several decades,’ the author argues that ‘the great challenge’ is ‘not to feed an additional three billion people (and their pets) but to do so without converting much of the world’s prime [wildlife] habitat into second-or third-rate farmland. . . . if properly disseminated and used, genetically modified crops may be the best hope the planet has got.’”
A lot of knowledgeable people agree, including two Nobel Peace Prize laureates (Dr. Borlaug and former president Oscar Arias of Costa Rica), a co-founder of Greenpeace (Patrick Moore), and the president of India, Abdul Kalam.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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