June 1, 1999
by Dennis T. Avery
The world has only one proven strategy for preserving forests and wild meadows: "high-yield conservation." That means using technology and knowledge to get more food and timber per acre of land, to leave more room for wildlife.
What really matters in saving wildlands in the next century is what we do in agriculture and forestry. They dominate our land and water use. Agriculture already uses 37 percent of the world's land area, and the next century will demand three times as much farm output. Forests are the key wildlife habitat, and they still cover about one-third of the earth's land area, but people in the next century will be literate, computerized, and better housed. Will there be any trees left?
The world has only one proven strategy for preserving forests and wild meadows: "high-yield conservation." That means using technology and knowledge to get more food and timber per acre of land, to leave more room for wildlife. It eliminates the need to destroy either people or wildlife.
Credit the Greens
The Green movement has done humanity and the world an enormous service. They elevated our concern about environmental conservation higher and sooner than would otherwise have happened. The modern concern about the environment started slowly with a few wilderness lovers such as naturalist John Muir, President Teddy Roosevelt, and forester/philosopher Aldo Leopold. But we now have a world full of conservationists.
When people become affluent and urban-and can see the wildlands shrinking on satellite maps-they do more to preserve nature. In today's wealthy societies, conserving nature outranks virtually every other policy priority short of ensuring adequate food and health care. The trend holds across cultures, religions, and wide geographic differences. Today, 75 percent of Americans agree with the statement, "We cannot set our environmental standards too high, regardless of the cost." Even motherhood doesn't get ratings that high. Hence, virtually all First World businesses now know that they must support their customers' desire to save nature, or be shunned. Democracies go the farthest to protect environmental resources, with national parks, save-the-whale campaigns, water pollution controls, etc.
We can thank the Green movement for helping move conservation up the world's priority list. But now we have to figure out the best ways to save nature. The Green movement may not have the best solutions to the problems they helped identify. This is not a matter of slogans or petitions. Searching for effective conservation strategies is a tough, technical matter of developing technologies, adapting infrastructures, and pricing alternatives. That's where the Green movement has often strayed from real conservation.
Too much of the Green movement has remained fixated on the idea of suppressing human numbers. The world's population is already rapidly stabilizing, thanks to the twin global trends of affluence and urbanization. Births per woman in the Third World have dropped from 6.5 to 3.1 since I began my professional career in 1959, and they continue to plunge. According to annual World Bank Reports, affluent countries seem to be settling at about 1.7 births per woman, well below the replacement rate of 2.1 births. The Green movement will not win broad public approval for forced abortion or other imposed population reductions because the projected population peak is now 8.5 billion (up only about 40 percent from the current 6 billion) in 2035, according to the Winrock Foundation.
Too many Greens see poverty and primitive lifestyles as a plausible eco-solution. But the residents of Singapore or Shanghai will not voluntarily return to a life of stoop labor in the rice paddies. And it wouldn't help the environment if they did: poor people have large families and burn lots of trees and coal. Greens are even trying to preserve low-yield, slash-and-burn farming. Subsistence farmers mean no harm, of course, but they have destroyed most of the world's lost tropical forest. Loggers come in, harvest trees, and leave, but farmers permanently clear the trees. Low-yield farmers remain the biggest threat to wildlife.
There is no vegetarian trend in the world, and rising incomes in China, India, and elsewhere are driving the biggest surge in meat and milk demand the world has ever seen. Newly affluent Asians and South Americans are consuming more than five-million additional tons of meat and milk each year. Each such calorie of high-quality protein requires two to five times as many farming resources as a calorie of grain.
In the already-wealthy countries, the same affluent urban couples who are willing to have only 1.7 children demand that those kids be the best-fed in history. They even demand that their pets get their favorite foods. Americans own approximately 110 million cats and dogs, and a comparable number for tomorrow's affluent China would be 520 million, requiring huge tonnages of resource-costly pet food.
Naturalists agree that the key to saving wildlife is saving habitat. Fortunately, high-yield farming gives us a way to save wildlife habitat without depriving children of milk. If we had not raised the world's crop yields since World War 11 with hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers, tractors, irrigation pumps, and pesticides, we would already have had to plow down another fifteen million square miles of wildlands to obtain today's food supply. Modern farmers are saving several million additional square miles of land through confinement production of chickens, hogs, and cattle. Modern food processing lets us grow crops where the yields are highest and move them to wherever consumers choose to live, with minimal post-harvest losses. All told, the much-maligned modern food system has saved land equal to the total land area of the U.S., Europe, South America, and central Africa. Modern farming has also preserved the most important wildlands-those harboring more than 90 percent of the world's wild species. (Naturalists have found more wildlife species in a few square miles of tropical rain forest than in all of North America. Worldwide, most of the biodiversity has been found on land we don't and shouldn't farm.) Over the next forty years, conservation demands that the yields triple again, on every acre of good farmland. We can get some production gains by fully extending current First World technologies (such as low-volume pesticides and chemical fertilizers) to the Third World (especially Africa). We'll also need to reach out for potential yield gains from biotechnology-the most important piece of unexploited knowledge promising increased farming yields. For example, acidic soil has been cutting crop yields by up to 80 percent on nearly half the arable land in the tropics, and two American-trained Mexican researchers have developed acid-tolerant crops. Science magazine (June 6, 1999) noted that they have already inserted into tobacco, papaya, and rice plants a bacterial gene that codes for citric acid secretion. When the plant roots secrete the citric acid into the surrounding soil, the acid "captures" the toxic aluminum ions (which would otherwise attack the plant roots). Science has also noted that researchers from Cornell University have used wild-relative genes to get 50 percent more yield in tomatoes and 30 percent more yield in rice.
Unfortunately, the Green movement has derived much funding by fanning the public's groundless fears that pesticides cause cancer. (Lead arsenate did cause cancer, but that is the pesticide modern chemicals replaced.) Recently, the Greens have broadened their opposition to include all high-yield farm inputs. They now campaign against nearly every modern agricultural technology, including chemical fertilizers, hybrid seeds, diesel tractors, irrigation, confinement livestock, and biotechnology in food. If the Green movement succeeds in mandating low-yield farming to serve 8.5 billion affluent people, much of the earth's wildlife will be devastated.
Their blanket opposition to logging is likewise outmoded. Wood-saving technologies such as computerized saws, chipboard, and laminated rafters are allowing the U.S. to obtain fifteen times as much usable wood and paper from each acre logged as in 1940. High yields help here, too. America's wild forests produce approximately three cubic meters of pulpwood per hectare per year; a Georgia yellow pine plantation produces fifteen cubic meters; and cloned yellow pine grown in coastal Brazil produces some fifty cubic meters per hectare per year. U.S. plantations have achieved similarly impressive yields of loblolly pine, eucalyptus, and yellow poplars.
Plantation forests make fairly good wildlife habitat, but their real potential is in forestalling the need to log, let alone clear, the other 95 percent of the world's forestlands. Similar advances will save water. Farming uses 70 percent of the water consumed by humanity-most of it in a primitive flood irrigation, two-thirds of which is wasted. Modern pumps, plastic tubes, soil-moisture metering, and microcomputers can raise water-use efficiency from 30 percent to more than 90 percent.
Movement Toward Consensus
A few members of the environmental movement have come out in support of high-yield farming. Maurice Strong, who chaired the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, is now leading a campaign to get more funding for Third World agricultural research centers. Strong and Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club, have publicly supported biotechnology for food production. Frank Popper, the Rutgers urban planner who conceived the "Buffalo Commons" in the 1980s, says that he was not aiming to get more bison so much as an economic development strategy for the price-depressed farmers of the Great Plains. He now says that it might make more sense to liberalize the world's farm trade barriers and plant high-yield, no-till crops on the Great Plains to help ease the pressures on Asian tropical forests. And the Australian Conservation Foundation, that country's largest environmental group, has worked with farmers to promote higher yields and conservation tillage.
The Greens must now shift from their original role of decrying pollution and looking for eco-villains to the larger responsibility that faces conservationists in the next century, saving wildlife while feeding a growing population.
By and large, however, the Greens remain looked in their urban, minimalist, anti-population stance, opposed to high-yield agriculture and hence poorly positioned to support true conservation. Global warming has been the Greens' highest priority for the past decade, though the lack of warming during the last five decades of rising carbon dioxide levels undermines the whole greenhouse theory, and the computers currently predict a "worst-case" warming of only 3-4 degrees Fahrenheit in the next century. That would simply recreate the best weather in human memory, the Little Climate Optimum of the tenth and eleventh centuries. (See "Global Warming: Boon for Mankind?" in American Outlook Spring 1998.) So why the ruckus over global warming? Canada's Environment Minister, Christine Stewart, recently said, "No matter if the science [of global warming] is all phony ... climate change [provides] the greatest opportunity to bring about justice and equality in the world" (Financial Post, Dec. 26, 1998). Ms. Stewart apparently thinks that the First World should be as poor as Bangladesh.
The most bizarre recent eco-campaign has targeted "factory hog farms" which are accused of dumping their noxious wastes into nearby streams. But the hog farms are under zero-discharge management; they are not allowed to dump any wastes or let any nutrients leak from the fields. (Ironically, they're using the waste to conduct organic farming.) Meanwhile, little outdoor hog farms use far more land per hog and let their wastes wash into the streams with every storm. For every pound of nitrogen that confinement hog farms apply to growing crops, America's cities legally dump two pounds of nitrogen into an American river.
The Green Movement has grown used to public approval. It generates billions of dollars in annual revenues and basks in the flattering floodlights of the media. It has saved the whales, greatly reduced industrial pollution in the First World, and eliminated lead from our gasoline and paint. But now they must move to the next level, which requires better analysis and a broader range of problem-solving possibilities. Eco-tourism and gathering Brazil nuts are not saving the rain forests.
The choice is between technological abundance and managed scarcity. To talk about living with scarcity while benefiting from abundance is a recipe for environmental catastrophe. The Greens must now shift from their original role of decrying pollution and looking for eco-villains to the larger responsibility that faces conservationists in the next century, saving wildlife while feeding a growing population. The sooner they join forces with scientists and farmers, the more land and wildlife we'll all enjoy.
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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