The modern world is waging a bizarre new war against its own success. It is attacking the modern agriculture which has 1) saved it from the biggest famines in human history; 2) reduced its cancer rates; 3) saved its soil from massive erosion losses; and 4) prevented the plow-down of more than 15 million square miles of wildlife habitat. Just from the environmental standpoint, the wildlands saved by modern farming are equivalent to the total land area of the U.S., Europe and South America combined!
Specifically, the modern world has launched a war against plant nutrients. It thinks it doesn't want plant nutrients in its streams, rivers and oceans. But eliminating nutrients from our waters would mean destroying modern agriculture, plowing down the world's remaining wildlands -- and starving the planet's richest fisheries.
The eco-activists' long campaign against the use of man-madepesticides
is now fading. Cancer is no longer so fearsome to the public. America's non-smoking cancer rates have declined by 16 percent since 1950. We're learning about the role of inherited genes in causing cancer. And more people finally understand that lots of people die of cancer because we've eliminated most other causes of death.
The eco-activists' new anti-pesticide campaign -- based on sub-lethal disruption of the human endocrine system -- has flopped. It was based in part on the claim that sperm counts in human males have dropped in half since we started using pesticides. But the claim of a sperm count decline was an odd illusion created by the fact that male sperm counts are higher in New York City than in most other places.
The most important study that seemed to support the claim of endocrine disruption came from Tulane University in 1996, reporting a 1600-fold increase in endocrine disruption when two pesticides were tested together. A year later, the Tulane study was withdrawn because nobody could repeat its results—including Tulane.
Unfortunately, the decline of the cancer scare and the failure of the endocrine disruption campaign have only seemed to spur a new set of "environmental" attacks on modern agriculture:
The Urgent Human Desire to Save Nature
- Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund have launched a major new campaign in Europe against the use of biotechnology in food production.
- All over America, environmental groups are aggressively pushing the idea that the country's streams, rivers and coastal estuaries face a crisis brought on by agricultural fertilizer and manure.
- A year ago, the American TV networks were agog with news that a mysterious organism called Pfiesteria was killing fish and making fishermen sick on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation was quick to announce -- without evidence -- that Pfiesteria was attacking fish because of runoff from "factory" poultry farms. (The Bay Foundation doesn't like modern agriculture.)
- Groundwater nitrate limits are beginning to put severe constraints on agriculture. Belgium is about to cut its livestock population in half, because "high" levels of nitrate are violating its drinking water limits. Great Britain is being sued by the European Union because it refuses to enforce the EU's groundwater limit of 10 parts per million nitrate; Britain says doing so would put one-third of its best cropland out of production for no good reason.
- A White House Task Force is looking at ways to reduce the nitrogen loading of the Mississippi River, because of an overfertilized "dead spot" where the river joins the Gulf of Mexico. The solutions proposed so far seem to involve sharp reductions in the sue of nitrogen fertilizer and thus sharp yield reductions in the whole of Middle America -- one of the world's most productive agricultural regions.
- The future of many Midwestern cities and rural communities is directly tied to the outcome of the debates on nitrogen, pesticide traces, wildlife and the Gulf of Mexico.
All over the world, more and more people take their modern food abundance for granted. More and more people care more and more urgently about preserving the natural environment. That's due to a natural human tendency to forget about the problems we've "solved" and worry instead about the ones we haven't yet figured out.
All over the world, regulators are listening to the public's indifference on high-yield farming and its urgent concerns about wildlife—and trying to respond with political correctness.
It is clear now that in affluent societies the conservation ethic becomes enormously powerful. For affluent populations, saving nature now ranks only behind their family’s food security and health care. In America, recent polling found that 76 percent of the public agreed with the statement, "We cannot set our environmental standards too high." An even higher percentage—77 percent—agreed with that statement "regardless of cost."
Such high approval ratings give enormous political power to the conservation movement. They also give enormous political leverage to people who attach other political agendas to the conservation movement, such as land-use planning, "saving" peasant farmers from the pressures of free farm trade, and even running for President.
Modern farming is a natural target, because farming controls one-third of the world's land area—and most of the land surrounding our cities where people see it. Farming also consumes 70 percent of the water used by humanity. Simply put, the activists want control of agriculture's land and water.
In addition, activists have found it very effective to attack modern farming. Today's farm doesn't look much like Old McDonald's Farm of the 1880s, and city folks think they'd like to return to that nostalgic picture from yesterday. (That's a major part of the appeal of organic farming.)
Another reason farming is attacked is that it doesn't fight back. Farming is made up of millions of family farms, hundreds of thousands of rural businesses, and thousands of modest-sized companies that make farm inputs and process farm products. None of these agricultural entities is used to fighting public relations battles. Historically, they're used to being praised for producing food. Their natural instinct is to go off to the fields, do their jobs, and hope their critics will go away.
The critics will not go away. They are getting too much power and profit from their attacks to quit.
If agriculture today does not begin to tell its story to the urban public, then the urban public will support activists and regulators in forcing us back to the Old McDonald pattern. Only too late will consumers see the higher food costs and lower quality. Only too late will the Sierra Club and Greenpeace see the wildlands being destroyed to expand traditional low-yield farming
If high-yield agriculture meekly gives over control of the land and water, it would trigger the massive destruction of wildlife habitat on the planet, and the mass extinction of wild species that the world's biologists have erroneously claimed was already happening. *
In fact, the world hasn't lost very many of the wild species—yet. Thanks to rising crop and livestock productivity per acre, we haven't taken any more land from nature for food production during the past 50 years -- where we've practiced high-yield farming. But the world will need about three times as much farm output in 2050, for a peak population of 8.5 billion people. Ninety percent of them will be affluent by today's standards. There is no vegetarian trend. We will need to produce perhaps five times as much meat and milk. It will take either higher yields per acre or tens of millions of square miles of wildlands converted to low-yield slash-and-burn farming.
The public's current fears of modern agriculture, translated into regulatory constraints, could literally strangle modern high-yield farming and destroy the wildlands the public wants to protect.
The first impact of a global mandate for organic farming would be to plow another five or six million square miles of wildlands for legume crops like clover and alfalfa—to get adequate nitrogen for our crops.The Beginnings of the Nutrient Scare: Blue-Baby Syndrome
The fear of farm inputs goes back to the 1930s and 1940s. The first water scare was over the "blue-baby syndrome." Infants under six months of age literally turned blue from too much nitrite in their systems. Blue-baby cases were frequently associated with high levels of nitrate in their drinking water (associated with cracked well casings, nearby barnyards and leaking septic tanks). Public health officials established ten parts per million nitrate as a level at which hardly any blue-baby cases were observed. Throughout the U.S. and Europe, 10 ppm nitrate gradually became the accepted drinking water standard
Ten ppm was not much of a problem for agriculture until recent years, when higher yields, more intensive crop rotations, and confinement livestock and poultry began to produce somewhat heavier nutrient loadings, often in the 10-15 ppm range.
Europe also has some relatively heavy nutrient loadings near its port cities. Hog and poultry production facilities were concentrated there to take advantage of cheap non-grain feeds because of the EU's high grain price supports. Now the Netherlands has actually passed a new law requiring its hog farmers to cut their hog numbers by 25 percent.
Ironically, the latest medical data show that nitrates in the water have nothing to do with blue-baby syndrome. Doctors got the wrong idea in the 1940s because the babies had so much nitrite in their systems. The doctors though the nitrate
from the water turned into nitrite
in the babies' systems.
Now we know better. The tip-off on the real cause of blue-baby came from Israel, where some blue-baby cases occurred with no
nitrate in the drinking water. We now know that blue-baby is caused by severe gastroenteritis; bacterial infections cause stomach upset, and the infant’s system produces huge amounts of nitrite. Bacteria
in the drinking water are the real cause, not the nitrates.
My son and deputy, Alex Avery, recently submitted a paper to the peer-reviewed journal, Environmental Health Perspectives.
His paper documents the reality that there is now no valid justification for the First World to set nitrate limits in drinking water at 10 ppm.
In fact, there are cases on record of infants ingesting water with more than 1300 ppm nitrate with no difficulty -- until and unless there is bacterial contamination.
One of the biggest clubs being used to bash agriculture—the nitrate limits in drinking water—should be taken from the hands of regulators and eco-activist lawyers. If there is no other way to do it, lawsuits should be filed in each appropriate jurisdiction throughout the First World. Fear of Pesticides in the Groundwater
The environmentalists' bias against modern agriculture began with DDT. DDT was a broad-spectrum, persistent pesticide that killed honeybees and other beneficial insects along with pest insects, but it saved the lives of millions of people from epidemic diseases such as typhus and malaria.
DDT has been accused of causing cancer in humans and thinning the eggshells of raptor birds. However, those charges have never been substantiated by empirical evidence. In fact, no human health threat has ever been linked to DDT, despite 40 years and billions of dollars of research spending. Moreover, DDT has been banned for 25 years.
The real problem for farmers is not that farm chemicals are risky. They aren't, expect to the farmers who apply them. But today's high-tech testing can detect parts per trillion. Some traces will be found, and they will fit the profile of an "unacceptable threat" -- unseen, unchosen, and long-term.
The public has been told to fear pesticides in its water, no matter how safe the pesticide, and no matter how low the exposure. An activist organization called The Environmental Working Group recently published a document that began with these words:
"For the past 25 years…millions of people…have been drinking tap water contaminated with an unhealthy dose of agricultural weed killers, many of which are carcinogens. These people didn't know that pesticides were in their water, their iced tea, their orange juice, or in the jet of water squirting from water fountains at their schools..."
You would hardly know from this language that the EWG is describing parts per trillion of pesticides which have been exhaustively tested for safety, and approved for use because they don't cause cancer at low levels of exposure. (Half of everything tested causes cancer at high levels of exposure, including salt and drinking water.)
You would never know from the EWG that the pesticide traces found in their samples were all within Federal tolerances, which themselves were set with safety factors of 1000 or more.
The EWG counts on the public making no distinction between parts per thousand and parts per trillion—concentrations one billion times less dangerous.
Certainly the environmental movement is not pointing out the conclusion of the U.S. National Research Council's 1996 report, Carcinogens and Anti-Carcinogens in the Human Diet,
which says pesticide residues on our food pose no significant threat to consumers. Canada's National Cancer Institute concurs. And since the pesticide traces found in our water are even tinier than the residues on our food, the water risks are even lower than the insignificant risk from residues on our food.
In fact, if the EWG's campaign against herbicides is successful, both human quality of life and the environment would suffer:
- The alternative to using chemical weed killers is millions of man hours hand weeding in the hot sun. Aside from increased rates of skin cancers, is this really the way tomorrow’s citizens want to spend their lives?
- The herbicides the EWG wants to ban are crucially important to preventing soil erosion. Conservation tillage is the most powerful weapon against soil erosion that farmers have ever found. The weed killers permit them to quit plowing, and keep their soil in place with cover crops and crop residue. Without conservation tillage the world will face a huge topsoil crisis in the 21st century. With it, we have the most sustainable farming in 10,000 years.
Unfortunately, the Danish Minister of the Environment has already banned atrazine, a particularly cost-effective herbicide for conservation tillers, simply because it is found in the groundwater. There is no evidence of harm to humans or the environment. But, the ban is politically popular.
America's Environmental Protection Agency is still trying to withdraw the registration for atrazine, despite the fact that the EPA staff has recently raised its safety rating on atrazine by about seven-fold. To get above the "no effect" level at the new safety level, a person would now have to drink more than 150,000 gallons of water per day for 70 years—and, for nine months of the year would have to add their own atrazine.The Hypoxia Campaign
In America, a hypoxic (low-oxygen) zone in the Gulf of Mexico has become one of the key environmental issues.
This hypoxic zone is a summer phenomenon near the mouth of the Mississippi River. Prior to 1993's big floods, it covered about 3,500 square miles (less than 1 percent of the Gulf). Since the big floods washed huge amounts of soil and organic material from the riverbed and bottomlands, it has been larger—about 7,000 square miles. Activists assert that the zone is growing, that it threatens the fish in the Gulf of Mexico, and that excessive fertilizer from heartland American agriculture is to blame.
Scientific conferences have been held, papers have been written, and lawsuits have been filed. The EPA and the U.S. Geological Survey have become officially involved. There is even a White House Task Force dedicated to fighting the hypoxia.
You would never know from listening to the debates that:
--Most of the nutrients which make the Gulf of Mexico one of the world's richest fisheries are brought to the Gulf by the Mississippi River—including the nitrogen and phosphate which are vital nutrients for the Gulf's marine ecology.
-- The Louisiana Department of Fisheries is terrified that cutting back the level of nutrients coming down the Mississippi will reduce
the long-term fish catch.
-- Hypoxic zones have always been found at the mouths of most of the rivers in the world that drain rich farmland and exit into closed bays. The laws of biology and physics command it.
-- There is no water quality crisis in the Gulf. In fact, the level of nutrients carried by the Mississippi River has declined in recent years. The rate of fertilizer use on American farms has been stable for 20 years, and the nitrogen efficiency in corn production has increased by about 20 percent—so crops are using far more of the fertilizer applied. Less urban waste is escaping the treatment plants through the storm sewers, though most U.S. sewage treatment plants still take about only about half of the nitrogen and phosphate from human wastes.
-- The nutrients that create the hypoxic zone in the Gulf threaten only immobile forms of marine life (such as clams and mudworms) in the zone itself. Fishermen and most of the fish and other marine creatures they catch simply avoid the hypoxic zone. The hypoxia would be a marine disaster only if it spread across the whole Gulf, instead of impacting less than 2 percent of it.
-- It would take a drastic reduction in upstream fertilizer use to make any significant reduction in the nutrient loadings of the Mississippi River.
-- No one knows how much of the nitrogen in the Mississippi River comes from urban wastes, how much from wildlife, and how much from farms. Recent studies even find significant amounts of nitrogen coming from the weathering of rocks (if they were formed from nitrogen-rich organic material.) Our farms generate and apply huge amounts of nitrogen, from animal manure, from legumes and from commercial fertilizer. But most of that nitrogen is taken up by plants, and a great deal is volatilized back into the air. The "estimates" of farm-related nitrogen going into streams are only guesses, most of them biased by politics.
In the final analysis, the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico is like the brown spots in my cattle pasture. Where the cow dung is deposited, it "burns" the vegetation. But a large bright-green ring surrounds that small brown spot, because the nutrients in the cow dung have raised the fertility. Over time, the cow dung maintains the fertility of the pasture, just as the Mississippi River supports the rich fisheries of the Gulf.
Fortunately, the 1998 survey of the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico reveals that it has shrunk substantially, apparently because the water flows have been normal since the big flood of 1993. The zone used to encompass about 3,500 square miles; it virtually doubled to 7,000 in 1994, and stayed at that level until falling back to 4,800 square miles this year.
Don't count on the activists taking modern farming off their hit list, however, or even forgetting about nitrogen. The urban public will get a steady diet of whatever they can find about modern farming that bothers city folks. The Great Pfiesteria Hysteria
In 1997, the American media became fascinated with a new scare story—Pfiesteria.
Pfiesteria are tiny marine organisms that have been present in the region for thousands of years. They suddenly turned toxic and began attacking menhaden, an industrial-grade fish. The toxin reportedly killed fewer than 20 menhaden in three small rivers in Maryland. Fish and wildlife "experts" extrapolated the 20 fish they actually saw into 30,000. (Supposedly, seagulls ate the other 29,970.)
Since the rivers were close to the vacation spots favored by Washington politicians and reporters, Pfiesteria suddenly became national news.
Environmental groups announced immediately that the Pfiesteria attacks were the result of too much runoff from big poultry farms. (The region has virtually no other industry.) There was no evidence whatsoever that this was true, but the eco-activists' rapid-response press releases met the media's need for a villain to point at.
Scientists say the Pfiesteria attack because of some signal they get from the fish— perhaps when the fish populations are high. A panel of scientists and the Governor of Maryland's "blue ribbon citizens commission" both concluded there was no linkage between the toxic Pfiesteria and agricultural runoff. One of the three rivers impacted had virtually no poultry production, sewage treatment facilities or other big nutrient sources.
Unabashed, the eco-activists have continued to blame manure. Since the eco-activists issue more press releases and offer better media quotes, it is likely that the public will eventually believe farmers were to blame.
A new tax on manure (plant nutrients) has already been introduced in the Maryland legislature. The U.S. EPA has proposed a new "poultry manure disposal program" with an initial estimated cost of $140 million per year—for which they expect the poultry industry to pay.Turning Against Organic Fertilizer
It seems almost incredible, but the environmental movement has now launched a major assault on the very organic fertilizer it has been recommending to the public for 50 years!
Under the latest activist theology, animal manure is no longer the most environmentally-constructive way to grow crops—if it comes from a "factory farm," If it comes from a confinement hog or poultry house, it is apparently considered toxic waste, and an imminent hazard to the environment. (We must surmise that if an organic farmer spreads it, it is still O.K.)
Ironically, when hogs and chickens are raised outdoors, their wastes are washed into the local streams and rivers with every storm. When hogs and chickens are raised indoors—under zero-discharge systems—their wastes are carefully collected in pits or lagoons, and spread on crops. The nitrogen and phosphate contribute constructively to crop production instead of fouling lakes and streams.
In the 21st century, as the world expands its chicken numbers from 13 billion to perhaps 50 billion, it hog breeding herd from 1 billion to 3 billion, and its herd of cows and water buffalo from 1.3 billion to 2.6 billion, we must hope, for the sake of the environment, that they are housed indoors. Housing just an extra 2 billion sows outdoors would take about 800,000 square miles of land away from nature. (That's equal to half the land area of the Amazon rain forest.)
Indoor hogs also have lower rates of disease and death, and higher rates of baby pig survival—so it takes less feed per pound of pork produced. That, too, saves more room on the planet for nature.
The only real alternatives to using the manure on crops are:
1) Dumping the livestock wastes in our rivers. (That's essentially what we do with half of the nitrogen and phosphate from human wastes.) That would guarantee major disruption of marine ecologies.
2) Drying the manure—with expensive fuel or expensive solar panels—and burning
it! (However, most of the people who object to hog manure being put on fields are also convinced that we're in the midst of major global warming.)
The Campaign Against Fixed Nitrogen
The air around us is 78 percent nitrogen, but suddenly we are supposed to fear the very nitrogen we breathe. Environmental magazines are warning that we're fixing twice as much nitrogen—from fertilizer plants, alfalfa fields, and nitrous oxide from auto exhausts—as nature used to fix. They say this must somehow be unbalancing our ecosystem. Activists are telling us that they won't feel safe until we can account for every single pound of nitrogen from hog farms and fertilizer plants.
But no harm from "fixed nitrogen" has been documented, no problems defined or measured. They can draw no cause or effect.
Peter Vitousek, a Stanford University biologist, recently warned in Science
magazine that humanity's production of nitrogen fertilizer has already increased from less than ten million tons in 1950 to more than 80 million tons—with an estimated 135 million tons by 2030. He also deplores the increasing amounts of nitrous oxide produced by internal combustion engines.
For all his deploring, however, Vitousek seems unable to come up with much eco-damage:
-- He says the extra nitrogen adds to the problem of acid rain. But when the U.S. government spent $600 million to study acid rain, it was found to be a minor problem, confined to a few tree species in a few isolated locations.
-- He blames fixed nitrogen for aggravating smog that "afflicts urban and agricultural areas throughout the world." But in America, smog is a chronic problem only in the Los Angeles basin, which had smog before the automobile was invented. Overall, the First World's air is cleaner now by far than it was 20 years ago. Smog is a virtual non-factor in rural areas.
-- He warns that the nitrogen from agriculture, vehicle exhausts and urban sewage goes into the streams, and ultimately into the oceans. He complains that the nitrogen can contribute locally to algae blooms—and in extreme cases to the eutrophication of streams and lakes. There are occasional local problems of this type, but they should be dealt with locally.
Other biologists warn that some of the nitrogen from fields and livestock wastes volatilizes into the air, and then "alters our ecosystem" when it is deposited on land and water. Added nitrogen deposition obviously favors plant and marine species that like lots of nitrogen. It disadvantages wild legumes, for instance.
However, we should remember that the N from agriculture is rising from perhaps 15 percent of the earth's land surface (cropland, cities and intensive pastures). It is deposited over the whole surface of the land and water. Obviously, it would take heroic amounts of nitrogen from the 15 percent of the land producing extra N to significantly alter the ecosystems on the other 85 percent. Especially when the biggest impact is to slightly stimulate the food chains.
Yet scientific journals speak of fixed nitrogen "overwhelming whole ecosystems."The World Needs Fixed Nitrogen to Save Wildlands
Most of the fixed-nitrogen critics seem to wish that people would disappear from the planet for the sake of its other species. But until someone has a valid license to reduce the earth's human population by force, the world's first priority is to provide food for a peak population of about 8.5 billion people in 2035.
Thanks in large part to industrially-fixed nitrogen, mined phosphate and mined potash, modern agriculture has been able to feed the world's redoubled and more-affluent population since 1950 without taking significantly more land to do it. (Africa is the exception to this happy result, because Africa is not yet using high-yield farming or chemical fertilizer.)
Without the increased yields produced by hybrid seeds, monocultures, irrigation and fertilizer, we would not have been able to triple the yields on the world's best-quality farmland since 1960. Instead of cropping about 6 million square miles of the earth's surface as we currently do, we would have been forced by now to crop more than 20 million square miles. The additional 15 million square miles for farming would have had to be taken from wildlands.
Modern farming deserves additional credit for higher yields of meat per acre, from better genetics, nutritionally complete feed rations, medicines and confinement housing. An informed guess suggests those gains have saved another three to four million square miles of wildlands.
Finally, we have saved wildlands by using food processing. Processing lets us grow foods where their yields are highest (often two or three times as high) and then transport the food without post-harvest losses to wherever people happen to live.
All told, the modern food system is saving close to 20 million square miles of wildlands from plow-down. That's equal to the total land area of the U.S., Europe, South America, India, central Africa, and much of Southeast Asia.
That's the greatest conservation triumph in human history.
There is no vegetarian trend in the world. Instead, the spread of technology, trade and affluence has unleashed the biggest surge in demand for meat and milk that the world has ever seen. China's meat consumption has been rising by 10 percent per year (and some 4 million tons per year) in the 1990s. India's milk consumption is rising by 1 million tons per year and still prices have risen. Carping About Wonder Wheat
The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico recently announced a re-designed wheat plant that boosts yield potential by 50 percent. (The new varieties will have more efficient "plumbing," sending more energy to seed heads resulting in more and bigger grains.). In field tests, the new wheats have yielded up to 18 tons per hectare, or 270 bushels per acre. (The world average wheat yield is 2.7 tons per hectare.)
There was an immediate outcry that this would mean heavier use of fertilizer on high-yielding fields! But it takes 25 kg of nitrogen fertilizer to grow a ton of grain—wherever we decide to grow it. The world can grow 18 tons of wheat by putting 400 kg of nitrogen fertilizer on one hectare of land. Or it can grow 18 tons of wheat by clearing 17 hectares of wildlife habitat and putting 25 kg of fertilizer on each of 18 hectares. The impact of the fixed N on nearby streams is likely to be virtually identical, but the impact on the world's wildlands and biodiversity is likely to be radically different.Winning under Siege—the War against Plant Nutrients
To win the war against it, agriculture must do something it has never done: It must speak directly to the urban public.
In the old days, when food was scarce, farmers automatically wore white hats. After people moved off the farms, we found it hard to talk to the city residents—and very easy to talk with the agriculture committees of our legislative bodies.
That doesn't work any more, because the activists have gone directly to the urban public. The only messages that most First World voters get about agriculture today are the bits of misinformation provided by eco-activists condemning modern farming.
The public doesn't like what it hears about agriculture. And the regulators at the Federal, State and local levels are all too willing to curry favor with the public by cracking down on what the voters say they don't like.
We can't win the war by talking about scarce food, because there's plenty of it. Farmers in affluent countries will never again be able to win political credit for producing food.
What the urban publics urgently want and don't have, however, is something that only farmers can deliver: room for wildlife on a more populous and affluent planet.
For years now, I've been reading magazine ads that quietly identify Weyerhae