Environmentalists Must Focus On Saving Land, Not Oil
Fossil Fuel Fears Are Leading Some To Embrace Low-Tech, Acre-Wasting Agriculture, Despite A Growing Need For Farmland
June 18, 1999
by Dennis T. Avery
CHURCHVILLE, Va.-Vandana Shiva is an environmentalist from India. She and I recently debated the environmental merits of high-yield farming on the World Radio Service of the British Broadcasting Corp.
Shiva claims that it takes more total resources to produce a calorie of food using chemical fertilizer, pesticides and diesel fuel than it does using traditional or organic farming. Furthermore, she demands that her country's traditional farmers be protected from outside competition, hybrid seeds and biotechnology.
But Shiva's analysis contains a fundamental mistake. In this high-tech world, it is easier to find more oil underground than to find space for wildlife above it.
The world has probable fossil fuel reserves equal to 114 years worth of current oil consumption, 200 years worth of current natural gas usage and more than 1800 years worth of current coal usage, according to Robert Bradley of Houston's Institute for Energy Research.
Thanks to computer-driven exploration, deeper drilling, better recovery systems and energy-conserving technologies, the world's oil reserves are now 15 times larger than when they were first estimated in 1948.
A natural gas power plant uses the cheapest and cleanest fossil fuel in history. Ecologically, it's no less disruptive than a wind farm after land disturbance, wildlife impact, visual blight and noise pollution are factored in.
New passenger cars with strict emission standards are rapidly replacing older, dirtier cars on the road. In less than a decade, Mercedes, Ford and Toyota expect to be selling fuel-cell cars that emit only water-and to do it without special government subsidies.
Then there's orimulsion, a tar-like substance found in Venezuela. Technical breakthroughs in the last decade have made orimulsion commercially usable for any power plant near a waterway. In fact, Venezuela's orimulsion reserves exceed the world's known reserves of crude oil.
Behind orimulsion stand the world's tar sands, shale oil and other unconventional fossil fuels.
Global warming doesn't appear to be the result of fossil fuel use. The planet has had no significant warming since 1940.
Even if the greenhouse effect does eventually occur, the latest global computer model at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research says the maximum warming will be about 3 degrees Fahrenheit.
That's less warming than the world experienced during the Little Climate Optimum in the span 900 to 1300 A.D., which was the finest weather in human history. Any species of wildlife that weathered that period should do fine in the temperatures of the 21st century.
Shiva's India is now having to import a significant part of its farm products, including its first-ever imports of yellow corn, millions of tons of vegetable oil and huge quantities of peas, lentils and beans.
The stark truth is that Indian farmers do not achieve yields high enough to support the country's growing appetite for milk, ice cream and poultry. India's gross domestic product is rising at a 7 percent rate this year, while its crop yields have been rising at just 3 percent annually.
India's 400 million cattle, water buffalo, sheep and goats are literally eating up its forests, forcing farmland closer and closer to the wildlife preserves where the Bengal tiger and the barking deer try to survive.
To protect the sustainability of her country's farming, Shiva might want to think about replacing some of India's millions of hungry draft animals with diesel-powered walking tractors.
India's growing need for farm imports invites other countries to use the high-yield farm inputs that Shiva hates. Otherwise, the other countries will have to plow down their own wildlife to supply farm exports for India.
Shiva warns that high-yield seeds may displace hundreds of ancient wheat and rice varieties. But those varieties can be kept in gene banks and a few subsidized gene farms.
The alternative is to turn the Third World into a gene museum, even though it contains half the world's arable land.
Environmentally, a world that uses 37 percent of its land area for farming and faces a threefold increase in farm demand over the next 40 years can't afford to waste good farmland on low yields. All the world's farmers will have to become high-yield farmers.
Do we care more about saving barrels of oil, which are increasingly plentiful, or saving wildlands and their wild species, which are increasingly scarce?
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Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.