Did The Organic Farming Debate Cost Someone His Job
* It's Incredible That An Agricultural Extension Agent Would Be Sent Into The Field Unaware Of The Environmental Benefits Of High-Yield Agriculture
February 14, 2001
by Dennis T. Avery
THE BridgeNews FORUM: Viewpoints on farming, farm policy and related agricultural issues, February 9, 2001
CHURCHVILLE, Va.--Organic Gardening magazine says a young Virginia county extension agent has been fired for disagreeing with me over organic farming.
To quote: "When Dennis G. Bishop read a local newspaper column trashing organic agriculture, he decided to write a rebuttal. The column was penned by Hudson Institute lackey Dennis Avery, arch-nemesis of the organic movement.
"Bishop's letter (was) published in the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va. Bishop was employed as an agricultural extension agent for Virginia Tech, but did not mention his job in his letter. Despite a glowing performance review less than a month earlier, he was handed his walking papers with no explanation 10 days after his letter ran."
Arch-nemesis? That part is flattering. But I had never heard of Bishop's case until weeks after he left Extension. I am sorry if a young person's career has been derailed by the ongoing controversy over organic foods and farming.
However, an extension agent is a public employee perceived to have special training and knowledge in the area of agriculture. He can no more be a "private citizen" than a prosecuting attorney can stop being an officer of the court after 5 p.m.
The real tragedy is that Bishop didn't have the knowledge he needed to justify the Extension Service's role in high-yield farming even to himself.
He wrote in the paper's August 31 edition: "I am greatly concerned about the doomed road that traditional, chemical agriculture has taken in its relationship with the earth...it has plowed through the Earth without giving thought to where it is going; and it is doomed because it has used and raped the earth...despite my ignorance, I take the side of the organic growers."
The editor of the Free Lance-Star had limited sympathy for Bishop: "For seeding controversy, Mr. Bishop got weeded....Admittedly, the substance of Mr. Bishop's letter--a rich compost of intemperance and transparent error--is hard to defend. Let's take error first...modern farming techniques have prevented the ravishing of Mother Nature."
The paper goes on to note "The Shenandoah Valley's Dennis Avery...points out that organic farmers typically fertilize their fields with animal manure or nitrogen-fixing clovers both of which require much additional acreage to produce."
It's incredible that a professional agricultural extension agent should be sent into the field ignorant of the massive environmental benefits of the high-yield agriculture pioneered by the land-grant universities and the Extension service.
Indian philosopher Deepak Lal points out that any "organic economy" is inevitably constrained by the fixed supply of good land, thus creating a long-run situation where the mass of the people languish in mud huts, eating gruel. It was the genius of America to apply science to agriculture and invent the Extension Service to carry it to farmers.
This overcame the "organic" poverty of mankind. We shared our agricultural research with the whole world, creating a Green Revolution that saved a billion people from starving in the 1960s, even as it saved 15 million square miles of forests and wildlife.
Neither Virginia Tech nor any other State Extension system should send out an agent who is unaware of the humanitarian benefits the extension service has given the world through shared knowledge of technical advances.
Nor is Bishop apparently familiar with the Soil and Water Conservation Society of America's published conclusion (1995) that modern chemically supported agriculture is the most sustainable in history, particularly because of chemical fertilizer, integrated pest management (with pesticides) and conservation tillage.
Soil erosion has always been the Achilles' heel of human society. A recent study found that the highly erodible Coon Creek watershed in Wisconsin is now suffering only 6 percent of the erosion it endured during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, in large part because of conservation tillage.
Organic farmers refuse to use conservation tillage because it depends on chemical herbicides for weed control. Organic farmers cling instead to unsustainable bare-earth farming with plows.
Lal accuses organic activists of a "new imperialism." He says they want to keep the Third World needlessly poor and hungry when technology could give them affluence without diminishing either the quality of life in America or the ecosystems in India.
Life is no longer a zero-sum game. Dennis Bishop was, in effect, hired to communicate this reality to both farmers and well-fed city folks. The Extension Service fails to do this is the saddest part of the Bishop story.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.