Unsustainable

I’ve seen a rash of books and articles lately recycling age-old arguments about how industrial farming can not be sustained, is destroying the environment, ruining our food, making us fat and making Hollywood churn out bad movies. So it’s refreshing to see a wonderful refutation of the so-called sustainable agriculture.

On the desk in front of me are a dozen books, all hugely critical of present-day farming. Farmers are often given a pass in these books, painted as either naïve tools of corporate greed, or economic nullities forced into their present circumstances by the unrelenting forces of the twin grindstones of corporate greed and unfeeling markets. To the farmer on the ground, though, a farmer blessed with free choice and hard won experience, the moral choices aren’t quite so easy. Biotech crops actually cut the use of chemicals, and increase food safety. Are people who refuse to use them my moral superiors? Herbicides cut the need for tillage, which decreases soil erosion by millions of tons. The biggest environmental harm I have done as a farmer is the topsoil (and nutrients) I used to send down the Missouri River to the Gulf of Mexico before we began to practice no-till farming, made possible only by the use of herbicides. The combination of herbicides and genetically modified seed has made my farm more sustainable, not less, and actually reduces the pollution I send down the river.

Finally, consumers benefit from cheap food. If you think they don’t, just remember the headlines after food prices began increasing in 2007 and 2008, including the study by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations announcing that 50 million additional people are now hungry because of increasing food prices. Only “industrial farming” can possibly meet the demands of an increasing population and increased demand for food as a result of growing incomes.

That last part needs to be savored like a fresh cucumber. “Sustainable agriculture” is not sustainable. If we were to use organic “sustainable” methods of agriculture, we would either have to massively increase the amount of land we devote to farming or let about two billion people starve. Agricultural technology has shattered the Malthusian equation, leading to an unprecedented era of prosperity.

I’m not against organic food. We have a vegetable patch and we’ll probably grab some corn and apples this fall from local farmers. But the idea that you can feed 6.5 billion people with “sustainable” methods is just nonsense. And to sustain this nonsense — this religion of large-scale organic farming, its disciples resort to lies, deceptions and evasions.

For example: I recently noted the push to compost in San Francisco and commented that it was almost certain to be net negative for the environment. Damn, do I hate being right all the time.

Compost is a valuable soil amendment, and if somebody else is paying to deliver it to my farm, then bring it on. But it will not do much to solve the nitrogen problem. Household compost has somewhere between 1 and 5 percent nitrogen, and not all that nitrogen is available to crops the first year. Presently, we are applying about 150 pounds of nitrogen per acre to corn, and crediting about 40 pounds per acre from the preceding years soybean crop. Let’s assume a 5 percent nitrogen rate, or about 100 pounds of nitrogen per ton of compost. That would require 3,000 pounds of compost per acre. Or about 150,000 tons for the corn raised in our county. The average truck carries about 20 tons. Picture 7,500 trucks traveling from New York City to our small county here in the Midwest, delivering compost. Five million truckloads to fertilize the country’s corn crop. Now, that would be a carbon footprint!

The veggie-cuddlers also lie about food contamination, which is way way down, not up, thanks to modern agriculture.

Hurst even debunks the most solid of complaints about modern farming — the livestock methods that many, including me, denounce as cruel. He points out that the small crates save piglets from being squashed by mothers, turkeys from drowning in the rain and all of them from being devoured by predators. To be honest, I still think the small crates are a bit too much — the same could be accomplished with more humane treatment. But there is another side to the argument — there always is.

The true innovation in agriculture is being done with genetic engineering, with no-till farming, with less destructive pesticides and more efficient fertilizers. The call for “sustainable agriculture” is nothing more than romanticizing the past — a past when, not to put too fine a point on it, we were all starving and our food was filled with disease. Do we really want to return to that?

Comments are closed.