Thursday, January 13, 2011

Efficient & Science-Based: The Other Sustainable Ag

By Sara Hessenflow Harper

I am reading a terrific book that I highly recommend to you: Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know by Robert Paarlberg. This book tackles almost every issue related to food you can imagine from sustainability to obesity, from ag subsidies to hunger issues and everything in between. The author is a professor of political science at Wellsley College and also teaches a seminar class at Harvard. You can read his full biography by clicking here.

One of the key issues that has jumped out at me while reading this book is Paarlberg's description of what kind of agriculture is considered environmentally sustainable. He notes,

"Environmental activists and agricultural scientists answer this question in dramatically different ways. Environmentalists prefer small-scale diversified farming systems that rely on fewer inputs purchased off the farm, systems that imitate nature rather than seeking to dominate nature. Agricultural scientists often believe there will be less harm done to nature overall by highly capitalized and specialized high-yield farming systems employing the latest technology. Increasing the yield on lands already farmed allows more of the remaining land to be saved for nature.

Environmentalists invoke the damage done by modern farming, whereas agricultural scientists invoke the greater damage that would be done if the same production volume had to come from less productive low-yield farming systems."
When I read this, it struck me that part of the divide between environmentalists and ag folks comes seems to come from a core difference in how each side thinks about science and technology. Many environmentalists point to science when they want to prove the existence of a problem or quantify the damage done by human action or industry, but as a group, they often are not willing to embrace the positive effects that can come from human invention and technology brought about by science - at least, not when it comes to food, fiber and fuel. It's as if there are two very different world philosophies at play.

Environmentalists, and I would argue, urban culture world-view seems to be distrustful of people -- seeing their impact as inherently negative on the surrounding environment. For these people, nature seems to be some pristine, perfect place that you visit on the weekends and that can never be wrong - so using science to tame or manipulate nature is an anathema. However, for the farmers, ag scientists, and I would argue rural culture that has grown up in nature and seen first-hand how hard it is to make a living off the land, there is a welcoming of any help that science and technology brings to this task.

Understanding that each side is drawing off of their own personal experience to then project how policy should be, it seems that a whole lot of good could be accomplished by spending more time in educational exchanges and urban-rural cultural exchanges. Only then can some of the urban folks come to see that farmers and ag scientists care as deeply about nature as environmentalists -- they simply approach the issue from a different perspective, one that may make more sense to the Harvard student who has never seen a farm after making a real-life personal connection with an actual farmer.

When I hear the arguments so many environmentalists throw at the ag sector about moving away from high productivity, high efficiency and high technology, it really stuns me. I try to make the point to them that they would never think of giving up their smart phones and going back to the land-line with the curly cord because that is a slower, more sane lifestyle. I don't think too many of them would give up the cancer fighting drug for their family member that resulted from the entirely UN-natural process of creating or using high-tech BIO-tech medicines.

Cancer is natural. Death is natural -- but it seems to be ok to fight that kind of nature, but not ok to introduce technology into a field that does what nature has done for billions of years but only significantly faster.

I think part of the problem is that there is still this hyper-romanticized view that surrounds the idea of growing food. When urban folks or those not familiar with agriculture push the idea of getting rid of science-based technology (because that is what modern day tractors, pesticides, seeds and fertilizers are), farmers feel the agenda is simply to put them out of business. The more I talk with people who think like this, the more I believe that they simply don't understand what it takes to feed billions of people -- and that you can't do it without technology -- just as you couldn't run a modern-day business today without the internet. (Another piece of technology I don't see my urban friends giving up anytime soon).

But here again - food, these folks feel, should be exempt from all that. We should still have mom and pop out on the farm - technology-free and loving it. It just doesn't work that way and for those who care about sustainability, it is the least sustainable model for food that I can imagine for a planet that is projected to have 3 billion more people on it by 2050.

One way for some to get a better understanding of just how vital technology and science are to the agricultural sector is to look at the green revolution. Many of today's most vocal critics about agriculture also opposed (or still oppose) the original green revolution. Again, Paarlberg's book provides some wonderful thoughts on this:
"The original green revolution was an introduction of newly developed wheat and rice seeds into Latin America and into irrigated farming lands of South and SE Asia in the 1960s and 1970s.

The plant breeders, by crossing different varieties, managed to incorporate dwarfing genes into plants, producing short stiff-strawed varieties that devoted more energy to producing grain and less to straw or leaf material.

Wheat farmers in India began planting these new varieties in 1964, and by 1970, production had nearly doubled. The new rice seeds gave an equally spectacular performance. In India, rice production doubled between 1971 and 1976 in the states of Punjab and Haryana.

Overall, more than 8,000 new seed varieties were introduced for at least 11 different crops. Robert Evenson, an economist at Yale University concluded in 2003 that if these modern varieties had not been introduced after 1965, annual crop production in the developing world would have been 16-19% lower in the year 2000."
Here is proof positive, for anyone interested in really exploring the matter, that agricultural technology has helped humanity tremendously in the past. Another exemplar worth looking at is a part of the world that has largely not taken part in the green revolution or advanced agricultural technology: Africa.

If environmentalists who believe agriculture should be free of technology are right -- that it is truly sustainable to rely only on all things natural, then Africa should be an abundant place of harmony with nature and man. Unfortunately, Africa is not such a place -- and if we were to give up on agricultural technology, much of the rest of the world would face some of the same devastating problems we see there. As Paarlberg puts it,
"Most smallholder farmers in Africa today practice something that seems suspiciously close to pure agroecology: They use traditional seeds, plant their crops in polycultures, harvest rainfall, purchase almost no inputs such as nitrogen fertilizers or pesticides from off the farm and work from dawn to dusk. The result is that their cereal crop yields are only 10-20% as high as in North America, they earn only $1 a day on average and 1/3 are undernourished."
What so many who propose "natural agriculture" don't understand is that this equates to poverty -- poverty for the farmer, poverty for the consumer and ultimately, poverty for the environment - since the society does not have the resources to properly care for it.

I'm not trying to say that modern conventional agriculture is a perfect model. Very few things in life are perfect. I'm trying to say that the worldview that thinks agriculture should be exempt from taking advantage of all that science-based technology has to offer is not sustainable!

If we can get consumers, retailers and yes, environmentalists to understand this point, we get much closer to being able to work together on today's real environmental challenges.

1 comment:

  1. Great piece, Sara. I recently read the book about the life of Norman Borlaug. That too, was a real eye-opener when we think about how many lives he saved because of his work in the green revolution.

    That darn word "sustainability" is probably one of the most misused words in our vocabulary today. It means so many different things to so many different people. But the bottom line is we have a lot of hungry mouths to feed on a limited amount of land, and the future promises even tougher challenges to produce enough for all. At the same time, we must be conscious of the environmental impacts of how we do it. There is no way we could ever do it without using new technologies.

    Humankind can and does enhance what Nature is able to do. By understanding and working with Nature, we can actually increase productivity and at the same time provide environmental services that benefit all.