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Elite magazine says high-yield farmers are saving world wildlife

By Dennis Avery
web posted January 1, 2007

The Economist, one of the most influential magazines in the world, lavished praise on none other than the world's high-yield farmers—for saving the planet's wildlands and wild species!    

That's right, a powerful media outlet touted the environmental triumph of those oft-reviled farmers who grow food using industrial fertilizers, chemical sprays, and (horrors) irrigation water from dammed rivers. After 40 years of an organic, green, and holistic coalition effort to turn our food providers into villains, a few non-farmers have finally caught on: Without high yield farming, there wouldn't be any room on the planet for forests or wildlife.

The EconomistThe magazine's cover for December 9th –15th prominently featured "Why Ethical Food Harms the Planet."  Its editorial stated: 

"Farming is inherently bad for the planet. Since humans took it up around 11,000 years ago, the result has been deforestation on a massive scale. But following the ‘green revolution' of the 1960s, greater use of chemical fertilizer has tripled grain yields with very little increase in the area of land under cultivation. Organic methods, which rely on crop rotation, manure and compost in place of fertilizer, are far less intensive. So producing the world's current agricultural output organically would require several times as much land as is currently cultivated. There wouldn't be much room left for the rainforest."

As it happens, humans are already cropping and pasturing about 37 percent of the world's land area and using virtually all of the high-quality land. That means doubling the cropped area, from about 10 percent to more than 25 percent of the global land area, to practice organic-only production would more than double soil erosion.

With the low, mostly organic crop yields of 1950, the world would need to clear virtually all of the world's remaining forests to grow today's food supply, leaving no additional land to provide better diets for the undernourished in Africa or to feed the last increment of human population growth due to peak in 2050. All 16 million square miles of the world's remaining forests would have gone by now.

The Economist noted that organic farmers can't even use the soil-safest low-till farming systems. Low-till uses herbicides to kill weeds, so the seeds can be planted without disturbing earthworms, soil bacteria, or soil carbon. Organic farmers can't kill their own cover crops, let alone their weeds, without bare-earth, energy-costly plows and mechanical cultivators.

The magazine was just as harsh about the other feel-good food buying strategies.  FairTrade coffee?  Ninety percent of the premium goes to the retailer, not to the coffee pickers in the Third World.

"Buying locally" too often burns more fuel for consumers' shopping trips than is needed to move produce long distances by ship, train and truck.   

Fancy restaurants' chefs tout the wonders of organic food; perhaps to justify their high meal prices and/or to appeal to elitists.  The green movement continues to scare consumers about pesticide residues, though tests show we swallow a thousand times more "cancer risk" in the natural pesticides that plants have evolved to protect themselves.

The Economist concluded that saving the world by shopping is emotionally appealing—but as likely to lead the world away from progress as to improve it.

Our conclusion: It is past high time to return the White Hats to today's conventional farmers who are doing a phenomenal job of providing the safest food supply in history and allowing the wild creatures to continue to live in their forest homes. ESR

Dennis T. Avery is a senior fellow for Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. and is the Director for Center for Global Food Issues.  He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State.  Readers may write him at Post Office Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421.

 

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