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Higher yields: The only farming answer

By Dennis T. Avery
web posted September 6, 2010

Is the Green Movement finally ready to face the global need to triple crop yields over the next 40 years—and drop its dedication to land-selfish organic farming?  Maybe yes, and none too soon.  The planet's wild biodiversity is at stake. 

I recently spoke about the benefits of high-yield agriculture to environmental prizewinners at an international DuPont meeting, This isn't news. I've been praising high-yield farming for decades for feeding more people better diets from less land—and thus saving room on the planet for wildlife.  I estimate 7 million square miles of wildlife habitat have been spared. This is equal to the land area of South America!   

This time, however, I was joined on the program by Dr. Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund-US, who echoed most of my praise for high-yield farming.  Dr. Clay and I agreed that the world would need more than twice as much food per year by 2050, due partly to the last surge in human population growth, and even more due to the world's rising wealth.  We agreed that with 37 percent of the world's land area already in farming, there was no salvation in doubling the earth's plowed land area.   He absolutely agreed with me that the future of world agriculture had to be higher yields, which organic farming has never delivered. 

We both noted the latest information on high-yield benefits:  a Stanford University study that says the soil carbon that would have been lost if the additional 7 million square miles had been plowed would have equaled one-third of all the world's industrial emissions since 1850!

So whether you're worried about feeding hungry people, saving biodiversity or preventing man-made global warming, the farming answer is always the same—higher yields per acre.  And farming is mankind's biggest impact on the natural world, by far.

 I suggested to Dr. Clay that this should mean some reevaluation of the "toxicity" rap that agricultural pesticides have gotten among our urban consumers. Far more worrisome is the lurking presents of dangerous bacteria in our food. Consumers should demand electronic pasteurization to protect against such threats as salmonella in our eggs, hamburger, and fresh produce. The electronic pasteurization kills virtually all bacteria, including the food spoilage bacteria, so fresh foods taste fresher.   

The need for tripled world crop yields must be taken into account when Federal regulators and judges act to support or block new technology such as biotechnology. If not overturned, the Federal judge who recently ruled against biotech sugar beets is going down a dangerous path with consequences far beyond sugar beets. Without biotech, we may not have the tools to feed the people and save wildlife habitat from the plow. 

We should increase our investments in agricultural research, thanking Bill Gates and Warren Buffet along the way for their massive planned investments in research for "a second Green Revolution."  The land-grant agricultural colleges and their Council for Agricultural Science and Technology have been swimming upstream on high-yield research in recent decades.

Both the American Farm Bureau Federation and Dr. Clay's World Wildlife Fund/US are partners in a broader alliance (the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture) with food manufacturers, such as General Mills and Kellogg's; the Fertilizer Institute; Croplife (pesticides); plus enlightened environmental groups: Conservation International, the National Association of Conservation Districts, NRCS/USDA, The Nature Conservancy and the World Resources Institute.

This is a promising alliance between the idealists and the pragmatists who respond directly to the concerns about food shortage, biodiversity, climate, and ultimate sustainability. ESR

Dennis T. Avery, a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., is an environmental economist. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. He is co-author, with S. Fred Singer of Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Years. Readers may write to him at PO Box 202 Churchville, VA 24421 or email to cgfi@hughes.net.





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