Monday, 13 September 2010 22:30
September 8, 2010
It’s a never-ending battle, but when it comes to high-yield farming, the lines between the opponents may be blurring, as one biotech proponent provocatively suggests.
True to its recent history, the Hudson Institute poses an intriguing question this week in an op-ed by Dennis T. Avery : “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?”
The answer is a qualified, “Maybe.”
Avery, Hudson’s director of the Center for Global Food Issues and editor of Global Food Quarterly, noted that he recently spoke about the benefits of high-yield agriculture to a group of environmental prizewinners at an international DuPont meeting. His point was that “high-yield farming feeds more people with better diets from less land, thus saving room on the planet for wildlife.” The Institute has estimates that modern, intensive farming is responsible for preserving seven million square miles of wildlife habitat worldwide—equal to the entire land area of South America.
A center of controversy
Of course, that statement is but one piece in Avery’s high-profile, highly political repertoire and a continuation of the Institute’s equally controversial past. Founded in the early 1960s by military strategist and futurist Herman Kahn, the Hudson Institute was dedicated to promoting global security, prosperity and freedom. Kahn, though, was the chief strategic architect of the infamous Cold War doctrine of “MAD,” or mutual assured destruction, in which nuclear deterrence was based on a determination that a nuclear attack on United States would result in the large-scale destruction to Soviet civil society and military forces.
Although the Institute has principally devoted its resources over the years to global affairs involving political and religious freedom issues, its roots in agricultural policy go back some three decades to the philosophical debates with proponents of the “no-growth” movement spearheaded by Paul Ehrlich (“The Population Bomb”) and Garrett Hardin (“The Tragedy of the Commons”). The outgrowth of that effort brought the Institute into the arena of biotechnology and food security in a world with exponential population growth, and to the one obvious solution: high-yield farming.
Like climate change, resource depletion and energy security, high-yield farming has created a left-right fault line, with environmentalists and organic farmers on one side and biotech proponents on the other. These days, however, as Avery wrote in his editorial he is often joined by someone from “the other side,” in this case Dr. Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund-US, who “echoed most of my praise for high-yield farming.” Clay, who holds a Ph.D. in anthropology and international agriculture from Cornell University and is WWF’s senior vice president for Market Transformation, noted that the world will need more than twice as much food per year by 2050, due partly to the surge in population and even more so to the world’s rising wealth. With 37% of the world’s land area already in devoted to farming, Avery said that he and Clay agreed: “There is no salvation in doubling the earth’s plowed land area. The future of world agriculture had to be higher yields, which organic farming has never delivered.”
Clay also noted that a recent Stanford University study on the on benefits of high-yield agriculture suggested that the soil carbon that would have been lost if those additional seven million square miles of land had been plowed under would have equaled one-third of all the world’s industrial emissions in the last 150 years.
As Avery wrote: “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.”
Had he stopped there, Avery’s point would have been well-taken, but as is his wont, he went on to lambaste critics of pesticide use, blame consumers for the food industry’s failure to adopt electronic pasteurization to combat salmonella in eggs and E. coli O157:H7 in hamburger and produce and suggest that judges who rule against biotechnology are “going down a dangerous path.”
That’s what makes Avery so controversial and the Hudson Institute’s positioning easier to dismiss. But there is no denying the reality of population growth and food security, nor are there any other rational ideas on the table to deal with both, other than high-yield agriculture. Could modern farming practices be improved, enhanced, made more sustainable? Sure, and Avery makes the case that agricultural research funding has lagged severely in recent decades, which he noted is a political, not a scientific, challenge.
As such promising initiatives as the Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture have demonstrated, however, the need to embrace not only the best agricultural science and technology but also the best partnerships among environmentalists and sustainability proponents has never been greater.
As Avery noted: “This [trend] is a promising alliance between the idealists and the pragmatists who respond directly to the concerns about food shortage, biodiversity, climate change and ultimate sustainability.”
There may be other, more critical issues than food security that humanity must face in the coming decades.
But not many.
Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator