Does Farming Destroy The Earth?

Tilling teh field

Tilling the field

In our last Blog, “If Science Has the Answers, Why Are We Fighting?”, we discussed how we live in a polarized world, where we pay the most attention to the facts we already believe in. Today, we’re going to see how our selective hearing impacts some specific environmental issues and see if we can move past self-interest, and look at the facts objectively.  We will look at one of the most fundamental environmental issues… “What is farming doing to the earth?” That’s an enormous issue, that involves pesticides, fertilizers, use of water, soil erosion and GMO crops. In the next blog, our third in this series, we will look at a related issue, “Is our food safe for human consumption?”. Let’s dive right in!

America’s farms have long since ceased to be idyllic rural hideaways, where you wander through orchards with cows softly mooing in the background. Sure, you can go to a family farm to pick some apples or find your Halloween pumpkin, but that’s destination entertainment more than it is farming. Our farms are closer to factories than something your granddad would recognize. America’s farms use artificial fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, genetically modified foods (GMOs) and gigantic farm equipment. Americans want to return to a simpler time, that is easier to understand, and this desire can best be seen in the Organic Movement. If we get rid of chemicals and harmful farm practices, so the movement says, returning to the way farmers used to raise crops, we’ll have better food and the earth will be better off. It sounds good, but can organic foods really deliver what we expect?

One hundred years ago, the world had just 1 billion people, and all farming was organic. Today, organic farming is just not productive enough to support today’s population of 7 billion. That’s why farming changed. Mechanical tractors and flood irrigation raised productivity. By the turn of the last century, farmers selected the most productive seeds for their land, rather than just replanting seed from last year’s crop. Since the 1930s, long before GMOs… or labeling laws, new seeds were blasted with radiation and soaked in mutagenic chemicals to create new characteristics and higher yields; some of these mutations may be growing on organic farms today, as heirloom or heritage varieties. Productivity was again boosted, with synthetic fertilizers, and then still again with the green revolution (a world-wide, scientific evaluation of crops around the world, and what was best to plant where). And finally, the rise of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in the fields, and hormones and antibiotics for cattle in the pastures.

Today, all but a few percent of our farmland uses these “conventional” farming methods. At the same time, organic farming, which attempts to get rid of chemicals and technology dependent methods, is rapidly gaining interest around the world. In America, Most organic foods consists of “premium” foods at a premium price. Is it worth it? While every major study to date, shows little or no benefit, consumers of organic produce strongly believe in the “back to a simpler time” message, and feel that it is healthier than conventional food. Today we will only cover the impact of farming on the environment (food safety and nutrition will is covered in the next blog), but we should quickly touch on personal vs public good.

If you have evidence (or you just believe) that organic food is good for your health, you are certainly justified in choosing to buy organics. That’s a personal good. But what about the good of the public? What if you are right and you are better off eating organic foods, BUT… by doing so, you cause great harm to the environment? What if the continued use of organic foods was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, thousands of children. Not your children. Someone else’s children. Would you still buy only organic fruit for your family? These issues of public vs. private goods are at the center of farming today. Let’s take a deeper look at the public good, at how farming affects the environment.

ACREAGE: No matter how you look at it, farming is not good for the environment. On a

All Rights: Flood Irrigation

Flood Irrigation All Rights: Wikipedia

planet with a population of 7 billion and growing, we just don’t give the earth a chance to rest. Planting and harvesting crops every year breaks up the soil, contributing to soil erosion (i.e. allowing the soil to wash away). Over the last 150 years, America has lost between 50% and 75% of its soil due to farming and erosion. As a result, in the US and around the world farmland is now becoming desert, while the soil that is swept into rivers and lakes, causes rapid bacterial and plant growth. The water soon runs out of oxygen, creating a killing zone for fish and native plants. Soil erosion is caused by many factors, but is observed when it rains and when the land is irrigated. Irrigation was the miracle of the Bronze age, greatly increasing crop yields, but also destroying the land over time. There are other methods of farming, but none that have yet matched the productivity of commercial farming and flood irrigation.

One of the problems with organic crops (and meat) is that they require more land than conventional farming. Organic farming generally requires 25% more land to grow the same amount of food as conventional farming. Think about it. The land mass of the US is 2.3 billon acres. Farmland is  442 million acres and pasture land is another 587 million acres. If all food was organic tomorrow, we’d need 260 million additional acres. There’s 300 million acres of parks, 650 million acres of forest, and another 375 million acres tied up in Alaska (which has very little good farmland). Take out another 50 million acres for cities and 73 million for rural towns, and we’re left with about 225 million acres of land, that includes deserts, swamps, military bases, open pit mines, etc. Not exactly choice farm land.

Even if we could convert to organics without the price of food skyrocketing, there just isn’t enough land for organic farming. Especially when you take into account the 100 million additional Americans that we need to feed by 2050. Are organics  important enough to convert our national parks into farmland? Another alternative is to make organic farming much more efficient, without using synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. That just leaves consolidation (merge small organic farms together into bigger farms), add more heavy machinery, and replace human farmers with a new generation of smart robots. Technically, this is still organic, but it doesn’t sound very much like what organic consumers want.

CARBON FOOTPRINT: Synthetic fertilizers are usually based on petroleum, which means a bigger carbon footprint. Organics require more land, which means more fuel for transportation and farm equipment. It’s difficult to say which is better or worse, since every farm has different requirements. However, we can say that organic, or natural, or family oriented farms are less efficient, and at big commercial farms have smaller carbon footprints per carrot, per head of lettuce, or what have you. It’s not just the farm, but what happens after the crops are harvested. Early one morning, go to a supermarket. See all of the trucks unloading food? That is just the last step in a complex transportation process that links the farm to your supermarket. Big farms are more efficient in loading trucks and trains full of food. The smaller the farm, the less efficient the process, and organic and family farms are usually smaller. If you rode an hour in your SUV to go to a small farm to pick your own produce, it can be a fun day, but that small bag of produce (with maybe a lemonade or cider donut) leaves a HUGE carbon footprint. The small farm just isn’t an efficient option for an increasingly urban population.

Earlier, we discussed the limits of land in the US (and elsewhere in the world). There is, however, an alternative to using US land to grow organic foods…imported organics. Increasingly, American’s are buying organics from overseas, especially from China. For example, any organic corn you find in your local market it undoubtedly imported (from Turkey or Romania). Imported organics avoids the land use problem in America, but moving food around the world increases the carbon footprint. Of course, the same applies to conventional foods, which is grown around the world for the US market. The only small advantage that conventionally grown food has is that since most food is conventional, there is a greater likelihood that you can buy local produce.

EXTINCT CROPS: Most consumers are unaware that common food crops have gone extinct. Bananas, which are all imported, were an early casualty of our global food system. Before the 1950’s, we ate a type of banana called the “Gros Michel”. Panama disease infects almost every variety of banana.  A particularly deadly strain of Panama disease showed up in the 1930s, and the Gros Michel was history. The banana we eat today, the Cavendish, survived the epidemic and the world’s #1 banana. The Cavendish is not immune to Panama Disease, it just wasn’t harmed by that one particular strain. Banana growers know that the constantly mutating Panama Disease will one day randomly mutate into something that wipes out the Cavendish. When that happens, we have no substitute, no “one last try” banana. Unless, of course, we use genetic modification to make one.

The banana is not the only threatened fruit. In the 1990’s Hawaiian papayas were wiped out by the ring spot virus. Other varieties of papaya were tried, but none would grow in the virus infected soil. Then they found a papaya that flourished, a new GMO papaya. Today, all Hawaiian papayas are GMOs. Soon, the Florida orange will suffer a similar fate. A small insect, the Asian Aphid, carries a virus that destroys the roots of the orange tree. First the oranges become inedible, and later the tree dies. Up to 80% of Florida’s orange trees are already infected, and are expected to die in a few years. Florida’s orange groves have between 3 and 10 years before they close. Worse yet, grapefruits, lemons and other citrus are also infected and will only outlast orange trees by a few years. Oranges groves in California are just as vulnerable, but have so far remained free of the Asian Aphid.

Asian Aphid - All rights: Wikipedia.

Asian Aphid – All rights: Wikipedia.

If you’re trying to read between the lines for a ray of hope, there isn’t one. This is a massive disaster, with very news little coverage. But you have seen the signs that something was wrong. Between 2004 (when trees started to die) and 2012 the wholesale price of juice oranges rose by 275%, and continues to rise. Look at a 64 ounce half gallon jug of juice. That jug is now 59 ounces (or less), a way for the industry to hide the price increase. Fewer acres being farmed (down 29%) and each acre is yielding less fruit (down 21%). Orange growers have pooled their resources to develop a solution, which they must have ready to apply in the next year or two if they expect to survive.

Growers already have several solutions, but they all require a strain of GMO orange. Farmers are convinced that all of the GMOs are safe, but they are afraid of the backlash from the pro-Organic camp, which could be even more destructive to their profits than the virus. For decades, orange juice advertising has made OJ synonymous with “natural”. It’s going to take a very good ad campaign to make us think that a laboratory developed orange, is “All Natural”.

In our global economy, pests are moving around the world and wiping out local species. It’s not just happening on farms, it’s happening around our homes, in lakes a streams and in our forests. Half of America’s Elm trees were lost to a fungus called Dutch Elm disease. Ash and Chestnut trees are being wiped out by other foreign insects and diseases. More foreign invaders are already be in the US, but have not yet made their presence known. Overall we’re losing ground against invasive species. If we want to keep local plants, and the environments they sustain, we may need to consider using farm GMO techniques to save our parks and forests. That’s not an idea solution, but it may be better than letting an extinct tree leave a whole in the environment. Even if another tree grows in its place, the birds, insects, mosses and other life the extinct species supported may not survive with the new trees.

All Rights: Sesibone

All Rights: Sesibone

SOIL: The soil on America’s farms, especially in the Great Plains states (or “America’s Breadbasket”) has been steadily deteriorating ever since we America’s earliest farms. The process of farming, organic or conventional, disturbs the soil. You need to plant, water, tend and harvest the crops, all of which loosen the soil and allow it to wash away. In the last 150 years, 75% of the soil in the Great Plains (i.e. “America’s Breadbasket”) has washed away. Other areas have lost only 50% of their top soil. When the soil runs out, there can be no farming. Topsoil is replenished, but it takes centuries to gain back one inch. The great plains have lost more than 100 feet of soil. When we had a great deal more soil than today, a combination of soil erosion and a persistent drought caused ca=used an ecological disaster that we called the Dust Bowl. This lasted through the 1920s and 1930s, when the land literally dried up and blew away… burying whole towns as dust storms swept the Great Plains. The largest recorded storm in 1934 had dust clouds 2 miles high. Farmers starved to death, and the choking dust led to lung diseases that killed hundreds.

Over tilling, over watering and bad weather combined to form the Dust Bowl, a decades long environmental disaster. Unlike Global Climate Change, once the US government was presented with evidence that human activity caused this disaster, the Department of Agriculture developed soil conservation and training programs, and the Dust Bowl was eventually tamed. Farmers learned from their mistakes, but soil erosion continues to be an issue. Farmers need to till or “turn over” the soil to disrupt the growth of weeds. Without tilling, weeds drain the soil of nutrients and crop productivity falls. However, tilling loosens the soil and makes it easier for soil to be washed away in the rain or during irrigation. Traditional herbicides helped to kill weeds but also killed crops. These herbicides had to be used carefully, since they were based on arsenic and other toxins that could poison consumers. Synthetic herbicides were introduced after World War II, and for the first time were specific. They would kill specific weeds, and leave other plants alone.

This new generation of pesticides was so effective, that it created a revolution in farming and ended hunger in many parts of the world. But as always, there is a cost. These products were seen as so safe, they were used indiscriminately. Suddenly we were dumping millions of tons of pesticides into the environment. Some of the “safe” pesticides had strange effects. DDT didn’t kill birds, but as DTT built up in the environment bird’s egg shells got thinner and broke under the weight of the brooding mother. Early pesticides were retired and replaced with safer alternatives. But greater safety meant still more use, and new types of use. Roundup (Glyphosate) worked so well that it allowed a no-till solution to be developed… IF it was used in conjunction with GMO crops. Spray roundup, and then plant without tilling. Tractors (and petroleum) use drops off, the leftovers from last year’s crops acts as a soil cover (less erosion), and less fertilizer and water is needed.

Given the massive quantity of Roundup that is America uses, there is a lot of attention and testing to see if Roundup could be causing more subtle health and environmental problems. To date there is little evidence that Round up or other pesticides are a danger, but new chemicals always mean new risk. However, there was already risk. New pesticides do seem to be less risky (less toxic) than the products they replaced. If these products weren’t toxic in some way, they wouldn’t kill pests. Even if the newest pesticides are the least toxic of all (especially to people), it takes a long time to collect enough data to find out if it does harm. The combination of low toxicity and “specific” types of pesticides (leaves “good” insects and plants alone).

One of the newest class of pesticides, Neo-Nicotinoids, may be linked to Colony Collapse Disorder, which is killing honey bees around the world. Ironically, this class of chemicals was intended to mimic a commonly used organic pesticide… nicotine (as in tobacco). Which raises a question. Does natural nicotine also harm bees? Should nicotine be studied and possibly banned from farming, before organic farming grows any larger?

WATER: America barely has enough water to meet our needs today. By 2050 America’s

All Rights: Dwigt Sipler

Drip Irrigation – All Rights: Dwigt Sipler

population will grow by another 100 million. Can our farms produce 35% more food, and reduce our use of water? Home owners can expect to see new homes without lawns, fewer private pools and fountains, and toilets and showers twill require even higher water efficiency. Likewise, farms must get better with water conservation.  No-till farming can conserve water. In 2009 only 88 million acres of land were no-till, so there’s still a lot of room for expansion. California, with hot and arid farms, would greatly benefit from drip watering systems, which allow the soil to hold onto moisture and dramatically reduce the water crops use. Still more radical are “dry farming” techniques, which does away with irrigation. This vastly reduces the cost of farming and, for some crops, produces premium foods for a premium price. With less water, crop yield does fall, by half or more. The “golden triangle” of farming… good for the environment, good for the farmer and good for the consumer… is a tricky proposition. While farming in California is not the same as the rest of the nation, they are dealing with problems that other states will be facing soon, so I’m going to use a lot of examples from California in the sections that follow.

For example, most of the almonds grow in the US come from California. Almonds production has skyrocketed, largely due to the popularity t of Almond Milk. That’s a great personal good (less cholesterol, fat, etc.), but it’s not a very helpful public good. Did you know that every individual almond consumes a gallon of water? Worse still, now that the rivers and lake have dried up, Almond farmers are relying on wells for water. Underground water picks up salts and minerals which may be perfectly safe for human consumption, but over time build up in the soil. Different plants have very different tolerances for salt. As that tolerance is reached, plants start to show salt burn (yellowing and browning of the leave), then yields drop dramatically. Eventually crops stop growing. Almond trees throughout California are showing salt burn, and yields are falling. In the old days you could just irrigate a bit more and it would make up for some of the damage. But farming already uses 80% of California’s water. Around the world 45 million acres of land are now too heavily salted to grow crops, and another 5,000 acres are lost every day. Salt may be the most dangerous chemical in farming today.

You might ask yourself, “Why don’t farmers just use the most efficient farming methods?” The answer is that farming is risky, making farmers slow to accept change. Profits from this year are needed to buy fuel, seeds, equipment and labor today in hopes of a good crop next year. Too little rain, too much rain, a too hot or too cool growing season, a sudden drop in prices, the arrival of a new pest, and a host of other issues could bankrupt a farm. California became one of the largest fruits and vegetables producers due to cheap and plentiful water. Naturally, farming was built around “flood irrigation”. Now that water is expensive and hard to find, they need very different “best practices”, but a small mistake in technique could cause crop yields to plummet. You could convert to organics, but that means no synthetic pesticides for 5 years (how do you make money before you get your organic certification)? No-till is well understood, but nervous farmers may choose “sort of till” instead of no-till, blending the worst of both practices. Farmers know they must speed up water conservation, but there is no easy and obvious roadmap for them to follow.

CONCLUSION: As you can see, questions like “Is this pesticide harmless?”, aren’t very useful. A better question might be, “Will a new pesticide be better than the old one?” Farming has always had negative consequences for the earth.  The mechanical process of planting and harvesting disrupts the soil. All farming, organic or not, with irrigation or without, require chemical and techniques that consume resources and can cause soil erosion. Farming is about balancing the golden triangle: good for consumer, good for the land and good for the farmer. New chemicals and technology are constantly being developed, but we only know how safe a product is after it is used.

Organic farming lowers the risk of the unknown, but raises risks in other areas (more land use, more water use, continued use of older less effective pesticides, etc.). There is no single correct farming technique, but a careful assessment of new and old techniques may give us options on how to better use the farmlands we have. At least, that’s my Niccolls worth for today! Join us for the third and last part of this three part series on farming… and learn if our food is still safe to eat!

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