Continuous Improvement And The Environment

Food ParamidOver the past few months I’ve written a number of articles on the environment. I wrote these articles because I truly believe that the environment, and recent changes to the environment, are one of the most important issues affecting the world today. I was also motivated by the amazing amount of misunderstanding, and intentional misinformation, about how farming, fishing and other human activities are driving environmental change.

Do huge corporations distort information on their product to favor higher profitability? Yes, they do. Do consumers misunderstand scientific reports and create harmful pseudo-science. Yes, they do… too. The problem is, quite simply, that we have more humans on earth than at any other point in history. The earth, as vast as it is, has limits. Technology has allowed us to keep pushing those limits, but until we can shrink our population, we’re going to need to learn how to live comfortably at the very edge of the earth’s capacity… without falling over that edge.

The world needs to understand continuous improvement. All  or nothing solutions don’t work in the real world. Today’s polarized politics try to get everything at once. Instead, we need to take a step at a time, and just make tomorrow in some way measurably better than today. That means compromises… lots and lots of compromises. That’s the problem. We live in very polarized times, with little regard for compromise.

Conservatives have embarrassed themselves by denying climate change. Now, Washington’s agreement to ignore any and all scientific findings that interferes with petro-dollar donations, is crumbling. All but the most conservative Republicans now admit that global warming is real, and the rest are slowly agreeing that humans activity is the cause. The next step, agreeing to effective actions, requires that we also measure the resulting changes. Some actions will work, and some will fail. Just like a corporation that adopts continuous improvement, America needs to identify key metrics, develop effective tracking, and perform root cause analysis to know when our actions are effective or need correction.

Of course, objective analysis is not just a conservative issue. Liberals also need to give up magical thinking, and rely on scientific analysis. Liberals are quick to tell conservatives, “Look at the overwhelming research, written by the top scientists in the field, and stop quoting the few contrary reports by researchers with no credentials.” At least liberals are quick to say that when the subject is Climate Change. When the discussion is about industrial pesticides or nuclear power, suddenly expertise is equated with bias. Now we hear, “Big research studies cannot be trusted, and the only reports that are trustworthy are written by researchers from outside the establishment (i.e., no credentials).” In order to save the earth, we need to take a hard look at the mythology of Organic farming, and objectively review major industrial innovations to improve the foods we eat.

Let’s be very clear on a few important points. All of the farm land in the world is currently being farmed. In fact, around the world we lose 5,000 acres of productive farmland a day. Those losses will increase over time. This is the normal effect of farming. All modern farming has a negative impact on the land. Planting food and harvesting it, disturbs the land and cause the erosion that eventually makes land unproductive. The use of irrigation, the type of water we use, use of heavy farm equipment, and other activities on both conventional and organic farms accelerate land erosion. If we try to expand farmlands, it will both worsen existing environmental problems and require plowing under parks, forests and other public lands. Organic food requires 25% more land than conventional farming. If America switched to 100% organic farming today, we would need hundreds of millions of acres of new farmland. By 2050, America will have an additional 100 million citizens. Hungry citizens. How will they be fed?

That 25% higher productivity is why farmers use industrial chemicals and modern agricultural techniques. Humanity needs that 25%, and more. Tomorrow’s farmers MUST become even more productive, raising more food on every acre. Yet, that productivity must come from less water and a smaller carbon footprint. Pesticides help farmers to deliver high productivity, but their use is highly  controversial. Yet, farms, both conventional and organic, are using increasing amounts of pesticides.  As pests gain resistance to these chemicals, usage rises. The newest pesticides have been found to be safe, but even the safest pesticides have some risk. After all, pesticides kill insects and weeds. Newer pesticides are less toxic than the ones they replace, but less risk is not “no risk”. Old pesticides were essentially universal poisons, such as arsenic. Newer pesticides are specific to individual pests, and not directly toxic, but that doesn’t meant that they couldn’t indirectly affect your health or might have cumulative effects over your lifetime.

Today, a pesticide called Roundup is receiving a lot of attention. Massive amounts… literally hundreds of millions of tons…  of pesticide are used every year to grow corn, soybeans and other staple crops. Roundup has tested as an exceptionally safe pesticides, certain far safer than the pesticides it replaces. Yet, over a lifetime it may be a cause of cancer. No studies yet have linked Roundup to cancer, but it can take decades to establish these links. After all, every pesticide used in organic farming has been found to cause cancer, or is directly toxic. Roundup may be safer than older pesticides, but we do need even newer pesticides that are safer still. New pesticides are under development today that fit that description, but it means that they will work in a very different way. A new generation of pesticides will be completely non-toxic, killing pests by disrupting targeted RNA. The genes affected by this new class of chemicals only exist in the specific insects that are being targeted. Not in human beings.

A chemical that alters the cell structure of… anything… will attract a lot of negative attention. A new breakthrough that can significantly raise farm productivity will be very different, more than just a tweak to existing techniques. Delivering big  improvements to crop productivity will take big breakthroughs. Scary breakthroughs. Genetically modified foods (GMOs) need to be looked at again. New techniques we haven’t yet developed, will need to be considered. In the next few decades our world’s population will grow by billions. Unless we sacrifice our public spaces and forests, we MUST dramatically increase farm productivity. We are all stakeholder in the quality of our environment. We don’t know if the next “big thing” will help or hurt, but we need to objectively analyze each new option, and use science rather than opinion, fear and self-interest to decide if it should be used. At least, that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

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