June 24, 2002
Low-impact Farming

I saw this post over at Cut on the Bias, and I felt a response coming on. This was big enough for a full post, though, so I ran it here.

Susanna points out the sacrifices in quality of life that must be made (a spartan lifestyle, coupled with more people working more hours on the farms to provide food), and one of her readers points out that more land would need to be dedicated to farming. It is this last upon which I wish to elaborate, because very few people realize just what type of increase of which we are speaking.

(Much of this material comes from The Skeptical Environmentalist, by Bjørn Lomborg. I have done a lot paraphrasing, but most of the research is his. The information on psoralen and on GE rice was stuff I had read elsewhere; I cannot recall the exact source. The information on raspberries was from an article in last month's Seattle Times, which does not appear to be online.)

A Danish governmental study released in 1999 revealed that a total ban on pesticides (equivalent to the Amish refusal to use them) would reduce yields by 16-84 percent, with a resultant price increase of 30-120 percent. In addition, the cost of phasing in a ban (in Denmark) was estimated to carry a price tag of $1 Billion per year. This covers *just* produce for human consumption; if food for animal feed is included, the cost increases to $3.5 Billion/year.

Regarding fungicides, an 1994 article in Science magazine points out

Were synthetic fungicides not available, experts have said that production of apples would be reduced 40 percent, grapes 33 percent, peaches 49 percent, and strawberries 38 percent. Production of most vegetables would also be decreased.

(Another consideration for banning fungicides in the potential for poisoning. Celery, when exposed to some fungi, synthesizes a compound called psoralen, which is a skin irritant and has been proved carcinogenic to humans. Treating celery with fungicides virtually eliminates the danger of psoralen exposure).

Modern irrigation techniques also improve yields㬤 percent of the Earth's food comes from irrigated land, which comprises 18 percent of the total agricultural land mass.

Modern high-yield crops (genetically engineered, albeit by more conventional methods, yet genetically modified all the same) have resulted in increased yields, shorter growth time (which can allow for multiple harvests of the same crop), and increased nutrient yield. Similarly, cows produce twice as much milk as in the 1930's. "Golden Rice" adds vitamin A to rice, with the potential to save 2 million children's lives a year, and to preserve the eyesight of 500,000 more. Experimental research with raspberries here in Washington has revealed that with a properly regulated environment, raspberries can produce harvests up to seven times a year, without weakening the plants or producing substandard fruit.

All of these techniques, shunned by the Amish and their Luddite proponents, have radically increased the amount of food produced by a plot of land. To maintain production at these levels without the modern benefits would not be possible, as there simply is not enough suitable land to plant or raise livestock. That is the dirty little secret the activists don't want to reveal.

posted on June 24, 2002 06:04 PM


While the information in your post may be correct, I am leery of Mr. Lomborg. His eagerness to discredit the environmental community has far overshadowed any truth that may be evident in his work.

That aside, the information in your post suggests that, yes, some technological advances have extended land productivity for now. Unfortunately, any effort to force marginal land into an artificial level of productivity is a short term solution at best, as this land becomes exhausted with few rotations. For example, while they extoll the incredible production of the Washington raspberries, they don't address the toll that level of production would have on the soil.

Frankly, the best solution for reducing the strain on the earth is to reduce human populations (in North America at least)- not by shooting anyone, just laying off on the procreation. The amount of productivity required to keep our lifestyle going is outrageous. Maybe if we had smaller families, ate less meat and used more local products, we wouldn't be forced to use artifical means to elevate productivity.

The N.Am. way of life, if practiced by everyone on earth, would require 5 planets to support it. Maybe we need to reassess our demands on the planet, instead of how to prod it past its natural limit.

posted by treefen on June 25, 2002 10:13 AM

Have you actually read his book? He is not a Danish James Watt, eager to pave over the forests and kill all the whales to hang over the fireplace. His research was originally an effort to refute statements made by the late Julian Simon in an interview in Wired magazine. Lomborg was startled to discover that many of the unquestioned statements of the environmentalist movement were false, either through outright lying, manipulation of data to support a theory, or wild speculation. He supports most of the agenda of the green movement, but it is tempered by a cold hard look at the facts.

You discuss how repeated plantings deplete the soil. That is the purpose of fertilizer; with proper fertilization and sufficient water, plants can grow in sand, in water (hydroponics), on concrete(this was demonstrated by a grass fertilizer manufacturer in the 70's), or any number of hostile environments. Fertilizer, whether manure, other natural fertilizers, or synthetics, will provide nutrients that the land itself cannot provide.

You mention the "North American" way of life, and state that if everyone practiced it, would require five planets to support it. Could you elaborate upon that? I want to know exactly what you mean by a somewhat vague statement.

posted by Timekeeper on June 25, 2002 06:05 PM

As for cutting down on procreation -- I was unaware that North America was undergoing a gigantic population boom. The last I heard was that the rate of population growth here had levelled off and that we were in danger of ending up with an aged population with not enough younger people to support them.

posted by Andrea Harris on June 26, 2002 07:49 PM

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