Feed the world, or protect the planet?

31 10 2012

Did you know that July 11, 1987 was the very first “World Population Day”? [1]   World Population Day was designed  “to track world population and bring light to population growth trends and issues related to it”.  That year, the world’s population was 5 billion – a result of about 200,000 years of population growth – and 24 years later, we had added 2 billion more.  Now 150 babies are being born every minute and the United Nations forecasts world population to reach 9 billion people by 2050.

I think you can easily google all the nightmare scenarios that this crushing population burden can have on our lives.  One question which continues to be very controversial is how we’re going to feed 9 billion people, when today nearly 1 billion people don’t have enough food to eat. The United Nations warns that food production needs to increase by 70% in order to feed the world in 2050. [2] But with agricultural land dwindling while more than 1 billion people go to bed hungry, how could we possible feed the whole world population in 2050?

Since the 1950’s, we’ve been able to increase food production significantly through the “magic” of the “Green Revolution”, which increased yields through the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, expansion of irrigation,  and genetic engineering.  The Green Revolution is a known quantity, and big chemical companies have lots at stake in ensuring that it continues down the same ol’ path of more agrochemicals and genetically modified crops, even though the world is different now.    Farmers continue to use a lot of chemicals, because there is no coast assigned to environmental externalities, and the profitability of doing things with lots of chemical input isn’t questioned, according to Matt Liebman, an agronomy professor at Iowa State Univeristy. [3]

But in the world of the 21st Century,  growth in food production is flattening, human population continues to increase, demand outstrips production and food prices soar. As Dale Allen Pfeiffer maintains in Eating Fossil Fuels, modern intensive agriculture – as developed through the Green Revolution – is unsustainable and has not been the panacea some hoped it would be. Technologically-enhanced agriculture has augmented soil erosion, polluted and overdrawn groundwater and surface water, and even (largely due to increased pesticide use) caused serious public health and environmental problems. Soil erosion, overtaxed cropland and water resource overdraft in turn lead to even greater use of fossil fuels and hydrocarbon products:

  • More hydrocarbon-based fertilizers must be applied,
  • along with more pesticides;
  • irrigation water requires more energy to pump;
  • and fossil fuels are used to process polluted water – a vicious cycle.

The data on yields, fertilizer and pesticide use (not to mention human health problems) supports these allegations. A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists called “Failure to Yield” sums it up nicely. (click here).

This food crisis has produced contradictory accounts of the problem and different ways of solving it.  One group is concerned mainly about feeding the world’s growing population. It argues that high and volatile prices will make the job harder and that more needs to be done to boost supplies through the spread of modern farming, plant research and food processing in poor countries. For this group, the Green Revolution was a stunning success and needs to be followed by a second one now.

The other group argues that modern agriculture produces food that is tasteless, nutritionally inadequate and environmentally disastrous. It thinks the Green Revolution has been a failure, or at least that it has done more environmental damage and brought fewer benefits than anyone expected. An influential book espousing this view, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, starts by asking: “What should we have for dinner?” By contrast, those worried about food supplies wonder: “Will there be anything for dinner?” The second group often proposes the tenants of organic agriculture as a way out of this crisis.

There is much skepticism and sometimes even outright opposition to sustainable agriculture. The popular belief is that switching to organic agriculture will almost certainly result in lower production, which couldn’t possibly be a way to feed 9 billion people.  Mark Rosegrant, of the International Food Policy Research Institute, sums up this view nicely by saying that going organic would require more land, and though not bad, per se, it is not an important part of the overall process to feed 9 billion people.[4] And The Economist, in a special report on “feeding the World”, said “Traditional and organic farming could feed Europeans and Americans well. It cannot feed the world.”[5]

Why am I obsessing about agriculture?  Agriculture and food production are the base of life and the economy and have multiple functions in creating healthy societies. It is at the center of addressing challenges like hunger and poverty, climate change and environment, women’s wellbeing and community health, income and employment. We certainly need to look beyond black/white, either/or options and find creative solutions to this crisis.

Agroecology is one of many terms people use to describe one approach to farming – others being sustainable agriculture, ecological agriculture, low-external input agriculture or people-centered agriculture.  Agroecology is: farming that “centers on food production that makes the best use of nature’s goods and services while not damaging these resources.” It applies ecology to the design of farming systems; uses a whole-systems approach to farming and food systems; and links ecology, culture, economics and society to create healthy environments, food production and communities.[6]  And agroecology  works (please see reports in the footnotes section below)[7]:

  • More food is produced.
  • Fewer inputs are required – meaning reduced expenses.
  • Soil fertility is improved.
  • Rainfall is captured and managed better.
  • Pests are managed better.
  • Greater income is generated.
  • Farming systems are diversified and produce synergistic benefits.
  • Farms and communities are more resilient to climate change and shocks such as hurricanes, droughts and food or fertilizer price spikes.
  • Carbon is sequestered in soils rich in organic matter and the integration of trees into farming systems.
  • And farmers and their organizations use their skills, knowledge and creativity to learn and manage the process. These women and men are the innovators and leaders creating healthy farming systems for their communities and countries.

In March, 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food , Olivier de Schutter, presented a new report, “Agro-ecology and the right to food”, which was based on an extensive review of recent scientific literature. The report demonstrates that agroecology, if sufficiently supported, can double food production in entire regions within 10 years while mitigating climate change and alleviating rural poverty. “Today’s scientific evidence demonstrates that agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production where the hungry live — especially in unfavorable environments. …To date, agroecological projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80% in 57 developing countries, with an average increase of 116% for all African projects,” De Schutter says.

Now Mark Bittman, writing in the New York Times, states that “it’s becoming clear that we can grow all the food we need, profitably, with far fewer chemicals. …Conventional agriculture can shed much of its chemical use – if it wants to”.[8]   He cites a study published by Iowa State University, in which researchers set up three plots: one replicated the typical Midwestern cycle of planting corn one year and then soybeans the next, along with its routine mix of chemicals. On another, they planted a three-year cycle that included oats; the third plot added a four-year cycle and alfalfa. The longer rotations also integrated the raising of livestock, whose manure was used as fertilizer. The longer rotations produced no downside at all – yields of corn and soy were better, nitrogen fertilizers and herbicides were reduced by up to 88%, and toxins in groundwater was reduced 200-fold – while profits didn’t decline by a single cent.  There was an increase in labor costs (but remember profits were stable), so “it’s a matter of paying people for their knowledge and smart work instead of paying chemical companies for poisons.”[9]

Mr. Bittman goes on to say :

No one expects Iowa corn and soybean farmers to turn this thing around tomorrow, but one might at least hope that the U.S.D.A.would trumpet the outcome. The agency declined to comment when I asked about it. One can guess that perhaps no one at the higher levels even knows about it, or that they’re afraid to tell Monsantoabout agency-supported research that demonstrates a decreased need for chemicals. (A conspiracy theorist might note that the journals Science and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences both turned down the study. It was finally published in PLOS One; I first read about it on the Union of Concerned Scientists Web site.)

I think this study is a good example of agroecology principles.  Mr. Bittman goes on to say:

When I asked Adam Davis, an author of the study who works for the U.S.D.A., to summarize the findings, he said, “These were simple changes patterned after those used by North American farmers for generations. What we found was that if you don’t hold the natural forces back they are going to work for you.”

THIS means that not only is weed suppression a direct result of systematic and increased crop rotation along with mulching, cultivation and other nonchemical techniques, but that by not poisoning the fields, we make it possible for insects, rodents and other critters to do their part and eat weeds and their seeds. In addition, by growing forage crops for cattle or other ruminants you can raise healthy animals that not only contribute to the health of the fields but provide fertilizer. (The same manure that’s a benefit in a system like this is a pollutant in large-scale, confined animal-rearing operations, where thousands of animals make manure disposal an extreme challenge.)

Perhaps most difficult to quantify is that this kind of farming — more thoughtful and less reflexive — requires more walking of the fields, more observations, more applications of fertilizer and chemicals if, when and where they’re needed, rather than on an all-inclusive schedule. “You substitute producer knowledge for blindly using inputs,” Davis says.

So: combine crop rotation, the re-integration of animals into crop production and intelligent farming, and you can use chemicals (to paraphrase the report’s abstract) to fine-tune rather than drive the system, with no loss in performance and in fact the gain of animal products.

Can you argue that less synthetic chemical use would not be a good thing?  This is big business, and naturally the food system will need big investors to effect any changes.  But some are waking up.  One investor who sees the need for change is Jeremy Grantham,  chief investment strategist for Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo & Co, LLC, who says:  “The U.S.D.A., the big ag schools, colleges, land grants, universities — they’re all behind standard farming, which is: sterilize the soil. Kill it dead, [then] put on fertilizer, fertilizer, fertilizer and water, and then beat the bugs back again with massive doses of insecticide and pesticide.” (At one point in the conversation, he said that most supporters of industrial agriculture, who tell “deliberate lies over and over again,” could have been taught everything they know by Goebbels.)  “I think a portfolio of farms that are doing state-of-the-art farming over a 20-, 30-year horizon will be the best investment money can buy.”[10]

[1] Adwell, Mandy, “World Population Day…2011”, The 9 Billion, http://www.the9billion.com/2011/07/12/world-population-day-well-reach-7-billion-by-october-2011/

[2] Vidal, John, “Food Shortages could force world into vegetarianism, warns scientists”, The Guardian, August 26, 2012.

[3] Bittman, Mark, “A simple fix for farming”, The New York Times, October 21, 2012


[8] Bittman, Mark, “A simple fix for farming”, The New York Times, October 21, 2012

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bittman, Mark, “A Banker Bets on Organic Farming”, New York Times, August 28, 2012

50th Anniversary of SILENT SPRING

24 07 2012

I just read the article by Lynne Peeples in Huffington Post Green, entitled “Chemistry Lessons:  Living with Rachel Carson’s Legacy” which caught my eye because I’ve been reading about Merchants of Doubt, the new book by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, in which they conclude that the far right in America, in its quest to ensure the perpetuation of the free market, is now hell-bent on destroying the cause of environmentalism.   One of the icons of the environmental movement,  Rachel Carson,  has come under attack [1]: she is  being blamed for deaths caused by the banning of DDT.

“Millions of people around the world suffer the painful and often deadly effects of malaria because one person sounded a false alarm,” states one site set up by the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “That person is Rachel Carson.” Another site goes further: “Fifty million dead,” while a third claims: “More deaths likely.” [2]  As Merchants of Doubt makes clear, DDT was banned not just because it was accumulating in the food chain but because mosquitoes were developing resistance to it. The pesticide was losing its usefulness long before it was taken out of commercial production.  “And in the demonising of Rachel Carson, free marketeers realised that if you could convince people that an example of successful government regulation wasn’t, in fact, successful – that it was actually a mistake – you could strengthen the argument against regulation in general,” state Oreskes and Conway.

But you should read Merchants of Doubt for yourself.

Lynne Peeples’ article examines five of the assumptions Carson intuitively suspected, and compares them with newfound research which corroborates Carson’s assumptions.  It’s a chilling read, and I think so important that I’ve reproduced it below in full:

As you read this, a menagerie of chemical pollutants is coursing through your body. What you do and how you live doesn’t matter. You have inhaled them, you’ve eaten them, you’ve absorbed them through your skin. You’re doing it right now.

If you are an average American, your personal chemical inventory — embedded in your blood, your breath and your bones — will include an alphabet soup of phthalates, mercury, perfluorinated compounds, bisphenol A, and assorted chemical flame retardants.

If you are a new mother, you are passing these chemicals to your child through your breast milk. If you are pregnant, you are delivering them through your umbilical cord.

These inescapable realities of modern life — realities that have vexed environmental advocates and worried scientists for years — are not new. They were all foreseen, with sometimes chilling accuracy, 50 years ago this summer, when an unassuming marine biologist from Springdale, Penn., named Rachel Carson began publishing a series of articles in The New Yorker Magazine. Carson’s essays, which accused the chemical industry of calculated deception and American regulators of wanton disregard for the proliferation of pesticides and other chemical pollutants released into the environment, would ultimately be published as the book “Silent Spring” — considered by many to be the clarion call of the modern environmental movement.

Today, one study after another repeats the same cautions Carson raised decades ago, including how the tiniest chemical exposures can lead to long-term harm, especially to children.

“We’ve discovered many things that Carson intuitively anticipated, and also some things that she would’ve never imagined,” says John Peterson Myers, CEO and chief scientist at Environmental Health Sciences.

Optimists, Myers included, suggest that, by combining Carson’s prescient insights with modern advancements in biology and chemistry, we can preserve the health of future generations.

In 2010, chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer surpassed infectious diseases as the leading causes of death across the world, notes Bruce Lanphear, an environmental health expert at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. “That can be seen as both troubling and an opportunity,” he says, suggesting that we have the potential to eliminate some of the exposures now implicated in chronic diseases. “The problem is that it is really the mega-corporations that are designing, or keeping us from developing, regulatory policies to protect people.”

More than 80,000 chemicals currently used in the U.S. have never been fully tested for their potential to harm humans or the environment, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“Maybe we didn’t heed a warning,” says environmental activist and lawyer Erin Brockovich. “Can we really afford to wait another 50 years?”

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring, Huffington decided to review five of Rachel Carson’s warnings made decades ago to see how they measure up today.

#1: “Every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.”

A few years before she was pregnant with her first child, Elsie, Hannah Pingree got tested for toxic chemicals as part of a demonstration study by public health groups.

Although she has lived most of her life on an island 12 miles off the coast of Maine, her blood, hair and urine showed high levels of flame retardants, mercury and phthalates. “I was living nowhere near anything industrial,” says Pingree, former Speaker of the Maine House and now a consultant for “Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families,” a national coalition working to reform toxic chemical regulation. “This was simply from interacting with the environment and in my home.”

Pingree is now pregnant with her second child. As she knows, and as Carson suggested but had no way of proving at the time, exposures to toxic chemicals begin in the womb. Whatever exposures a mother encounters, so too does her future child.
As Carson wrote in The New Yorker on June 30, 1962: toxic chemicals have “entered the environment of almost everyone — even of children as yet unborn.” Within the body of the story, was an ad from the chemical giant Dupont Co. promoting its motto: “Better Things For Better Living … Through Chemistry.”

“Back in mid-century, a lot of people thought that the placenta was a barrier to environmental chemicals,” says Tracey Woodruff, a reproductive health expert at the University of California, San Francisco. It was some 40 years after Silent Spring’s publication when scientists finally confirmed Carson’s hunch — finding nearly 300 different industrial chemicals in samples of umbilical cord blood.

Pingree also knows, as did Carson, that a rapidly developing fetus or child is particularly vulnerable to the effects of those chemical exposures. Childhood cancer may be one tragic consequence. Carson pointed out that “more American school children die of cancer than from any other disease.” A statistic that holds true today.

In many cases, however, the effects of early life exposures don’t appear for decades, and once they do, they’re almost impossible to trace back to their origins, Carson noted. “A child is not going to necessarily wake up with some rash, but they may later have cancer at age 50,” says Pingree. She is less worried about her now 16-month-old’s “daily survival,” and more about the long-term effects of “things like pesticides and the plastic she’s chewing on.”

Still, Myers, the chief scientist at Environmental Health Sciences, points to a “remarkable ray of hope.”

“We’re learning that we actually may be able to prevent chronic diseases of adulthood by reducing exposures in the womb,” he says.

#2: “Once they were kept in containers marked with skull and crossbones.”

Pingree does everything she can to limit both her and Elsie’s chemical exposures. Like other parents, however, she finds the task frustrating.

“It’s impossible for a parent to live their life trying to make the right decisions about chemicals. There are so many things we don’t know,” says Pingree. “We have this system that allows all of us to have these levels of consumer and industrial chemicals without any idea how they got in there.”

Potentially toxic chemicals are pervasive yet generally invisible — from pajamas treated with flame retardants to bisphenol-A leaching out of plastic bottles to pesticides lingering on fruits.

Parents faced much the same predicament 50 years ago. “Lulled by the soft sell and the hidden persuader,” wrote Carson, “the average citizen is seldom aware of the deadly materials with which he is surrounding himself.”

Manufacturers are rarely required to disclose ingredients in their products, notes Woodruff. And when they do, there are often loopholes such as the requirement that a pesticide label need only include the names of “active” ingredients.

“You can’t know it if you don’t see it,” she says.

Further, disclosures are irrelevant if no tests have been done to identify harmful effects. This is the case for tens of thousands of chemicals common in consumer products. Aside from substances designed to be ingested as food or drug, newly developed commercial chemicals are virtually unregulated in the U.S. — until and unless they are proven harmful.

“The burden of proof in this country is on proving a chemical is dangerous rather than on the side of those who introduce the chemical to prove that it is safe,” says Eric Chivian, director of Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. Europe, he notes, has it the other way around.

Carson expressed her own frustration with the U.S. government’s lack of chemical regulation.” If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials,” wrote Carson, “it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.”

Of course, there are also those unintentional ingredients that find their way into products today without anyone’s knowledge. A study published in May suggested that peanut butter can be a source of trace amounts of flame retardants.

“There are always little surprises that we’re finding,” says Woodruff.
#3: “The chemical war is never won, and all life is caught in its violent crossfire.”

Though women’s nylons were the subject of the 1962 DuPont ad that adorned Carson’s New Yorker article, the company also had a big hand in the pesticide business. In fact, DuPont was a major manufacturer of the prime antagonist in Silent Spring: DDT.

Worry over the widespread aerial spraying of the pesticide inspired Carson to pursue her book.

“Not only forests and cultivated fields are sprayed, but towns and cities as well,” she wrote. “The legend that the herbicides are toxic only to plants and so pose no threat to animal life has been widely disseminated, but unfortunately it is not true.”

While DDT was banned in the U.S. a decade after the publication of her book, and subsequently banned for agricultural use worldwide, Carson’s concerns persist. DDT remains in limited use for the control of mosquito-borne diseases and replacement pesticides now pose their own risks.

Environmental advocates fear widespread poisoning, as well as a continuing arms race with nature that they say humans are destined to lose.

“Evidence of aerial spraying this year in California points to the pesticide treadmill that Carson had acknowledged 50 years ago,” says Paul Towers of the nonprofit Pesticide Action Network.

Mosquito districts in the state are enlisting more toxic chemicals than they had in years past for the control of West Nile Virus due to concerns over pesticide resistance in mosquitoes. Insects that can withstand a spray are more likely to spawn the next generation of pests. And over time, this survival of the fittest can render useless whatever chemical concoction is employed.

Meanwhile, industrial agriculture may soon transition to a genetically-modified corn resistant to two common pesticides, Roundup and 2,4-D, in response to growing resistance among weeds. The result, advocates fear, is the use of stronger doses of the herbicides. Roundup has been shown to disrupt human hormones; 2,4-D was a component of Agent Orange.

Matt Liebman, of Iowa State University, foresees weeds evolving resistance to the new variety of corn within a few years. “Then we’ll be on same treadmill that we’ve been on,” he says.

“Carson was not arguing for banning all pesticides,” notes John Wargo of Yale University, who spent six months going through 117 boxes of Carson’s personal files. “She was simply arguing against the broad-scale prophylactic application that would lead to widespread contamination and exposure. Her arguments follow a train of logic and a narrative that would be extremely useful today.”

#4: “The contamination of our world is not alone a matter of mass spraying. Indeed, for most of us this is of less importance than the innumerable small-scale exposures to which we are subjected day by day, year after year.”

Earlier this year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared that there is no safe level of lead in the bloodstreams of children. Even in tiny amounts, exposures to the heavy metal via dust and flakes of lead paint can damage a child’s developing brain.

Scientists today are also heard stating similarly grim warnings about a growing number of environmental toxins, found in a lengthening list of places.

“People took Carson somewhat seriously in the case of DDT, but she was also talking in very broad terms about chemicals,” says Pingree. Whether from eating a piece of salmon or breathing in second-hand smoke or chemicals sprayed on a lawn, each of our everyday exposures may be tiny, though not necessarily insignificant.

“One part in a million sounds like a very small amount — and so it is,” wrote Carson, referencing a likely amount of pesticide residue on food. “But such substances are so potent that a minute quantity can bring about vast changes in the body.”

Lanphear of Simon Frasier University notes that we are now worrying about even smaller exposures than Carson was suggesting. “Parts per billion,” he says.

Recent research has also questioned the popular notion that “the dose makes the poison.” Minuscule concentrations of chemicals that disrupt hormones — common in industrial pollution, pesticides and plastics — may have potent effects, sometimes even when large doses of the same chemical appear harmless. Some chemicals also can accumulate in the environment and the human body, where they can combine and interact with other chemicals.

“This is why there is no ‘safe’ dose of a carcinogen,” Carson wrote. Carson pointed out one combination of chemicals that had already raised red flags among scientists: malathion mixed with other organophosphate pesticides. Administered together, she wrote, “a massive poisoning results — up to 50 times as severe as would be predicted on the basis of adding together the toxicities of the two.”

Organophosphates, including malathion, are still in use today.

“Things are far more complicated chemically than they were in Carson’s time,” says Wargo. “There are so many uses of many more active ingredients, inert ingredients and differently formulated products that it’s become difficult for governments to identify the risks.”

“We are now living in a world probably beyond what Carson could have ever imagined, in terms of the number of chemicals kids interact with every day,” says Pingree. “And we’re having all the impacts that she worried about.”

#5: “These injuries to the genetic material are of a kind that may lead to disease in the individual exposed or they may make their effects felt in future generations.”

In other words, if you happen to be obese or infertile, facing cancer or diabetes or any number of other diseases, it might well have something to do with your father’s exposure to a plastic toy in 1955, or even his father’s exposure to his comrades’ chemical-laced second-hand smoke after he successfully stormed the beach at Normandy. Your own children and grandchildren may even pay the price of the ancestral exposures.

Carson hinted at this possible new spin on nature versus nurture 50 years ago, and scientists are only now confirming her suspicions.

“That was a very insightful comment for the time,” says Michael Skinner, a leading expert in an emerging field called epigenetics at Washington State University. “It came long before we had any data, before anything was appreciated about this.”

Studies published over the last couple of months have bolstered the notion that toxic chemicals in our ancestors’ environment could help explain cases of a variety of diseases and cognitive problems that we and our children suffer today — even without exposure to the contaminants ourselves.

“Many behavioral diseases like autism run in families but do not follow normal genetic patterns,” says Skinner. “Our findings really fit the bill.”

Environmental insults don’t necessarily have to alter our genetic code to cause lasting trouble, Skinner and other scientists have discovered. They also can disrupt the body’s ability to interpret these inherited instructions, and in certain cases, this so-called epigenetic defect is handed down and becomes more pronounced in subsequent generations.

A young soldier exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, for example, or a kid caught in a drift of DDT insect repellant on his 1950s cul-de-sac, might well pass on health consequences to their children, and then to their children’s children, and so on down the family line.

Myers says that he used to “draw solace” from the belief that environmental contaminants such as plasticizers and flame retardants, now likely linked to conditions such as diabetes and asthma, were not affecting any inheritable information. In other words, if you were to remove the exposure, most people thought that the next generation would be spared.

“This casts a significant shadow of a doubt,” he said, “on that assumption.”