Black on sustainable ag: Maybe he should stick to humor

I used to love to listen to Baxter Black on the radio. I admired his sense of humor and his human insight. Then I read an article he wrote.

“What is sustainable ag?” appeared in the March 2013 issue of Western Farmer-Stockman. I am writing this as a response to my friend Al, who clipped the article for me. Al is a wise man and an experienced farmer. He wrote: “I thought this was a good article on sustainable agriculture. I hope you find it interesting.”

Indeed, it is interesting – not for what it contains, but for what Black left out. First, let me summarize the article.

Black writes that most agriculturalists think that “sustainable farming” is a joke, and derides those who want to return to pre-1950 farming methods. He makes fun of “hobby farmers” who have a garden and a few animals because they don’t produce enough food to feed their families for even two weeks.

Black then rightly recaps the history after World War II, when world population soared and people worried about food shortages. Mega-corporations and scientists were able to increase food production remarkably, despite the creep of cities taking over productive ag land. He doesn’t mention the “green revolution” of Norman Borlaug and others, which is credited with saving more than a billion lives by developing highly productive strains of crops.

This modern, industrial model of agriculture is sustainable according to Black, because it can sustain so many people. Great grandpa’s old-fashioned ways of producing food are laughable in today’s context, he writes. He would prefer the term “subsistence-level farming.”

Although I understand Al’s and Black’s viewpoint, I cannot agree. My concern is that, along with its good, the “green revolution” has had several dreadful unintended consequences.

Growing highly productive plants and animals requires the use of many chemicals that are made from limited resources, and are toxic. The chemicals include fertilizers, insecticides, fungicides and herbicides. They are all derived from fossil fuels, and all transported with fossil fuel. Unfortunately, supplies of carbon-based fuels are limited. We have probably already maximized the production of petroleum and soon will see its decline – and a rapid increase in prices.

We are starting to realize the subtle toxicity of many of the agricultural chemicals. The wonder insecticide of my childhood, DDT (which I was told was entirely safe), turned out to be an ecological disaster and now is banned in many countries. An amazing group of insecticides, neonicatinoids, is probably responsible for the die-off of our honeybees – colony collapse disorder. Because bees pollinate so many crops, this is an agricultural disaster.

We now realize that many agricultural chemicals have endocrine effects, even in minuscule concentrations. Just a pinch in all the water in an Olympic-size swimming pool can cause harm! Insecticide residues may decrease sperm counts. One common agrichemical, atrazine, has been shown to cause feminization of male frogs and has been implicated in reproductive cancers.

The seeds of highly productive plant strains must be bought from corporations that control their prices. In the past, seed grain was carefully preserved from the previous crop, but now farmers need cash – or credit – in order to buy seeds. This expense, along with the cost of the chemicals, has broken many farmers. In a good year, they can make a living, but in a bad year, their suicide rate climbs.

Finally, modern agriculture depletes our soil. The use of chemicals exhausts many components that help plants grow.

There is a subtle chicken-and-egg situation here. Modern agriculture has increased food supply, which allowed our population to swell. Borlaug outwitted Malthus, who predicted that human population would be limited by starvation from lack of food.

Here is the quandary: Does modern agriculture only provide a short-term gain? As we deplete petroleum and as crop growing conditions worsen from climate change and drought, can the amazing technology of modern agriculture be sustained? Indeed, some scientists have a terrible vision of severe food shortages with bloodshed and more deaths than Borlaug’s green revolution saved.

In his 1970 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Borlaug said, “The first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind.”

But he also said: “Most people still fail to comprehend the magnitude and menace of the ‘Population Monster.’” Hopefully, Herald readers are better informed than most. But only time will tell if Baxter Black is correct about sustainable agriculture, or if he should go back to being a humorist.

Richard Grossman practices gynecology in Durango. Reach him at richard@ population-matters.org. © 2013 Richard Grossman, M.D.