Tuesday, October 18, 2011

NPR: Agriculture is planetary enemy number one

National Public Radio (NPR) crowned agriculture as "Planetary Enemy Number One" last week when it reported on the planned cover story of the Oct. 20 edition of the journal Nature.

The Nature story is a paper written by a team of environmental scientists from the University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin, UC Santa Barbara, and Arizona State University in the U.S., McGill University in Canada, Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University and the Stockholm Environment Institute in Sweden, and the University of Bonn in Germany.

According to NPR and a University of Minnesota (UM) press release, the researchers have concluded that agriculture is destroying the environment in trying to feed a growing population, and the solution they propose – world-wide governmental control of agriculture and food – can ensure both enough food for a growing world and environmental protection.

Without pre-publication access to the actual paper (I'm writing this on is Oct. 18), it’s not possible to review the methodology used by the researchers nor the data derived from their efforts (though I’ll do so more formally in the weeks to come), but it is possible to glean a bit of information from NPR and the UM press release.

According to those sources, the researchers argue that humanity and the environment are facing a “daunting triple threat” of insufficient access to food by one-sixth of the human population, environmental destruction wrought by agricultural expansion (increased farmland acres and a concurrent increase in water, pesticide and fertilizer use), and increasing demand for food by a population that will grow to nine billion by 2050. NPR and UM hint that the researchers relied heavily on satellite imagery and computer modeling to reach their conclusions. Unsurprisingly, the threat of human-caused global climate change appears to figure large in the analysis of the “threat,” despite the massive flaws in previously published climate research and steadily increasing evidence of the near-insignificance of the human impact on climate.

The solution proposed by the researchers is a five-point plan, predicated on the centralized control of agricultural production and food distribution around the globe. This is a chilling proposal. In every instance where governments have exercised tight control of agriculture, starvation and environmental degradation have immediately followed. One need only look at the “Great Leap Forward” in China and multiple famines in the Soviet Union to understand the potential for disaster. Though admittedly incomplete, Soviet and Chinese records reveal that at least 6 million and 1.5 million people respectively starved to death under centralized control of agriculture in the 1930’s USSR and in 1950’s China.

Nevertheless, this is the five-point solution proposed by the researchers, at least according to NPR and UM:

1. Halt farmland expansion through centralized control and certification of all land use.

2. Close yield gaps through centralized control of agricultural productivity.

3. Strategic reallocation of inputs through centralized control of all water, fertilizer, and pesticide use.

4. Shift diets through centralized control of food production, shifting away from animal protein (meat) and toward “healthy” (though thus far undefined) food production.

5. Eliminate waste through centralized control of all food from production to consumption.

Interestingly, NPR admits that the researchers do “not really explain” how centralized control will increase food production and halt environmental destruction. They do, however, maintain that centralized control is the solution, and lament the fact that there is at present no “global dictator” to “abolish feedlots” or actively set “…prices for land, corn, meat and everything else.”

According to the UM press release, lead researcher Jonathan Foley, head of UM’s Institute on the Environment said, “For the first time, we have shown it is possible to both feed a hungry world and protect a threatened planet. It will take serious work. But we can do it.”

Farmers and ranchers will likely be quite skeptical of Foley’s assertion. They have, after all, been feeding a hungry world and protecting the environment for generations, if not centuries.

Most of those reading this blog will be farmers and ranchers, and they will likely wonder, as do I, whether the proposals of these researchers have any chance of being adopted here and abroad. My own common sense and experience tell me that the proposed solution is folly, yet in talking with a number of well-educated and well-meaning people, all of whom are at least peripherally involved in agriculture or agricultural research, I’m surprised at how much they are willing to take on faith, and without appraising the “evidence” presented by information resources such as NPR and UM.

This is where I see some real danger in the combination of “the few feeding the many” and of badly flawed and unethical reporting by much of the major media. More than 98 percent of the U.S. population is two or more generations removed from any practical experience or understanding of food production, and are much more likely to be influenced by flawed but widespread and well-presented information. Those same 98 percent are therefore vulnerable to voting for, or acquiescing with, policies which actually threaten, rather than safeguard, their food supply.

We’ll have to wait until publication to assess the real merits of the argument posed by the researchers, however, as reported by NPR and UM, there appear to be some potentially major flaws, including:

1. Computer modeling based on flawed input data (including UN-IPCC climate data).

2. Faulty population growth predictions (in the 1960’s, population experts confidently predicted a world population of 10-12 billion by 2000).

3. Flawed information on both the quantity of water and chemical inputs projected and on their environmental impact.

4. Lack of details regarding the centralized control of agricultural production and food distribution and the safeguards which would prevent repetition of past centralized control disasters.

There are a number of other potential problems with the research as it has thus far been reported. We’ll look more closely at these when the paper is published.

In the meantime, farmers and ranchers should continue to monitor major media ag reporting and do what they can to counter flawed reporting, which can be considerably more effective than one might at first think. Thanks to increased access to valid news via the Internet and a growing agricultural social networking community, ag producers seem to have steered the EPA away from implementing plans to regulate agricultural dust, and have been able to effectively pressure companies supporting anti-agricultural causes, such as Yellow Tail.