Why Greens Should Love Pesticides

by Dennis Avery
from the Wall Street Journal
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Gerber recently announced that henceforth its baby foods will be free from genetically modified crops — and will be insect02.gif (137 bytes)  organically grown to boot. Then the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it was banning a major pesticide, methyl parathion, that has been used in fruit and vegetable production for decades.

insect24b.gif (170 bytes)Upscale homemakers across the land are no doubt rejoicing over the additional "food safety" for their families. Unfortunately, the real-world results are likely to be more cancer and less wildlife habitat.

When I joined the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1959, the world feared a billion Third World people would die in famines. Then came the Green Revolution, and Norman Borlaug was awarded the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for giving most of humanity its first real food security. Now we're ready to turn our backs on both food security and wildland conservation — to eliminate food risks we can't even find.

Thanks to the Green Revolution, the only famines in recent decades have been those caused by governmental policies such as Mao Tse-tung's "Great Leap Forward" in China and civil wars in Africa. Increased food security is a major reason why the world's population is now projected to stabilize at 8.5 billion in 2035, instead of spiraling upward. We've fed the Third World so well that young couples now believe their children will live to maturity, and they stop after two or three babies instead of six or 16. insect21b.gif (359 bytes)

The second-biggest achievement of the Green Revolution is saving wildlands with higher yields. We're currently feeding more than twice as many people as lived in 1950, and doing it from essentially the same 37% of the planet's land area that we farmed in 1950.

Higher crop yields have saved more than 15 million square miles of wildlife habitat from being plowed for low-yield traditional farming. That's equal to the total land area of the U.S., Europe and South America. We got those higher yields with hybrid seeds, irrigation, chemical fertilizer — and pesticides.

The first impact of a global mandate for organic farming would be the plow-down of five million to 10 million square miles of wildlife habitat, much of it in the densely populated tropics, which have perhaps 100 times as many wild species per square mile as the U.S. or Europe. insect03.gif (312 bytes)   Not only do organic crops suffer more pest losses but organic farmers refuse to fertilize with nitrogen taken from the air. They would have to plow down the equivalent of the whole U.S. land area for green-manure crops like clover.

There is no vegetarian trend to ease the world's impending agricultural burden. Instead, higher incomes are driving the biggest surge of meat and milk consumption the Third World has ever seen. To save the current wildlands despite the larger, more affluent population in the next century, we will have to triple the yields on the land we're already farming. We will probably have to triple the use of pesticides as well (particularly of herbicides, which help cut soil erosion with no-plow, low-erosion farming systems.) We will also need more biotech breakthroughs like the new high- yielding crops for acidic tropic soils recently pioneered in Mexico. insect32.gif (190 bytes)

Do pesticide residues cause cancer? We've added 30 years to our lifespans in the 20th century, eight of them since we started spraying pesticides widely. Cancer experts say our real cancer risks are smoking, too much fat, too few fruits and vegetables — and the genetic cancer tendencies inherited from our own families. After billions of dollars spent trying, not one pesticide- residue cancer victim has been found.

Methyl parathion is unquestionably a deadly chemical — if you walk into the cloud of gas just sprayed on a field of crops. But it effectively kills the bugs that love to eat growing fruits and vegetables; and plentiful fruits and vegetables prevent cancer. The quarter of our population that eats the most produce has half the cancer risk of the quarter that eats the least. And it makes no difference whether these fruits and vegetables were grown using pesticides.

insect21.gif (353 bytes)  President Clinton just awarded the National Science Medal to Bruce Ames of the University of California, Berkeley. Mr. Ames says we get 10,000 times more cancer risk from the natural chemicals in our fruits and vegetables than from pesticide residues. In neither case is there enough dosage to cause cancer.

For decades, methyl parathion and the other organophospates were rated "safe for use" with a safety factor 100 times the "no effect" levels in the rat tests. In 1996, however, the Food Quality Protection Act allowed the EPA to plug in a 1,000-fold safety factor. This, despite no evidence that any consumers had been hurt by pesticides.

Will we now be safer? insect58.gif (264 bytes) Jacqueline Hamilton of the Natural Resources Defense Council, says, "We don't have to point to bodies lying on the ground with their tongues hanging out. There is significant evidence that much lower levels of these chemicals, at critical levels of development, can cause lifelong deficits, potentially." There you have it, folks, modern environmentalism is protecting you — potentially.

We know for certain that we can save millions of square miles of wildlands by using pesticides, fertilizers, biotechnology and the other tools of our expanding scientific knowledge for high-yield agriculture and forestry.

Humanity in the 21st century can banish hunger, end nutritional deficits in its children — and save virtually all of the remaining wildlands in the process. But there are only two ways to do it: Either murder four billion people, or use chemicals and biotechnology to triple the yields on the land we're already farming.

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Dennis Avery is director of the Center for Global Food Issues of the Hudson Institute and the author of "Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic: The Environmental Triumph of High-Yield Farming" (Hudson Institute, 1995).

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9 Sep 1999