Eco ideals harm farmers

26 Sep, 2001 10:00 PM
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AGRICULTURE'S public image has been savaged by environmentalist ideologies with flawed arguments, and it is time the agriculture sector fought back.

US-based intensive agriculture stalwart Dennis Avery warned farmers at the NFF Young Farmers Forum that the environmental fringe had dominated public debate on food production and had duped consumers to the detriment of mainstream primary industries.

As a result, farmers were being convinced to go eco-friendly, when often the most environmentally friendly farming was high yield farming as it extracted the highest productivity from available assets.

"We¹ve been had," he said. "We are now practising the most sustainable agriculture in human history, particularly because of chemical fertilisers, integrated pest management and minimum tillage."

Yet farmers were constantly being told to become more sustainable.

Mr Avery, a vocal supporter of high yielding agriculture, urged farmers to reclaim the debate, even suggesting they release truck load after truck load of cattle onto the parliament house lawns in Canberra to highlight their message.

"You are going to have to communicate effectively with rich city people who think you are hayseeds, and ignorant, and backward, and a threat to the world's wildlife," he said.

"You are going to have to go into cities with messages they hear, identify with and embrace."

The controversial author of Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastics: The Environmental Triumph of High Yield Farming, suggested the world's consumers had a choice of two models ‹ the Palace Model, where everyone lives comfortably, or the Grass Hut model (advocated by environmentalists and Muslim fundamentalists, he says) where bicycles and sandals dominate.

With bigger and bigger yielding crops discovered through the use of advanced technology, current land use levels could sustain the growing world population if the Palace Model was retained, he said.

Crop yields have tripled since the 1960s and will need to triple again by 2050 if the world's growing population is to be fed, he said, claiming new technology would achieve that goal, such as the recent creation, through genetic engineering, of a tomato plant which extracted salt from the soil.

In contrast, Avery's Grass Hut model demands organic farming, which will be unable to cope with the growing demand for food.

That means no industrially supplied fertilisers, he said, so the manure from 9-10 billion extra cattle (the world herd is currently 1.3b) would be required to fertilise those crops. The raising of those cattle would require an extra 10m square miles of pasture and forage crops to be claimed from areas currently forested.

"There are 16m square miles of forest left in the world, so we would need to clear half of the wildlife habitat on the planet," he said.

"Unless we triple the yields on today¹s farmland by 2050, Third World people will clear virtually all the world¹s tropical rainforests for low-yield crops to feed their children in the next five decades."

Organic Federation of Australia president Rod May said Mr Avery had presented a simplistic argument to push his own opinions.

Politics, distribution of food, wealth and debt all created world hunger, not reliance on certain agronomic management techniques, Mr May said.

"He has drawn the debate into false and misleading territory," he said, adding that while some organic yields were below those achieved using conventional farming techniques, they were on a par with some crops.

"The point is we don't pass the costs onto the environment," he said.

"It is a complex issue and one that can't be simplified to the sort of rhetoric Dennis uses."

Mr Avery responded that the organic industry was selling its message on a pesticide risk which had no scientific foundation.

To illustrate the problems with some of his critics' views, Mr Avery highlighted the Californian energy crisis, where for 12 years, when energy was increasing by 12pc a year, the government did not build any new plants because none of the systems were "green" enough.

"When the problems hit, they reopened the dirtiest, brown coal-fired plant because they did not want to give up their electricity," he said.

Consumers, prodded by environmentalists, would try to demand similar concessions from farmers, but ultimately they did not want to lose their meat, eggs and dairy products, Mr Avery said.

Rather than accepting the argument that consumers would not tolerate certain technological advances in agriculture, farmers should be convincing them that GMOs were environmentally friendly and could help feed the world, and that irradiation of food would kill any bacteria on it.

Mr May condemned the use of both technologies.

"We still think we are better off adopting the precautionary principle and understanding GMOs more fully before we see their general release," he said.

"Irradiation is a just a method for covering up poor manufacturing, handling and production processes."

Subsidies

up in air

AUSTRALIA'S farmers have been urged to continue their quest for free world trade, with predictions the US will soon be unable to provide subsidies to its farmers.

Although the US farm sector was demanding more not less government money, Dennis Avery, the director of Global Food Issues for the US-based think tank the Hudson Institute, said the US would soon be faced with a welfare cash crisis, which would render its economy unable to support farm incomes.

"I'm ashamed about what American farmers are trying to do right now," he said.

"The consolation is that it will be short lived."

Mr Avery said he expected the change to hit within the next five to six years and Australia, with its commitment to the World Trade Organisation and Cairns Group, would be able to capitalise.

The free trade advocate claimed subsidies had wasted taxpayer funds as they had been unable to prevent the biggest loss of US farmers in agriculture history.

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