Finding Our ‘Shade of Green’

Retailer in cab

Kermit the Frog was not talking about the environment when he sang his song on Sesame Street, but he could have been. It is not hard for today’s agriculture to use environmentally sound practices. What’s not easy is getting credit for the progress the industry has made in preserving the environment.

The average person today will read or hear almost nothing positive about agriculture and the environment. The level of criticism has increased with the expanding demand for agriculturally based fuel. 

By almost any measure, agriculture today does a better job protecting our natural resources than it ever has done before. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, soil erosion in the U.S. decreased 43% from 1982 to 2003. Per-acre fertilizer rates for major crops have remained constant or declined since the mid-1980s. The Congressional Research Service estimates that agriculture’s use of energy has declined 28% since the 1970s. The National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy estimated that biotechnology use in the U.S. in 2005 reduced pesticide application by almost 70 million pounds and increased crop yields by over 8 billion pounds. All of these results occurred at the same time agriculture production has increased. Certainly there are still issues that need to be addressed, but agriculture has shown a remarkable ability to recognize and respond to an often changing environmental landscape.

Why doesn’t agriculture get credit for the progress it has made in protecting the environment? It is a difficult question to answer. Agriculture likes to measure its ecological footprint with quantifiable terms such as parts per million or pounds per acre. We in the industry look at the dollars spent on new facilities, or worker training, and see the improvements to the environment our efforts bear.

Being “green,” however, often is as much about emotion as it is about science. Sometimes the policies of the green movement seem contrary to good ecological policy. Consider biotechnology: planting genetically modifed (GM) crops allows growers to reduce the amount of pesticides used. Biotech crops have a perfect safety record and yield better than conventional seeds. Higher yields per acre also means more bushels produced per gallon of fuel used, or ton of soil lost to erosion. Yet, even with these significant advantages, most environmental groups have made opposition to GM crops a cornerstone of their organization’s policies.

An Organic Disconnect

Another environmental inconsistency in the green movement is its embracing of organic food production as an alternative for today’s agriculture production system. The organic food industry has done a good job developing a market for its products. Consumers certainly have a right to purchase and consume the kinds of foods they desire, but there is little evidence that organic foods are safer or more nutritious. Organic production requires the returning of animal and plant wastes to the field to maintain the soil’s productivity.  That may be possible when crops are locally produced and consumed, but it is certainly not feasible in a global economy when grain produced in the Midwestern U.S. is eaten by consumers in Southeast Asia.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug probably said it best: “Producing food for 6.2 billion people is not simple. Organic approaches can only feed 4 billion — I don’t see 2 billion volunteers to disappear …”

Even if a growing world population could be fed using organic systems, it would be a disaster for the environment. Lower yields typical of organic farming would require the cultivation of millions of additional, often environmentally sensitive, acres. Soil erosion and energy usage would increase as tillage is used to control weeds instead of herbicides. Higher food prices and the potential of famine would increase the risk of political unrest. Eating organic might make people feel better about their environmental footprint, but it is not a sustainable alternative for today’s world.

The standards of environmental responsibility are being set today, not only by legislation but by public opinion. It is technically legal to grow and use GM crops in Europe, but public opinion has effectively paralyzed the regulatory process necessary to grow and use them. In the U.S., Starbucks has decided not to use milk from cows given additional amounts of the hormone BST to increase production. Dairy farmers have lost important markets even though the Food and Drug Administration states that milk from cows supplemented with BST is “not different” from non-supplemented cows.

It’s clear that agriculture’s view of ecological responsibility is different from many in the mainstream environmental movement. Our industry is on the defensive. Perhaps it is time for agriculture to create, label, and promote its own standards of stewardship, its own “Shade of Green.” 

Agriculture’s “Shade of Green” should be based on science, not emotion. It should be sustainable and recognize that the basic needs of consumers and producers need to be fulfilled to be successful. Many of the procedures agriculture has been using to protect the environment are already well documented. Why not promote these practices and take advantage of them in the marketplace of public opinion?

After all, it’s lots easier being green if YOU get to help decide what “green” means.

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