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Farmers: The Original Environmentalists

By C.S. Prakash

April 22, 2003

On this Earth Day, we must to commit to the challenge of supporting a growing global population while preserving precious soil, air and water resources. As President Gerald Ford said during his proclamation of the first Earth Day, "The earth will continue to regenerate its life sources only as long as we and all the peoples of the world do our part to conserve its natural resources."

Recent United Nations reports give a snapshot of the challenges confronting us in 2003:

  • The U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) expects the world's population to grow to more than eight billion in 2030.

  • The FAO report, World Agriculture: Towards 2015/30, projects that global food production must increase by 60 percent to accommodate the estimated population growth, close nutrition gaps, and allow for dietary changes over the next three decades.

  • A U.N. World Water Development report released this year shows that reserves of clean, fresh water are quickly diminishing, and that as many as seven billion people in 60 countries could face a water shortage by 2050.

How can we confront these challenges? One way is by placing the best possible resource management tools in the hands of farmers around the world. Farmers, after all, are stewards of millions of acres of precious land. The decisions they make with regard to agricultural production influence surface and ground water, air quality, and soil health. Unfortunately, farmers are often caught in a web of political and ecological controversies that fail to recognize the crucial role they play in preserving air, water and soil while still providing safe and abundant food.

Rather than penalizing and blaming farmers, we should take the opportunity this Earth Day to acknowledge the fine conservation work done on tens of millions of acres worldwide and enable these farmers to acquire the technologies and tools they need to make best use of their land.

Agricultural biotechnology is one such tool. Currently, wealthier countries such as the United States and Argentina make greatest use of seeds enhanced to resist pests and herbicides. Contrary to some reports about potential environmental hazards associated with the use of biotech seeds, farmers planting these crops have actually witnessed profound environmental improvements on their land and surrounding habitat.

A report published by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology
(CAST) in 2002, found that biotechnology-derived crops promote the adoption of conservation tillage practices, resulting in substantial environmental gains:

  • 37 million tons of topsoil preserved
  • 85 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from farm operations
  • 70 percent reduction in herbicide run-off
  • 90 percent decrease in soil erosion
  • 4-7 gallons of fuel per acre saved

The CAST literature review, conducted by a team of top researchers and scientists, revealed that, through biotechnology, there has been a steady increase in the use of no-till farming practices, which help reduce soil erosion, improve soil health and reduce impacts on surface and ground water. Such benefits are essential to the renewal of arable lands; a necessary step in resolving an impending global food crisis.

These environmental benefits also mean economic benefits, not just for large farming operations, but for the smaller farmer too, both in the West and in developing countries. The National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy found that biotechnology-derived plants-soybeans, corn, cotton, papaya, squash and canola-increased U.S. food production by four billion pounds, saved $1.2 billion in production costs, and decreased pesticide use by about 46 million pounds in 2001.

While biotechnology provides one answer, additional actions are necessary as well. As the water and land needed to produce food become more and more limited, it is essential to examine all the opportunities that will renew the resources that keep our earth strong, thriving and plentiful. This Earth Day, we should all commit to making personal changes that can help the environment, and also thank farmers for the work they do.