Intensive agriculture and environmental quality: examining the newest agricultural myth.

Hewitt T.I. and K.R. Smith. 1995.

Henry Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture, Greenbelt MD


The challenge facing agriculturalists, environmentalists, and others concerned about the sustainability of world agriculture, is how to meet the food needs of between 8-10 billion people in the next century. Even though enormous efforts have been made to enact policies and develop education programs designed to slow population growth, experts now generally agree that we must face the sobering fact that world population is expected to grow by 100 million people a year for the next 30 years. Most of this increase will be in the developing world. It is not surprising, given these projections, that much attention is being focused on what is called "high-yield" agriculture as a necessity for feeding a growing world population. Unfortunately, some proponents of high yield agriculture present this approach in overly simplistic, "either-or" terms. They suggest, for example, that we must rely entirely on pesticides, commercial fertilizers, other chemically-based inputs, and high energy use in land intensive crop production systems, or face the prospect of low per acre yields requiring an expansion of production into marginal land areas, or create a new world food crisis.

This faulty logic is used by Dennis Avery, a particularly aggressive proponent, to further suggest that chemically-based, high-yielding, intensive agricultural systems are the key to protecting wildlife, natural ecosystems and biodiversity, while feeding the world's population. There may be, for some, a naive beauty in stating that chemically-based intensive agriculture will meet all of our production and environmental goals, but this is dangerously misleading. In fact, it can best be characterized as the newest agricultural myth.

John F. Kennedy noted that, "Mythology distracts us everywhere;in government as in business, in politics as in economics, in foreign affairs as in domestic policy." As the federal budget is tightened, it is critical that we do not let this newest myth distract decision makers from the search for and extension of efficient, productive, and environmentally friendly agricultural production alternatives. If modern science can map the human genome, send a satellite to Jupiter, and transfer genes from animals to plants, then certainly we can find ways of increasing crop yields with fewer chemicals and other environmentally threatening inputs and practices. Scientific research has already shown that many practices and systems associated with sustainable agriculture have helped farmers achieve increased yields and profits with reduced reliance on pesticides or purchased nitrogen fertilizers. Yet there is more to be learned and applied as we look toward the 21st century.

Avery's argument, and the myth it nurtures, hold up only under two highly questionable, underlying assumptions: (a) that alternatives to a chemically-based crop production system necessarily requires more land to produce the same amount of output; and (b) that the adverse ecological and health consequences of a chemically-based, land intensive system are minor in comparison to those that would be wrought by expansion of land extensive production systems.

The purpose of this paper is to present well documented evidence that challenges these assumptions, thus refuting the myth and preventing the undesirable effects of its acceptance. We do this by pursuing two general areas of counterevidence. First, we document the fact that the widespread adoption of chemically-based, land intensive crop production systems has had environmental effects which are not only costly in their own right, but which also actually have hindered attempts to provide adequate food for a growing world population. Second, we highlight the results of sustainable agriculture research, and the experiences of some major practitioners of alternative production systems, to demonstrate that these techniques could increasingly be available to meet future global food needs while improving environmental quality.

Finally, we challenge the agricultural research and business communities to investigate the full range of all possible pathways towards the goal of producing adequate food supplies for as many as 10 billion people in the next century. Because no one technological paradigm or class of production systems is likely to prove optimal over all locations and circumstances, a failure to pursue all the alternatives, and the possible synergies among them, is tantamount to irresponsibility.

In a Nutshell...
The Myth:
Chemically-based, land intensive agricultural systems are the key to feeding the world's growing population and their use will, at the same time, enhance wildlife habitat, biodiversity, and unique ecosystems.

The Myth's Assumptions:
The myth does not hold up unless you believe that...
  • Alternatives to chemically-based crop production systems necessarily require more land to produce the same amount of output; and

  • The environmental benefits of limiting land used for crop production outweigh the environmental costs associated with chemically-based crop production systems.
Scientific data and expert knowledge which challenge the assumptions on which the myth relies (and, thus, refute the myth itself) include the following:
  • Proof that while some terrestrial ecosystems may benefit from restrictions on agricultural uses, many aquatic and marine systems—increasingly important sources of food as well as biodiversity—are suffering from the consequences of chemically-based systems;

  • Demonstration of a range of negative effects of chemically-based, land intensive crop production on terrestrial ecosystems, which may well outweigh the benefits of restricting production on marginal lands;

  • Documentation of declining yields and/or offsetting production costs associated with intensive chemical use on "Green Revolution" crops; and

  • Mounting confirmation that a range of alternatives to the chemically-based production model can achieve equivalent or higher yields per unit of land area.
Dangers of the myth:
Widespread acceptance of the myth, in light of the evidence against its validity, can preclude investment in R&D on environmentally friendly alternatives to chemically-based production models and discourage agricultural businesses from making strategic decisions about products and services likely to be demanded by future farmers. Ultimately, the myth could impede progress towards achievement of an agricultural system that will feed a growing world population without endangering the natural environment.


The ecological impacts of chemically-based, intensive
agricultural systems are serious and costly.

The range and magnitude of adverse consequences associated with runoff and leaching of nutrients and pesticides, and the environmental risks posed by certain agricultural chemicals, discredit blanket claims that chemically-based, intensive agriculture is environmentally friendly. The nature of several consequences of such systems also brings into question their net food production benefits. For example...

Chemical contamination and eutrophication (from runoff of excess nutrients, mainly nitrogen and phosphorous, from cropland) threaten the productivity of the marine and aquatic systems from which a substantial portion of the world's food supply derives.

While terrestrial wildlife habitat may be lost by expanding agricultural acreage, wildlife populations both on and off sites of chemically-based intensive agricultural practice have been adversely affected by exposure to agricultural chemicals and/or wildlife-antagonistic agricultural land use patterns.

Loss of terrestrial biodiversity associated with chemical and land intensive agricultural systems can actually reduce food production efficiency, and have other negative impacts on commercially valued activities.


The human health risks of pesticide-dependent, intensive
agricultural systems are decidedly nontrivial.

Human health effects of pesticide use, now well documented, are costly in terms of human lives and quality of life, and, as we explain below, can actually reduce food production efficiency. Justifiable uncertainty about the potential for as yet undiscovered human health impacts of agricultural pesticide use also manifests itself in the marketplace.

Human occupational exposure to pesticides is a significant cause of deaths, worldwide, and is suspected to contribute to serious long-term and chronic health hazards in developed as well as developing countries.

The occupational health hazards associated with pesticide use can reduce agricultural productivity.

Consumers' desire for reduced chemical use in food production is clear, justifiable, and evident from market trends.


Chemically-based, land intensive agricultural systems do not guarantee
high productivity. They may not even sustain high yields.

In previous pages we cited evidence that reduced biodiversity and pesticide-related farmworker health problems can make chemically-based, land intensive systems less productive.

In fact, new, improved (Green Revolution), high-yielding varieties in intensive cropping systems have a range of agronomic, economic, and environmental disadvantages that impede food productivity goals.

Yields of some important, intensively produced food crops are actually declining, even as we face the probability of increased population pressures.


Sustainable and/or alternative agricultural production techniques often
compete with and sometimes outshine their conventional counterparts.

Sustainable and/or alternative agricultural research has led to tremendous reductions in the negative environmental impacts of agriculture. In some cases, practices and systems associated with sustainable agriculture have out-produced conventional agriculture even though only a fraction of federal research dollars is spent on research targeted at increasing the productivity of sustainable agriculture.

Sustainable agriculture is a highly sophisticated system of production that uses many state-of-the-art technologies.

A recent survey of the research projects funded under the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program highlights a variety of highly technical and innovative production systems.

Integrated pest management has significantly reduced chemical use.

Research suggests that sustainable agricultural systems may reduce farmers' economic risk due to variations in weather.

While organic agriculture is only one of many forms of sustainable agriculture (many sustainable systems use agricultural chemicals in appropriate ways) the economic performance of some organic systems suggests that the equation of high yields or high economic returns with chemical use is entirely invalid.

Sustainability and profitability are clearly compatible.


The challenge: bringing high-yield and sustainable agriculturalists
together to face the demands of the future.

"Attempting to solve one problem in isolation may be inappropriate. For example, exclusive attention to meeting food needs can exert a very high, perhaps irreversible, toll on the environment and can make it more difficult to meet food needs in the future. Similarly, a sole focus on preserving the natural resource base can condemn millions to hunger and poverty. Linkages and synergies between problems and solutions must be creatively exploited for the world to be a better place."
(Pinstrup-Anderson and Pandya-Lorch)

In previous sections, we show that chemically-based, land intensive agriculture does not necessarily protect wildlife, biodiversity, or water quality. We also provide examples to show that sustainable agriculture outperforms conventional agriculture in some regions and for some crops. This is, of course, only part of the story. Clearly, there are many examples where chemically-based, high-yield agriculture has provided tremendous environmental benefits by protecting marginal lands and allowing people to live off fewer acres. Likewise, in many sustainable agricultural research trials, yields are lower (usually between 5 and 10 percent) than their conventional counterparts. However, what is really needed to produce enough food for 10 billion people in a way that does not devastate the environment is a combination of both types of production. The key to production in the next century is high-yield, sustainable agriculture.

Feeding a growing world population without further endangering the natural environment depends upon public support of high-yield, sustainable agriculture research, education and extension. Alternatives to both chemical-intensive, high-yield agriculture and to land extensive sustainable agriculture can be expected to result from scientific endeavors dedicated to their discovery and development. Only a fraction of the billions of research dollars spent over the last fifty years has been devoted to increasing the productivity of sustainable and/or organic production systems and current funding is being threatened by proposed federal budget cuts.

The demands to dramatically increase food production in the next century may also require a re-evaluation by proponents on both sides of the debate. Farmers, consumers, researchers and others in support of sustainable agriculture will need to evaluate the role that emerging technologies (e.g., precision farming and biotechnology) may play in helping meet food needs at a reasonable environmental and social cost. Likewise, proponents of high-yield agriculture will need to recognize that scientifically valid alternatives to chemically-based agriculture exist and can and should play a vital role in developing the production systems of the twenty-first century.



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40. Op. cit., 1


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