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Can De-Chemicalizing Agriculture Save the Planet?

If pesticides, fertilizers and genetically-modified seed aren’t good for the planet, who are they good for?

November 27, 2012

If pesticides, fertilizers and genetically-modified seed aren't good for the planet, who are they good for?

For most people in the developed world — that is, for most people reading this article — the issue of food security is not one thought about on a daily basis. We go about our days without ever having to worry if there will be food on the table. That is very much a poor man’s game.

But this may soon change. In recent years, food prices have risen sharply. They are up by about 30% in real terms from just ten years ago.

And they have become much more volatile. In 2007-08, the Food Price Index compiled by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization almost doubled within the space of a few months. The increases in food prices sparked riots in over 20 countries.

All of this has not gone unnoticed. Many governments and militaries have been increasing their stockpiles of food.

Even investors are getting in on the action. Jeremy Grantham, co-founder and chief investment officer of one of the world’s largest asset management firms, told the New York Times that “a portfolio of farms that are doing state-of-the-art farming over a 20-, 30-year horizon will be the best investment money can buy.”

But almost nothing is being done to address the actual problem: Global food supplies are under enormous pressure from an expanding world population and a burgeoning global middle class, which is being encouraged to overconsume underpriced food by an economic model that is premised on relentless consumption.

The resulting practice of producing more food through industrial and chemically intensive agriculture is putting a densely populated world and everyone who lives on it, both rich and poor, on a collision course with catastrophic food crises.

This is not the first time the world has been on the brink of such a disaster. In the 1960s, the situation was eerily similar. World population had grown exponentially (although only to three billion compared with today’s seven billion), food prices were rising and countries such as India seemed on the brink of mass famine.

Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich predicted that England would cease to exist by the year 2000 because of famine. William and Paul Paddock, in their book Famine 1975!, went even further. They advocated a policy of “triage” in which rich nations shipped food only to those poor countries that still had hope of one day feeding themselves, abandoning hopeless cases like India and Egypt to starvation.

Thankfully, none of these predictions came to pass. The reason they didn’t was that the 1960s also happened to be the beginning of the Green Revolution, which massively increased agricultural output brought about through the use of hybrid crop strains and modern farming techniques, most importantly chemical fertilizers.

Based on methods developed by the renowned agronomist Norman Borlaug, the 1960s saw rice and wheat yields almost triple in developing countries such as the Philippines. India’s transformed itself into one of the world’s largest food exporters. By 1970, yearly productivity gains were averaging an astonishing 3.5%.

But while the Green Revolution saved hundreds of millions of people from starvation, there was nothing “green” about it. It left crop yields dependent on the liberal use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. And by averting the crisis of the 1960s, it sowed the seeds of the present one.

Chemical dependency

The broad-based dependence of today’s agriculture on chemicals often comes as a shock to the uninitiated. The agrochemical industry is worth an estimated $125 billion a year worldwide — an amount that may double within the next five years. (By comparison, India and China spend just $60 billion educating a combined 36% of the world’s population.)

Fertilizer use has increased by a factor of five worldwide since 1960. It has increased by a factor of 55 in China, where 1.3 million tons of pesticides are also used every year. In India, levels of fertilizer application have risen from less than one kilogram per hectare in 1951 to 133 kg in 2011.

This dramatic overreliance on chemical inputs has put the global agriculture industry at huge risk. For one, these inputs are running out. Two of the three key ingredients in chemical fertilizers — potash and phosphorus — are mined from finite and dwindling supplies, mainly in Africa and the Americas.

The third, nitrogen, is mainly synthesized with the use of natural gas, another finite resource. As these inputs become scarcer, and therefore more expensive, farmers will be unable to maintain their current levels of fertilizer use, lowering their output.

And as the cost of purchasing chemical fertilizers rises, the poorest farmers will be disproportionately affected. Agricultural inputs already account for 50% of the cost of crop production in China.

But even if the global supply of agrochemicals wasn’t in doubt, a large-scale reduction in their use would still be imperative. In the first place, they have a massive negative effect on human health. The nitrate in chemical fertilizers leaches into the nearby surface water and groundwater, both endangering human health and impacting the wider environment.

Exposure to pesticides can result in myriad types of cancer, neurological diseases and birth defects in children. The cost of illness and injury related to agricultural chemicals in Sub-Saharan Africa alone could reach $90 billion by 2020.

The surrounding environment fares no better — up to 98% of sprayed insecticides and 95% of herbicides reach a destination other than their target species. This reduces biodiversity, destroy habitats and can contaminate both the air and groundwater, endangering human and animal health far beyond the point of use.

Perhaps even more significant is the impact that the overuse of agrochemicals is having on our ability to produce food. While their use during the Green Revolution dramatically increased yields, the irony is that the continued overuse of agrochemicals has actually been making farms less productive.

Directly, agrochemicals both degrade water quality and destroy the microorganisms necessary for healthy soil. Their use has also promoted the use of high-yielding varieties of crops (HYVs) which, while normally less productive than traditional strains, respond much better to chemical fertilizers. But HYVs also rapidly deplete the soil they are planted in beyond the ability of chemical fertilizers to compensate for.

Indirectly, the Green Revolution has pushed most farmers away from traditional practices (such as crop rotation) and promoted the planting of monocultures. This has made crops much more susceptible to pests and to extreme weather events that climate change is making more and more frequent (as evidenced by this year’s drought in the United States, the worst in 50 years).

Farmers have compensated for this by using even more pesticides, creating a vicious cycle of overfarming and chemical abuse. We have waged what has amounted to chemical warfare on huge swaths of Earth’s arable land.

As a result, the FAO estimates that a staggering 25% of the world’s total landmass is highly degraded — including 50% of India’s land and 37% of China’s. The effects of this loss of soil quality are dramatic enough, but they are further exacerbated by a loss of topsoil from poor land use and a range of other agricultural practices.

Reversing urbanization

The primary beneficiaries of the Green Revolution have not been the farmers who actually produced the food. It was a boon, however, for the large food and agrochemical companies.

Farmers, for their part, are locked into a mechanism in which they pay more for HYV seeds and the chemical fertilizers they require. Many of them have been reduced to subsistence as a result. Having lost the skills necessary to return to more traditional methods of farming, they have no choice but to continue producing smaller and smaller yields for less and less income.

This is a big factor in the mass migration of people from the countryside to the cities in countries all over the world. As a result, rural populations are both shrinking and aging. (Japan’s rural communities are expected to halve in many areas, and the median age for its rural residents has gone from 42 in 1960 to 60 in 1990.) Meanwhile, overcrowded cities are full of jobless rural refugees.

Asian governments have not questioned the causes of this trend. Assuming that urbanization will produce the productivity gains necessary to grow their economies, they have simply accepted it as an inevitable trend.

Closer examination, however, reveals that reversing this trend is vital if Asia is to feed itself without destroying its farmland in the process. The conclusion, then, is clear — the benefits of agrochemicals are in the past, and today they are doing much more harm than good.

A return to less chemical intensive farming could change all of this. Free from the need to buy increasingly expensive fertilizers and HYV seeds, millions of the world’s poorest farmers would be able to keep more of the money they make in their own pockets and stay on the land, thereby becoming all-import providers of ecosystem services.

This is something city-dwellers can forever pontificate about but never actually dirty their hands with. Agricultural outputs might fall temporarily — though land degradation will ensure this happens on the current course — but alternative methods of crop rearing, such as the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), have achieved similar yields without the need for chemical inputs.

Needless to say, SRI faced intense opposition from many of the organizations set up in the wake of the Green Revolution, but has been catching on in countries all over Asia. Vested interests have mainstreamed half-truths about all forms of agriculture that did not adopt industrialization and chemicalization by scaring the world into believing alternative practices would leave the world unable to feed itself.

From subsidies to stimulus

Much will have to be done to rectify the current situation. First and foremost, the destructive use of agrochemicals cannot be spread to the few parts of the world that have yet to adopt the practice.

Some parts of Africa, for instance, are still too poor to afford the large-scale use of chemical fertilizers. These areas are seen as “low-hanging fruit” by agrochemical companies and those who have bought into the specious idea that the worldwide adoption of agrochemicals is the only way of feeding the global population.

What they really do — as has been amply demonstrated all over the world — is create a myriad of other problems.

Farmers will also need to be retrained in the more complicated practices required to preserve soil quality and output, rather than just dumping chemicals on the land and hoping for the best.

They will have to become well-trained individuals capable of managing complex systems of crop rotation and irrigation, rather than living on subsistence wages and beholden to the products of agricultural multinationals.

And they will have to be organized into local cooperatives capable of negotiating a fair price for their products and providing their members with essential services, such as loans for tools and equipment and crop insurance.

None of this will be free. But OECD countries currently spend over $250 billion dollars on agricultural subsidies every year, much of which goes to multinational conglomerates worth billions of dollars.

The U.S. government alone has spent $17 billion dollars since 1999 subsidizing corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch and soy oils, additives that are used almost exclusively by large corporations to make junk food.

Billions more are spent on mining the elements necessary to create chemical fertilizers. This money could be far more productively spent giving millions of the world’s poorest farmers the opportunity to earn a better wage. With their higher marginal propensity to consume, it would serve as a fiscal stimulus as well.

Similarly, money now spent on creating HYVs complete with terminator genes could instead be used to research more nutrient- or water-efficient strains for planting.

Yes, fewer chemicals will likely make farming more labor intensive. But again, this does not have to be a bad thing. In a crowded Asia, the creation of jobs will be a major challenge — and less chemically intensive agriculture opens up an entire sector of new, better paying jobs.

The desertification of land and the low wages associated with farming have driven millions out of rural areas in Asia and Africa and into the urban slums of cities like Mumbai and Nairobi. If farming were to become more sustainable and farmers to earn a higher wage, these people could be moved from grinding poverty into productive enterprise.

In other words, far from being an inevitable product of modernization, which is the West’s ideological analysis of the situation, rural-urban drift is the direct result of the same vested interests and economic models that have caused the current food crisis. Like the current food crisis, it can therefore be reversed.

At a time of persistently high global unemployment, putting people back to work while also ensuring the planet’s food security seems like a pretty good deal.


The global middle class is being encouraged to overconsume underpriced food by an economic model that is premised on relentless consumption.

As the cost of purchasing chemical fertilizers rises, the poorest farmers will be disproportionately affected.

While the use of agrochemicals during the Green Revolution dramatically increased yields, their overuse has been making farms less productive.

In a crowded Asia, the creation of jobs will be a major challenge — and less chemically intensive agriculture opens up an entire sector of new, better paying jobs.

Desertification and the low wages associated with farming have driven millions out of rural areas and into urban slums.