“And wouldn't it be nice to live together, in the kind of world where we belong”

                                              The Beach Boys

Suzy Friedman, of the Environmental Defense Fund, has channeled the Beach Boys in her recent opinion piece in Agri-Pulse, writing a sincere and attractive description of the kind of world where we belong, and yes, it would be nice.

A quick google search would seem to bear out everything that Friedman describes in her article. Her career is a blueprint for the kind of collaboration that would benefit both agriculture and the environment. Regretfully, Friedman’s article was published almost simultaneously with the annual release of the Environmental Working Group’s so called “Dirty Dozen,” an annual exercise in the worst kind of environmental fear mongering, a yearly kick in the head to farmers who safely and conscientiously use crop protection chemicals to produce our nation’s food supply.

But Friedman is right, it would be nice if we could all work together on common set of goals. It’s unlikely to happen, however, without an increase in trust between farmers and environmentalists, an agreement on a set of facts that puts aside old disagreements in the hope of forging new partnerships. What would it take, from this farmer’s perspective, to trust the environmental community, to put aside the distrust that makes working together so very difficult?

Well, we could agree to disagree on global warming. Whoa, say my environmental friends, that’s a big one! And, indeed it is. But here’s the problem, or at least the problem I have. Let’s assume that the scientific consensus is exactly correct, that the earth is warming, and that human activity is largely responsible. That does not necessarily mean that the programs so far advanced to reverse that trend are good public policy. The Clean Air Plan advanced by the Obama administration would have made a very small difference in the path of global warming, using the very same science that we’ve posited as correct. It’s not clear to this farmer why we should sacrifice economic growth and wealth to make almost no progress in reversing warming. When someone comes up with a program that is likely to make a difference, we can talk. But to penalize ourselves in the certain knowledge that the rest of the world will not make the necessary changes is the worst kind of virtue signaling.

Which doesn’t mean that we can’t work toward lightening the carbon load of farming. In fact, many of the changes that will more directly benefit the environment also lessen the carbon emitted in the production of food. We should learn more about ways of cutting methane emissions in livestock production, increasing and measuring carbon sequestration in crop production, and increasing efficiency and yields using the latest technology. Turns out that high yield agriculture compares pretty well with other methods of production when carbon emissions are measured per unit of production.

Speaking of technology, it’s hard to take any environmental group seriously that is opposed to the use of genetically modified seeds. Just as our environmental friends are frustrated to the point of distraction by the agriculture community’s refusal to accept the science behind global warming, farmers are largely out of patience with the conversation around genetic engineering.

The results are in, the scientific community is in agreement, and the technology is both safe and beneficial. But admitting that would choke off a very large source of funding for environmental groups. Farmers’ and consumers’ interests are thrown overboard when direct mail campaigns speak, and almost all environmental groups have sacrificed their integrity to marketing campaigns that benefit their bottom line.

The most disturbing part of this story to true environmentalists has to be the fact that perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the promise that genetic engineering offers is the environment. Again, there is no substitute for productivity when we farmers measure our impact upon the world around us.

If any environmentalists are still reading, let’s talk about concentrated animal agriculture. For sure, there are legitimate areas of disagreement about CAFOs when it comes to animal care, and we should continue to have those conversations, with the understanding that concentrated livestock production has benefits for animals as well as drawbacks. And small farm advocates are correct to be concerned about the economic and social costs of large-scale animal production when it involves contracting between parties with different levels of economic power.

But the environmental calculus is pretty clear: concentrating animal waste, capturing it without discharge, and carefully using it as fertilizer is easier on the environment than the way we used to produce meat, with thousands of open lots and totally unregulated capture and use of animal waste. Again, the increase in efficiency means that we produce more meat with fewer animals and less feed per pound of pork chop or chicken breast produced. That is good news for carbon in the atmosphere, and lessens the environmental load of crop production.

The tradeoffs here are complex, but the environmental results of feeding animals inside has been largely positive. Not a position likely to be publicly adopted by any self-respecting environmental group in the near future, but one that the more sensible groups will admit to privately.  

Finally, farmers have to continue to work to lessen the environmental cost of the things we do. We won’t do that by not using the productive and efficient kinds of seed, we can’t do that by worrying about infinitesimally small chemical residues left on food, and we are unlikely to do that by retreating to our grandfather’s technology for raising crops and animals. What we can do is step up our efforts to protect the soil, keep it on our farms, and build its productivity for the generations to follow.

We’ve made progress, but we are a long ways from doing all that needs to be done. Cover crops, conservation structures, no-till farming, and precision application of fertilizers are being used by most farmers, but we have to redouble our efforts.

It would be nice if tomorrow’s agriculture could keep improving on its environmental record, where improvement is needed. It would be nice if environmental groups were partners in that endeavor. It would indeed be the kind of world we ought to live in.

About the author: Blake Hurst is a third-generation farmer and president of the Missouri Farm Bureau board of directors.