The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has developed a career-long role that entails finding issues to worry about and writing about them. That can be a good thing because science is definitely about asking the hard questions. Sometimes however, these well-intentioned folks can let their biases and presuppositions get in the way.
UCS has just released a report linking increased pesticide use to the adoption of biotech crops. Their presuppositions are that both of these are bad things – GMOs and chemicals. Their logic flaw is that even though they note that the biggest increase was in 2007/8 (long after the major adoption of biotech), they think the use of the biotech traits drove the increase in chemical use. There was indeed a significant increase in chemical use in 2007/8, but what actually drove that was the unprecedented spike in grain commodity prices at that time.
There is an old saying – “the best cure for high food commodity prices is high food commodity prices.” When grain prices are high, growers respond by planting more acres (=more chemical use) and are move motivated to protect their now more valuable crop in the field (in some cases this may result in an additional disease or insect control application as the economic thresholds to justify these measures are more readily achieved). Its really simple, rational economics. Also, remember that the irritating, but not large, food price increases American consumers saw in 2007/8 corresponded to a huge swing in the percent of the family budget spent on food in poor countries. There were even food riots and export restrictions. The fact that American farmers ramped up production was a good thing for poor people and the chemicals were part of that. This year, chemical sales are down substantially, but not GMO plantings.
The Union of Concerned And Active Scientists
Now back to the presupposition that this (and all) chemical use is a bad thing. Most people outside of farming are working with a 1960s vintage image of “PESTICIDES!!!” – things like parathion with high acute toxicity, DDT with long environmental persistence, or lindane with potential carcinogenicity. These are all things that are well worth concern. But there is another group of scientists that I will call “The Union of Concerned And Active Scientists,” (UCAAS even though no such formal group exists).
UCAAS includes toxicologists and environmental scientists in academia, government and industry that have greatly advanced the science of studying the health and environmental effects of chemicals of all types. UCAAS also includes the chemists and biologists who search for new, safer and more effective chemicals – something that has involved billions of dollars of research over the last several decades and resulted in huge advances in pesticide safety. UCAAS includes the agricultural scientists in the USDA, companies and in universities that test the chemicals in the field so that farmers have good information about what works and what doesn’t. Finally, UCAAS includes the regulatory scientists (at places like the EPA) that scrutinize and re-scrutinize the health and environmental data to decide what chemical uses should and should not be allowed/restricted/encouraged.
Very few people have any real idea what modern pesticides are about, but fortunately for all of us, “UCAAS” has plugged along with virtually no appreciation to keep us fed. I’m not denying that there have been and continue to be issues with pesticides, but those issues differ dramatically between individual pesticides. Most people’s mental image of a “pesticide” is completely out of date. Frankly pesticides are something we need – badly. Even Organic growers need to use pesticides (theirs are just from a more limited list and mostly less effective – I should know, I used to develop them).
The Sustainability Side
There is a sustainability side of this as well. Since the mid-1980s, fertilizer use rates on the major row crops have been steady to declining, yet yields have increased greatly. Some of this has come through genetic improvement unrelated to pests, but a great deal has come from genetic pest resistance, GMO pest resistance and better and more precisely and effectively applied chemicals.
Because of the work of “UCAAS” there is now a lot more food being produced for every acre of land, pound of fertilizer, inch of water pumped or gallon of diesel burned. That is making farming more sustainable. The herbicides that “concern” the UCS enable farmers to do no-till farming which has huge environmental benefits in terms of erosion control and water quality.
What UCS Got Right
The UCS report quite appropriately worries about the long-expected appearance of herbicide resistant weeds, but many scientists in “UCAAS” has been proactively working on that issue for decades developing new weed control tools and resistance management strategies. Still, this is definitely an area where concern with action is what is needed.
The Climate Change Tie
We really need UCAAS to keep working on chemicals, GMOs, improved equipment and all the other tools of modern agriculture. There was just a petition posted by some of the leading UCAAS “members” saying that we need a major global investment in agricultural research to have any hope of crop adaptation to climate change. Their emphasis was on breeding (which is hugely important), but new pesticides and GM traits are a major part of the solution as well.
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Images based on USDA data graphed by Steve Savage