I’ve heard so many misguided, crazy comments about farming over the years that I’ve almost become immune to them. Does it make sense to try to correct every opinion of every ill-informed person?
Yet a recent online column by Deirdre Imus—wife of the radio shock-jock Don Imus—got it totally wrong and I couldn’t let it go unanswered. She declared war on crop-protection products: the fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides that guard our food from fungus, weeds, and bugs.
“Pesticides are used to protect crops from potentially destructive infestations,” she wrote. “It would be great if there were something equally as powerful to protect humans from the potentially destructive effects of pesticides.”
What we really need is something to defend us from the misinformed ideas of Deirdre Imus.
Crop protection products are one of agriculture’s greatest innovations, allowing us to grow more food than ever before. When applied properly, they are safe for both farmers and consumers. And if they were suddenly to disappear from the farmer’s tool box, we’d face a global famine.
That grim fact became clear during a recent presentation by Leonard P. Gianessi of CropLife Foundation. A world without pesticides, he said, immediately would suffer a 25-percent reduction in the planet’s three most fundamental crops: corn, rice, and wheat.
The good news for the United States is that we’d probably survive this blow. We’d make up for the losses by halting our exports.
Others wouldn’t fare so well. Consider Norway, a country with a short growing season in northern Europe. Right now, it imports about half its food. Even if these imports were cut off, its farmers probably could supply their fellow Norwegians with a basic diet—but only if they’re allowed to use pesticides, as they are now.
Without crop protection, however, the Norwegians would suffer mightily: About 20 percent of the population could not be fed.
In China, with its population of more than 1 billion people today, the problem would be much worse. Without pesticides, its rice harvests would drop by two-thirds and its wheat harvests by half. China would “undergo famine if pesticides were not used,” warned a recent report from the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture.
In other words, crop protection products protect us not just from weeds and pests, but also from human catastrophe.
When I began to farm with my father and brother more than 50 years ago, we hoped to grow about 80 or 90 bushels of corn per acre—and that’s only if we fought the weeds with everything we had. I drove a row-crop cultivator across our fields, turning over the soil and hoping to cover about 20 acres on a good day.
On a lousy day, I’d cover much less ground, getting stuck in thistle patches and stopping constantly to dig out clumps of grass. It was miserable work—especially when the weather was hot and the bugs were bad—but it also represented our best hope to defeat the weeds that wanted to choke the life from our crops. We were organic farmers.
Today, we expect to grow 200 bushels of corn per acre, largely due to advances in crop protection. I still have a cultivator, but it’s been sitting in my shed, untouched for more than two decades.
Farmers need more crop protection, not less. I’m looking forward to a new generation of products that are even more effective than the ones we use now. I also hope that Africa takes up the technology, so it can meet its potential as a farming continent.
So what would be gained if pesticides and herbicides were to vanish from the United States, says Gianessi? Jobs. Only one thing could prevent massive yield losses: 70 million of us would have to take to the fields, squatting down on our hands and knees to uproot weeds. We’d have to turn our farms into the equivalent of gigantic community gardens.
The hours would be long, the work hard, and the pay poor. Something tells me that Deirdre Imus would not like this kind of labor. Nor would I. I’ll keep the good stuff and we’ll all enjoy the benefits.
Tim Burrack raises corn, soybeans and pork on a NE Iowa family farm. He serves as Vice-Chairman and volunteers as a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).