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This week a new paper entitled Leverage Points for Improving Global Food Security and the Environment was published in the journal Science. (Science Daily summary)

The authors focus on the 17 major crops that account for the vast majority of calories produced and consumed, inputs used and environmental impacts from agriculture. The heavy hitters, no surprises. Corn, wheat, rice and cotton. The big impacts that they focus on are water use; carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and methane pollution of air and water, and tropical deforestation. The major points of leverage included switching from crops for meat production to crops for human consumption, better irrigation, closing the massive yield gap in countries with low performing agriculture, reducing food waste (especially meat waste) and improving the precision use of inputs like nitrogen and water in countries where overuse is the biggest problem.

Two things might surprise folks who get their sustainable ag news from urban reporters and not from academics. The first is that the percentages of over use of inputs in the US are fairly low and our impact is large, not because our farmers are out of control, but rather that we produce so much freaking food that a few percentage points of over use is a big impact relative to the production in other countries.

The second is the absence of even a mention of pesticides as a major environmental impact anywhere in the paper. Why is this? Because, while pesticides remain a labor issue for farm workers, especially in developing countries, they have improved so much in their mode of action and use in the last half century that they really don't rate as a major environmental impact, at least in comparison to the big foot issues raised in this paper.

The salience of pesticides as an environmental doesn't come from their relative environmental impact, but rather on their psychological impacts. It's better understood by run of the mill chemophobia.  Just as we are more afraid of shark attacks than slipping in the shower, pesticides as poisons or carcinogens have a much greater grip on the public imagination than unsequestered carbon, gulf deadzones, or methane pollution. Tropical deforestation may be the biggest agricultural impact, but there aren't many mommy bloggers wondering about how it could affect their kids health. As Steve Savage has explained, neither the ag companies that have improved their products nor the environmental groups that have pushed for improvements have much incentive to publicize the changes, so they go unheralded.

The other reason that it has great salience for the general public is because it is the main political football in the culture war between organic and so-called conventional agriculture. Pesticide use, while not absent from organic farming, is the most visible and highly touted difference that set organic apart. On issues like carbon, methane, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, organic doesn't have much to brag about. When it comes to the yield gap, it's organic has some splainin' to do.

There is more to look at in this paper, but the absence of pesticides as a major environmental impact was the first thing that popped out at me.

Originally posted to REALFOOD.ORG on Sat Jul 19, 2014 at 07:05 PM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I don't even know what pesticides are still in (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    widespread use.

    Interesting though about the inefficient use of nitrogen and phosphorus, isn't nitrogen production a large user of energy?

    The summary sure sounds good, not that we are doing much but that there is so much potential.

    “Conservation… is a positive exercise of skill and insight, not merely a negative exercise of abstinence and caution…” Aldo Leopold

    by ban nock on Sat Jul 19, 2014 at 08:05:49 PM PDT

  •  Well, I think the pesticide story is going to be (10+ / 0-)

    one of more significant impact, as more studies are done on colony collapse disorder and the association with neonicotinoids. Killing off the majority of the pollinators is, indeed, going to count as a serious environmental impact. Studies are increasingly showing that the mechanism of action occurs at fairly low concentrations. I have a feeling that in another year or two, it will be hard to deny the role pesticides are playing in endangering our food production capacity.

    Can you help me make Green Planet Heroes happen?

    by radical simplicity on Sat Jul 19, 2014 at 08:18:37 PM PDT

    •  Indeed, the neonicotinoid/colony-collapse link (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      wayoutinthestix, JamieG from Md

      is starting to look kind-of plausible...and very scary (considering how hooked on neonicotinoids American ag is today...and how important bees are). I'd be interested to hear the diarist's thoughts on this angle. Aren't the collateral casualties of insecticide use a pretty darn significant environmental impact?

      Beneath the beam that blocked the sky, none had stood so alone as I - and the Hangman strapped me, and no voice there, cried "Stay" for me in the empty square. (The Hangman, Maurice Ogden)

      by DocDawg on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 08:57:06 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I'm not say that pesticides (0+ / 0-)

        especially insecticides have no environmental impact. I'm saying that relative to the yield gap, greenhouse gases, gulf deadzones, and tropical deforestation, they are small potatoes. From the 10,000 ft. view.

        Neonics are coming into focus as a potential big deal, but the etymologists that I trust point out that the data isn't very good at all. At the say time, we have a few observation that need to be squared. Australia using plenty of neonics, but has no CCD. Europe banned neonics, but continues to have CCD. They are best understood as a stressor, but not a cause of CCD.

        I do think that a temporary ban on non-agricultural uses of neonics is probably in order. It's landscapers who are the most lax in over-application. A ban on use for landscaping and horticulture is probably a prudent move while the science is settled. But then again, maybe not. A ban could easily have the unintended, but easily predicted consequence of a return to organophosphates and pyrethoids. As always, be careful what you wish for. Make sure you have a dead aim on the problem before you pull the trigger.

  •  This dismissive description (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    DocDawg, splashy, JamieG from Md
    tells all of us who are focused on eliminating toxins from our agricultural environment everything we need to know about this diarist.

    'How like fish we are: ready, nay, eager, to seize upon whatever new thing.......And how we rue our haste, finding the gilded morsel to contain a hook". ALDO LEOPOLD - A Sand County Almanac

    by flowerfarmer on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 06:52:05 AM PDT

    •  No it doesn't (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      NoMoJoe, marc brazeau

      'Chemophobia' is a very real thing in our society...fear of chemicals for chemicals' sake, rather than based on their individual toxicity profiles, modes of use, exposure levels...i.e., rational criteria. I blame (among many other causes) the fact that we let otherwise well-educated people get out of high school and college without requiring that they take even a chemistry-for-jocks course. The vast majority of people understand squat about chemistry, and what you don't understand, but are surrounded by, you tend to fear.

      Look, myself I'm surprised by the diarist's POV (and so certainly intend to read the Science article carefully), and I am certainly no friend of pesticide use (except where there is no reasonable alternative, and even then only with a constant eye toward minimization). I spent an awful lot of money on our farm investing in biological control instead of pesticides, because it's important. But I can't fault somebody for characterizing American society's dominant 'chemophobia.' It's very real.

      One of the very few things I dislike about DKos is that when a diarist dares stray in the slightest from the progressive party line the ad hominems come thick and fast. Let's discuss ideas, not diarists.

      Beneath the beam that blocked the sky, none had stood so alone as I - and the Hangman strapped me, and no voice there, cried "Stay" for me in the empty square. (The Hangman, Maurice Ogden)

      by DocDawg on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 08:35:34 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I'll be interested to see (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    how the Science authors define "pesticide" (either implicitly or explicitly). We naturally tend to think of pesticides as insect poisons, but the term encompasses so much more (the EPA defines 'pesticide' as "a chemical used to prevent, destroy, or repel pests. Pests can be insects, mice and other animals, weeds, fungi, or microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses"). Importantly, this makes herbicides such as Roundup (or, more generically, glyphosate and its mixtures) 'pesticides.' And I don't believe there can be any reasonable doubt that American agriculture grossly overuses glyphosate, with that situation getting worse every day (thanks mostly to Monsanto's Roundup-Ready GMOs). From superweeds to soil compaction, glyphosate over-use is proving to be an environmental disaster. (Note the word "over-use"; used in moderation, I think it is a real boon).

    Beneath the beam that blocked the sky, none had stood so alone as I - and the Hangman strapped me, and no voice there, cried "Stay" for me in the empty square. (The Hangman, Maurice Ogden)

    by DocDawg on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 08:48:36 AM PDT

    •  Yes, pesticides cover the entire range (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Of chemicals that are used to kill things that are supposedly not wanted.

      It includes insects, fungi, weeds, etc.

      Women create the entire labor force.
      Sympathy is the strongest instinct in human nature. - Charles Darwin

      by splashy on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 11:27:58 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  What about the bees? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    And other insects that are affected by pesticides?

    How about the fungi, that is everywhere and necessary?

    Women create the entire labor force.
    Sympathy is the strongest instinct in human nature. - Charles Darwin

    by splashy on Sun Jul 20, 2014 at 11:26:12 AM PDT

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