The Hi-Tech Agriculture Imperative
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
For two centuries we have been winning the battle to maintain an adequate food supply. There is still much more to be done.
Crop protection products have long played a significant role in agriculture. Since humanity evolved from nomadic hunter-gatherers to a sedentary agrarian people, we have struggled to provide for ourselves while battling the pests of nature that compete with us for the same food. The fossil record demonstrates that insects from 390 million years ago fed on early land plants, while humans have cultivated those same plants for only 10,000 years. Insects have obviously had a long head start on capturing the nutrients of these plants for themselves. Without a consistent way to feed their people, empires have fallen and wars have been waged in the battle to maintain an adequate food supply. It was only two centuries ago that new methods for pest control fueled population growth and spurred an intellectual revolution that continues today.
The new methods began in France during the 1850s, when a breakout of powdery mildew devastated the grape-growing French countryside. An easy-to-spot disease, powdery mildew appears as a white, powderlike substance on plant leaves. Beginning as small spots, the infection grows and eventually moves up the stem of the infected host. With the substance blocking the sun, plant cells cannot photosynthesize, leading to reduced vine growth, yield, and grape quality. The infection permits the fruit’s interior to grow while the epidermal skin does not. Eventually, the inner grape pulp will burst through the outer skin. Grapes that do survive are reported as having an “off taste” and deemed unacceptable for wine production. Prior to the appearance of this infection, annual wine production in France reached approximately 1 billion gallons. After the infection, farmers were struggling to produce barely 200 million gallons. In 1854 alone, 80 percent of French grape yields were lost.1 Wine prices doubled, and the government immediately abolished all import taxes on spirits in order to satisfy the French appetite for alcohol and keep an unhappy populace in check.
In 1858, scientists discovered that ground sulfur, when properly applied to a plant, would kill the fungus.2 When sulfur is applied, it mixes with hydrogen produced by the powdery mildew to create hydrogen sulfide, a gas toxic to the mildew. News of this discovery spread immediately throughout France, and within a year, wine production had returned to its previous levels. This revolutionary use of sulfur was the first major crop protection product. Prior to this, losing between 20 percent and 100 percent of crop yields in any given year was a fact of life for a farmer, an unavoidable consequence of battling pests.
If farmers were to return to using labor instead of crop protection products to pull weeds, U.S. agriculture would need approximately 72 million additional farm laborers to maintain current yields.
After two decades of production stability, a new iteration of mildew, downy mildew, appeared within French grape orchards. This mildew left plant leaves stricken with water-soaked black spots that grew until they killed the plant. Grape production once again plummeted, prices skyrocketed, and the volatile French populace began to grumble. Not until 1878 was an effective control found for this disease, and it was discovered almost by accident. French botanist Alexis Millardet witnessed a farmer spraying his plants with a blue mixture of lime and copper sulfate in order to discourage pilferers. When visiting the orchard later, Millardet observed that the plants that had been sprayed were healthy and uninfected, while those that were not sprayed were stricken with disease. He discovered that the copper ions of the mixture were toxic to the fungus and that the lime protected the grapes, reducing the damage from the copper sulfate.3 This mixture was named “Bordeaux mixture” after the region, and crop production was eternally changed.
Bordeaux mixture, unlike sulfur, controlled downy mildew infections across a wide range of crops. This was especially important in food staple crops. Only a few decades earlier, the Great Famine of Ireland had been caused by the worst outbreak of potato blight ever seen. The population starved while fields went fallow. Bordeaux mixture could control blight in potatoes and by the early 1900s it was used extensively on potatoes throughout North America and Europe. During World War I, when a major blight epidemic on potatoes went untreated, German potatoes rotted in the fields, resulting in the deaths of 700,000 German civilians from starvation and severely undercutting the morale of the German army.4
If we were to reduce the use of domestic crop protection products, our famers would not be able to compete in the global agriculture market.
Witnessing the effectiveness of Bordeaux mixture, chemists of the early 20th century experimented with a wide range of products to see if they could control other diseases, insects, and weeds that pervaded farmers’ fields. They found that arsenic, sulfur, and Bordeaux were the three major chemicals able to offer effective controls of certain pests. In the 1930s, U.S. chemists worked to design new synthetic compounds specifically for pest control.
The first synthetic chemicals, nabam, thiram, and zineb, were patented in the late 1930s and their fungicidal properties were confirmed in 1941 by the Connecticut Agricultural Research Station.5 These research stations were the first foray by the government into the development of synthetic crop protection chemicals. The wartime government of the 1940s was particularly eager to maintain a steady and abundant food supply, so it poured money into these stations to improve pest control methods and reduce preventable crop losses. At the Connecticut station alone, more than 6,000 compounds were tested for possible usefulness.6 The war effort spurred the government and the crop protection industry to work in concert for decades to come.
With industry and government working in tandem, synthetic chemical compounds for crop protection were produced at an unprecedented pace. The introduction of these effective synthetic pesticides at mid-century decreased the need for farm labor. During the 19th century, two-thirds of the U.S. population was required to be farmers in order to feed the country.7 But once farms could control pests and boost yields to their peak, agriculture could support an emerging industrial economy. From 1920 to 1980, farm labor declined by more than 70 percent. Where farmers previously hired labor to pull weeds and remove insects during high infection seasons, they now utilized labor-saving crop protection products. Children who previously left school to help pull weeds during peak weed season were now able to focus on their studies.
More Food, Less Cost
In 1890 there were 27.5 acres per farm worker in the United States. In 1990 each farm worker represented 740 acres.
Crop protection products were the avenue allowing not just the United States but also the global economy to reach its full potential. The CropLife Foundation estimates that if farmers were to return to using labor instead of crop protection products to pull weeds, U.S. agriculture would need approximately 72 million (approximately 23 percent of total U.S. population) additional farm laborers to maintain current yields.8
By using these technologies in a targeted and effective manner, we have been able to feed a growing population with fewer workers on the same amount of land. The U.S. population has quadrupled during the past century, but the amount of arable land has remained the same.9 In 1890 there were 27.5 acres per farm worker in the United States. In 1990 each farm worker represented 740 acres.10 This means we have not just a more effective industry, but also one that provides for the rest of the population efficiently and economically.
At the turn of the 19th century, U.S. consumers were spending approximately half of their income on foodstuffs.11 By the 1950s, the share of food as a slice of annual income was down to 29.7 percent, and by 2002 it had fallen to 13.1 percent.12 Today, the average American spends only $42.50 on food per week.13 This means that a mere $2,210 can assure food security for the average American for the entire year.
Crop protection products help enable just 2 percent of our population to provide for the other 98 percent today. Understanding the history of these products is key to participating in the robust and necessary debate surrounding the use of crop protection products and their important benefits for farmers and consumers.
Insects have obviously had a long head start on capturing the nutrients of these plants for themselves.
For example, according to the USDA, the three most valuable crops right now are corn, wheat, and soybeans. They are valued at $47.4 billion, $16.6 billion, and $27.4 billion, respectively, or approximately 68 percent of the United States’s $134 billion crop production industry.14 If these crop yields were reduced, the repercussions would impact not just U.S. agriculture but also the U.S. role in the global economy.
Using USDA data, the CropLife Foundation has estimated that U.S. corn yields would fall 20 percent without the use of herbicides, wheat production would decline by 19 percent without the use of fungicides, and soybean production would plummet 26 percent without the use of insecticides.15
Decreased domestic crop production would inevitably result in more imports from other nations. In fact, Brazil, France, and Japan, three prominent trade rivals, are increasing their use of crop protection technologies and agricultural exports. If we were to reduce the use of domestic crop protection products, our famers would not be able to compete in the global agriculture market, potentially forcing many U.S. farmers out of business and risking our domestic ability to feed ourselves in a sustainable manner.
This revolutionary use of sulfur on grapes was the first major crop protection product.
With crop protection products as the basis of an effective and efficient American agricultural system, we can use new technological advances to enhance our productivity. Advanced fertilizers being introduced to the market each year enable farmers to boost their yields by producing larger and more productive crops. However, fertilizers are incredibly dependent on crop protection products to realize their full value. The key to fertilizer use is proper weed control. If a farmer fertilizes a crop without controlling weeds, he is not only fertilizing his plants but also inadvertently fertilizing the weeds. This situation could result in larger, more robust weeds that would rob the farmer’s crops of the precious nutrients needed to reach their full potential. Without herbicide technology to eliminate weeds, fertilizers would be assisting the invasive pests that damage the crop.
Along with advanced fertilizer technology, 21st century agriculture has seen the introduction of modern seed innovations that allow farmers to grow crops with specialty traits genetically introduced into the seed itself. In the case of soybeans and corn, these traits allow the use of more targeted crop protection products. These products are not only more effective and environmentally friendly, but also save the farmer input costs and keep his land more productive for a longer period of time.
The war effort spurred the government and the crop protection industry to work in concert for decades to come.
Since their inception, biotech crops have been grown on a larger segment of U.S. agricultural land every year. Farmers recognize the inherent benefits in these products as smart business and are growing higher-quality crops for less money. In a comprehensive study, the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy estimated that biotech crops boosted U.S. agricultural production by 8.34 billion pounds, reduced production costs by $1.4 billion, and boosted profits by $2 billion in 2005 alone.16 Researchers have estimated that these crops are increasing farmer income worldwide by $4.8–$6.5 billion and providing a higher-quality product due to less insect, weed, and fungi damage.17
Scientists have also been able to replace past fuel-intensive agronomic practices with precision agricultural techniques, such as no-till farming, which enhance sustainability and reduce the environmental footprint. Studies show that, since 1996, biotech crops have saved farmers 441 million gallons of fuel through reduced fuel operations, which eliminates nearly 10.2 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, or the equivalent of removing 4 million cars from the road.18 The future holds only further potential for these crops and their benefits. Drought-resistant crops will be able to assist farmers in the developing world as they struggle in lands ill-suited for farming. Crops producing healthier oils can reduce obesity and positively affect other health-related issues. The possibilities in our lifetime and beyond are nearly endless.
Crops producing healthier oils can reduce obesity and positively affect other health-related issues.
We have noted the important role crop protection products play in today’s society. Partly because of these products, food security has moved from a constant struggle to a right and expectation in the developed world. We should also note, however, that many people in the developing world do not know where their next meal will come from. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 1 billion people were undernourished in 2009. The organization also identifies two parallel tracks to ending this crisis. The first track is solving the short-term deficiencies by providing developing countries with direct access to food through food aid, cash transfers, and safety nets. The second track is strengthening productivity and income through better infrastructure, science, and technology; this long-term solution will allow countries to independently produce enough for themselves.19
Crop protection products form part of this second track. By bringing new plant sciences and technologies to the people of the developing world, we can set them on the path the developed world has tread for almost two centuries. By giving people from developing nations the opportunity to leave the farm to receive a formal education and develop skills beyond manual labor, a second information revolution could parallel a second green revolution. By 2050, the United Nations estimates, the world population will be as high as 9 billion people.20 If we can adequately feed everyone and give them the opportunity to fulfill their intellectual promise, there is no predicting where humanity can go in the next century. Plant science and technology is the vehicle that can take us there.
Douglas Nelson is executive vice president, general counsel, and secretary of CropLife America. Alexander Rinkus is Media and Digital Communications Manager at CropLife International and a former Researcher at CropLife Foundation.
FURTHER READING: Blake Hurst discusses food issues in “The Sweet 'n Lowdown on GM Crops” and “Our Real Food Problem.” Daniel A. Sumner writes "Picking on the Poor: How US Agricultural Policy Hurts the Developing World." Philip G. Pardey and Julian M. Alston co-author "For Want of a Nail: The Case for Increased Agricultural R&D Spending."
1. Frederic T. Bioletti, “Oidium or Powdery Mildew of the Vine,” Bulletin No. 186, University of California Agricultural Experiment Station (February 1907).
Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.