All Commentary
Monday, January 1, 1996

Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic: The Environmental Triumph of High Yield Farming

High Yield Agriculture and Free Trade Best Protect Human Health and Environmental Resources

Dr. Pasour is Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at North Carolina State University.

The media is all too eager to spread the message of “doom and gloom” environmentalists. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers pose an imminent and growing threat both to human health and to wildlife. Population growth is spiraling upward out of control and high tech methods of farming are not “sustainable.” The solution in this view is to eliminate or to drastically reduce the use of manufactured chemicals in the production of food and fiber.

Dennis Avery’s new work is an effective antidote to this conventional wisdom that high-yield agriculture poses a threat to human health and the environment. Avery, an agricultural economist, spent 30 years in the federal establishment, serving both in the Department of Agriculture and the State Department.

First, the author shows that the doomsday prophets, including Rachel Carson, are often wrong on the facts. Pesticide residues are not a significant health risk. Indeed, the natural chemicals in foods are more dangerous than pesticide residues, according to Dr. Bruce Ames, the noted biochemist and molecular biologist at the University of California at Berkeley.

The use of DDT, contra Rachel Carson, is not a serious threat to humans and did not decimate the population of wild birds. The EPA administrator banned DDT not because there was demonstrated harm but because he feared a political backlash from readers of Silent Spring.

World population is not spiraling out of control. The most likely projection is that population will rise from the current level of 5.4 billion to peak at eight billion people in 2030 and then trend downward for the rest of the century. Moreover, economic conditions are a key factor in the population equation. Birth rates, usually high in poor countries, invariably decrease with economic development.

Second, Avery shows that environmentalists’ pleas for chemical-free farming, if successful, would harm both human health and the environment, particularly wildlife. The way to preserve wildlife is to save its habitat. However, the elimination of, or significant reduction in, the use of farm chemicals would mean a substantial increase in land area cropped—and reduction in wildlife habitat. Thus, by preserving habitat, the current system of high-yield farming helps protect wildlife!

Pesticide use, strange as it may seem, is also a boon to public health. Eating more fruits and vegetables can cut cancer risk by 50 percent and markedly reduce heart disease. However, only 9 percent of U.S. consumers eat the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Thus, anything that reduces consumption of fruits and vegetables will cost lives. Pesticides are critically important in assuring ample year-round supplies of reasonably priced and attractive fruits and vegetables. Eliminating pesticides would mean lower yields, higher prices and reduced consumption of fruits and vegetables— and higher cancer rates!

The defense of high-yield farming is not a defense of the status quo. Avery explores the environmental implications of protectionist policies that prevent sugar and other farm products from being produced in areas of their comparative advantage. Such policies distort the pattern of production of farm products, create environmental problems, and lead to the use of more farm chemicals. For example, farm programs in the United States and Western Europe create artificial incentives for farmers to increase yields and lead to overuse of fertilizers and pesticides.

This book makes a compelling case that high-yield agriculture and free trade throughout the world are the best ways to protect human health and environmental resources. This approach is not risk-free but is far less risky than the alternatives.

  • E. C. Pasour, Jr. is professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at North Carolina State University. He is coauthor with Randal R. Rucker of Plowshares and Pork Barrels: The Political Economy of Agriculture (Independent Institute, 2005).