WHY PEOPLE FEAR AGRICULTURE: THE CYCLE OF MISINFORMATION
Food is not reaching the tables of millions of hungry individuals each day. According to Jeff Simmons, Elanco, “Between 2008 and 2010, an estimated 18,250,000 people around the world died from malnutrition.” He equated that to 60 jumbo jets full of people crashing each and every day. Lack of food, or lack of nutritious food, is the number one cause of death in the world. In fact, Simmons points out that you could combine the deaths each year from war, AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, and more people will still die from hunger and malnutrition. Even in the United States, where most of the population doesn’t give a second thought about where their food originates, 1 in 5 children are affected by hunger. On top of that, 24 million Americans live in food deserts and face higher food costs and lower quality nutrition. Food deserts lead to a dependence on ‘fast-food’ and convenience store meals, and thus increase the obesity rate, which combatting accounts for 21% of all medical expenditures in America. The negative ramifications of food shortages are clear, so the question remains: why have we not addressed this issue efficiently, so we can bring an end to all of this suffering? The Problem When it comes to food production, it seems that many Americans fear modern agriculture. [caption id="attachment_6973" align="alignleft" width="518"] Graph via http://asp.okstate.edu/baileynorwood/SeedsPPP/pics/numberOfFarmers.jpg[/caption] Most Americans have lost their ancestral connection to the land. At the time of our nation’s founding, nearly 90% of the population helped produce the food that was consumed each year. Now, that number has plummeted to around 2%. This means that the vast majority of the population does not understand agriculture or what it takes to produce food anymore. Since they no longer know what is involved in the farming process, and they may not understand it, they have begun to fear it. Radical animal rights and anti-GMO activists that are scared of the agricultural practices they don’t understand began to pop up. It was easy for them to manipulate others with emotional arguments because the lack of knowledge is so widespread, and make others share their fear. The movements began to grow. It is important to note that these are not agricultural experts, but alarmists who view such widely accepted practices as medication and animal husbandry as unnatural. They completely ignore that farmers understand better than they what is good for the animals and land. Through countless policy measures and propaganda campaigns, they have begun to wear down and damage the efficiency and image of farming practices. As they attempt to overregulate farmers to satisfy their own irrational fears, people are dying of starvation. If we want to address the problem of hunger, here and around the world, then we must first address the problem of misinformation and alarm caused by people who no longer understand the food production process. The alarmists who are opposing innovation in the agriculture realm are failing to recognize the importance of those advances. Modernization is not only safe but vital. Each innovation, each movement forward into the modern age of food production, makes our food supply more sustainable, abundant, and nutritious. Each hindrance affects more than just that section of agriculture. It creates and feeds into the cycle of misinformation and fear. GMOs The biggest myth surrounding genetic modification is that the technology is unsafe. This is absolutely false. Thousands of studies, many which were independent, have been conducted and found that GMOs pose NO threat to health. In the largest-ever comprehensive study of GMOs and food, conducted at the University of California-Davis, researchers found that GM feed is not only safe but nutritionally equivalent to non-GM feed. After studying a total of over 100 billion animals, from both before and after the introduction of genetically engineered animal feed, their study showed that there was no real change in health trends over that period of time. Dr. Steven Novella, who examined this research, summarizes the results of decades of research by saying:
“In order to maintain the position that GMOs are not adequately tested, or that they are harmful or risky, you have to either highly selectively cherry pick a few outliers of low scientific quality, or you have to simply deny science.”
There are also unfounded concerns that genetically modified crops are not sustainable. This is another myth. GMOs are better for the environment in many ways over conventional crops. GM crops require 37% less pesticide application due to specific proteins which repel and often kill insects. They can be grown using conservation tillage, allowing crop residue to be left as mulch for the next growing season, protecting the soil and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They use less water due to drought tolerance they have had genetically coded, reduce pollution because they better absorb fertilizers and reduce runoff, and create biodiversity - meaning they can grow without taking anything away from the local ecosystems. People fear GMOs because of these myths and because they don’t understand the complex genetics behind GMOs, so they call for regulation and labeling requirements of GMOs. They argue that if GMOs are safe, there is no reason not to label them. However, the labeling itself would create a negative image around GMOs and demonize them, disassociating them from their positive benefits. As we put it on our website:
“It’s a Catch-22: Consumers believe that if the agriculture industry fights against labeling laws, they must have something to hide. But as soon as the agriculture industry is forced to label genetically modified foods, the public believes that the label is necessary to distinguish bad from good.”
You see, labeling GM food creates a negative atmosphere surrounding genetic modification and modern agriculture. Herbicides and Pesticides Often a concern for people who take an interest in the food they consume, is the use of toxic chemicals to combat weeds and pests. The residue left over on produce after spraying, though, exists in such small amounts that it is harmless for consumption. Dr. Bruce Ames, from the University of California, Berkley has studied these chemicals in our food supply for years. He says that although almost all produce contains levels of toxic chemicals, they are indistinguishable from the toxic chemicals naturally found in products such as peanut butter and mushrooms. These chemicals are a tool imperative to the protection of our crops from deterioration and insect predation. GM technology is starting to eliminate the need for them, but for right now our food supply needs them as much as they need soil and water. Without them, our farmers would not be able to produce the needed increase in food production to keep up with the increase in population. If we didn’t have to use them, that would be ideal, but that doesn’t mean they are dangerous for us. Farmers don’t WANT to spend the extra money to spray and treat their fields each year. Don’t confuse the unwanted cost with a danger to individuals – these chemicals are safe. People in search of chemical free foods often lean towards ‘organic’ to meet their needs, but they ignore the fact that organic food is likely to have an increased amount of chemical traces over conventionally grown food. To be labeled organic, crops do not have to be chemical free. There are only specific regulations on which chemicals are allowed. They exclude modern treatments, and thus are forced to rely on old and less effective chemicals that need to be applied more often and in higher treatments to work effectively. Using chemicals is unavoidable in order to ensure the growth of crops. Organic produce is actually more likely to contain larger trace amounts of those chemicals because of their required frequent use. On top of that, organic food is no more nutritious than non-organic food. Research from over the last 50 years of scientific studies shows that there is no significant difference in their nutritional content or safety. This mixed with the fact that organic production methods produce significantly lower yields, means that it is organic and not conventional agriculture that is unsustainable. It is the irrational fear of these chemicals that has led to the less efficient production of food. The Environment The environment is also a huge and unique issue for farmers and anti-agriculture activists. Since there are some legitimate concerns, unlike in GMOs or chemical use, about the safety of the environment some environmental activists have demanded the government regulate agriculture and their interaction with the earth, water, and air. The federal government isn’t needed in agriculture though; they just overcomplicate things, harm production, and give agriculture a negative image. It wasn’t the government who cut land usage per gallon of milk by 90% since 1944, or carbon footprint by 63%. Agriculture will inevitably increase its own efficiency, it only makes sense. Increasing efficiency lowers costs and increases production. Like everything else farming is a business, and that business would not ruin its source of income by ruining the land it farms. Adding government regulation is unneeded and adds to the public skepticism. The non-producing members of society will begin to fear agriculture because they will assume that the regulation is warranted and thus agriculture could have some larger negative effect – which is not true at all. Over and over facts are showing that modern technology is enabling farmers to produce a larger amount of food on less land, using fewer resources, with less of an impact than ever before. The combination of regulations by the government to limit GMOs, chemical use, and regulate the environment is counterproductive and hinders success. We have to continue to increase efficiency. In order to feed the projected 9 billion people by 2050 we have to increase our production by 100%, the majority of which must come from the same land that we are already farming. One of the only nations that is producing at the needed levels is the United States, but with greater regulation that number is only decreasing. According to a USDA economist, Dr. Keith Fuglie, “The reason that productivity is increasing as much as it is today is because of the investments in research and development made 10 to 20 years ago.” We cannot continue to increase at the levels needed if we abandon that technology or limit it in any way. The Cycle of Overregulation It comes down to a cycle. People began to fear because they didn’t understand. When the acted on that fear and restricted some facets of agriculture, then people looked at those restrictions and assumed there was a legitimate reason for them. Thinking there was a legitimate reason for their regulation, the public became more fearful of agriculture and their modern practices. To placate that added fear, there became more regulation. With that added regulation there became more fear, and so on. This is the issue we are facing. We are stuck in a cycle of fear and regulation, and we are continuing to further shackle our agricultural success by creating these needless limitations. Just look at the new Waters of the United States Rule which gives bureaucrats the power to penalize farmers for as little as a cow walking through a ditch. The overreach of Washington D.C. is unneeded, unwanted, and gives the EPA even more power to harass American food producers. As Senator David Vitter (R-LA) put it, “The federal government shouldn’t be regulating puddles on private property.” This rule leads, like we previously discussed, to a negative image of agriculture as a whole. Just because government is there does not mean they are qualified enough or care enough to manage everything in our lives – especially our food production. Lack of knowledge created fear, fear created misinformation, misinformation created regulation, and regulation created fear. Can we break this cycle together?