August 15, 2001
Conventional wisdom affects all of us and we often accept what it says quite uncritically.
Farm Chemicals can Benefit our EnvironmentConventional wisdom affects all of us and we often accept what it says quite uncritically. When it comes to farm chemicals, the conventional wisdom says that such compounds are at best a necessary evil and at worst poisons that hurt the environment and ultimately ourselves. The reality can be much more complex.
Take herbicides, for instance. These chemicals kill plants and are used for weed control in modern agriculture. They're also used on most lawns in most cities by most homeowners. In fact, herbicide levels in the Red River actually increase as the river goes through Winnipeg. That's because city lawn and garden use can often be excessive. Because of all the pavement in cities, water actually runs off very fast into rivers and "loads them up" with chemicals. Interesting,
Weeds are the scourge of grain production because they compete with crops, a fact readily appreciated by any gardener. Weeds reduce yields by stealing space, moisture and nutrients from planned crops. And high crop yields are responsible for the vast array of reasonably priced foods that overflow our supermarket shelves. Herbicides play a critical role in assuring that abundance.
I'll bet you've never heard about the environmental benefits of farm chemicals. Weeds can be controlled in two ways, physically killing them by cultivation or spraying them with herbicides. Cultivation, the original and timeworn method of weed control, requires the soil to be disturbed. This disturbance exposes the bare earth to the ravages of wind and rain and can result in severe soil loss. This soil has to go somewhere, and it usually ends up in our lakes and rivers where it impacts water quality and fish habitat. The great dust storms of the 1930's were an extreme manifestation of wind erosion, soil exposed by cultivation and dried by drought.
Although cultivation is still the best option in some farming situations, a phenomenon called "zero-tillage" is sweeping the Prairies. In this new farming system, weeds are controlled by herbicides, seeds are planted into undisturbed stubble and the land is rarely, if ever, cultivated. Zero tillage means zero erosion which means the soil stays where it is supposed to, on the farm, and does not end up in our lakes and rivers.
Not only that, zero tilled lands provide better bird nesting habitat since they always retain a cover. The next great revolution in conservation on Prairie farms will couple winter wheat with zero tillage. Winter wheat is planted in fall, receives no disturbance at all in spring and is harvested in summer.
This means that our soil resources will be tightly tied to the earth and our lands protected from spring floods and winds. In addition, the wholesale adoption of winter wheat may reduce flooding overall as the spring runoff is captured very early in spring by crops that have spent the winter under the snow. Throw in newer, better, and less toxic herbicides and the future looks bright.
For these and other reasons, we should view the environmental claims of organic farming advocates with skepticism. They have yet to deal with the soil erosion issue and, quite frankly, the wholesale adoption of organic grain farming around the world could be an environmental disaster. If you think that by demanding organic grains that you are doing something for the environment, you have it backwards.
Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.
Robert Sopuck, Senior Fellow
is a modern environmentalst whose interests include solving environmental problems without reducing human freedom. He is a natural resource policy consultant with a special interest in rural issues who lives and works at Lake Audy, Manitoba. He received his B.Sc. from the University of Manitoba and Masters from Cornell University. His first career was in fisheries management. He later coordinated the sustainable development initiative for the province of Manitoba and was on the Canadian delegation to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. He was Manitoba's observer on the Board of the International Institute for Sustainable Development. In October 2007 he was appointed to the federal government's National Round Table on the Environment and Economy.