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Modern Agriculture

Insights: Industry gears up to promote benefits of chemicals, new technologies

by Britt E. Erickson
August 16, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 33

Credit: Shutterstock
The pesticide industry now refers to pesticides as crop protection products.
Credit: Shutterstock
The pesticide industry now refers to pesticides as crop protection products.

The International Food Information Council Foundation recently released its annual survey of public views toward food and nutrition. For the first time, concern about chemicals on food went up and concern about bacterial contamination went down. Consumers clearly aren’t paying attention to the science.

Being more concerned about chemicals on food than about bacterial contamination “goes against virtually everything the food safety world would tell you,” stressed George Gray, a professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University’s School of Public Health & Health Services. Gray was speaking at the first National Policy Conference held in Washington, D.C., on July 13—an event sponsored by the pesticide industry trade group CropLife America (CLA).

CLA is on a mission to give modern agriculture a better image. The group wants to avoid consumer backlash from biotechnology and is trying to convince people that pesticides are a safe and necessary part of growing food.

To start, the industry has essentially replaced the term pesticide with crop protection product, which has a nicer ring to it. But much more than a name change is needed to promote modern agriculture and make it more palatable to the average person.

As a step toward getting the agriculture community more involved in advocating the benefits of modern technology, CLA sponsored the July meeting. The group invited several leading experts in food safety and agriculture to discuss the challenges facing the industry.

Moderator Marc Gunther, a contributing editor at Fortune magazine and a senior writer at, kicked things off by giving a brief definition of modern agriculture. In his words, the phrase refers to a “range of technologies including conventional fertilizers and pesticides, precision applications of those chemicals, precision applications of water, global positioning systems, conventional breeding, and genetically modified plants.”

Such tools and technologies are responsible for the dramatic increases in farm productivity seen over the past 60 years in the U.S., Gunther said. “There’s no argument that modern agriculture has brought us an abundance of food in this country,” he noted.

But modern agriculture has also led to negative impacts such as increased soil erosion and the consumption of huge amounts of fresh water. It is also leading to an overabundance of food that is contributing to the obesity epidemic in the U.S.

William Buckner, president and chief executive officer of Bayer CropScience and chairman of CLA’s board of directors, summed up the situation facing farmers. “Today’s farmers find themselves at the intersection of two challenges,” he noted. First, they must double agricultural output to feed a world that is predicted to grow to 9 billion people by 2050. “And they need to do it while making the most of every available acre and every drop of fresh water,” he said.

The second challenge is to educate the public about the tools and technologies that enable farmers to meet those production demands, Buckner noted. Most consumers see only the negative impacts of modern agriculture and are unaware of its benefits.

James E. McWilliams, associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, recommended that the industry focus on direct consumer benefits. For example, companies could genetically modify crops to be more nutritious, or they could modify yeast used in making wine to decrease hangover symptoms, he suggested. Genetically modified crops would be win-win: They would have attributes that can be easily conveyed to consumers and would allow farmers to make bigger profits in the short term.

The long-term benefits, however, are not obvious, pointed out Margaret Mellon, director of the Food & Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group. When farmers switched to genetically engineered corn and soybeans, yields did go up, Mellon pointed out. However, “they did not go up because of the genetically engineered traits,” she emphasized. “Traditional breeding has produced increases of yield that a lot of the genetic engineering companies are taking credit for.”

Mellon also questioned the oft-cited argument that biotech crops will reduce the use of pesticides. Such crops do result in “a decrease in pesticide use in the few years immediately after the introduction of the technology, but over time those reductions do not last,” she noted. Eventually, farmers will need to go back to using more toxic herbicides to combat weeds that are becoming increasingly resistant to herbicides.

Although the meeting was intended to highlight many of the issues facing modern agriculture, the bulk of the time was spent discussing genetically modified crops. But modern agriculture encompasses much more than biotechnology, and the agriculture industry might be better off focusing on sustainability instead.

Indeed, when it comes to sustainability, modern agriculture actually looks pretty good. For agriculture to be sustainable it must “produce enough food for everyone, protect natural resources, and prove financially viable for growers and consumers,” Buckner pointed out. And as he put it: “Modern agriculture works to achieve all three goals better than any system that preceded it.”

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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