Why would all-organic farming be better for the world in the future than it was 100 years ago?
Until 1900, the world’s farming was all-organic. That’s because we had no farm chemicals back then except “natural” but highly toxic lead and arsenic. That’s apparently what the Sierra Club wants back.
All-organic farming did not produce very good results.
The all-organic farming of 1900 featured frequent food shortages, famines, and massive death tolls from the diseases of malnutrition. Farming without chemicals never supported more than one-fourth of current human numbers.
Farmers in 1900 were busily plowing up the planet’s virgin prairies and clearing its forests to get more cropland. Low yields pushed the plows higher and higher on steeper hillsides, and farther into drought-risky plains. Erosion per ton of food was at least triple today’s levels.
Plagues of locusts matching Biblical proportions were common. There were no pesticide sprays to stop the swarming insects before they multiplied into their trillions and mowed the ground clear of all vegetation for mile after mile.
America’s Dust Bowl in the 1930s was an all-organic production. Great Plains farmers had farmed out all of the soil nutrients left by the manure of the long-departed bison. They had neither industrial fertilizer nor enough cattle manure to keep their soils healthy. As plains crop yields spiraled downward, soil organic matter virtually disappeared. When the dry years hit, there was nothing to hold the soil particles against the explosive raindrops and the screeching winds. “Black blizzards” of dust rose miles into the air.
In India, millions of people were held hostage by the fickle monsoon rains that sometimes failed every other year. When the rains failed, huge numbers starved, or died from famine-related diseases such as pneumonia—or even measles. Crops were never big enough to build grain reserves.
Prehistoric skeletons indicate that nearly half of the males died violent deaths at the hands of other humans—mostly fighting over hunting grounds, organic cropland, or food stocks.
Our most recent food war was World War II. Japan, with a big population shoehorned onto tiny islands, invaded the Chinese province of Manchuria to get both oil and soybean fields. Today, Japan peaceably imports soybeans from high-yield farmers planting the broad fields of the Western Hemisphere.
Adolph Hitler told Germans they were fighting for “living room.” He coveted the rich Danube Valley for bigger German grain crops. Today, thanks to higher yields, Germany’s prewar lands produce a German food surplus.
In Rwanda, neither the Hutu nor Tutsi tribes believed that the crowded highlands would grow enough food for both peoples in the future. So the Hutus hacked nearly a million of their neighbors to death with machetes in 1994. It’s terrifying to understand that this tragedy could probably have been forestalled with a relatively few tons of commercial fertilizer or hybrid seeds.
Farming’s most recent miracle is low-till. Instead of plowing, farmers use herbicides to control weeds, cutting soil erosion by 65 to 95 percent. Organic farmers refuse to use herbicides so they cannot take advantage of low-till—and thus suffer far higher rates of soil erosion.
Chemical fertilizers and pesticides play massive roles in history’s most productive and sustainable farming. With continuing gains in technology, high-yield farms can almost certainly redouble farm output to feed a peak human population of 8–9 billion affluent humans in 2050—without taking any more land from nature.
An all-organic farming mandate might offer a feeble excuse for forced abortions. But the fast-declining birth rates in today’s food-secure world will soon achieve a declining human population voluntarily.
Dennis T. Avery is a senior fellow for Hudson Institute in Washington, DC and the Director for Global Food Issues. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. Readers may write him at Post Office Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421.