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April 24, 2001

Beware the green peril

The dark side of a successful revolution: Which one is more dangerous: global farming or global warming?

Margaret Munro National Post A hundred years ago there were fewer than two billion people on Earth.

Today there are more than six billion and ominous signs the planet cannot accommodate many more. Especially if the next generation -- not to mention the millions of folks subsisting or starving in Africa and Asia -- eat the way North Americans do today.

A new study, in last week's issue of the journal Science, says the environmental change and degradation generated by world agriculture rival the ill effects of global warming. In many respects, say the authors, the impacts are more tangible and worrying.

Vast tracks of forests and natural grasslands have been felled to make way for crops. Drinking water is being fouled from Ontario to Nairobi by agricultural runoff. Fertilizers and manure washing into coastal waters are creating "dead" zones such as the one in the Gulf of Mexico. Pesticides have wafted to the top of Canadian Rockies and worked their way into mothers' milk.

Such trends and effects are undeniable, according to the study, which stresses the need for a concerted, international effort to curb the damage.

Left unchecked, it warns of "massive, irreversible environmental impacts" by 2050.

"We're to the point now where, whether we want to or not, we control the fate of the world's ecosystems," says the lead author, David Tilman of the University of Minnesota. "And we have to act accordingly."

Of the 12 billion hectares of land on the planet, five billion have been cleared and ploughed for use in agriculture, a transformation that scientists warn is having profound impacts on everything from the quality of water to the chemistry of the air.

"It is a human-dominated world now in ways that it never was before," says Tilman, who asked a team of leading ecologists and biologists from North American universities to look at agriculture's impact and extrapolate the current trends into the future.

Their conclusion: Earthlings will likely face a major environmental crisis in 50 years if they keep farming -- and eating -- the way they do now.

The so-called "Green Revolution" has vastly increased food production over the past 35 years largely through the use of pesticides and fertilizers. The revolution reduced world hunger. But it also had a "dark side" that has markedly changed and fouled the planet, says David Schindler, a co-author of the study and noted ecologist at the University of Alberta.

What is needed now, the scientists conclude, is a "greener" revolution to make agriculture a more sustainable, efficient business.

If current agricultural trends continue unchecked, the scientists say, an area larger than the United States would need to be converted to farmland to produce enough food to feed the nine billion people expected to be on the planet in 2050. Pesticide use would increase almost threefold, and twice as much fertilizer would be polluting the planet's water.

The consequences -- a combination of oxygen-starved waters, habitat destruction, species extinction and loss of clean drinking water -- pose "an environmental challenge that may rival, and significantly interact with, climatic change," say the study's authors.

One of the most daunting problems is the way nitrogen and phosphorus -- common and potent ingredients in fertilizers -- are altering the chemistry of air and water.

Nitrogen is particularly worrying. Over the course of evolution, it has helped shape which species thrived, because it always has been a scarce and "limiting" nutrient, says Tilman. Farmers, he observes, are using more than 140 billion megatonnes of nitrogen a year, much of which ends up in the environment. That is as much as from all natural processes combined.

"We have doubled the nitrogen economy in nature,' " says Tilman, a specialist in nitrogen's role in natural systems. His team has documented, in grassland experiments in Minnesota, how adding even a tiny bit of nitrogen can alter which species grow and thrive.

There is concern the same could be true in forests, where species composition could shift as more and more nitrogen falls with the rain, and more calcium is leached from soils by the nitrogen compounds that drop on forests in rainwater, says Tilman, noting that the amount of nitrogen used by farmers will double by 2050 if current trends continue.

More obvious -- and offensive -- to many is the animal manure fouling lakes and streams and coastal waters. More than a third of the nitrogen in fertilizers used in developed countries ends up in animal manure, which receives little if any treatment, says the study, which recommends manure be treated to remove the pollutants.

Pesticide production is also rising at worrying rates. "Should trends continue, by 2050, humans and other organisms in natural and managed ecosystems would be exposed to markedly elevated levels of pesticides," the report says.

There are obvious ways to reduce some of the negative impacts of agriculture, the scientists say: more judicious and appropriate use of fertilizers and pesticides; better land management to protect waterways and natural ecosystems.

But they conclude, "Even the best available technologies, fully deployed, cannot prevent many of the forecasted problems.

"Major international programs are needed to develop new technologies and policies for ecologically sustainable agriculture," says the report, pointing to the need for advances in "precision" agriculture to boost food production while minimizing environmental impacts.

The authors are well aware that forecasting the future is a notoriously difficult business. They say they have used conservative numbers to arrive at their conclusions and warn things could be much worse than they are predicting.

While their report is gloomy -- and sure to get plenty of people questioning their numbers and assumptions -- they hope it will get people and policy-makers thinking and acting before humans foul the planet beyond repair.

"Most of the problems are reversible, but they are not going to be reversible if they go on for another 50 to 100 years," says Tilman.

"I would love to have humans around 10,000 or 100,000 years from now living the same quality of life at least that we are living today," he says. "But I don't think we are living in a way that is going to prove to be sustainable."

Schindler says he is so depressed at the way forests, grasslands and wild animals are being eliminated to make room for more humans that he is glad he will not be around to see what the planet is like in 50 years.

"Even at best it's not going to be acceptable to me, so I might as well be gone," says Schindler, noting that "military peacekeepers are not the only people who suffer traumatic stress syndrome for the things they see.

"I think most ecologists on the planet are suffering from the same thing," he says. "They know what the inevitable is. They see it happening all around them and they see very little being done to prevent it."

But Schindler, who was one of three finalists for the federal government's $1-million Gerhard Herzberg science award for outstanding researchers, says he would like nothing more than to be proven wrong.

"The best thing that could possibly happen is that in 50 years people said look at how insane these guys were. That they were all wet."

-- Martin Thompson (, April 24, 2001


Martin -- Not to worry! The UN & the Club of Rome, among others, are rumoured to be readying plans to 'cull' all useless eaters. Supposedly they'd both like to eliminate 2/3rds of the current population...which would bring us back to that 2 billion figure.

That goes along very well with the program already underway to eliminate human activity and reintroduce wild creatures (bears, wolves, etc.) to vast areas of the USA. ("Wildlands Project"???)

There are some real monsters lurking about these days...and there's no telling which 2 out of 3 are on their 'list'...

-- Sorry (, April 25, 2001.

Farmers are using "140 billion megatonnes of nitrogen a year". Gee - let me get my calculator out... that's 26.6 million tonnes of fertilizer per person on this planet per year. So each pound of food I eat requires about 80 million pounds of fertilizer. Let's hope those clever biotech people can come up with something to solve this problem.

(OR: Lets get the UNEDUCATED FUCKWITS who call themselves reporters into more appropriate jobs like scarecrow, cracker salter or realtor.)

-- Wow (thats@lotof.fertilizer), April 25, 2001.

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