Front Gate

August 1, 2008 10:39 AM

A Greener World

My wife and I spent a weekend with friends in Taos, N.M., last month, and among the sights to see was the local fad food store. I don't go into those much, so it is always interesting to see what the people inside look like—dour and hungry, mostly—and what stuff costs. Which is bunches.

That may be why all the shoppers are skinny. They can't afford to eat much when it costs that much.

And the bumper stickers in the parking lot indicate they are all saving the whales or the planet, or giving world peace a chance. Fine. It's a free, if overpriced, country.

Perspective. But days after the weekend, I see another study reminding us that the technology these folks so abhor allows us to produce more food with less impact on the environment.

Isn't this too obvious to mention, much less study? Why would anybody suppose, for instance, hybrid corn's 200-bu. yields are somehow less harmful than the  straight varieties' 100-bu. yield? Gosh, to get X tons of corn to feed the X billion people in the world, you plow half as many acres, spray half as many acres, clear-cut half as many acres of rainforest, support half as many workers.

But, that's old technology, isn't it? Mankind has been improving corn yields since the South Americans began selecting from grama grass-looking native species. So that's not scary to these folks. That's "natural." That's "organic."

Not so, for Roundup Ready corn or growth promotants for cattle. Those things are "unnatural" and I suppose "inorganic" and no matter how many tests science and government regulators may have on hand to prove efficacy and safety, they are somehow "dangerous."

This latest study I learned about from a July blog by my colleague at Dairy Today, Jim Dickrell. Reporting on a study released by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) regarding environmental impact of "natural" and "organic" milk free of bovine somatotropin (BST), Jim responds: "To produce the same amount of milk, you need 33% fewer BST-treated cows than organic cows and 35% less land area. At the same time, the fewer BST-treated cows will excrete 45% less nitrogen, 39% less phosphorus and reduce overall global warming potential with fewer methane emissions by 19%."

"Anything that gives us an increase in milk yield—long-day lighting, cow comfort, Rumensin, reducing mastitis—will reduce dairy's carbon foot print," Jude Capper, lead author of the NAS milk study, told Dickrell.

Choices. We've got the same challenge in the beef industry. Here we are with the government limiting the use of Rumensin in chickens because a bunch of activists fret it "might" be an antibiotic, while we're worrying about a food crisis.

You'll find the same sort of conclusions in a 2004 report Thom Elam and Rodney Preston produced for the Growth Enhancement Technology Team.

They found without the technological improvements of the past 50 years, we would need 180 million head of cattle to produce the U.S. beef supply—nearly twice the current population. An additional land area equal to the combined acreage of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Kansas would be required to provide the additional pasture and feed grains.

It's pretty obvious, but it is my unstudied but firm perception many of the right-brainers who pay extra for natural and organic foods are the same right-brainers who fret about agriculture's environmental impact.

Reflection. If these right-brainers thought about it, they would realize their food buying habits are increasing their carbon footprints.

Some lessen the hypocrisy score by also arguing there should be fewer mouths to feed. (Though few have volunteered themselves as a sacrificial mouth.) If you can find an ethical way of reducing population, that's grand. If not, I don't think the fairest method of population control would be limiting food production to starve the extras.

Before I get too crosswise with my friends who produce natural and organic beef, let me rush to say that's fine. Nice niche. Good luck.

But don't start with me about how much better your cattle operation is for the environment. You're just wasting resources.

Steve Cornett is executive editor of Beef Business Journal. He can be reached at

Top Producer, Summer 2008

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