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Modern Agriculture

Why we do not appreciate modern agriculture, but why we should

by Andreas von Tiedemann, Professor of Plant Pathology and Plant Protection at the University of Göttingen

Concerns about Germany as a business location in the face of anti-technology sentiment not only affect industry, but also agriculture in particular. Even more than industrial production, agriculture, with its task of food security, has an immediate function in securing our essential livelihoods. It therefore seems incomprehensible how a society can so critically view, or even reject, those technologies that have led to the unprecedented level of food security in human history that we all enjoy today.

The reason for this lies precariously in the success of modern agriculture itself. The introduction of modern methods of plant production, which in Europe and elsewhere has led to the multiplication of yields in the main food crops such as corn, rice and wheat in the last five decades and is the decisive reason that the “plough has been able to keep pace with the stork” during this period (see table), has completely eliminated the issue of food scarcity from the consciousness in developed countries. The success of the tremendous progress in agriculture made possible by the introduction of better cultivation technologies is curiously being punished with the ignorance of its beneficiaries. Modern agriculture – at least for the developed part of humanity – has achieved such a degree of security in the supply of food that it is no longer perceived as an extraordinary achievement, but as a matter of course. The dramatic consequence for agriculture is that the connection between this comfortable welfare situation and the necessary modern farming techniques is no longer established. As curious as it sounds, a less successful agriculture, which would always bring about shortages in supply, would enjoy much higher recognition and would not have to justify its own success as a technology.

Table: Global production growth in cereal production, population development and cultivated land, 1960-2012

year  Population (million)  Cultivated Land (in million ha)  Production (in million t)
1960 3.02 651 977
2012 7.06 691 2.241

The lack of awareness of the actual origins of our nutritional well-being is also a poor understanding of history. This is hardly surprising if we look at the image of a transfigured, archaic agriculture portrayed in school textbooks, which uses methods that are primitive but supposedly compatible with nature. The way in which this ‘nature-friendliness’ has gone hand in hand with centuries of food scarcity and cyclical starvation is ignored, as is the fact that this form of agriculture was anything but a conscious choice by the people of that time. It also hides the fact that archaic agriculture, even after the introduction of the four-field economy, reached its limits in the mid-nineteenth century in terms of the productive capacity of soils, which would have precluded further development of the population and thus the development of today’s modern societies. Only pioneering innovations, such as the introduction of mineral fertilisation, which was made possible by the Haber-Bosch process for extracting nitrogen from air, and the beginning of systematic plant breeding, have brought productivity out of stagnation and initiated the decisive change to modern productive agriculture. And it is this that has made industrialisation possible, not only through greater food production, but above all by freeing up labour from more efficient agricultural production for industrial work.

If ever the term ‘accomplishment’ were justified as an expression of progress in which everyone participates, then in relation to this turnaround in agriculture achieved after 10,000 years of subsistent production. These basic connections are not taught in any way in schools. Even less in the media, however, which constantly, in unison and exclusively conjures up the alleged destruction of nature and health which supposedly emanates from modern agricultural methods. As much as this in no way reflects the facts, it can though be explained by the increasing distance between most of the population and the basic principles of real, current agriculture. The teachers and journalists who report on agriculture are recruited from these people with secure livelihoods living in an urban environment and their messages are received largely uncritically by an equally distant and thus receptive urban population. Thus, a vicious circle of opinion formation has been established on our part which, largely in ignorance of the facts and relationships, is propelling the saw on the branch on which we are sitting without hesitation.

It is possible to name numerous examples of this. This includes the exaggerated demand for biodiversity on areas that are production areas whose productivity is based precisely on the control of biodiversity for the benefit of agricultural crops, as well as the unspeakable rejection of the mildest of all breeding methods, genetic engineering, or ultimately the discrediting of modern crop protection. The historical amnesia is particularly evident in the case of crop protection. A not inconsiderable proportion of the bad harvests of earlier times can be traced back to pests and diseases against which humans were powerless until 1885. Insect pests and harmful fungi have frequently decided on the lives or starvation of thousands of people. It was Pierre Millardet of the University of Bordeaux who, who in 1885 with the discovery and introduction of the first plant protection product, the copper-bearing ‘bordeaux mixture’, saved European winemaking from destruction by the mildew brought in from America and introduced another important turning point towards modern agriculture.

As with other technologies, pesticides today have achieved levels of effectiveness and specificity that were previously thought impossible, with remarkably low toxicological and ecotoxicological risks. This progress can undoubtedly be attributed to increasingly stringent licensing requirements, which in turn have been driven by policies that have responded to consumer concerns. As much as this mechanism has contributed to the development of a de facto risk-free crop protection technology today, these achievements are not taken up by those who raised their concerns. This means that here again the absence of crop failures as a result of modern pest control has become a matter of course and the technologies necessary for this are unhesitatingly being brought into question.

These attitudes are reflected in the media coverage of crop protection, which deals permanently and exclusively with its supposed risks and not at all with its benefits. Among the risks recently highlighted is a particularly sensitive aspect, namely the danger of pesticide residues in groundwater and food. Modern analytical methods can discover material traces in the nanogram range. And this is where the problem starts, because the presence of molecular residues does not of course mean that there is a danger to consumers. Exceeding legal limits, which regularly leads to panic-triggering reports, does not by any means equate to endangering human beings. Serious reporting would have to explain to the consumer that, for example, the groundwater limit values ​​are not toxicologically substantiated, but purely statutory limits. The values ​​in drinking water were set in 1986 in the then heavily discussed drinking water amendment and, according to the state of analytics at the time, they were intended as quasi-zero values. This means that reaching, or even exceeding them is far from endangering, since the toxicologically relevant limit values ​​are higher by many powers of ten. These actual critical values ​​are not nearly reached. Serious reporting would therefore always have to ask whether toxicologically relevant values ​​were even reached or exceeded, and it should not only refer to legal limits or the mere discovery of the presence of substances.

A good example of this is the recent analysis of groundwater samples in Lower Saxony on behalf of the Lower Saxony Ministry of the Environment. It has just shown that the existing system of limit values ​​and application restrictions clearly works very well. At none of the 1,180 measuring points was it possible to detect a breach of the extremely strict limit value for drinking water of 0.1 μg/l at the relevant working depth for drinking water production of more than 40 m. This is a very reassuring result, especially in an agriculturally intensively used region, because it means that there is currently no danger to consumers from pesticide residues in groundwater. What the media made of it was just the opposite. Once again, the mere presence of residues was enough to lead to calls for even more stringent application restrictions, and once again the crucial toxicological assessment was simply omitted. This is exactly where the difference lies between serious reporting and coverage which is only interested in the media impact. It has nothing to do with consumer education.

The absurd suggestion that consumers are poisoning themselves by eating conventional foods is not based on any confirmed facts or scientific evidence. For example, poison control centres have not recorded any cases of poisoning with pesticides for more than two decades. This is not least because more than 95% of the currently approved active ingredients no longer belong to a toxicity class. Active ingredients with warm-blooded animal toxicity are no longer allowed. The few such active substances no longer play any role in practice and will soon disappear completely. Plant protection products are the best tested and safest substances we deal with. The tests go far beyond pure toxicity and include a comprehensive catalogue of any possible health effects such as carcinogenicity, mutagenicity, reproduction toxicity, neurotoxicity and teratogenicity, which are examined in short- and long-term studies.

This strict approval process seems to be working: there is no clinical evidence of illness or intoxication from eating foods derived from modern agricultural production. The numerous victims, which there should be according to the reproaches of the media reports, do not exist. In truth, life expectancy is increasing where, and ever since, there has been modern crop protection and secure food production. In addition to medical progress, modern agriculture has contributed decisively to this. At no time in human history has there ever been such abundant and high-quality food as there is today, but at the same time it has never been looked upon so sceptically. As far as the benefit-to-risk ratio is concerned, today’s crop protection can easily keep up with every other technology we use.

Resolving these blatant contradictions is a major task that must be addressed by independent scientists as well as reputable journalists and public educational institutions. It is about nothing less than an essential basis of our civilisation and at the same time a fundamental right, namely the security of food for all. Just regaining the ability to properly assess the benefits and risks can make a society fit for the future.

Department of Plant Pathology and Plant Protection at the University of Göttingen

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