Economist and futurist Jay Lehr declared that pest control advisers must immediately stop apologizing for their industry and instead provide the public with the truth about agricultural chemicals — critical ingredients creating the highest quality, safest and most affordable food supply in the world.
Lehr was the keynote speaker at the 32nd annual California Association of Pest Control Advisers Annual Conference and Agri-Expo recently held in Anaheim, Calif., attended by 900 PCAs.
One hundred years ago the public perception of California farmers was that each wore a white hat, rode a white horse, and was the epitome of everything great about the state and nation, Lehr told the PCAs. After World War II, the advent of farm chemicals allowed farmers to improve food quality, increase yields, and eliminate pests that infect food.
“All of a sudden a target was painted on our backs by environmental advocacy groups like the Environmental Working Group. The farmer became the bad guy with a black hat on a black horse,” he said. “The problem in the pesticide industry is not that pesticides are bad, which they aren't. The problem is that people don't know what the PCA does. You guys are doing incredible work but you are slinking around. Because the media says you are using bad stuff, I challenge you to stand taller, be proud of what you do and explain the benefits to society.”
Lehr provided the PCAs with a toolbox of facts to share with consumers. He said chemical use has tripled farm yields on almost every acre in America over the last 40 years. Without herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and other products, food costs would double. He referred to fertilizers as plant nutrients and farm chemicals as medicines. Pesticides are to a plant what antibiotics are to humans. Herbicides kill the negatives that interfere with plant health.
Referring to farm chemicals as lifesaving products, Lehr noted 25 percent of the food in storage in third world countries is contaminated with toxins from insects that result in premature deaths. He linked some of the insect problems to heavy organic production in the third world. Yet he steered clear of downplaying organically grown food as a non-fit in today's worldwide agriculture.
“There's nothing wrong with organic farming. It is a niche. It is a person's right to choose. That is capitalism and the American way,” Lehr said.
He shared the results of an organic survey conducted in Chicago several years ago with 150 professional people who were asked about preferences of consuming conventional or organically grown food. The group referred to pesticides as poisons and fertilizers as toxic bi-products of manufacturing that help plants grow. The group didn't have a clue that pesticides keep insects out of food.
“They virtually all said they'd prefer organic because it's healthier but they can't afford it because it costs twice as much.” Lehr denied that organic is healthier and called organic yields too low to feed the world.
Lehr earned the nation's first Ph.D. in groundwater hydrology from the University of Arizona in Tucson, Ariz. He has authored 12 books, the latest “A Handbook of Environmental Science Help and Technology for the 21st Century.” He currently serves as the senior fellow and science director of The Heartland Institute, an independent non-profit research and education group based in Chicago, Ill.
At age 71 and the self-proclaimed second oldest active agricultural scientist on the planet, Lehr said every chemical proposed for use undergoes 120 tests at the state and federal level. His five generations in agriculture include working on farms in New York, drilling wells, and studying whether chemicals reach groundwater. In 1954 quite a few did, he noted.
Lehr said, “Today's laboratory brilliance is killing the chemical business.” In his early working days, water samples were measured in parts per billion. Testing is now measured in parts per trillion. Lehr equated a trillion to one second in 32,000 years. There are no chemicals in parts per trillion that can hurt us, he proclaimed. While science has developed even more precise testing, the latest measures in parts per quadrillion. That's the ratio of a single strand of hair compared to every head of hair on the planet, he said.
Lehr acknowledged that a dozen people annually die from pesticides — drinking them to commit suicide.
He proclaimed farm inputs as integral to the greatest land conservation movement in America. Lehr said, “Without your products, yields would go down, and we would plow down nature trails and golf courses. Agriculture is the ultimate land conserver. The farmer is the best environmental steward in existence.” Pesticide use has declined almost across the board with products more concentrated, fewer residues and more precisely applied, he noted.
Yet herbicide use is on the upswing. “We are no longer tilling all of the land which is saving costs in labor, equipment wear and tear, fuel, reducing soil erosion and runoff, increasing soil moisture and improved wildlife habitat. He equated plowing down a field to kill weeds to using an elephant gun to shoot a mosquito. Utilizing herbicides to burn down weeds is smarter.
Lehr urged the PCAs to explain to consumers how agriculture is utilizing the latest technology, including satellite imagery to guide tractors, measure needed inputs on an acre-by-acre basis and using computer-based variable rate technology for more accurate input density distribution.
“People comprehend that April 27 is Earth Day, but have no clue that every day on the farm is Earth Day,” noted Lehr. “The future of agriculture is bright only if you'll stand up and defend what you do. If we don't, no one will. Most of you enjoy what you do but zero of you brag about of it.”
He said two anti-agriculture phrases should be erased from the English language — corporate farms and factory farms. One percent of all U.S. farms are owned by absentee owners not living on the farm. Those farms produce 6 percent of the nation's supply of food and fiber. Lehr said 99 percent of farms are family owned including 90 percent as family independent owners, 6 percent as family partnerships, and 3 percent as family corporations.
Lehr touched on continuing efforts in California to improve air quality and the blame placed on volatile organic compounds (VOC) in pesticides as a link to poor air.
“Do you know how many lives will be saved in the next 10 years by reducing VOCs? The answer is zero.” He said environmental groups are pushing the VOC issue. “We will have to tow the line but we will survive.”
Another bragging tool for PCAs is that Americans spend less than 10 percent of their average disposable income on food — the lowest amount in the world. Finland residents spend the second lowest at 16 percent and French consumers pay 18 percent. In underdeveloped countries, consumers spend a whopping 30 percent to 50 percent of their income to feed families.
He also credited agriculture with saving 10 million square miles of wildlife habitat in the world. If farm chemicals were not used for the next 50 years, 30 million square miles of wildlife habitat would be plowed under to feed the current two billion undernourished people in the world and the additional two million expected to be born before the world's population stabilizes in about 50 years.
“We are the ultimate wildlife preservers,” Lehr said. “The environmental group Nature Conservancy, which buys land to remove it from cultivation, has preserved 75,000 square miles land over the world. Thanks to agricultural chemical use, we have preserved 10 million square miles, 125 times more land than the Nature Conservancy. Share the news.”
“If biotechnology reduces the amount of chemicals to grow crops, why aren't the environmental groups cheering?” he asked.
He also proudly described biotechnology as the science that will create better ratios of protein, fat and carbohydrates in our food. Lehr said new drought resistant and salt tolerant plant varieties would increase food and fiber production in desert areas.