Farmers and Environmentalists Find They Agree on Some Issues

Published October 1, 1997

The “dialogue of the deaf” that has so often characterized the relationship between environmentalists and farmers was put aside–at least temporarily — in a dramatic debate that took place, appropriately enough, in a zoo.

At Sydney, Australia’s Taronga Zoo, representatives of the two communities, which tend to hold widely disparate views on man’s stewardship of nature, came together to discuss how to conserve wildlands in a more populous, affluent world. Squaring off were Dennis Avery of the Hudson Institute’s Virginia-based Center for Global Food Issues, Jim Downey of the Australian Conservation Foundation, and Ray Nias of the World Wildlife Fund/Australia. The three were asked to resolve the dilemma of which goal to emphasize: food, forests, or wildlife. Their answers, it turned out, were not as far apart as one might have expected.

Avery noted that the cities of the world now comprise 1.5 percent of the world’s land area; if global population peaks at 9 million in 2050, as expected, “[people] will live on approximately 3.5 percent of the land, treat their sewage, and invest in clean energy.” Avery offered three possible solutions to the food/land dilemma: cutting population growth, creating vast numbers of vegetarians, and raising crop yields. Noting that the first two are highly unlikely, Avery argued that the only possible way to feed a population 50 percent larger and more affluent–demanding more meat, milk, and eggs–is to increase yields through high-yield farming techniques and with the help of developing technologies on the best farmland currently in production. Creating economic incentives, particularly by reforming trade and subsidy policies, would increase world food output, he added.

The two Australian environmentalists agreed with Avery on the critical role of agricultural productivity in saving wildlands and wildlife. But they envisioned somewhat different ways of improving the productivity and sustainability of world farmland.

Downer called for a mix of measures, including slowing population growth; increasing agricultural research in organic, biodynamic, and permaculture farming; reducing pesticide use through integrated pest management; improving efficiency of water use; and expanding agroforestry and mixed farming.

Nias saw the challenge as optimizing the use of land, chemicals, energy, and modified organisms in a way that maximizes food production and minimizes environmental damage. He called for a valuation of national assets and capital for land use planning, low inputs of fossil fuels, more organic fertilizers, biological pest control, and agroforestry.

Though Avery and the two environmentalists couldn’t bridge the gap on all issues, their agreement on the necessity of preserving wildlife habitat by maximizing crop yields on land could point the way toward a more productive dialogue in the future.

PF: More information on the Sidney Zoo Debate is available in the 12-page Hudson Institute publication “Do We Want Food, Forests, or Wildlife?” available through PolicyFax. Just call 847/202-4888 and request document #2321201. Also available through PolicyFax is recent testimony by Dennis Avery before the Senate Agricultural Committee; request the four-page document #0470201.