No new technology will be the final, silver-bullet, answer to farming challenges is my way of summarizing the fourth and final instalment in Al Mussell’s series about common fallacies about agriculture.
He offers examples of technologies once thought to be great answers to challenges, but proved to have unexpected side effects – atrazine weed killer to grow corn, summerfallowing to preserve Prairie moisture for growing wheat and using feed additives in poultry rations to eliminate parasites.
Weeds with resistance to atrazine multiplied, summerfallowing increased wind erosion and parasites developed resistance to the chemical feed additives.
Mussell could have added that all plant breeding designed to provide disease resistance proved to be only temporary relief, triggering a renewed search for resistance genes. Rust-resistant wheat varieties for the Canadian Prairies are a prime example.
And so Mussell, who is senior policy analyst at the George Morris Centre at Guelph, has words of caution for those who support either extreme on the technology issue.
“The mainstream agricultural community needs to acknowledge that failures and unintended consequences can occur with agricultural technologies,” Mussell writes in a news release about his final paper.
“The sustainable agriculture movement must acknowledge that the solution to technological failures they highlight is not to restrict new technologies, but to accelerate the ongoing development of new, improved technologies.
“Food marketers should appreciate the importance of technological innovation in agriculture, and understand how food marketing initiatives that restrict agricultural technologies inhibit this process”.
That’s an apparent reference to current retailer bans on pork from sows housed in gestation crates and laying hens housed in cages.
He says the concerns that are being raised “play out across a range of parameters, including carbon footprint, water use, pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones and growth promotants, animal welfare, labour standards, as well as others.
“In some cases, specific technologies or techniques related to the above have been targeted, such as genetically modified, specific pesticides, specific animal health products, certain livestock housing systems, etc.”
Mussell calls for a broader understanding of agriculture and the environment in which crops, livestock and poultry are farmed.
“important aspects of this movement are simplistic, misguided, or simply wrongheaded, and following these through to their logical extent presents the prospect of pitfalls for the agri-food system.
“The sustainable agriculture movement must acknowledge that the solution to technological failures it highlights is not to restrict new technologies, but rather to accelerate the development of new, improved technologies,” Mussell writes.
“Food marketers should appreciate the importance of technological development in agriculture, and understand how food marketing initiatives that restrict agricultural technologies inhibit this process.”