Agricultural Policy: Jim McHale Speaks Out

According to one expert observer, misguided agricultural policy decisions have resulted in an over reliance on chemicals and complete neglect of soil health.

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In a speech before the American Association for the Advancement of Science, former Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Jim McHale discussed the shortcomings of U.S. agricultural policy. 


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Jim McHale (who, as you may remember, was MOTHER EARTH NEWS' nominee for U.S. Secretary of Agriculture back in 1977) is a guy who can always be counted on to speak his mind. The former Agriculture Secretary for the state of Pennsylvania has for years championed the cause of the American family farmer, often in the face of strong opposition from large, vested agribusiness interests.

Recently, McHale gave a speech about just such concerns at the American Association for the Advancement of Science convention in Houston, Texas. In the following excerpt from that address, the outspoken agriculturist points out—with his usual accuracy—just what's wrong with our nation's current agricultural policy. And as always, Jim isn't content to simply identify problems: he proposes some solid, commonsense solutions as well!

While the large "agribusiness" concerns are encouraging the increasingly heavy use of commercial chemical fertilizers—notably nitrogen—the soil biota that is vital to fertile ground is being destroyed. A teaspoon of healthy, living earth contains more life forms than there are humans on this planet. And if inhaling anhydrous ammonia fertilizer will kill a man, imagine what this chemical is doing to the soil's microbial ecosystems!

The future of crop production depends heavily on natural nitrogen fixation, but our present agricultural practices are actually hindering this process! Only a very few spokesmen in the research and educational establishments are worried about—or even aware of—the decline of organic matter in our soils.

Part of the problem, as I see it, is a result of the misdirection of United States Department of Agriculture efforts and a lack of unity between the Department's policies and those of its various agendas. To illustrate this point, let me be a bit more specific about the sort of practical research that the USDA is not—at present—carrying out:

[1] For the last 30 years, the Department hasn't collected data on humic levels (the indicators of healthy organic decay) in the nation's vital farmlands.

[2] All of the USDA's information on the subject of the organic levels of our soils in general is over 10 years old!

[3] No work has been done on the increase or decrease of average numbers of soil microflora, and we have no reliable information on the impact of chemicals and monoculture (one-crop) farming on beneficial soil biota.

I, for one, think it's about time to ask whether or not our government agencies are concerned about such questions. Could it be that those bureaus know that anhydrous ammonia (which, as I said, is a fertilizer commonly recommended by "agribiz") was used during World War II to "cement" the earth to form jungle landing strips? And, do those officials in fact believe that the soil is nothing more than a means of holding a seed or plant so it can be conveniently injected with chemicals?

The hard facts of the matter are that our once-fertile land is suffering from 30 years' worth of toxic chemicals and artificially disrupted ecosystems. Furthermore, this destruction has been carried out with a total disregard for its long-term effects upon soil, plant, animal, and human life.

Until recently, the end results of soil erosion and deterioration—problems brought about by "chemical farming"—have been masked by large but misleading crop yield figures  that are a result of the ever-increasing amounts of fertilizer being applied to the land. That mask is finally beginning to slip.

For instance, our national consumption of commercial nitrogen fertilizer doubled between 1966 and 1977, while per-acre crop production in the United States increased by only 13%. (The balance of our 23% total crop increase came from planting more land.)

Per-acre yields of maize, soybeans, sorghum, wheat, and potatoes have not shown a rise since 1970, and it is estimated that it takes five times more fertilizer today than was required to produce an equivalent harvest in 1949.

If this trend is to change (and it must!) we will need a commitment on the part of both government and educational institutions to conserve our most finite resource: the living soil. Last year, however, land-grant institutions in the United States devoted 6,000 man-years to production efficiency projects, and only 258 man-years to rural development. I think this is a sign of badly mixed-up priorities, and I'd like to make a few recommendations on just how we can begin to alter the potentially disastrous direction in which American agriculture is heading.

[A] Congress should require that the USDA apply 50% of its research funds to small farm demonstration and research projects, programs that will work toward the goals of soil and energy conservation.

[B] A substantial amount of agricultural research funding should be earmarked for the testing of new ideas and products. (There are 4.000 pesticide experts in Iowa alone, but I don't know of a single U.S. land-grant institution that teaches organic farming or understands the ecological approach to agriculture.)

[C] The evaluation of new products and concepts should be performed "in the open"— thereby allowing free access to the public—by our land-grant institutions and extension services.

[D] I urge the Department of Energy to establish a national low-energy demonstration farm and rural life center where both the invention of products and the application of new concepts can be presented and tested. Furthermore, such innovations should be checked out—under the supervision of government recorders—by the men and women who developed the ideas rather than by some disinterested (or even negatively prejudiced) "expert."

There are limits to growth. The United States only contains 6% of the world's population, yet we account for 34-40% of the earth's energy and resource consumption each year! By the year 2050, half of the world's present supply of farmland will be taken over by urban and industrial development. In the same short span of years, the planet's population will quadruple.

There is an immediate need to support innovative research in this nation, to prepare mankind to meet the winds and tides of change, and to restore and maintain the soils on which our food is grown.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Jim McHale has recently put some of his ideas to work as a consultant to J & J Agri-Products and Services, Inc. and Sn-Corp., Inc, firms that promote and distribute ecologically sound farm products.