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.

| May/June 1979

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.

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