Agricultural Policy: Jim McHale Speaks Out

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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. 

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

[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

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