August 15, 2004

Choice? What choice?

By: Colleen Tigges

Americans make tough choices every day: Breyer’s or Dreyer’s ice cream? Fresh broccoli or asparagus? Organic strawberries? Genetically modified tomatoes?

Affluent societies expend countless hours on “fluff” choices while ignoring places in the world where choices are very different and truly tough. In third world countries, people choose between food or malaria medicine because they can’t have both. During drought, poor farmers must choose between feeding their kids today, or feeding the family cow for milk tomorrow.

Protesters and pseudo-environmentalists whine loudly about the “terrible choices” we rich people make. A favorite target is technology-based agriculture. They would rather we forgo synthetic fertilizers and pest control and choose to farm “organically.” That’s fine. They can make that choice because both are available. America is rich enough to cater to silly whims. But they have no right to force their ideological nonsense on others, especially countries that don’t have the choices we have.

Green do-gooders invade third-world countries to “help” them avoid the “bad choices” we Americans made–those awful choices that led to abundant food, advanced medical care and unprecedented wealth–the same wealth that paid for their airfare.

World population has surged from 2 billion in 1930 to over 6 billion today–that’s triple! Miraculously, these six billion people are better fed today than at any other time in history thanks to a miracle we call the Green Revolution. Animal and crop science have brought synthetic fertilizer, better insect and plant disease control, and improved animal health. Improving yields have kept pace with rising population.

The Green Revolution has been a food production miracle, and equally important, it has been an environmental triumph. World food production tripled and it was accomplished on the same amount of crop land. Technology in agriculture saved millions of people from starvation and misery, and also saved millions of acres of habitat from the plow.

Turning the world away from technology and toward organic or subsistence farming would be a disaster. Population is still going up; experts estimate it will top out at around 8.5 billion. Nobel Prize winner and father of the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug, along with hundreds of other scientists, estimates that reverting to organic methods on today’s cropland would feed only about 4 billion people, leaving us to choose whether to plow down more land or let one third of the world’s population starve.

While I’m sure that there are many environmentalists who would love to choose which third of the population to sacrifice (capitalists run for your lives), the reality is that it’s not a choice that anyone can make. People do not starve easily. They will slash and burn every acre of tropical forest to grow food and when the land is drained and barren they will hunt down every warm, fuzzy critter for their stewpots. A mother will not stand outside a protected game preserve and watch her children starve. When the choice is your children or the last tiger on earth, there is no choice. It’s tiger for dinner.

Choosing organic or subsistence farming means choosing to use more land–fragile land like rain forest and wildlife habitat–to feed the world. And because that land is generally unsuitable for growing food, there truly isn’t even enough land on the planet; we would likely need another entire continent.

Environmentalists must accept the reality that two-thirds of the people on earth don’t eat fresh broccoli and organic strawberries, and they don’t have chicken on Sunday either. They eat rice, corn or wheat that they grow themselves, while struggling with never-ending drought and pests. Daily concerns for these people do not include the rain forest, endangered species, synthetic chemicals, or silicone breast implants–they are too busy trying to feed their children and themselves. Third-world farmers don’t need less synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, and biotechnology; they need more. To raise their standard of living they must grow more than they eat. Without modern technology they simply can’t achieve what we Americans take for granted every day.

An African delegate to the UN stated it best when he said that millions of poor farmers already farm organically because they do not have access to synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, and “it’s not getting the job done.”

Advances in agriculture are already bringing prosperity to some formerly destitute countries. India, using enhanced corn and wheat varieties, has gone from starvation to a net exporter. Another illustrative case is that of small farmers in South Africa whose use of pest-resistant cotton has resulted in a 25 percent yield increase while insecticide use dropped by over 60 percent. More crop to sell, coupled with a decrease in chemical cost is a huge success for these farmers.

Americans love having choices, but we have forgotten that the privilege of choosing from 10 different ice cream varieties in a supermarket that covers three square blocks was paid for with choices made long ago. We chose to embrace technology and progress that brought great advances in health, wealth, and–believe it or not–in our environment.

Now America exports do-gooders that are thwarting poor countries’ attempts to rise above third-world status. These wealthy products of American capitalism need to stop impeding other peoples’ opportunities to make the same choices we did. Ideology means nothing to people who have no energy to power homes and businesses, no indoor plumbing, and who don’t have enough to eat. These people will choose any opportunity to stop their children from starving. Do they have any other choice?

Colleen Tigges is Director of EAT First!, a non-profit foundation dedicated to fighting misinformation surrounding environmental issues, especially as they relate to agriculture. She recently co-authored a book titled, “A Field Manual for the Green War,” which is available at

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