Chemical Dependency


As Congress drafts the 1990 farm bill, environmentalists seek to force drastic cuts in the agricultural use of pesticides and other chemicals. These groups claim that pesticide abuse threatens public health and that farmers can easily and profitably adopt organic practices. But an American Farm Bureau Federation study reports that prohibitions against chemical use will be much more costly than environmentalists portray.

Study director Ronald D. Knutson of Texas A&M University concludes that an outright ban on chemicals would cause annual double-digit increases in food prices, compared to rises of about 4 percent if chemical use continued. Such price hikes would cause the poorest Americans to spend 44 percent of their incomes on food; currently they spend 38 percent.

Other study findings: Because farm products would become more expensive, they would be less competitive in export markets. The drop in exports would put more than 200,000 people out of work and cost $14 billion in export sales. To maintain current harvests, more acres would go under the plow, hastening soil erosion. Higher feed costs would modestly affect cattle and pork prices but raise poultry prices by 31 percent. And farmers in the Sunbelt—where fungi, insects, and other agricultural pests find hospitable climates—would suffer more than growers in northern states.

Farmers point out that their chemical dependency has decreased. Business Week reports a 50-percent drop in pesticide usage since 1976. And since most farmers apply chemicals themselves and drink the nearby groundwater, they have built-in incentives to use pesticides carefully. (See "Technology, Ecology, and the American Farmer," Dec. 1989.)

Knutson and his colleagues welcome research leading to substitutes for agricultural chemicals but caution policymakers before they indiscriminately ban these products.