Michael Pollan, a journalism professor from the University of California-Berkeley, recently wrote a long article for the New York Times magazine, which called for the next President of the United States to revamp America's food policy.



While he did point out some viable concerns about energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, his proposed solutions are not based in reality and ignore the tremendous improvements in agriculture over the past decade or so.
To Mr. Pollan, corn and soybeans are the root of all the problems. In the quest to produce more corn and soybeans to feed animals, he says, we are using up too much energy and herding farmers into commodities instead of healthful fruits and vegetables. High oil prices will increase the cost of growing these crops to the point that people will not be able to afford food, he believes.



He says that if we'd start growing grass, cattle would graze and fertilize our fields, so the fields could be rotated to other crops without the use of fertilizers. He even suggests that insects and weeds would disappear, eliminating the need for insecticides and herbicides. Makes you wonder why those products were even invented in the first place if the practices of the good old days were so effective.



Farmers grow corn and soybeans because there is a tremendous global demand. If there were demand for Belgian endive, we'd grow that. The reality, however, is that corn and soybeans are essential ingredients in thousands of products, which is why demand is high.



They also make meat production more efficient. All cows begin their life drinking mother's milk and eating grass. They graze until the finishing stage of their life when they are fattened on high quality grains. Thanks to high energy corn and soy, it takes only about 18 months to produce a beef steer. Grass-fed beef takes much longer. This means more cattle on hoof, all of them emitting methane gas, eroding soil and producing waste.



Pollan's column is so idealistic as to defy a reasoned response. (Seriously, a return to World War II victory gardens?) However, his failure to acknowledge the improvements brought about by technology must be addressed. An analysis by the Keystone Center shows that in the last 20 years, corn yield per acre has increased 30 percent while energy needed to produce a unit of corn has decreased by 30 percent and fertilizer use has remained flat.



We can thank technology for that. Because herbicide-tolerant crops have improved weed control, we have been able to convert to conservation tillage. We don't have to plow and disk the fields to get rid of weeds before planting, so we make fewer passes with tractors and heavy equipment. This has reduced topsoil loss by 50 percent in the last 20 years.



We also use less herbicide and make fewer herbicide applications. And, because crops have built-in insect protection, we reduce or eliminate chemical insecticides that take energy to produce and apply. The biotech and plant breeding pipeline promises even more efficiency through drought-tolerant crops, crops that maximize the use of fertilizer and varieties that produce much higher yields.



It is highly likely that technology can help farmers double yields in the next 20 or 30 years, while reducing inputs accordingly. This will be critical to sustainably providing food, feed, fiber and fuel for a global population expected to increase by 50 percent during the same period.



It would be a serious mistake for the next president to support policies that sidetrack technology and diminish our ability to maximize yields.