Prove your humanity

If they really want to celebrate the outdoors, they should escape from their office buildings, come to my farm, and help clear the rocks from my fields so I can plant. It’s a rite of spring. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.

I’m only half joking.

This conference, of course, is serious business.

“In launching this conversation,” says Nancy Sutley of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, “we strive to learn about the smart, creative community efforts underway throughout the country to conserve our outdoor spaces, and hear how we can support these efforts.”

Well, Ms. Sutley, thanks for the invitation. Please allow me to share a few ideas.

One of the best ways to honor our environment is to engage in agricultural work. Farm productivity makes conservation possible. It may sound like a contradiction in terms because production and conservation are almost polar opposites. Production is about creating more. Conservation is about consuming less. One is about possibilities. The other is about limits.

Yet they don’t contradict each other at all. Production and conservation can function side by side, just like the gas and brake pedals in your car.

The more food we grow on existing farmland, the less pressure we put on America’s wild areas. Agricultural success, in other words, affords us the opportunity to appreciate the great outdoors.

America’s farmers produce an abundance of food–the United States is the most food-secure country in the world. That’s because we have access to the very best agricultural technology, which includes everything from drip-irrigation systems to genetically modified seeds.

We’ve accomplished an enormous amount of good with biotech corn, soybeans, and cotton. We need to extend these benefits to alfalfa and sugar beets. From the standpoint of research and development, we already have. Yet both of these crops are currently tied up in litigation, thanks to special interest groups who are driven by ideology.
Their frivolous lawsuits have created enormous difficulty for the farmers who try to grow these crops. This is bad enough, but it gets worse: They’ve also created uncertainty for the scientists who are working on the next generation of cutting-edge crops, so that we can continue to enjoy record-breaking yields. Will their work see the light of day, or will lawyered-up activists drag it down?

All true friends of “America’s Great Outdoors” will hope that the courts let farmers have the opportunity to take advantage of these products because their full acceptance will contribute to our abundance.

In addition to technology, farmers need modern transportation systems–everything from rails and roads to locks and canals. We also need a steady supply of fertilizer and other inputs.

By helping us produce, we’ll be able to conserve.

And don’t forget the importance of trade. President Obama wants to double exports in the next five years. American agriculture should spread its abundance around the world, not only by selling its farm products to consumers in places such as Colombia, Panama, and South Korea–hey Congress, pass those free-trade agreements!–but also by exporting its know-how to farmers in developing countries.

The biotech revolution has transformed agriculture in South America. There’s no good reason why it shouldn’t do the same in sub-Saharan Africa. It would uplift an impoverished region and make it easier to protect “Africa’s Great Outdoors.”

Right now, I’m in Japan, honoring the 50th anniversary of the Yamanashi “hog lift” that helped the Land of the Rising Sun restock its hog industry in the aftermath of two devastating typhoons. It’s an excellent example of how economic ties can keep nations connected.

Our abundance also makes agricultural diversity possible, including less productive forms of farming. Organic growers will never feed the country, and certainly not at a reasonable price. Yet the incredible output of conventional agriculture, with its full acceptance of modern technologies, makes other approaches possible. It increases choice for consumers and supports a multi-faceted rural economy that turns conservation into an option rather than an aggravation.

So that’s what I hope the White House conference-goers understand: If you want to conserve, you must be allowed to produce.

Tim Burrack raises corn and soybeans in partnership with his brother on their NE Iowa family farm. Tim is a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology