David Suzuki takes swipe at conventional agriculture

Leaning across a book-signing table from David Suzuki, Sid Stevenson, a young farmer from Kenton, Man., listened carefully to Canada’s most famous environmentalist and his thoughts on modern agriculture.

On Tuesday Suzuki spoke to an audience of 1,000 at the Manitoba Conservation Districts Association annual meeting in Brandon. In his keynote speech, while signing books following his presentation and during his talk with Stevenson, Suzuki offered up multiple critiques of conventional agriculture. Well known for his opposition to industrial agriculture, Suzuki said pesticides are the “dumbest thing” that humans ever invented and that most farmers should revert to practices now referred to as organic agriculture. “Organic should be conventional (farming), and it was 50 years ago, (but) it’s not anymore and I think that’s tragic because industrial agriculture is simply not sustainable. It is based on converting oil into food,” Suzuki said at the book-signing table.

“It takes six to eight calories of oil to make one calorie of food. That’s crazy. It’s totally unsustainable,” Suzuki added in an aggressive tone, jabbing his finger towards a reporter’s voice recorder.

“I defy any of those conventional farmers, I defy any farmer to tell me that when you are converting oil into food, that this is sustainable.”

Suzuki sighed and shook his head when asked about the need for farmers to increase production to feed nine billion people by 2050.

“You mean to tell me that western farmers have a responsibility to feed people in India, China and Europe? Bullshit,” he said, as about a dozen people waited for a box of his recent book, The Legacy, to be delivered to the table.

“Everybody tells me that the goal of industrial agriculture is to feed the world’s masses. This is (how) Monsanto and all these companies justify genetically modified organisms. The people that need that food, they don’t have the money to pay for it. So don’t tell me that Monsanto is in the business of making genetically food so we can give it away to people in Africa…. They are in the business of making money… it’s just a rationalization to justify what they are doing.”

Despite the radical message and the hard-hitting tone, Stevenson and other farmers who attended Suzuki’s Brandon speech said his comments have merit.

For instance, Stevenson agreed that the existing crop production system isn’t sustainable.

“Consumers are driving what we are producing and are we doing it in a sustainable way? Probably not. Phosphate isn’t going to last forever,” said Stevenson, who is in his 20s and helps run a conventional farm west of Brandon.

As for pesticides, Stevenson said organic farming isn’t perfect because producers must deal with fungus, disease and potential mycotoxin contamination.

On the other hand, conventional farmers may be too dependent on pesticides, he added.

“Maybe we have to seriously consider getting rid of, or reducing the amount of chemicals that we do use. Lots of guys are spraying the same piece of land five or six times per year. That’s pretty intensive, in my opinion.”

Clayton Robins, who farms near Rivers, Man., said people may not like Suzuki’s comments about agriculture, but producers can’t ignore his message or the reality that consumers want organic food.

“It’s pretty hard to have somebody (like Suzuki) come in and tell you what to do … but you still have to listen,” Robins said, adding that many Canadians believe in Suzuki and people with similar messages.

“We (farmers) are a very small percentage of the population, so what the population is saying, we can’t ignore.”

While sharing his thoughts on agriculture at the book-signing table, Suzuki said farmers must adapt to make agriculture more sustainable. That’s fine from Stevenson’s point of view because change is a healthy part of the industry.

“I just think it (farming) is going to keep evolving into something else,” he said.

“That’s why agriculture is so exciting and interesting…. It’s (about) opportunity and change. Who wants to keep doing the same thing over and over again?”

18 Responses

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  1. Joe Johnston on

    The only true connection to the word science David Suzuki has, is through political science, which has nothing to do with the true scientific principles. It amazes me how someone who was only an average student can gain the respect he has and make the money he has by only telling half the story. There are many higher quality scientists that have made positive contributions to science in this area that do not get the respect of the media. Could it be that the media needs a education in the fundamentals of science? Suzuki is altering science for his personal gain and political reasons.

    Organic farming requires tillage for weed control. It is true that herbicides require energy to produce, but Suzuki conveniently ignores the larger issues. Tillage farming requires larger amount of fossil fuels than no till farming. The energy required to till soil is from fossil fuels. Maybe Suzuki needs to look at a junior high physics text to understand work, energy and friction. Tillage also releases soil carbon (one of the most essential plant nutrient) in the form of carbon dioxide. The loss of soil carbon (ie organic matter) is soil degradation. This is even without considering the affects of wind and water erosion when they occur. In addition, tillage evaporates moisture from the soil. This wastes solar energy that could be used to grow a crop. If moisture is not available the crop cannot utilize the solar radiation. I firmly believe the dust bowl of the thirties would have never occurred, if notill agriculture would have been available.

    In nature tillage is a catastrophic event. A soil is a living ecosystem. There are many bacteria, fungi and micro organisms living in soil. Mother nature has designed these organisms to cycle nutrients and flourish in a no till system. Tillage interferes with this by allowing more oxygen into the soil profile and reducing the health of these living organisms. It is time we stop treating soil like dirt.

    Suzuki would be the first to claim, that the release of carbon dioxide is one of the major environmental issues. I am amazed no one asked him, “Why he is advocating releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere?” I would suggest that Suzuki have a private debate with himself and develop the moral constitution to tell the whole truth on both issues.

    It is true that pesticide manufacturers are businesses interested in profit. Suzuki fails to mention, there are government bodies overseeing the safety of these products. Proper crop rotation and proper pesticide rotation will reduce the amount of pesticide needed to produce food. Everything in nature is a function of balances between many factors. If one works with nature and let her do the majority of the work. It will reduce energy and other crop inputs required.

    The price of food is lower because of scientific and technological advancement. I don’t have the exact figures right now but 50 years ago about 50% of income was spent on food in North America, now it is about 10%. How can Suzuki say that food is not more available? Nothing is perfect in the world. There are many political and economic reasons why people suffer from lack of food. This is beyond the scope of this discussion. The fact remains that the larger the quantity of food that can be produced economically the less people will go hungry. Feeding nine billion mouths by 2050 cannot be accomplished with organic farming even with an expanded land base.

    Organic farming will require more area to produce the same amount of food. Maybe Suzuki would like land currently in rain forests cleared and Canada’s Parks used for this purpose. Suzuki would be the first to claim, that expanding the agricultural land base is one of the major environmental issues. I don’t agree that agriculture is harmful to the environment, but again, I am amazed no one ask “Why he is advocating expanding the agricultural land base?” Again, I would suggest that Suzuki have a private debate with himself and develop the moral constitution to tell the whole truth on both issues.

    Suzuki claims that modern farming is not sustainable. The truth is, the soil degradation caused by tillage farming is proof that tillage farming is not a sustainable system.

    Organic food production reduces the amount of food produced and increases the price. David Suzuki should trade places with someone who faces a shortage of food because of land being put into organic farming. Maybe then he would
    STOP CRITICIZING AGRICULTURE WITH A FULL MOUTH.

    • While I agree with you on the soil being a living organism and the harm that tillage does. Your argument also conveniently ignores some facts. Mostly the fact that there has been much progress made in developing ways to have a zero-till organic farming system. I will agree that there are some flaws with many organic farmers, most of these are that they run their farms too close to how you would run a conventional farm. Mainly, they still have too much mono-culture crops in their fields. Mono-culture, like tillage, never exists in nature and when forced onto nature can only end badly. Organic farmers need to move more into permaculture and run their farms in a more holistic way.

      I get as mad as David Suzuki when I hear people talk about how there isn’t enough food or that we have to raise output to feed everyone. NO WE DON’T!! Nowhere does it say farmers have a legal or even moral responsibility to feed everyone. First off, if we had to feed everyone, we wouldn’t be able to feed ourselves because we would have to give it away for free PLUS pay the cost of shipping it to those in need. Second, there is already more than enough food to feed everyone and then some right now. The problem is that it is in the wrong place and not able to get to where it needs to be due to a lack of transportation infrastructure, or it spoils due to a lack of proper storage, or the most common and most likely reason, the hungry are hungry because they can’t afford it. The US is expecting corn ending stocks of 647 million bushels, I would hardly call that out of food.
      If we want to feed everyone, it can’t be done by producing more food where there is already plenty. It will be able giving the small scale subsistence farmers where people are hungry the tools they need to increase their production. But these aren’t things like GMO corn and soybeans, its things like a grain bin so rats don’t ruin a whole years work or sharing our knowledge of sustainable farming practices.

      • Al Landis on

        Well said Jayson. I grew up working on a 3000 acre farm south west of Winnipeg. I’ve seen the prairies turn into a yellow sea over the years. Used to be when you missed a patch it didn’t spring up all thick with weeds. you had the odd weed or patch – not super weeds. its all cooked-up crops and weeds on steroids now. can’t be good for you. I wouldn’t go near canola oil, and i don’t buy into all the propaganda they buy up in the media. used to be ditches croaked with frogs – they’re dead now thanks to roundup (independent scientific studies available – google it). seed companies and cronies tell us farmers need to plant their seed to feed… india? suddenly that’s the farmers job? hogwash. more like suddenly that’s the feel-good reason industry is drumming up as to why its good for farmers to plant juiced-up…what do you call them? can’t call them plants, they only look like plants. inside from the genes on up they are something totally different. but they do churn out bushels, and they pay. those seeds could be made out of polyester for all the farmer cares.
        point is, i’m not eating it…wait 20 years when your kids will be saying, “you mean to tell me you actually planted this stuff and then sold it as food?”
        sounds like suzuki got people’s hackles up gee, what a surprise. fools.

    • Aprl Reeves on

      Sorry Joe, Suzuki is a genetic engineer! The whole gene splicing idea didn’t resonate with him so he took a different path, but he does indeed fully understand farming. He just doesn’t see your way as a good way…don’t shoot the messenger…

    • Joe, I am assuming you work for Monsanto. Seriously, read something that you or Monsanto didn’t write.

  2. Totally agree with you joe

  3. I agree, the soil is a living ecosystem as explained by Joe Johnston, and it
    must be cared for as if our lives depended on it. For soil is the basis of our grain and livestock production to feed ourselves and the means to raise our families. However when herbicides are applied as they are in conventional farm practices of to-day, I get the feeling that farmers are slowly killing the very ecosystem that nature has provided for our benefit, and that farmers need to sustain their livelihood. It’s a bitter- sweet way of taking care of our land.. So which is more damaging, and which is more sustainable.
    I have no argument with David Suzuki and his presentations in this matter.
    I would like to be able to attend, a one on one interchange dialogue involving
    Joe Johnston and Professor David Susuki.It would likely be to a sold out crowd.

  4. Joe, we will not or have not have a shortage of food for many years. Most grassland is chemical free, organicly adapted to produce food if need be. What we do have is a group of companies implying that we have one to suite their own purpose which is to improve their bottom line. Suzuki is right, do you think all those ads on the radio station’s brainwashing you are free? The last time I grew Canola there was about 5 varieties and the cost was $5 per acre. Yes, I have not grown the stuff since ’88 never used Roundup and am totally out of the loop on the hundreds of chemicals and newer varieties available today. Ask my neighbors how we are doing you may be surprised. Over 25 years chemical free farming has quadrupled the size of our farm and assets. How did you fare?

    • Ian Hand on

      Are you hiring? That’s that kind of operation I want to be a part of and for my kids to learn from. Are you looking for markets? Yours is the only kind of food we look for in the city. We’ll give up a vacation a year and an additional sport for the kids if it means paying extra to eat food that is not genetically modified.

  5. If we continue to advocate either side of the spectrum so intensely, we as farmers will inevitably fail.
    Agriculture makes its money on what and where is lacking and sadly enough the chemical companies know this. Markets are manipulated and we sell accordingly making sure the commodity investors make their cash. To the everyday businessman, agriculture is far beyond practices and morals and Ironically the farmer is now exactly this, a businessman. More likely than not he has also been tainted by these outside views of what people think agriculture should be.
    I am a farmer and I see how it has gone from min till to no till and the direct result of these two different methods. More chemical equals more disease and lower quality food. More fungicides and insecticides due to the harboring of insects and diseases in the straw that is not tilled. Why so much cancer and nerve related diseases in rural Saskatchewan and Manitoba? Why so many children being born with autism and God knows what else. I don’t agree with no till unless it is a drought stricken area that receives so little rain that it is deemed imperative to the growth of a crop.As farmers, we need to have a moral obligation to ourselves and families to not wholly support the ideas of business and the chemical companies. We need to use what is needed moderately. I agree with David Suzuki simply because where his argument starts is where the consumer starts to have control of what we eat which ultimately will trickle down to the producer and how he grows his product. I don’t know about the rest of the people but I would not want to eat wheat which more often than not has been dessicated to be straight combined. Too many people are ignorant to how their food is produced and don’t realize that the farmer is simply provided with the poison by these “helpful chemical companies” to help their bottom line. Farmer and chemical company alike. Shame on the farmer and shame on Monsanto,Bayer,Syngenta and many others. It’s time for farmers to be FARMERS and not catalysts for bad business and death.
    Food for thought . I would rather live in a country that makes it mandatory to tell the consumer of what is gmo and what is not. Let the other countries do what they want and let us lead by example.

  6. I am a farmer and I have to agree with David Suzuki. Too much chemical!
    No till farming is suited only to those environments that require it. There is no way that someone can tell me it should be used everwhere. Where do you think we get the disease and the insects? If you don’t work in the straw and break it down you have a mass of material on top that yes, great holds moisture(the reason why so many farmers couldn’t seed for 2-3 years) and the micro environment that incubated diseases and sheltered insects. If you give the farmer an easy way to do things(yet more destructive) some will definately take the easy way out. Ironic that the prarie provinces has the highest immune related and nerve related diseases isn’t it. Coincidence, I think not. I also agree that going totally organic is not conducive for world food production. But what are we (farmers) here for? We must first serve our own needs for our country and families than move outward.
    I do not know what makes most farmers tick, but for me my conscious seems to rule rationality. How many people realize that alot of the wheat and other grains harvested have been dessicated just so it is easier for the farmer. Yes, all of that pretty little Wheat, Oats, Flax and many others seeds doused in Monsantos,Bayers,Syngentas or whomevers glyphosate (roundup) just so it dries down. Do those farmers take that grain and feed there families with it. Little Molly eating a nice bowl of roundup dessicated rolled oats.MMMMMM
    No company rep would do it yet they swear that it is so safe. So I challenge them to a public drinking of this crap.
    My point is this. We as farmers need to be more stewards of the land, stop putting ourselves in these ruts which ultimately allows chemical companies to enslave us and use these products SPARINGLY! Government and consumers alike need to call for better mandates for the amount of dessication. No glyphosate residue unless used solely for non food production. Yes this would not put the chemical company out of business yet, but it sure would give more control to the producer and provide for better food for the consumer. The better we get at producing food maybe the smarter we will be and realize that tillage helps. At least with limiting the amount of chemical sprayed and diseases in people of the prairies.

    • Where do you live Mike? I’d like to shake your hand and give you a pat on the back, for your words that resonate….”the truth”

      What kind of drugs and poison are we having for supper?, Only the Monsanto’s know and they are not eating with the rest of us. THEY know better.

  7. Mr. Suzuki, a calorie is a unit of energy. Oil has a far greater calorie-density than food – that’s why we burn it to power our lives instead of burning food. A single barrel of oil contains roughly 1.4 Billion calories. 6-8 calories represents a tiny, tiny drop of oil.

    Let’s assume your 8-1 oil-to-food calorie ratio; then let’s further assume that there are 2000 calories in a loaf of white bread. By that number, a 1.4 billion-calorie barrel of oil will yield 87,500 loaves of bread (1.4 Billion x 1/8 x 1/2000). If we assume $2 a loaf, a $100 barrel of oil will yield $175,000 worth of bread.

    If we then assume the average 4-person family requires 7500 calories per day, again assuming your 8-to-1 calorie ratio for oil-to-food, a single 1.4 Billion calorie barrel of oil will feed a 4-person family for roughly 63 years. (1.4 Billion x 1/8 x 1/7500 x 1/365)

    You call that unsustainable? I call it bargain.

    Oil is what makes food so cheap. Unless you want food to become more and more expensive, driving more and more people into poverty because they cannot afford a loaf of bread (which used to cost them $2), you should stop your anti-oil, anti-industry crusade.

    • First of all Jeff, if oil is so nice and calorie rich, how about you try eating that instead of food? Might be healthier than what Monsanto is feeding you. Second, get your definitions of calorie straight. There’s a scientific calorie, as used to talk about oil, and then there is a kilocalorie (sometimes called a cooking calorie), which is what they put on the nutritional information boxes. Your calculations are wrong. The actual energy value is 1/1000th of what you have. At that amount, it would support a family of four for less than a month. Maybe you should be hopping on that “anti-oil, anti-industry crusade” bandwagon.

  8. Read latest study “Monsanto” proving Suzuki correct:
    http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/13/health/global-burden-report/index.html?hpt=hp_c1

  9. Aprl Reeves on

    Wow, if Suzuki is getting back into ag discussions I may move back to BC and help out!

    Food is not cheap people! And if you paid attention to the news last week that stated it was going up 50% in the next few months, you’ll see it’s dictated by a whole set of politics the farmer has no say in nor any knowledge about. Oil is subsidized by our taxes. They go to oil companies to grow corn. And you think that’s okay? If we dropped all farming subsidies our tax base would lower by 30%. The whole system is systemically propped up by tax money, so no, food is not cheap but unless we get off our butts and change policy, we get what we deserve.

    There is nothing inevitable about the current structure of our economy: it’s not the product of some kind of natural evolution. It’s the logical outcome of a set of policies.

    Also, cancer rates for 2012 in farming families has skyrocketed from what? Sunshine? I farm in Alberta. I live around GMO farms and cattle. I speak with farmers daily and the lies they are led to believe from GM seed companies just blows my mind. Most of them call it Roundup Ready and were shocked to find they were GM!! Kid you not!! If you cannot follow the oil-food chain and understand the connections then do something else. And do not expect me to feed a billion people. I feed several hundred with zero oil and high profits.

  10. Hubert D on

    the world revolves around oil. oil makes power plants work and power printing presses and heat hotels and convention centres and what not. i wonder how many poeple would have come out to the book signing if the convention centre wasn’t heated.

    • As I understand from reading, there were 1000 people at the Convention Centre to hear David Suzuki’s presentation.
      I don’t think, very much heating, if any, would be required.

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