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Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.

Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.

margaret wente

The great global greening is happening now Add to ...

We have new neighbours near our place in the country – bears. Every so often, one shows up and gets his picture in the local paper, the Echo. People swear they’ve even seen wolves – creatures that were driven out long ago after farmers moved in and chopped down all the trees.

At the turn of the last century, the countryside was much less pretty than it is now. The soil was so badly eroded that large parts of the area had turned into sand dunes. But today, nature is making a comeback. Farming has become vastly more productive, and much of the more marginal agricultural land is wild again. The dunes turned into fields, and the fields turned into woods. The odd bear can make a living there – to say nothing of deer, wild turkeys and the various critters that love to feast on my garden. Our countryside is getting greener, because of progress.

This is what the green elites of the wealthy North want – I mean you, Avi and Naomi, and your merry band of actors, writers and professors who signed on to the Leap Manifesto. They want to take us back to a romantic world of small-scale, low-yield, subsistence farming that would in fact require far more land and far more labour than we use now. It is the worst prescription for the planet you could possibly imagine.

"Agriculture has always been the greatest destroyer of nature", writes Jesse Ausubel, director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University. Leap’s dream of turning the clock back would spell far more destruction than exists already. The deep hostility of the green elites to technological progress is not just some harmless fantasy. As populations soar in Africa, they are doing grievous harm to its environment and economy – as well as to hundreds of millions of people – through their implacable resistance to genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

The poor desperately need access to more nutritious, higher yielding and drought-resistant crops. Is it ethical to deny a hungry child food because of entirely theoretical risks? Greens say yes. The green war against GMOs is a war on the least privileged people on Earth, waged by the most privileged.

Technology is saving the environment, not destroying it. Thanks to technology, we are on the brink of a great reversal of land use.

Consider this: It’s estimated that the world uses 68 per cent less land to produce the same quantity of crops as 50 years ago. We’ve done this without a massive increase in fertilizer and chemicals. One recent study found that high-yield farmers in the European Union increased their yields by 22 per cent while also reducing their chemical pesticide use by 37 per cent.

“This is the story of precision agriculture, in which we use more bits, not more kilowatts or gallons,” writes Mr. Ausubel.

Mr. Ausubel is among a new breed of environmentalists who believe in the power of technology to liberate the environment and “rewild” the planet. He argues that we may already have reached “peak farmland” – not because we’ve run out of land, but because farmers are so successful at producing protein and calories. If we can get a grip on food waste, stop producing corn to feed cars, boost yields to the level of the most productive farmers and eat more food that is efficient to produce (such as chicken instead of beef), we could liberate an area the size of India from agricultural production.

We may have reached “peak timber” too. Tree plantations in warm climates are far more productive than natural forests in cold climates, and are becoming a much bigger source of wood. At the same time, our use of wood is on the decline. (Are you reading this online? That’s partly why.) These trends mean that the world’s biomass is increasing.

Progressive environmentalists such as Mr. Ausubel argue that we are reaching the age of the great “decoupling,” in which economic growth is no longer automatically tied to more resource consumption. The United States today uses less water than it did in 1970. Air pollution has declined steeply. We may have even reached peak car.

And now we have a new game-changer, in the form of a revolutionary gene-editing tool called CRISPR. This tool (whose name is short for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) offers a new level of speed, precision and versatility, and opens the door to vast new food production improvements. It does so without introducing foreign genes – the source of the objections to GMOs. The U.S. government has said that for this reason, CRISPR-edited crops won’t be regulated. As a result of CRISPR, we will tread more lightly on the planet.

No doubt the Leapers will fight CRISPR, too. They would rather have the world’s billions eating mouldy, stunted potatoes that exhaust the soil and suck up all the water. Before they foist their manifesto on the rest of us, maybe they should try it for themselves.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this column did not attribute the sentence: "Agriculture is the greatest destroyer of nature" to author Jesse Ausubel who wrote that in The Return of Nature. The Globe and Mail apologizes to Mr. Ausubel. This online version has been corrected with the proper attribution. In addition, the link to the original academic research by food systems researcher Maywa Montenegro has been included.

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