Professor Kenneth Mellanby is a man of distinction, erudition and considerable personal charm. Because of his pioneering book, Pesticides and Pollution, his work as Director of Monks Wood Experimental Research Station, and his position as editor of the journal Environmental Pollution he has a big reputation in the academic world and passes for an ardent environmentalist.
His pronouncements on environmental matters are taken very seriously by the Government, the press and the educated public; this is unfortunate, for in recent years, rather than make use of his position to further the ecological cause, he has used it to underplay the environmental problems caused by our more destructive agricultural practices and to overrate the dubious advantages to be derived from their application.
Published in The Ecologist Vol. 8 No. 3, May–June 1978.
Click here for Kenneth Mellanby’s response.
See also the follow-up article “Mellanby versus theory and fact”.
A mass of contradictions
Reading Professor Mellanby’s pronouncements, one always wonders whether he really means what he is saying. He is forever contradicting himself. Thus, on the subject of artificial fertilisers he insists today that there is “no evidence that they are damaging to the soil”. This is hard to reconcile with former statements. In Modern Farming and the Soil, he wrote:
“There is no great fertility problem resulting from modern farming methods . . . [but] soil structure is a different matter . . . Some soils are now suffering from dangerously low levels of fertility and cannot be expected to sustain the farming systems which have been imposed upon them. A whole range of soils is suffering too, from the effects of the passage of heavy machinery over them in unsuitable conditions, this is often due to the adoption of tight cropping sequences . . . The problem is accentuated where drainage is inadequate.”
The US National Academy of Sciences confirms his fears. It estimates that the US has already lost one third of its top-soil. Barry Commoner has calculated that the organic content of mid-west soils has declined by 50 percent during the last one hundred years. Data is available to show that the same trends are occurring in Canada, the Argentine and France and there is no reason whatsoever to suppose that Britain is an exception.Back to top
Mellanby denies that there is any tendency for our land to need larger and larger amounts of fertilisers every year. This, he assures us,
“is the bogy which has been used to frighten us”. It’s worth noting that in Britain, inputs of nitrogen fertiliser have increased by 800 percent since the war, achieving a mere 35 percent increase in production – in the case of wheat from 27 to 37 hundredweight per acre. To quote Lester Brown, America’s best known authority on the world food problem:
“crop yields increase predictably with each increment of chemical fertiliser, rapidly at first, then more slowly until they eventually level off . . .No crop is exempt from the law of diminishing returns.” [The 29th Day]
Except of course British crops – if we are to believe Professor Mellanby.
A brief look at the changing relationship between world cereal output and fertiliser use, shows all too clearly the reality of diminishing returns. Between 1934 and 1938, according to Lester Brown,
“grain production averaged 651 million tons. From then until 1948-52, fertiliser consumption increased by only 4 million tons. After 1950, growth in the cultivated area slowed and fertiliser use increased by 13 million tons, while grain production increased by 130 million tons, each additional million tons of fertiliser increased the grain harvest by 10 million tons. During the early sixties, the response per million tons of fertiliser used declined to 8.2 million tons: during the late sixties it fell further to 7.2 million tons. As of the early seventies, each additional million tons of fertiliser yielded only 5.8 million tons of grain.”
In spite of this Mellanby considers it possible that
“before the year 2000, we will be able to increase our cereal yields as much again as we have done since 1945.” [Can Britain Feed Herself?]
In defiance of basic agricultural principles and all the empirical evidence, Mellanby actually seems to assume increasing returns on fertiliser use. Surely even Fisons wouldn’t go so far? Has he forgotten the constraints that are currently dogging British farmers?
- Yields in Britain have not increased for over ten years, despite increasing fertiliser applications.
- Our agricultural land is deteriorating not only because of erosion, but also because marginal land in hilly areas is constantly being brought into use to replace high quality land lost to urbanisation. Only 2.8 percent of our arable land is now classified as first class (see Planning for Starvation. The Ecologist, March 1977).
- The price of artificial fertiliser has quadrupled since 1973. With diminishing returns on capital as opposed simply to yields, a point must eventually be reached when it must become economic for farmers to aim for lower yields, the reduced revenue being more than compensated for by the lower costs (see Lockeretz, CBNS, Washington University).
High Priest of modern agriculture
Mellanby zealously defends modern intensive agriculture. Condescendingly, he castigates, for example, “the well-meaning people” who attack straw burning. “They don’t know what they are talking about”, he says, “for to bale and cart straw is far too much work”. I suppose there is no point in returning organic matter to the soil when Fison’s fertiliser is so easily available.
He clearly assumes that our capital-intensive, agricultural system is here to stay. As he wrote in a letter to The Times,
“I do not see how completely arable farms in Britain can ever again employ large numbers of workers. Work is seasonal, and must be done quickly when crops ripen and when the soil can be worked. Farmers cannot afford to keep men in idleness or on uneconomic tasks like hedging and ditching.” [The Times, 4 May 1977]
Perhaps the writings of Pimental, Perelman and Gerald Leach have never reached the backwaters of Monks Wood. Their research on energy use in agriculture clearly demonstrates that modern capital-intensive agriculture cannot possibly be maintained in the era of energy and resource shortages which we are now entering. If we have succeeded in maximising per capita productivity, it is only at the cost of minimising energy and resource productivity.
Since it is energy and resources that are in short supply, we shall soon have to move in the opposite direction by systematically replacing big machines with smaller ones and by human labour. The present plight of American farmers – most of whom are in a state of near bankruptcy – indicates that such a move is likely to occur much sooner than one thinks.
Mellanby supports, equally strongly, the uprooting of hedgerows. Britain, he admits, may have lost over 120,000 miles of hedges in the last few decades. This may be a pity, he says, but it is necessary from a farming point of view. After all, a mile of hedgerows is the equivalent of an acre and a half of land. Cutting them down thus enabled us to gain 180,000 acres. In any case, he assures us,
“in British conditions, there is little evidence that hedges have much economic value, and they certainly do not increase crop levels (by protection from the wind) as has been suggested for Germany and Russia.”
Once more he is asking us to believe that neither basic ecological principles nor all the information we have obtained from other parts of the world are of any relevance to Britain’s agricultural problems. Is he not straining the credulity of even the most gullible among us?
He goes further. If we want farmers to keep hedges “which are totally uneconomic, we must be prepared to foot the bill” – implying that farmers (and presumably everybody else) has a right, even a duty, to behave in such a way as to maximise short-term economic benefits.
If Professor Mellanby understood anything of basic ecological principles he would realise that short-term economic benefits can only be maximised by incurring all sorts of biological, social and ecological costs. This is perhaps the most fundamental message that ecologists have to communicate to economists and the world at large. Yet Mellanby rejects it.Back to top
Defender of the pesticide
Mellanby seems particularly keen to underplay pollution by pesticides. As he writes in Pesticides, the Environment and the Balance of Nature,
“It is clear that pesticides can be pollutants, that they may cause environmental damage, and that they do cause widespread but apparently harmless contamination . . . Many workers have found traces of DDT and other organochlorines in rain and snow; in birds and other animals and in fish, at sites remote from those where pesticides have been deliberately applied. It is probable that this global contamination occurs because the chemicals are volatised into the atmosphere and deposited with rain. At present the levels arising in this way cannot be called pollution for they are so low as to cause no detectable effects on living organisms.”
The good professor should know that very low levels of pollutants, often very much lower than can be detected with available measuring equipment, can cause serious biological damage especially over a long period. According to Professor Bryce-Smith, government scientists in Britain cannot measure lead levels lower than 0.8 ppm, yet this pollutant appears to cause biological damage, in the long run, below this level. The same is true of radiation.
Dr. Sturgess of the Essex River Authority points to the damage done by a hormone weed killer in concentrations as low as one in a billion. “Present methods”, he writes, “do not enable one to detect the presence of pollutants in this dilution, let alone trace them.”
In any case, Professor Mellanby should know that the inability to show the long-term effects of a particular pollutant does not mean that it is harmless. To ‘demonstrate’ the harmlessness of a chemical is extremely difficult. The logistical problems involved in studying the chemical substances into which each pollutant can decay under different conditions, not to speak of all its possible synergic effects with the two or three million other chemicals that industrial man has introduced into his environment, are insuperable. The costs of the necessary tests are so high that they are rarely properly conducted.
Dr. Saffiotti, of the National Cancer Institute, points out that only 3,000 of these 2 – 3 million chemicals have actually been tested for carcinogenic effects and of these a third have been shown to be carcinogenic in certain animals. Only a very small number, however, 30 in all, have been shown to be carcinogenic in humans.
Yet this does not mean that they are safe. In our industrial society one person in four dies of cancer, over 500,000 per year in the USA alone, and it is now generally agreed that about 90 percent of cancer deaths are caused by chemicals in the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe. It is therefore painfully clear that between them, these chemicals are lethal. All we have not established is which are specifically carcinogenic.
These questions do not, however, seem to worry Professor Mellanby. By implication he is against imposing constraints on polluters. Indeed he fears that there is “a distinct danger that in future new chemicals will not be developed rapidly enough to meet demand.”
It would be interesting to know how he reconciles all this with the following passage taken from his speech at the First International Conference on The Environmental Future, in Helsinki in 1973.
“The idea that a chemical is ‘safe’ until it has been proved dangerous must be avoided. No new chemical particularly a persistent chemical should be allowed to be used at all widely until it has been shown to be safe.”
If he underrates the dangers of pesticide pollution, he appears to go out of his way to overrate their possible advantages:
“The greatest increase in productivity, at the present time would come from efficient control of the pests and diseases of our crops and farm animals. It is estimated that even in Britain, where pest damage is much less than in the tropics, and in many parts of America, we lose no less than 18 percent of our agricultural produce. If this were saved, we could feed another ten million mouths. Much of this loss is unnecessary, for we have herbicides, fungicides and insecticides which could be used to effect a considerable degree of control. I think it is likely that we could eliminate at least half of the loss by existing means. It must be admitted that not everyone would agree. Some so-called ‘Ecologists’ have an emotional antipathy to the use of chemical pesticides and for that matter to scientific progress of any kind.”
Once more he is going against all the evidence. In the USA, in spite of billions of dollars spent on massive spraying programmes, pesticides have proved incapable of controlling the major pests affecting agriculture and forestry – the fire ant, the gypsy moth, the Douglas Fir Tussock moth and the boll weevil, for example, are thriving as never before. What is more. resistance to most major pesticides is developing rapidly among hundreds of other pests. To quote Dr Van Der Bosch, Chairman of the Division of Biological Control at the University of California at Berkeley,
“A quarter of a century after the DDT breakthrough, there are more insect species of pest status than ever before, scores of major pests have become resistant to insecticides.”
The National Academy of Sciences points out that the proportion of the American harvest eaten by pests has actually increased in the last decades. This is also the conclusion of the Environmental Protection Agency:
“American farmers 30 years ago used 2,265 tons of pesticides and lost 17 percent of their crops before harvest. Today farmers use 12 times more pesticides, yet the percentage of the crops lost before harvest has almost doubled.”
Nor is there any reason to suppose that the situation is any different in the UK, except, of course, that we do not have an EPA only a DOE that is no more than a Ministry of Works in disguise.
Mellanby also scandalously over rates the value of DDT in controlling malaria.
“Already many thousands, perhaps even millions of humans must have died of malaria because of the well-meaning campaign against DDT.” [The Future Prospects for Man]
It is difficult to believe that Mellanby, who is supposed to be a biologist and an ecologist, does not realise that on purely theoretical grounds insects cannot be eradicated by waging chemical warfare against them. It is no coincidence that WHO’s anti-malaria campaign is proving to have provided but a very short respite against this disease. To begin with the mosquitoes must eventually develop resistance to DDT or whatever pesticide is used.
Thus in California, according to the National Academy of Sciences, “Encephalitis transmitting mosquitoes have become resistant to virtually all insecticides used for killing larvae.” Spraying against malaria also prevents re-infection and thereby reduces the natural protection people build up against this disease. This means that when the disease strikes again, which it must do, as spraying will not kill every individual mosquito, it will inevitably he very much more crippling. This has been evident for a very long time, as Taghi Farvar writes,
“The resurgence of malaria after a temporary halt in its transmission can entail great risk for the population involved. For example, 150,000 people died in Ethiopia in 1962 when malaria caused by Plasmodium falciparum returned after a two year interruption. The disease had been essentially non-lethal prior to 1960 due to the natural immunity of the population. This kind of immunity exists in most chronically exposed populations as a defence mechanism, which is a response to a constant parasitic challenge. A year or two without the occurrence of re-infection is sufficient to destroy the immunity. Attempts at chemical eradication of the mosquitoes temporarily decreased the transmission of malaria but at the cost of the natural immunity of the populace.”
Once we start spraying we simply have to continue and if we ever lack the capital, the energy or any other resources for so doing, then mortality will radically increase until such time as natural controls can build up again. For a combination of all these reasons, malaria has recently staged a dramatic comeback and millions of people are now dying from it in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, many of whom would have been only slightly affected were it not for our pesticide spraying programmes.
In fact it is true to say that anti-malaria spraying has, in the long run, benefited pesticide manufacturers, bureaucrats and pesticide scientists at the expense of the indigenous populations in the countries where these programmes have been carried out.
According to Mellanby, opposition by environmentalists to the use of DDT has been a disaster and has simply led to the use of very much more dangerous pesticides such as palathion – it does not occur to him that environmentalists are equally opposed to the use of palathion. In fact his statement illustrates an essential point: environmentalists should not direct their attacks on a specific pesticide, but on families of pesticides, such as the chlorinated-hydrocarbons or the organophosphates – otherwise it is like fighting a multi-headed gorgon. Cut off one head and others that are even more monstrous instantly appear to replace it.
Mellanby’s infatuation with DDT is only rivalled by his faith in Paraquat. In an article in Nature (Vol. 269, 27 October 1977) he advocates replacing ploughing by direct drilling and spraying with this incredibly toxic herbicide. He assures us that
“This will make the soil healthier and support a richer soil fauna. This is the basis of a healthy agriculture and a healthy countryside. We, the conservationists [incredibly, he regards himself as such], must now find how to encourage wildlife in this milieu.”
To understand the enormity of what he is saying, we must realise that Paraquat is so toxic that it suffices for a single drop to enter someone’s mouth to assure his rapid and extremely painful demise. Yet Mellanby tries to persuade us that it must be sprayed in a routine manner, year after year, and that it can provide a milieu for our wildlife and a basis for a healthy agriculture and a healthy countryside. His advocacy of the use of Paraquat sometimes borders on the comical.
Thus one of his arguments is that direct drilling and spraying with paraquat, must “save more fuel than is used in making the pound or so of chemical applied to the land”. Perhaps so. But if he is so interested in saving energy why does he insist, so vehemently, on the maintenance of our capital-intensive agricultural system? Is he only interested in saving energy when to do so promotes in some way, the interests of agri-business?Back to top
A clue to his paradoxical behaviour has recently been provided by his tour of Australia. This was paid for by the Association of Regional Parks and Countryside Commissions of Australia (ARPCCA), a front-organisation for grazier interests.
The Association’s research officer is Oliver Moriarty, a well known champion of graziers who are pressing for the opening up of Kosciusko National Park for the grazing of sheep and cattle. Niel Bennell, its President, is a grazier and the owner of Tom Groggin station on the Upper Murray River, adjoining the Park.
Mellanby went all out to make sure that his sponsors got their money’s worth. The preservation of wilderness in Australia, he told his audience, was an “elitist” concept. People who wanted wilderness recreation should go to the desert. National Parks in Australia were based on an old-fashioned idea that had proved a failure in Europe. Extreme conservationist views were often counterproductive and resulted in hysteria and consequent overkill.
He attacked the “obsession with wilderness” found among conservationists in Australia. The claimed value of wilderness areas, he said, apart from their conservation value, was just prejudice and if people wanted them they should raise their own money and buy them. The Australian Forestry Commission, he declared, had “developed the best types of conservation and nothing would be achieved by transferring large forest areas to National Parks”.
Particularly interesting is the extent to which he was willing, as usual, to contradict himself in his efforts to satisfy his sponsors. One of the arguments he uses for justifying the grazing of National Parks was that
“millions of people in the world were dying of starvation . . . the capacity of the world to produce enough food would be injured by the short-sighted policy in Australia, which by including productive areas in National Parks, was reducing the world food production potential.”
Of course, as Mellanby knows only too well, the hundreds of millions of people in the world who suffer from malnutrition cannot afford to eat meat of any kind let alone that derived from animals that might be allowed to graze in the Kosciusko National Park, which will only be eaten by the already overfed inhabitants of the rich industrialised countries.
On the contrary, it is by maintaining too large a livestock population that must be fed on cereals and fish-meal that would otherwise be available for human consumption, that we are fostering malnutrition and starvation in the Third World.
Mellanby recognises this. As he recently wrote, “We know that if all the world’s food were distributed equitably and if none were fed wastefully to livestock there need be little hunger and no starvation for even twice the present world population” – though here he may be going too far.
If little can be gained by grazing Kosciusko National Parks, much can be lost. Only one to two percent of New South Wales still in a wilderness condition: why should society destroy these remnants for the benefit of a handful of people? Why too, one might ask, should an eminent scientist who calls himself an ecologist and a conservationist advocate that it should?
Why too should such a person so fervently advocate the use of artificial fertilisers, the spraying of DDT, Paraquat and other poisons on our crops, the uprooting of hedgerows and all the other practices associated with modern-intensive agriculture, all of which must so drastically violate basic, ecological principles with which he must surely be conversant?
What, in fact, makes Kenny run?Back to top
Kenneth Mellanby responds
Dear Edward Goldsmith,
You ask me (The Ecologist May 1978, p.77) what, is fact, makes Kenny run? I can answer you in two words – The Truth.
I have looked at the available evidence regarding fertilisers, energy and agriculture, pesticides, hedgerows and other subjects. In some cases I have done research on these problems myself, in some I have directed the research of colleagues. As any research worker would expect, the results have not always been those expected, or those which support many dearly-held beliefs. My views have always been based on my sincere judgement of the evidence available.
Often the situation has been found to be very complicated, when I have tried to give all sides – what you call a “mass of contradictions”. I do not believe in any dogma, even in what are called “basic ecological principles” when these are not supported by facts. I do not try to believe three impossible things before breakfast. I commend you for your faith – I even expect you to believe that “diversity produces stability” and not to be discouraged when observations sometimes show that it does not.
Incidentally, I have never before, to my knowledge, been called “Kenny”. I do not like this form of address, preferring my name to be used in full.
The debate continues . . . see “Mellanby versus theory and fact“.Back to top