The Agricultural Equivalent Of "just Say No"

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THE VINE MARCH 5, 2009

The Agricultural Equivalent Of "just Say No"

Can organic heirloom tomatoes really feed the world? That’s the
question Paul Roberts asks in a new article over at Mother Jones on the
scalability of organic and local agriculture. Roberts, the author of
The End Of Food, is no fan of modern industrial agriculture, but he also questions whether small-scale organic farming, as practiced today, will
ever be able to replace it. For one thing, organic
agriculture requires a lot more labor than conventional farming, which
means that it would prove difficult to practice on a large scale while the
world’s population continues to urbanize. More
importantly, abandoning chemical fertilizers—which increase per-acre
productivity—would require, in turn, a radical expansion of the amount of land
under cultivation around the world, a move that could have disastrous
environmental consequences.

Roberts would surely agree we need to reduce the use of agricultural chemicals—which rely on dwindling supplies of phosphorous and have been linked to all manner of social ills, from "dead zones" in the ocean to cancer. But he argues that we should be willing to entertain the idea of sustainable agriculture that isn’t necessarily all the way
organic. He tells the story of Fred Fleming, a Washington State wheat
farmer who had an ecological awakening and decided to adopt no-till
methods, which significantly reduce erosion. The tradeoff is that, in
order to control weeds without tilling, Fleming has to occasionally apply
Roundup, the Monsanto herbicide. Unfortunately, these are the sorts of
tradeoffs that many environmentally conscious consumers (and
sustainable-food activists) can’t bring themselves to stomach. Fleming
says that he got an icy reception at an alternative-agriculture
conference, and it’s difficult to find consumers willing to pay a
premium for non-organic food, even if it is more sustainable.

Reading about
Fleming’s troubles, I couldn’t help but think back to the DARE
anti-drug program that my classmates and I were forced to attend in
elementary and middle school. The basic message was that all drug use was
more or less equally bad, and that alcohol or pot would start you on an inexorable slide toward hard drugs, prison, and, eventually, death.
Similarly, the message that the organic-farming movement tends to convey to the general public (even though many individual organic farmers are
considerably more nuanced in their views) is that all agricultural
chemicals are equally bad—hurting the consumer, destroying ecosystems,
and putting farmworkers at risk. Surely, though, there are more responsible and less responsible ways to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides, just
as there are responsible and irresponsible ways to drink. Perhaps the goal of the
sustainable-food movement shouldn't be the outright prohibition of agricultural
chemicals, but rather the promotion of
responsible chemical use.

From a policy perspective, the best
way to deal with products—like cigarettes or booze—that can’t and
shouldn’t be prohibited but do impose costs on society is through
Pigovian taxes that include these social costs in the price of the
product. Roundup shouldn’t be banned, but its price should
reflect the damage it can cause to the environment. If all pesticides
and fertilizers were taxed according to the environmental and health
risks they create, the result would be a shift away from industrial
farming and toward a more sustainable—though not fully
organic—agricultural system. And if it ever became truly comprehensive,
a system of Pigovian taxes on pesticides and fertilizers would, when
combined with a price on carbon, make it much easier to answer the
ever-vexing question of what food choices to make in order to minimize one's ecological footprint—just buy whatever’s cheapest.

--Rob Inglis

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