I can’t, as of this writing, make some sort of general pronouncement on organic food. I believe the science is not entirely settled on many of the issues, but it seems likely that some of the “scares” or concerns about what is in our food may have some basis in fact, while others are alarmist scaremongering. Unsatisfying? Perhaps, but as a firm believer in rational, fact-based decision making, sometimes the real world is a murky place. A recent study
showed an apparently striking link between the rate of twins and consuming dairy products from cows given synthetic growth hormone. That certainly got my attention, and I’m inclined to at least think about organic dairy products, although it still might be only a narrow effect, perhaps people who aren’t women about to be pregnant don’t need to worry about this. But then again, this is just one hormone, and perhaps we should be worried about all the other stuff in our food (or potentially in it). I think the case is a lot less clear in the case of trace amounts of pesticides and herbicides, for example. They may or may not act as endocrine disruptors in humans, which could be serious indeed, if true. An editorial by Michael Pollan
in the New York Times cites alarming evidence about a particular herbicide, atrazine, which appears to cause sexual deformities in male frogs. But then, amphibian sex determination is dramatically different from that in humans and other mammals, so should we be alarmed? I think we should definitely be alarmed—at least for the frogs! I think a clear and dramatic effect on wild fauna like this is a significant environmental impact which should be assessed and (probably) mitigated or eliminated. But as to whether it is messing with human sex determination, the jury’s still out.
But Pollan writes about this issue in article about Wal-Mart’s decision to get into the organic food business, surely a good thing, if you believe in organic food, no? No, apparently not. Apparently the content of the food you eat should not be sufficient to qualify as “organic,” it must also be produced with minimal efficiency. Pollan, like many “environmentalists,” exhibits a fetish for inefficiency. “Organic” farms should necessarily be small farms, family owned and operated, producing small crop yields with much labor (loving though it may be), and the output to be sold locally at premium prices. Wal-Mart will accelerate the trend for organic farms away from this (already outdated) model to large scale production techniques. But of course farm size, ownership, and labor practices have no direct bearing on what is actually in the food. Mr. Pollan finds this to be some sort of an outrage, but if I buy organic food, I’m concerned about whether pesticide residues, trace hormones, antibiotics, etc. are potentially screwing with my body (or my children’s bodies), not whether it was hand-picked and packed by a fifth-generation farmhand (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). While Pollan and his ideological brethren are apparently up in arms about how the term “organic” is being “corrupted” or “hijacked,” I would contend that they are attempting the hijacking. This more expansive definition of “organic” is actually incorporating concepts better captured by the “fair trade” labeling scheme. Of course, Tim Harford, the Undercover Economist
, exposed how “fair trade” is much more a marketing scheme rip-off than a real way to help developing world farmers, but if that’s your preference, have at it! “Organic” as labeled by the government, primarily concerns the substances in or on the food, and that’s appropriate.
No, apparently “cheap food” is an abomination in itself. Honestly, this is no exaggeration, it is explicitly built into Pollan’s argument. He writes:
As the organic movement has long maintained, cheap industrial food is cheap only because the real costs of producing it are not reflected in the price at the checkout. Rather, those costs are charged to the environment, in the form of soil depletion and pollution (industrial agriculture is now our biggest polluter); to the public purse, in the form of subsidies to conventional commodity farmers; to the public health, in the form of an epidemic of diabetes and obesity that is expected to cost the economy more than $100 billion per year
Here we have the classic “conflation” problem in spades. Is “cheap” food artificially cheap for failing to account for environmental impacts associated with conventional agriculture? Absolutely, this is one of those areas where environmental economics has some valuable things to say. Solutions to this problem involve capturing these “externalities” and thereby “internalizing” them. Allowing agricultural pesticide and fertilizer runoff to impact the environment imposes costs on those downstream and artificially subsidizes the cost of the food produced. So we should fix the problem by imposing the true costs onto the food producers, who will in turn, pass them on to the consumers. Similarly, do agricultural subsidies force taxpayers to subsidize giant agri-business concerns? Yep. Once again, this is right on the money. I’ve railed against these subsidies in this space before. A couple of great points and we’re on the same page.
But then we hit the part where obesity and diabetes are the “fault” of cheap food. Let’s be absolutely clear about this argument: food should cost more so that people will eat less and be healthier. Say what? For the great span of human history, people struggled to put food on the table. Famine was a pernicious plague that stalked the planet, following droughts, floods, wars and other humanitarian disasters. Now, we have at long last conquered famine because of modern agriculture. It is an indisputable fact that we can feed the world today, and in recent decades. Modern famines result from political and social failures, not globally inadequate food supply. I am not saying that obesity and diabetes are not real problems for American society, these problems are also indisputable. But to suggest that the solution is to make food more expensive by making food production less efficient is either ideological nuttiness or pathological stupidity, perhaps both. Raising the price you have to pay for the exact same item has a name: It’s called “inflation” and it increases poverty, human misery, and environmental degradation, especially when you are talking about the basic necessities of life, like food.
Efficiency and environmentalism are allies, not enemies. Productivity follows from efficiency: a way of getting more value out of the same amount of resources. Thus efficiency, and this point cannot be stressed enough, is generally to be embraced and not rejected, if you care about the environment and the human condition, which are inextricably intertwined, after all. Therefore it is not a given that a great expansion of the organic food supply would be “an unambiguous good for the world’s environment,” as Pollan would have it. Tradeoffs are inherent in every decision, and while a vast expansion of organic farming will lead to reduced pesticide and fertilizer usage, the total acreage under cultivation will undergo, well, a vast expansion. Organic production is less efficient by its nature than conventional modern agriculture, more produce is lost to insects without pesticides and yields are lower without industrial fertilizers, so you must put more acres under the plow to feed the same number of people. This land doesn’t come from nowhere! Does Mr. Pollan believe that Wal-Marts and strip malls are being demolished for organic farmland? Think again. Increased agricultural acreage come overwhelmingly from one source: currently undeveloped land. This means more natural habitat destruction and pressure on existing ecosystems.
This is not to say that organic farming is necessarily the wrong decision, environmentally. But to assert baldly that it is an “unambiguous good” is facile and specious. There are tradeoffs and uncertainties in the real world; that’s kind of the definition of “ambiguous” isn’t it? Organic farming is not a magic wand that produces environmental “goodness” free of charge.