Monday, December 11, 2006

Nonsense from the Economist: "Buy organic, destroy the rainforest"

The December 7 Economist claims that Fair Trade principles, organic agriculture, and local food are actually bad for the environment. As alternatives to these market-based movements, the magazine recommends political action to support government responses such as carbon taxes and abolishing subsidies.

I won't criticize carbon taxes or praise subsidies here, but I do think the respected magazine overstated its case and failed to achieve its own typically astute market-centered and yet progressive policy insight.

Let's take a passage on just one of the three issues:
Buy organic, destroy the rainforest. Organic food, which is grown without man-made pesticides and fertilisers, is generally assumed to be more environmentally friendly than conventional intensive farming, which is heavily reliant on chemical inputs. But it all depends what you mean by “environmentally friendly”. Farming is inherently bad for the environment: since humans took it up around 11,000 years ago, the result has been deforestation on a massive scale. But following the “green revolution” of the 1960s greater use of chemical fertiliser has tripled grain yields with very little increase in the area of land under cultivation. Organic methods, which rely on crop rotation, manure and compost in place of fertiliser, are far less intensive. So producing the world's current agricultural output organically would require several times as much land as is currently cultivated. There wouldn't be much room left for the rainforest.
This is quite misleading. First, the journal must argue the case not just that organic agriculture is less efficient with respect to total inputs, which I find plausible, but less efficient with respect to land. Typically, organic agriculture involves more intensive labor and management inputs, which offset less intensive chemical inputs. The Economist should mention a source for the claim that organic agriculture is less efficient per acre. Until they do, I doubt it.

Second, it is quite an omission to claim that organic agriculture's (unproven) land inefficiencies will harm rainforests, without mentioning that growing feed grain for meat is vastly more wasteful. A typical contemporary post-hippy suburbanite's granola diet -- organic food and smaller amounts, if any, of animal products -- is not the cause of deforestation.

[Hat tip to Dr. Vino.]

16 comments:

Mark said...

"Organic agriculture involves more intensive labor and management inputs.

Wouldn't you need to allocate the cost to the environment of the lifestyle of each of these people and the family members that they support, in an ever increasing domino effect? Even if they all eat organic food their organic food needs to come from acreage somewhere.

I think some sort of middle way is probably best -- sort of like USDA "organic" milk is now.

I personally am more concerned with getting fresh, good tasting produce than with getting produce grown without pesticides and chemical fertilizer. This comes more down to getting it locally so it can be picked later and doesn't need to be some sort of bruiseproof hybrid.

Stacy said...

I suspect their source was Dennis Avery, with the Hudson Institute-- he's been spreading similar misinformation for years (20/20 did a show on organics featuring him in 1999 or 2000, and later had to retract much of the show because of innacuracies). I've seen Avery in a debate, in which he refused to provide research sources or any other information to back up his claims, or to disclose the funding for the Hudson Institute. Yet unfortunately, he's frequently quoted as an expert. Not dissimilar to the "pro carbon dioxide" group funded by various oil companies.

Jerry said...

What rainforest ever became farmland? It rains too much there.

The ability to produce food for people on the current land is so great that we must devote much of the land to growing food for cattle and hogs. If all the prime Iowa land went into carrots, beans, potatoes and tomatoes, their prices would crash. Animal agricultural soaks up the excess productive capacity.

So the Economist has unfairly denied our ability to "produc[e] the world's current agricultural output organically". The only reason we have this current production is because of the surplus of productive land. If all food were organic and if that took more land, we could get the land from the nearest corn field or wheat field, not the rainforest.

Lisa said...

I'm so glad to see you addressing this article. I just started to read my copy of this week's issue, and as soon as I read the article I thought of your blog. Thanks for providing good insight and rebuttal. Now, how about sending it in as a letter to the editor?

Lisa said...

PS One of the sources quoted is Norman Borlaug, outspoken advocate of the use of synthetic fertilizers, and honorary chair of the Center for Global Food Issues, a project of the Hudson Institute.

Dr. Vino said...

Rather than invoking something that has yet to happen, we can turn to this AP story from today for evidence of the impact of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides:

BELIZE CITY -- Fertilizer and sediment runoff from sugarcane, banana and pineapple plantations are threatening tourism by damaging a coral reef stretching along the Caribbean coasts of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras, according to a report released on Tuesday.

The report by the World Resources Institute and other groups said that reducing pesticides, fertilizers and erosion could help head off increasing damage to the world's second-largest barrier reef, which stretches over 600 miles.

Brian said...

I agree with what Jerry said. I live in the middle of the Congo rainforest and we don't grow 75% of the fruits and vegetables grown in moderate climates. It's too hot and rainy. I believe that the Economist was trying to be pointed and provocative, unfortunately this time they are wrong. I hope that this will spurn more discussion about harmful patterns in food policy, farming practice/economics and consumption.

Anonymous said...

Who buys organics? Why pay more for food that's no better than the less expensive varieties in the same produce section? This whole thing is just an outgrowth of increased inventory management methods and Starbuck-style produce marketing. Someone looked at the numerous flavors of soft drinks that can be pushed through the same shelf space that used to accomodate just regular and diet, and then they decided to do the same to the produce section. All this fuss over organics, but no one is talking about the potatoes in plastic that taste oven baked even though they're microwaved. Saves an hour's worth of electricity in the oven and an hour's worth of time.

Bill Harshaw said...

Seems to me if organic were more efficient on a per acre basis it would be adopted much more rapidly than it has been. The Illinois Department of Agriculture reported, in 2006, Illinois farmers planted more acres using no-till methods than acres where conventional tillage methods were used. {From Agweb http://www.agweb.com/get_article.asp?pageid=133403&src=] That says to me that farmers will adopt new methods that are economically rewarding.

Anonymous said...

The problem I see with both the Economist article and your response to it is that neither accounts for the myriad variations in food production methods and consumer habits. Cutting down on animial products, for instance, is not the same as "organic agriculture," so I'm rather confused as to how that is in any way a refutation to the Economist's argument, instead of just another permutation. And neither brings up the overlap between the organic food movement and the anti-GMO movement; it has been and can be argued that GMOs allow agricultural producers to cut down on chemicals.

Overall, though, I'd say that the Economist has a good point: that consumers need to look much more closely into the policies and practices they're supporting before they can feel righteous about buying their "Fairtrade" coffee and such.

Mental Milly said...

Avery i a horible source for information regarding organics,composting,etc.

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