18 Dec

2013 sustainable food economics

My colleague and coauthor, Rachael Dettmann Spiegel, pointed out the Forbes article titled “Is organic agriculture affluent narcissism?” This type of article clearly illuminates the intensity in the agricultural community over organic production systems. That said, I (and Rachael) often wonder about the necessity for bashing any production system – organic or conventional. Both systems provide benefits and costs for society, and there is no clear winner when comparing the two. Thus it requires a high level of arrogance (in my opinion) to claim superiority of one over the other.
The Forbes article starts off with comment that many people buy organic food to avoid pesticide residues. According to the most recent Organic Trade Association consumer survey, 48 percent of those who buy organic do so because it is “healthier” while 30 percent do so to avoid toxic pesticides and fertilizers.  What is not clear is whether avoiding pesticides and fertilizers is equivalent to avoiding pesticide residues. A  review of the academic literature indicates that self-interest is the primary factor for purchasing organic food.
Along this line of thinking, there is a great deal of consumer confusion about the actual meaning of “organic.” In fact, this confusion created an opportunity for fraud, and that was one factor that led to the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.  The article’s statement: “Ironically, the designation “organic” is itself a synthetic construct of bureaucrats that makes little cooboo loans sense” is just incorrect. If you read the hearings for the Act, uncontained loans and study the legislative history, it is clear that those involved were not a bunch of bureaucrats engaged in nonsensical activity. The system was intended to maintain organic integrity and to be flexible; it might not be perfect, but I think the statement of little sense is unfair.
Other studies pointed to are: the Stanford study (a meta analysis of existing studies) that finds that organic food is not “more nutritious,” a blog entry on the Scientific American saying that all pesticides are poisonous, and a review piece (of environmental benefits) in the Journal of Environmental Management.
This is my first reading of the environmental benefit article: since organic’s main contribution is its lower negative impact on the agroecosystem, I was curious to read the findings of the meta-analysis. First, the authors find that per unit of farmland, organic production systems were definitely nasial loans better than conventional systems. The authors point to the fact that organic farms have lower yields (in general), which can outweigh the positive effects of farming when you consider the net effect on a total quantity of production (after all, we eat food and not land!). They conclude that there is no superior method of farming, and the optimal farming system will be cleavability loans location specific.
Still, all of the potential benefits of organic agriculture include: increased biodiversity, lower levels of water pollution, significantly higher soil quality, higher levels of ecosystem services and the potential for mitigation of climate change. No single study has examined how organic production systems influence all of these environmental factors. A confounding problem, as well, is how to measure ecosystem services, soil quality, biodiversity, and so on. Simple bornites loans concepts lacking simple measurement procedures — that makes research difficult to conduct and makes comparing studies using different measures very difficult.
The yield question is still open though: Despite Liebhart’s work indicating that organic yields are at least as good as conventional yields, later research doesn’t support that claim. I don’t offishness loans think the question is completely addressed though, because organic systems are more resilient than conventional systems.  In addition, crops are rotated and organic farms are more likely to be diversified. This leads me to wonder if our current metric is accurate: what is the yield per acre. Or should we be measuring land productivity differently — using a metric that allows us to incorporate intertemporal measures of productivity (maybe a composite of average yields plus a measure of variability) as well as crop diversity.
I’d like to see the organic vs conventional debate put to rest. Parties on both sides of the fence are guilty of making accusations based on emotion, with each side seeking to claim victory. What is the point of bashing consumers (for being too rich and too silly), farmers (for not being adequate stewards of the land), and so on? Ideally, on a national or global scale, we’d have many different types of farming systems (some industrial, some agroecologic, some organic, and so on) and all would make use of best farming practices.
After all, we all share this planet. Our descendents will need to eat food that is produced on the same land we walk today. Let’s put down the arms and start thinking about preserving land quality and a healthy food supply for all, not just for today but for tomorrow as well.

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