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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