20 June 2013

Sustainable farming or political pork?

[NB: I wrote this 6 months ago, but it is still relevant...]

I got pulled into a lively discussion about sustainable meat production between some professors and students at my university, and here's what I told them:
I'm glad that this debate is occurring at WUR, with its world-class reputation on agricultural research (I graduated at a "sister" school, UC Davis and spent two years at UC Berkeley before coming to WUR).

While it's true that we're on track for 9-10 billion people on the planet, and it's also true that people with more money demand more meat (a positive income elasticity), it's also NOT true that there is a 1:1:1 relationship between population, meat consumption and sustainability.

I am writing from Kapit in Malaysian Borneo, and many people were eating meat in the market last night. The important point is that they were eating small portions -- relative to the Dutch and CERTAINLY relative to the Americans. That's because people eat less meat when it's expensive.

So both sides of this debate have valid points, and they can be reconciled by paying attention to the price of meat, and the way that higher prices reduce the quantity of meat demanded (a negative price elasticity).

So here's where I come in, as an environmental economist who supports free markets and free decisions. (I was also a vegetarian for 16 years, but now I'm not.)

The price of meat should reflect the total cost of its sustainable production. That means that Dutch (and Danish) farmers should change their practices to reduce water pollution (a.o. pollutions). That means that the appropriate "scale" of production may fall, as it's quite expensive to operate CAFOs that do not pollute and cheaper to run medium-scale combined food/livestock farms. That ALSO means that Dutch, American and other farmers are going to "lose' exports to cheaper (perhaps less sustainable) competition, since their meat will cost more, and that people will eat less meat in general.

So what we need to decide is this: Are we going to promote policies in the EU and abroad (EU foreign and technical aid has SIGNIFICANT impacts on agricultural practices abroad), or are we going to promote sustainable agricultural and livestock practices that will raise prices in the short run, but ensure long run sustainability for farmers, consumers and citizens (in their businesses, eating and environment, respectively)?

I certainly hope for the latter, and I certainly hope that people at WUR promote those goals, instead of the unsustainable export of meat products that make short run profits for industrial farmers while leaving the costs of their waste and pollution on their neighbors and our children.
Speaking of industrial farmers, I've gathered a few links in support of my feeling that small-scale farming (less than 500ha) is more sustainable and economic:
The relevant issue with scale is the fact that management capacity cannot take on too many acres (or plants), so larger farmers grow monocrops that are easier to manage but riskier in terms of returns and harmful for the environment (mostly via use of pesticides and fertilizers). At the other extreme, you can see how a small-scale farmer cannot afford a tractor that gives large-scale farmers cost advantages. That problem is true, but most of those "capital" arguments can be reduced by clubbing together in cooperatives.

Bottom Line: We get sustainability when we correctly price resources and costs. Such pricing -- especially in a new reality of climate change risk to crops -- makes small-scale cooperative farming a better choice for economic, social and environmental outcomes. Now let's see if the EU/US politicians can consider that before handing out more subsidies to mega-farmers who harvest only cash.

H/Ts to WB and ER


  1. That ISIS "research" would never pass peer review. There are far too many variables in varietal differences to make any accurate correlation between water consumption and a GM trait. Different varieties have different yields and water needs, and nothing in the ISIS report shows that GM traits have anything to do with it. In fact, GM technology has great promise for drought resistance, as well as for making plants that can be irrigated with low quality salty water.
    Good points about meat. The grain fed systems we use are unhealthy for animals, the environment, and us. Alfalfa is an important component of moving to a more sustainable "grass fed" system, BTW.

  2. @Kurtz - I agree, but I think that some farmers go overboard planing GMOs selected for yield. I suppose the same problem can apply to conventional varieties that are monocropped, so maybe we're back to small scale (or large farms operated on small scale).

  3. So far, none of the traits introduced by GM involve yield directly: they have been for pest resistance and herbicide tolerance. A variety of alfalfa that GM has much more digestible for cows is close to release.
    Farmers select varieties partly for yield, but consider many other factors such as pest resistance, time to maturity, heat or frost tolerance, and in particular crop quality (protein, milling quality, sugar content, etc.) It is axiomatic that higher plant productivity generally requires higher input of fertilizer and water, since there is no magic source of invisible matter to make up the food we haul off the field. It is conceivable that GM techniques could produce more crops that fixed their own nitrogen, or which could be changed from C-3 to use C-4 photosynthesis. This would have hugely beneficial environmental consequences, but is a pipe-dream at best right now.
    If Monsanto had any sense, they would have come out with a GM cannabis that looked like a rose bush. The opposition would have melted away overnight.


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