Is organic farming sustainable?

Paul Roberts has a very interesting and worthwhile discussion of sustainable farming over at Mother Jones. The key issue is:

  1. Organic farming uses a LOT more resources than normal farming;
  2. To call yourself organic and get that market recognition you need to be 100% organic;
  3. There is no market standard for recognising that a farmer is more sustainable or environmentally friendly than their rivals if they’re not organic.

I think that most consumers who buy organic are also the type of people who want to do the environmentally friendly thing. While organic farming may not be as polluting as farming with synthetic fertilizer it is much more resource intensive. So where’s the incentive for farmers to move towards less resource hungry AND more sustainable alternatives?

Becoming fully organic isn’t a long term solution because of the resource constraints we’d face. But becoming more environmentally friendly doesn’t appeal to consumers because there’s no certification or standard that allows retail shoppers to know who the ‘good guys’ are. Until there is some way for environmentally friendly farming practices to command a price premium in the supermarket it’s going to be hard to persuade farmers to change their ways.

ht: Matt Yglesias

  • The price is probably the best carrot but there are others – farmers who take water from the North Otago Irrigation Company scheme are required to have, and adhere to, environmental farm plans which are independently monitored.

    Some of us do the right thing just because it’s right, but if the right thing is more expensive and there’s no compensation for the extra expense in better returns then there’s a clash between what’s best economically and environmentally.

  • I think organic farming is sustainable. If we’re going to be just looking at less expenses while farming, then the time when the world isn’t green anymore is going to happen soon. 🙁

  • Pingback: How green can we grow? « Homepaddock()

  • StephenR

    Becoming fully organic isn’t a long term solution because of the resource constraints we’d face.

    You don’t mention the resource constraints associated with the production of fossil fuel based synthetic fertilisers though? Perhaps you assume technological advances as a response to price, but then I would wonder how/if this applies to oraganics as well…

  • @StephenR
    Hmmmm, I can’t say I know much about this so maybe that was a rash statement. I mentioned the resource limits to contrast the current level of organic technology with ‘normal’ farming technology. In the long term I have no idea about the potential of organic farming technology; however, I would guess that the incentive to develop it is far weaker than the incentive to develop better synthetic fertilisers.

    I’m sorry I can’t comment directly on your question, but I think we can all see that such organic technology is unlikely to eventuate unless something radically changes the way we farm.

  • StephenR

    Yeah i must say i most often hear of organic farming (from the Greens and the like) as being a long term solution because-of-the-resource-constraints-we-face. There are several studies around which prove/disprove organics as being higher yielding or having higher nutritional content too, very hard to make sense of it all. It looks like organics and its spin-offs have been around for long enough without ‘evolving’ that much, so I must say future technological improvements don’t seem particularly likely…

  • rainman

    Ahem. “‘normal’ farming technology” has been organic for millennia. It’s the high-chemical industrial monoculture bullsh*t that’s the aberration, aligned with the age of fossil fuels. As these decline, so too will it, in all likelihood.

    As to the “uses LOTS more resources” bit – well, duh! 🙂 Fossil-based fertilisers are highly concentrated, energy-wise, compared to horse/cow/sheep poop. So to get the equivalent productivity, you need more horses/cows/sheep, and these in turn need more land. Same logic applies to labour – dig weeds = more work than spray weeds.

    How did you think this worked?

    Roberts nails it though:
    “Many of the familiar models don’t work well on the scale required to feed billions of people.”
    and
    “Until we can make the market see all the costs of unsustainable farming, and until we learn how to temper its obsessive focus on ever greater efficiencies, market-driven sustainability will fail.”
    and
    “After all, industrial food is cheap not only because of the efficiencies of scale and technologies, but also because the industrial system is so good at ignoring, or externalizing, costs such as ecological degradation or poor nutrition or underpaid labor.”

    I’m not sure you captured the essence of his point in your summary above.

    A question: Why did the rise of industrialised agriculture work so well – and why is it (and we) now at risk, in the long-term. After all, the big industrial farmers were just playing by the rules of the market, using available resources and technology (and driving the little family farms off the land and into the cities…). This is a strategy that only makes sense if you assume that the technologies and resources that facilitate industrial farming will always be available, or will always improve.

    Which is like writing up a sub-prime liar loan and assuming the house price will always go up. And we know how that worked out.

  • @rainman
    Thanks for your comment. I tried to capture his point about the response to the problem rather than his description of the problem, so perhaps thats why reading my post didn’t match your reading of the article.

    I think the problem with agriculture is the same problem that we’re having in many fields now: that resource constraints are starting to become apparent as the quantity of human consumption continues to increase. Unfortunately there’s no individual incentive to avoid hitting those constraints for farmers. It’s much like a prisoner’s dilemma in which we need some intervention to move us to the co-operative equilibrium.

    Problems like that are why we started this blog: to discuss how appropriate government intervention can improve economic outcomes. As you say, some sort of regulation that internalises the waste of industrial farming would be a good start.

  • rainman

    Ah, I understand now. That is a key question. Appropriate government intervention is a thing we seem to struggle with around here, though.

    I suspect the problem will be solved by the market, regardless – if fossil fuel resource scarcity becomes acute fairly rapidly (I don’t know if it will, but it seems it might) and food prices go up, then we will get a strong signal to change agriculture… unfortunately not without hardship, but hey, that’s markets. Until we find out how to explicitly price in social and human well-being and ecosystem costs/benefits (not just through regulation), the market machinery will continue to maximise monetary gain over everything else.

    I hear there are problems with farmers getting loans to finance next season’s planting, so maybe it’s not just a physical resource scarcity issue.

  • @rainman
    I’m not sure that markets will ever price in social well-being that’s not experienced privately by market participants. You suggest that it really needs to be done absent of regulation, but I would posit that many markets wouldn’t exist without regulation.

    In a broad sense regulation can be interpreted to include the enforcement of property rights and contracts, which are fundamental to effective markets. To go further and intervene in the market doesn’t seem like a huge stretch to me.

    Furthermore, I can’t see any better resource allocation mechanisms on the horizon. I confess that I’m still very much in favour of markets with a benevolent dictator tinkering with the rules to increase efficiency. The problem is that the government doesn’t often look much like my vision of such a being 🙁

  • sry i just know how to write my name in arabic :)) anyway however in arabic when i read some thing like that i just say “raee” i donot know how to say it in english . thanks