Thursday, September 11, 2014

AGree agricultural policy initiative releases five point-of-view papers on conservation policy

The AGree agricultural policy initiative today released five point-of-view papers related to productivity, profitability, and environmental outcomes.

The papers represent the diverse views of the authors, but one general theme is to encourage decentralized decision-making through which farmers and ranchers can address key environmental constraints, such as stewarding limited water quantity and protecting water quality.

For example, Kristin Weeks Duncanson, Jim Moseley, and Fred Yoder (.pdf) propose using local boards "to cooperatively establish and advance long-term productivity and conservation goals for their watersheds through engagement and support of producers and landowners and guided by sound science."

At their best, decentralized responses to environmental problems can have major advantages. Elinor Ostrom won a Nobel prize in economics for analyzing the ways that community-based decisions can in some cases address problems of the commons. At their weakest, decentralized responses may be insufficiently bold and comprehensive.

In AGree's press release this morning, Gary Hirshberg, an AGree Co-Chair and Chairman of Stonyfield Farm, describes the papers as a product of long discussion and a foundation perhaps for greater accomplishments in the future: “These papers reflect the intense deliberation that has gone into developing consensus recommendations and strategies,” he said. “To keep up with a changing climate, shrinking water supplies, shifting dietary preferences, and growing populations it is clear that we need system-wide change. AGree has focused on how new partnerships, innovative ways of working together, and targeted policy change can build trust and lay the foundation for a more sustainable future.”

Because the emphasis on decentralized approaches may not be matched yet with broader regulatory or tax-based responses to problems such as pollution, or property rights reforms to address water quantity, environmentalist readers of the five new papers may ask whether AGree fully acknowledges the determined national-level response that leading environmental challenges may require. I will be interested to hear which aspects of these five papers environmentalist readers find most daring, and which ones seem likely just to forestall or delay more vigorous initiatives.

In the paper by Duncanson, Mosely, and Yoder, I didn't yet get a strong sense of whether the local committees' work would add up in the end to quantifiable aggregate improvements, such as reduced total nutrient flow to the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Erie, and the Chesapeake. Perhaps one thing that could be added to their admirable decentralized vision is some mechanism for setting ambitious higher-level targets and getting buy-in from each local and regional board to do its part.

[I have been serving on AGree's research committee, where I've volunteered principally not on conservation but on a parallel discussion about nutrition policy. Of course, AGree is not responsible for my views here, nor vice versa.]

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