Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Returns to scale in organic and local agriculture

At the third annual graduate student research conference organized by Friedman School students this past weekend, I moderated a session with three fascinating presentations by Robert Paarlberg, Susan Roberts, and Mark Winne.

Paarlberg praised the environmental potential of new "precision farming" technologies in conventional agriculture. He recommended targeted commercial pesticide applications and GMOs over organic agriculture. He argued that the alternative good food movement's emphasis on older food and farming traditions cause the movement to overlook the new industrial technologies that could really make a bigger difference for the environment.

One of his punchiest claims was that organic and local agriculture hinders the adoption of new pro-environmental technologies by preventing farmers from reaching adequate scale. Yet, when pressed, he agreed that most high-technology agriculture in the United States is conducted by farms with a scale of several hundred thousand dollars to a couple million dollars in sales. This is larger than your neighborhood CSA but not really very big from the perspective of most U.S. industries. Certainly, even within a particular small regional foodshed such as New England, there is room in the market for many competitive producers on this scale. Similarly, the federal government's organic labeling standard allows farmers of all scales to be organic.

Reflecting on Paarlberg's presentation, I could not see how local and organic agriculture really threatened most of the environmental farming technologies that Paarlberg finds most promising (GMOs, prohibited in the organic rule, are an exception that requires more discussion than time permits). Paarlberg's argument raises the question of whether organic and local food advocates can accept mid-sized family farms along with small farms as part of their sector. From advocates I have spoken with, I think the answer is "no problem."

For example, see Bob Comis at Ethicurean yesterday, discussing the need for moderately larger scale in progressive meat and poultry production, to make good meat more competitive with factory farm meat. Or, consider Kathleen Merrigan's eloquent response to tough questions from Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) at her Senate confirmation hearing today, explaining how she can advocate for sustainable agriculture and what Saxby called "production agriculture" at the same time (I'll add a link to a transcript later when it becomes available).

Mid-scale local production preserves most, though not all, of the advantages of small-scale local production. And mid-scale production lowers costs and helps the local food movement overcome skepticism about its relevance to consumers of all income levels.

Saxby sees organic agriculture and production agriculture as enemies. Instead, why can't local and organic agriculture can be production agriculture?


SarahB said...

I caught the live video right in the middle of Chambliss's remarks encouraging Kathleen to think about "production agriculture." As if what organic ag produces is too small to be considered "production"? And what about big organic companies like Horizon, Organic Valley, and Earthbound Organics that have their products in most major grocery stores in the country?

Jesse Appelman said...

Will the archived video of Kathleen Merrigan's testimony be available online? I'd be very interested to see it.

usfoodpolicy said...

Does the link in the right sidebar of the Senate Ag website work already?

Aliza said...

Sarah, I think they actually have certain things in mind when they use the term "production agriculture," like commodity crop agriculture on base acres, though I'm not 100% sure. Kind of like how everything else is "specialty" crops.

Wayne Johnson said...

Unbelievable that these so called experts are out there touting the benefits of Pesticides and GMO's...Sounds to me like they are getting a little worried of the, how did he put it "Organic Movement". What they are afraid of and why they are getting out there spouting there nonsense about pesticides and GMO's being perfectly safe and better for you is because they are loosing. They are loosing there foothold and loosing control, more people are starting to wake up and be mindful of what they put into there bodies. How can a pesticide be good for you when it is designed to shut down you central nervous system? How do you think it kills the bugs? How can GMO crops be better for the environment when they are in there very nature an abomination of Nature itself! When you take a seed and modify it at a DNA level you are changing nature itself. How can that be better for the Earth? When you start messy around with mother nature she will strike back and we are seeing this in the GMO crops Dr. Don Hubber "Monsanto Crops With Aids-Like Virus". Support your local CSA and continue to be good to your body by eating an Organic Diet......