This week a new paper entitled Leverage Points for Improving Global Food Security and the Environment was published in the journal Science. (Science Daily summary)
The authors focus on the 17 major crops that account for the vast majority of calories produced and consumed, inputs used and environmental impacts from agriculture. The heavy hitters, no surprises. Corn, wheat, rice and cotton. The big impacts that they focus on are water use; carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and methane pollution of air and water, and tropical deforestation. The major points of leverage included switching from crops for meat production to crops for human consumption, better irrigation, closing the massive yield gap in countries with low performing agriculture, reducing food waste (especially meat waste) and improving the precision use of inputs like nitrogen and water in countries where overuse is the biggest problem.
Two things might surprise folks who get their sustainable ag news from urban reporters and not from academics. The first is that the percentages of over use of inputs in the US are fairly low, while our impact is large, not because our farmers are out of control, but rather that we produce so much freaking food that a few percentage points of over use is a big impact relative to the production in other countries.
The second is the absence of even a mention of pesticides as a major environmental impact anywhere in the paper. Why is this? Because, while pesticides remain a labor issue for farm workers, especially in developing countries, they have improved so much in their mode of action and use in the last half century that they really don’t rate as a major environmental impact, at least in comparison to the big foot issues raised in this paper.
The salience of pesticides as an environmental impact doesn’t come from the size of their effect on the environment, but rather on their psychological impacts. It’s better understood by run of the mill chemophobia. Just as we are more afraid of shark attacks than slipping in the shower, pesticides as poisons or carcinogens have a much greater grip on the public imagination than unsequestered carbon, gulf deadzones, or methane pollution. Tropical deforestation may be the biggest agricultural impact, but there aren’t many mommy bloggers wondering about how it could affect their kids health. As Steve Savage has explained, neither the ag companies that have improved their products nor the environmental groups that have pushed for improvements have much incentive to publicize the changes, so they go unheralded.
The other reason that it has great salience for the general public is because it is the main political football in the culture war between organic and so-called conventional agriculture. Pesticide use, while not absent from organic farming, is the most visible and highly touted difference that sets organic apart. On issues like carbon, methane, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, organic doesn’t have much to brag about. When it comes to the yield gap, it’s organic that has some splainin’ to do. Thus, a big to-do is made about synthetic pesticides, despite their relatively minor environmental impacts.
There is more to look at in this paper, but the absence of pesticides as a major environmental impact was the first thing that popped out at me.
Last week, NPR had a fine, short piece on the disconnect between consumer’s very real observations of rising food prices and economist’s less than comforting assertions about low inflation.
Economists track inflation through the Consumer Price Index which looks at a basket of goods that tend to have stable prices to screen out volatility. At 2.1 percent it is currently well below the historic average of 3.2 percent. This is the rate for things like TVs, phones and refrigerators. What it doesn’t look at is two of the categories that consumers are the most sensitive to: food and fuel.
Marilyn Geewax does a fine job explaining why food costs are up well above the 2.1 percent rate of inflation, namely the impact of three years of drought on cattle stocks and the PED virus that has been worrying the nation’s pork supply.
I think, however that a finer point needs to be put on the matter. Inflation is a very specific term for economists and it is a form of rising prices, but it is not synonymous with rising prices and that is something that is not very well understood. In fact, I know people with degrees in economics that can’t seem to keep the difference between inflation and rising costs straight. What economists are looking at when they look at inflation is signs of ‘too much money chasing too few goods’. It’s a money supply problem. Too much money in circulation, interest rates too low, employment levels too high, factors like that. What it isn’t is a measure of increased costs and stresses in supply chains. Three years of drought reducing winnowing cattle stocks. Natural gas shipments displacing grain shipments in Canada. The PED virus cutting pork stocks. Those are all reasons that food and fuel costs can go up, but they don’t constitute inflation.
Go back to the two posts we did on the price of oats coming from Canada. I looked at the impact of a tough winter and Canadian oat farmer Ron Rein explained the impact of rail policy in Canada. It was stresses in the supply chain that were causing oat prices to rise, not inflation. Cold comfort, but worth understanding the difference. If only so that you don’t throw your cereal bowl at the radio when they announce that inflation is still low. You wouldn’t want to waste that milk. It’s getting expensive.
If you aren’t addressing the underlying economics and shaping the market through policy, you are swimming upstream at best. Some might say pissing in the wind.
According to Mr Sylla’s calculations, for each dollar paid by an American consumer for a fair-trade product, only three cents more are transferred to the country it came from than for the unlabelled alternative.