Sustainability: not easy, necessary

March 9, 2009

Paul Roberts at Mother Jones describes some recent complications of “organic” and other farming practices billing themselves as sustainable:

Many of the familiar models don’t work well on the scale required to feed billions of people. Or they focus too narrowly on one issue (salad greens that are organic but picked by exploited workers). Or they work only in limited circumstances. (A $4 heirloom tomato is hardly going to save the world.)

Such problems aren’t exactly news. Organizations such as the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (which despite its namesake is a real leader in food reform) have long insisted that truly sustainable food must be not just ecologically benign, but also nutritious, produced without injustice, and affordable. And yet, because concepts like local or organic dominate the alternative food sector, there is little room left for alternative models, such as Fred Fleming’s, that might begin to bridge the gap between where our food system is today and where it needs to be.

The problem according to Roberts: farmers today are too busy complying with nearsighted “organic” standards, or pursuing pie-in-the-sky schemes (i.e., the eat-local movement) that wouldn’t work on a regional, let alone a global scale. If sustainability could be thought of as a good, then not enough of it is being produced – even by farmers who pledge allegiance to the idea.

Let sustainability mean the knowledge and practice of farming methods which could be sustained for longer than, or with a smaller draw on the environment than modern industrial farming. Why, despite a few innovators mentioned in the comment thread, has there not emerged from alternative farming a significant amount of sustainable farm-craft?

One way to think of the problem is to consider alternative farmers a sort of producers’ club for sustainability. In classic club theory (Wiki), a club good is one the consumption of which is non-rivalrous, but excludable. Put simply, anyone in the club can consume the good to a certain point, at which congestion occurs (imagine tearing down toll booths on a turnpike in high demand); but not everyone can or is allowed to be in the club.

First, a simpler application of club theory to environmental concerns. Zipcar is a company which lets city-dwellers share cars for annual dues plus usage charges. At the moment, Zipcar is reported to be working fairly well – the cars are clean, in good repair, and, most importantly, available on demand. But imagine if all the residents of a metropolitan area signed on to Zipcar. In the evening rush hour, not enough Zipcar cars could be physically parked at the city center to accommodate all the aspiring drivers. Hey presto – congestion.

Applying club theory to sustainability in farming is trickier than applying it to Zipcars. Zipcars are tangible, but sustainability is not – and whereas the definition of a Zipcar is straightforward, I am sure many advocates of sustainability would balk at my attempt to describe it. Nevertheless, there does seem to be a club-good scenario contributing to the “sustainability shortage.”

Consider all alternative farming – organic, no-till/low-pesticide, local polyculture, and so on – one giant (sadly, not so giant) club. One purpose of the club is to produce sustainability. Entry to the club can be self-regulated, regulated by the government, or not regulated. Club members compete against one another in the market for foodstuffs; we can ignore for now the competition of alternative foodstuffs with “non-virtuous” industrially-produced ones.

Through this prism, the situation which Roberts laments unfolds as follows. Some club members are earnestly attempting to produce sustainability. Others, as barriers to entry are lowered (e.g. as “organic” standards are set to be easily met by ex-industrial farmers or farmers still relying on some industrial methods), are producing only the food, but not so much the sustainability. This latter group can often produce food more cheaply, and as a result depresses the profits of the sustainable group, limiting its efforts and preventing it from expanding.

What can be done? Roberts mentions subsidizing alternative farming (the good, sustainability-producing kind), but the club perspective suggests another possible solution. When clubs fail to produce their goods optimally, what is typically prescribed is control on entry, to limit congestion. (One might think of all the “organic” farmers just doing the bare minimum to qualify for the label as causing the congestion here.) I have mentioned earlier that entry to the “club” for alternative farming can be controlled in any number of ways. Currently, it is either not controlled (anyone can claim to “farm locally” or “sustainably” – or, by one euphemism, “eco-logically”), or it is controlled by the government, which sets standards that have little force to make farmers produce not just foods but also sustainability, as defined above. The one unexplored option is letting this “club” self-regulate entry – establishing associations of alternative farmers, probably under the aegis of the government, who could shut out would-be competitors not committed to sustainable farming. Whether this would work is highly speculative – but at this point, whether any model of alternative farming will work to feed the world is speculative, and an explicit club approach might be a reasonable thing to try.

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6 Responses to “Sustainability: not easy, necessary”

  1. Andy K Says:

    I enjoyed this post, and I think you make some insightful points about Roberts’s article (which I enjoyed as well, seeing as it injected some much needed realism into our discourse on sustainable and organic farming, local polyculture farming, etc.).

    The club theory application here in part makes sense, though I have serious reservations about the “one unexplored option” of letting the club self-regulate who can belong to it. Perhaps it’s just my weariness of self-regulation on the whole right now, given how well that served certain financial industries, but I fear that self-regulating a sustainable/organic/eco-friendly “club” would eventually lead to the wealthier, more powerful members of that club letting financial, profit-driven interests lower the requirements for entry until they weren’t sustainable or organic at all.

    Though not by any means a comprehensive solution, I do think that increasing government subsidies of local farmers, of organic and sustainable farmers would be a huge step. Right now, so much money in the Farm Bill is committed to subsidizing the big crops—corn, soy, etc. And some of those subsidies (in the case of corn) aren’t even used for food, but for the black hole ethanol industry. Take some of that money and give it to farmers who are trying to adopt more sustainable methods—”organic, no-till/low-pesticide, local polyculture, and so on,” like you describe.

    The great food journalist, Michael Pollan, has always insisted that we should vote with our forks—that simply buying more organic food, products grown by sustainable farmers, will grow the market and lower prices. While I think he’s right, I don’t think voting with our folks is entirely the answer. Those farmers need a bit of nudge (to borrow from Cass Sunstein) to get to the point where they can become profitable, successful, and so on.

  2. grandmute Says:

    I agree that in the food market, an oligopoly will eventually tend toward inefficiency. As I see it, the problem to be solved is guaranteeing enough profit for farmers in serious pursuit of sustainability so that they can sink resources into the innovation that might lead to a global, sustainable system of food production.

    One way to do this would be by directly subsidizing farmers; another, by letting sustainability-minded farmers exclude other farmers from the submarket for food commanding a premium based on its alleged virtue. Judiciously applied, either approach might work.

    The chief difficulty with subsidizing the “good” farmers directly, either with consumers’ or government cash, is the information asymmetry between consumers (or legislators) seeking to reward sustainability, and profit-minded farmers seeking to avoid it. If all farmers get government handouts, then sustainable farming ends up with no advantage. If only some farmers are to be subsidized, then the resulting subsidy system (likely based on some grant mechanism) may be inefficient in finding and funding the farmers most committed to sustainability.

    Meanwhile, if sustainability-seeking farmers get to regulate entry into their own club, then as long as their decisions are made transparently, they should be able to admit into the club only those farmers deserving of the privilege. This solves the information asymmetry problem, at the cost of starting a system with strong anticompetitive tendencies. Whether such tendencies could be reined in, and whether such a system could be dismantled once large-scale sustainable farming is off to a good start are the issues that would determine the viability of the club system.

  3. Andy Kroll Says:

    “[I]f sustainability-seeking farmers get to regulate entry into their own club, then as long as their decisions are made transparently, they should be able to admit into the club only those farmers deserving of the privilege.”

    I agree there. Farmers are the ones best positioned to determine who is *actually* a sustainable farmer and who isn’t; they’re the ones best positioned to do so.

    Is there any reason why the idea of subsidies and a club system couldn’t function together? Are they necessarily mutually exclusive? Have the farmers decide who is included in the sustainable/organic club, and then those that are included get the much-needed subsidies. Best of both worlds, solves information asymmetry problem.

    Even more important question: Is any of this likely to happen? Probably not, given the glacial pace of agriculture-related legislation (especially right now, when such issues are hardly on the radar). But I can hope.

  4. Andy Kroll Says:

    Whoops. Didn’t mean to repeat that second graf.

  5. grandmute Says:

    I think the ongoing success of organic foods demonstrates potential for other forms of alternative food production to become commercially viable with a measure of government support. Insofar as the USDA’s experience with regulating organics points the way forward, it would seem that using government intervention to kickstart a change in consumption habits might be more efficient than relying on continued government subsidies to sustain any given farming practice.

    In reality, I am sure that a blend of self-regulation and government funding, as you suggest, would be the most effective catalyst of change in agricultural practices. What remains wanting is 1. the legislative willpower to make the changes, and 2. the policy set-up that would ensure environmentally sustainable farming will ditch the government training wheels once it becomes commercially sustainable as well.


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