Saturday, November 24, 2007


This past Thanksgiving, Michael Maniates wrote a dismal piece in the Washington Post stating that “We need to be looking at fundamental change in our energy, transportation and agricultural systems rather than technological tweaking on the margins.” He was referring to ecological disaster that may ensue if we fail to take drastic actions today.

In the last 50 years, agricultural productivity has doubled. The average corn yield in 1960 was near 55 bushels per acre, today it is nearly 160 bushels per acre. We get about 185lbs more from every harvested cow than we did forty years ago. Technology is not only making us more productive, but also more ‘green,' addressing many of the concerns Mr. Maniates may have about ecological disaster.

1.04 million fewer pounds of insecticide are applied each year as a result of biotech Bt cotton alone. With Bt cotton, 4 million gallons of fuel and 93.7 million gallons of water are saved on the farm each year from fewer insecticide applications. Roundup Ready technology has allowed for glyphosate herbicide to substitute for 7.2 million pounds of other chemicals that are more toxic and persistent in the environment.

We’ve come a long way since the first Thanksgiving harvest. Perhaps major change will come in other areas, but in agriculture it will be the marginal tweaking of biotechnology that paves the way toward a sustainable future and provides us with tools for dealing with climate change.


1)Michael Maniates “Going Green? Easy Doesn't Do It” , Thursday, November 22, 2007; A37
5)Dr. Roger Leonard, LSU Agricultural Center and Dr. Ronald Smith, Auburn University. Research in Bt Cotton
6)Farm Industry News Feb 1, 2007
7)Gregory Conko “The Benefits of Biotech” Regulation. Spring 2003.


Michael said...

I appreciate you taking my ideas seriously enough to question them. And I thank you for the compliment of featuring my work on your blog.

Having been trained in agricultural economics as an undergraduate at Berkeley, I've never seen myself as part of the "doom and gloom" faction of environmental analysts. So perhaps you and I have more in common than you might think.

It is difficult for me to ignore the significant environmental externalities of fossil-fuel combustion, however, especially the climate-altering properties of CO2. And here I'm in good company, if we do a head-count of the major economists of our era.

Your point about advances in agriculture is a good one -- and the reduction in herbicides/insecticides to which you point is exactly the kind of "larger scale" change I had in mind in my piece. These changes are occurring through a combination of legislative incentives and market forces, and community action in support of small-scale farmers markets and community supported agriculture. And Bravo!

But I think it critical to note that the items of good news to which you point **have not** come about because of consumer choice. Laws were changed and incentive structures were altered by folks who thought of themselves more as citizens than as consumers, creating a new array of choices for consumers -- and consumers have then responded with reinforcing choices and actions in the market. The driver, though, has not primarily been one of uncoordinated "easy" choices. I don't mean this to be an ideological statement or claim - it's a simple case of empirics, of what we actually observe out there in the interplay between markets and politics. In this way, then, it seems to me that your example supports my claims about the fundamental drivers of change -- and, so, we may not be that far apart.

But perhaps we are, given your larger choice of agriculture as your "for instance..." The energy intensity of U.S. agriculture has increased, as you know, some 100x over the last century, and while much good has come from that, we now live within a food system that systematically transforms oil, natural gas, and coal into food. For every Calorie on my plate, between 10 - 13 Calories of fossil fuels were combusted to grow that food.

Ouch. Despite some heartening changes on the margins with respect to U.S. agriculture -- changes you rightly note -- it's hard for me to see how such energy intensity will continue to be possible in the face of the rising market and even-faster-rising real cost of fossil fuels (not to mention the attendant environmental insults, which should trouble any economist who hopes that prices will tell the truth).

Climate change and the growing scarcity of cheap fossil fuels means big changes for industrial agriculture. Tweaking around the margins is incommensurate with the magnitude of the challenge. And any major change won't be **driven** by haphazard consumer choice. I have faith that we can do it (a point made fully clear in my piece) -- but we sell ourselves short, both as analysts and Americans, if we pretend otherwise.

Again, thanks for the compliment of taking note of my piece in the Thanksgiving Edition of the Washington Post.

agEconomist said...

Thank you for your response to my post. I appologize if my tone mischaracterized your stance, for your response was well reasoned, and your very lucid remarks clearly indicate that your views are far from the extremist doom and gloom faction I may have suggested. Your confirmation that the biotech revolution is the kind of "larger scale" change you had in mind convinces me of this.

Perhaps I was wrong to term biotechnology as 'marginal tweaking.' Our views certainly are not as far apart as I first suspected.

It is true that consumer choice does not occur in a vacuum but must take place within the institutional framework of governmental and activist influences. Perhaps, one such influence would be to establish a price for the external cost of carbon, be it via a tax or cap and trade system. While difficult to quantify, the appropriate price for carbon would certainly be a step in the right direction for 'incentivising' uncoordinated consumer behavior and reducing our impact on the environment ( for all industries including agriculture). The magnitude of the tax/price of carbon is very debatable, as the science in this area remains unsettled. ( see Nordhaus' review of the Stern Report). With your background you perhaps will know much more about the 'ins and outs' of this approach than I do.

Again thank you for your comments on my blog.