Sunday, February 27, 2011

EWG Post Misleading About Modern Ag and Women

In a recent Corn Commentary post, Pam Johnson pointed to this article posted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) addressing the role of women in agriculture. The EWG post is another example of an activist group, giving the impression of  being 'pro family farm' and 'pro sustainable agriculture' yet making statements and accusations that actually undermine the sustainable practices of most family farmers.

For example, here are some quotes from the article:

"Big Ag is big business – and big profits. And when anyone raises questions about the billions of tax dollars lavished on the largest industrial growers of corn, soybeans and other commodity crops or points out the harm that these perverse incentives do to the environment, Big Ag's lackeys lash out."

"More important, though, is how these women farm the land and conserve natural resources. The Organic Farming Research Foundation reports that 22 percent of organic farmers are women. They, and their fellow male organic farmers, follow practices that  conserve soil and biological diversity by rotating crops and avoiding synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, hormones and genetically-modified seed."

It almost has a sexist overtone, but we'll ignore that, and Pam Johnson did a great job taking on misconceptions about women in ag in her post. I am more interested in other topics.

Is it true that we are lavishing tax dollars on the largest industrial growers of corn and other commodities? Well it is certainly true, as Michael Pollan points out, that when ever he tries to follow food from the shelf back to its origin, he ends up in a corn field. It is in fact a miracle of science, and the market place, that we can feed the world in so many ways with just a few commodities- and do it sustainably!  The state of technology and market fundamentals determine this, not subsidies. In terms of incentives, subsidies do not promote the production of commodities over fruits and vegetables. The market fundamentals, costs, technology, labor inputs etc.  guarantee that those production decisions are distinct. (i.e.  the presence or absence of a loan deficiency payment is not going to incentivise you to retool for tomato production over corn or vice versa).  It is also true that many of our commodity programs are based on production and so larger producers will as a group get a larger share of the government's money, but as pointed out in a recent post at  the Truth in Food blog, this does not imply that subsidies promote large scale agriculture at the expense of smaller farms:

"The food ActiviSphere was quick to unanimously pat the Times on the back, bobbing their heads in agreement with the party line that farm subsidies distort the $2.8 trillion food system, encouraging "mainly large-scale farmers" to apparently slavishly plant (or not plant) regardless of what the market tells them.....while it's true the largest dollar amount of farm subsidies go to the largest farms (as you would expect, since subsidies are typically tied directly to production, and production is tied directly to gross sales), looking at the microeconomic effects of subsidies on individual farms should correctly lead you to an entirely different conclusion.

When it comes to impacts on marginal income,  the author provides data showing that subsidies make a bigger difference to the smaller producers, not the larger ones. Get rid of the subsidies, and corn is still king, and it is likely we'll see more consolidation vs. a well spring of smaller farms. And of course, the largest overlook in this is the fact that 98% of all farms are still family farms, an inconvenient truth that activists typically overlook. They have often tried to get around this by getting away from terms related to ownership and trying to focus on technologies used, but they then dig themselves another hole in terms of sustainability. Which brings us to another topic.

Are there perverse incentives that lead to production decisions that are harmful to the environment as the EWG article implies? On the contrary, modern production agriculture is one of those industries that make a prime example of 'the invisible green hand.' Individual family farmers have overwhelmingly adopted sustainable green technologies such as genetic modification or  growth enhancing pharmaceuticals. (reducing or eliminating the use of toxic chemicals,improving insect biodiversity, reducing food toxins, reducing erosion and groundwater pollution, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing water and fossil fuel use)  This is done without overbearing direction given by government regulations and is invariant to incentives created by subsidies. Market incentives have led farmers, acting in their own self interest, to adopt these technologies producing environmental benefits for all. (for peer reviewed research related to the sustainability of modern agriculture see here, or see this fact filled video related to modern sustainable agriculture). If anything, incentives in the ag industry promote behavior that is better not worse for the environment.

I'd like to revisit a quote from the EWG article:

"They, and their fellow male organic farmers, follow practices that  conserve soil and biological diversity by rotating crops and avoiding synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, hormones and genetically-modified seed"

Bear in mind, that most modern family farmers employ crop rotation to better manage fertility, pests, and to combat issues related to resistance. It's great that organic producers implement these practices, but these practices are not unique to organic production. It is certainly true that organic standards restrict the use of synthetic chemicals, but do make allowances for many toxic chemicals (see here for a list from § 205.601  Synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production.) Alex Avery does a good job pointing this out in his articel 'Natures Toxic Tools.' I've already spoken about the improved sustainability from genetic modification and pharmaceutical technologies, but what is not made clear is the sci-fi type mutated plants that organic standards find perfectly acceptable.  As Pamela Ronald points out in her book Tomorrow's table: organic farming, genetics, and the future of food, mutation breeding involves exposing plants to radiation or chemicals to produce random mutations that hopefully produce better performing crops. Unlike the very precise and controlled methods used by Monsanto to create Roundup Ready Soybeans, mutation breeding is perfectly acceptable according to U.S. organic standards. Not something they seem proud of promoting. Secondly, organic producers, compared to their modern not-till counterparts, essentially rape and pillage the soil through tillage, destroying soil structure, increasing run off and groundwater pollution.

Comments on the Corn Commentary Blog:

"At EWG we value transparency: transparency in farm payments to the largest and wealthiest operations and transparency in the millions spent on marketing campaigns that are too often designed to mislead consumers."

 There are lots of reasons to consume organic food. Some people have nostalgic preferences for foods produced the old fashioned way. Others have preferences just about the way food is produced in general. I'm sure there are many environmental and non environment related benefits. I personally prefer to consumer certain organic products based solely on taste. I don't go around attacking people for their food choices, however, I don't hold back from teachable moments when others mischaracterize production agriculture or mislead consumers.  The point of my post is not to attack organic food, but to point out the lack of transparency and misleading implications that some promoters of organic employ to attack the sustainable efforts of most family farms. The EWG post seems to mischaracterize both modern agriculture and the role that women play it, and in this way seems quite misleading. I wonder if most actual organic producers really want the EWG and others out there using these divisive tactics to promote their products?

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