Thu, Oct 04, 2012 - Page 8 News List


Ecology and economics

Once again, we have a so-called expert talking from inside his expert bubble. In a single paragraph, Tyler Cowen dismisses all the achievements of organic and ecological farming ( because organic production systems in some circumstances have lower food outputs than industrial agricultural systems (“World hunger is the problem left behind,” Sept. 21, page 9).

Cowen, who is tellingly a professor of economics, thus commits the cardinal sin of so many economists in that he disregards any external effects, the so-called “externalities,” one system has on another. To dismiss all these external effects, many detailed in literally thousands of scientific publications, in one paragraph is an extraordinary achievement of intellectual limitation.

However, due to a general lack of inter-disciplinary education, it is nowadays an almost universal ability among so-called experts to blind themselves to the effects one system has on another. Agricultural economists, often educated in only in economics and nothing else, therefore have no appreciation for the many harmful side effects of conventional, industrial farming and the many beneficial side effects of organic, ecological farming.

The detrimental effects of the industrial agricultural system on other interrelated systems are well-documented: climate change caused by carbon, methane and nitrous oxide emissions (; the exhaustion of water resources (; water and soil pollution, soil erosion (, food poisoning (“Tests reveal pesticides on food: Greenpeace Taiwan,” Sept. 15, page 3); and, perhaps most worryingly, an extinction crisis endangering more than half of all species (Science, Vol. 307, p550). There are other, less well-established problems possibly linked to industrial agriculture: the collapse of pollinator populations vital to many branches of agriculture; decreasing fertility, not just in humans, but in many other species; and the obesity crisis, brought about by an overly cheap carbohydrate and meat-based diet. In addition, food prices are being driven upward because biofuels are replacing foods.

Ecological agriculture, on the other hand, attempts to limit detrimental effects on other systems by applying sustainability principles (for Asian examples, see the works of Masanobu Fukuoka and Franklin Hiram King listed in Wikipedia).

So, contrary to Cowen’s assertion, we will not avert world hunger by destroying all other environmental systems through unsustainable agriculture. Most experts agree that bringing together the best elements of ecological and industrial farming is the optimal, forward-thinking solution (, but this can only happen if the so-called experts are willing to learn a little bit of ecology.

It might therefore be a useful intellectual exercise for many of these so-called experts to occasionally crack open a scientific journal with a name other than Agricultural Economics or The Journal of Agricultural & Food Industrial Organization. How about broadening your horizons by reading Ecological Economics, The Journal of Sustainable Agriculture or Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment? The information is there — it can be read, or it can be ignored.

To ignore it is to block out large parts of reality and remain blissfully unaware of the interconnectedness of the world, so please do not be surprised if somebody calls you narrow-minded.

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