Thursday, December 16, 2010

Sustainable agriculture

Several weeks ago, Susan Schneider posted about a new group promoting production agriculture. In that post Susan spoke of the need for a dialogue about sustainable agriculture, as opposed to advertising campaigns. I agree with her. Thus, I offer several brief comments about sustainable agriculture.

Sustainable agriculture will be technologically neutral. Standards that a priori rule out certain techniques or approaches are not technologically neutral and will not be promote sustainable values for the environment, for the community, or for the economics of farmers.
On this point, the Plant Biotechnology Journal (2011) 9, pp. 2-21 has a good review article entitled, "The role of transgenic crops in sustainable development."

Sustainable agricutlure will be scale neutral. Standards that attempt to classify small as good and large as bad are not scale neutral and will not promote sustainable values. On this point with regard to safe food, it is important to remember that bacteria, yeasts, fungi, and other mycotoxins give not one whit of concern for the size of the farm these living entities contaminate. Indeed, much evidence exists that small-sized farms often have higher contaminantion rates than larger farms.
Two examples make this point.
Free range chickens and other open pen livestock are often more contaminated because these free range animals more readily encounter bacteria, yeasts, fungi, and mycotoxins that exist very widely in the soils and on the plants where the livestock ranges. What counts is management, not the size of the farm.
Raw milk is a second example in which the enthusiasm for small farms ignores the significant and dangerous contamination that easily occurs. Pasturization was and is a great social health advance and standards should not disparage food safety for an ideological preference for small or "natural."


Blogger Dan said...

I understand what you're saying, but it is essentially impossible for public policy (and I assume that is what you mean by "standards") to be "scale neutral" in a world of limited resources and competing public policy objectives, particularly in regards to your second point.
Ultimately, everyone has to make a decision regarding whether to support certain practices or policies. When it comes to legislation or regulation, there is no middle ground for either legislators or interested parties: either you support it or you don't. There is no room to say, well, I don't agree with this one particular point, so I won't vote on this legislation, or I won't lobby on that regulation. To take such a stance would be to abdicate the responsibility that comes with the position you have chosen.
Moreover, what is "scale neutral" is open to debate. I would say some sort of ratio for inspecting chicken farmers is a good thing- the more birds you have, the more you're inspected. That means the larger producers are inspected more, but that's because they represent a larger threat. And perhaps small scale free range producers should be inspected more than small scale confinement operations. Both size and practices are reasonable points upon which to base differing levels of regulatory scrutiny, and we have done so in nearly all regulatory arenas for decades.
Using standard costs-benefits analysis that assigns a monetary value to human life is a accepted practice by both liberal and conservative government officials (see the many regulations, particularly environmental, that were blocked by the Bush OMB for costing too much and not having sufficient health benefits). To say that "what counts is management, not the size of the farm" is to state the obvious regarding a single farm. But it completely ignores a basic function of regulation- the ability to gauge threats across entire industries, and to deploy limited resources in such a way that provides the most regulatory "bang for the buck".
Ultimately, "sustainable agriculture standards" have to be enforceable or at least measurable. Stipulating that those standards will be technology and scale neutral before actually defining the standards themselves is just a convenient way setting the parameters for debate.

12/16/2010 7:46 PM  
Blogger between-the-lines said...

"Sustainable agriculture will be technologically neutral."

"Sustainable agriculture will be scale neutral."

You do seem to be prejudging the issue here. What about technologies and scales (the two are linked) that really are in fact fundamentally unsustainable?

12/21/2010 4:15 PM  

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