What Grinds My Gears: “Organic Can Feed the World”

In a post over at the Atlantic, Barry Estabrook begins as follows:

Given that current production systems leave nearly one billion people undernourished, the onus should be on the agribusiness industry to prove its model, not the other way around.

Let’s ask ourselves whether organic agriculture can feed the world, shall we? “The way I see it, Barry, this should be a very dynamite show!”

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Well Barry, it turns out the agribusiness industry has already proven its model: It has survived the market test for several decades.

If organic is so much better, why is it that the most democratic of all institutions — the market — is not allowing it to win out? Could it be that it’s because organic is more expensive?

(Update: Johanna, a reader, made an excellent point about agricultural subsidies in the comments, which has made me change my mind about the viability of “conventional” agriculture relative to organic if we were to get rid of agricultural subsidies.)

And another thing: the one billion people that go undernourished? Their plight is the result of lack of storage and transportation infrastructures, which both add significant transaction costs to the market price of food and leave many people out of the market altogether, and not because of a lack of food to go around.

Even if we could magically motivate donors to fund storage and transportation infrastructure (because let’s face it Barry, is there anything sexier for donors than to invest in refrigeration technology or roads?) is more expensive food really the answer to chronic undernourishment?

Science by Consensus?

Another paragraph from Estabrook’s post:

What is notably lacking in the “conventional” versus organic debate are studies backing up the claim that organic can’t feed the world’s growing population. In an exhaustive review using Google and several academic search engines of all the scientific literature published between 1999 and 2007 addressing the question of whether or not organic agriculture could feed the world, the British Soil Association, which supports and certifies organic farms, found that there had been 98 papers published in the previous eight years addressing the question of whether organic could feed the world. Every one of the papers showed that organic farming had that potential. Not one argued otherwise.

Wait, an organization that “supports and certifies organic farms” is presenting you with a claim about organic farms, and you just roll with it? Do you also believe cigarette manufacturers when they tell you smoking if 100 percent safe? I would fail an undergraduate who argued anything on the basis of such weak evidence.

And according to what logic is consensus among the faithful a marker of truth? One hundred percent of atheists believe that God does not exist. Does that make it true?

Studies arguing that organic cannot feed the world are lacking because no serious academic is going to go after a research question on which there exists virtually no data and for which the identification is weak at best.

To credibly answer the question “Can organic agriculture feed the world?,” we need access to the counterfactual. Ideally, that would be an experiment in which a very high proportion of the land currently cultivated under conventional agriculture is randomly selected to be cultivated under organic agriculture.

Unfortunately, we don’t have access to the counterfactual, and I doubt an observational design would be credible at all given the heroic assumptions that it would require.

Can organic feed the world? The truth is we just don’t know. And not only do we not know (and have no way of knowing for sure), I am skeptical of the claim that the way to feed the one billion undernourished people in the world is via more expensive food.

If rich American liberals want to live off of luxury food, I have no problem with that — I shop at Whole Foods, too. But when it comes to development policy, let’s leave our rich American liberal preferences out of it, shall we?

For the past 2.5 million years, humankind has managed to feed itself thanks to improvements in agricultural technology. What kind of hubris leads some to believe that we know better is beyond me.

5 comments

  1. Gabriel Power

    The statement is a non sequitur, plainly. As you explain, the failure is one of allocation, not production. Since organic farming is an alternative method of *production*, it is difficult to see how switching to organic might change the *allocation* process. (Now, shooting from the hip, if organic food is more expensive than is conventional food, perhaps in the thought experiment where we switch to 100% organic, it would make sense to invest to improve allocation. But then we’d just be trading one problem for another, as food would be less affordable. And if it is no more expensive, why invest to change the allocation?)

    Likewise, the “feed the world” argument is spurious. Most of the world eats fine. The question is about how to help those who do not. Again, an issue of allocation.

  2. johanna

    Wait…the USDA is letting Monsanto, BASF and Syngenta conduct environmental reviews of their own transgenic seed products? I wonder what the outcome is going to be? Another triumph of the free and deregulated corporate state market! Huzzah!
    (Link removed.)

    And agribusiness get $20 billion a year in subsidies…..wow, another triumph of the “free market” corporate state….

  3. Marc F. Bellemare

    Thank you for your comment, Johanna. Point well taken about the farm subsidies, which I have written about extensively on this blog. I fully agree about the need for independent testing of transgenic seeds and genetically modified crops, by the way.

    Contrary to what you may believe, I am not exactly a free market apologist, and I would be perfectly happy to change my mind about this. But before committing to the idea that we must subsidize organic farms (I don’t think getting rid of the current system of farm subsidies is going to happen in our lifetime), I want to know what the market failure is here, and whether there is a statistically credible way of ascertaining whether organic can actually feed the world, beyond mere beliefs.

  4. johanna

    Thanks Marc.
    Yes, I agree that it’s good to take a close look at what we do and why.
    But my question is, why not subsidize organics? It’s a booming market, a superior product for the public, doesn’t degrade the environment, and would likely result in better local economies.
    Apparently the wealthiest 10% of farmers received 72% of subsidies (in 2007), and the areas where these subsidies were distributed tend to have poor job and population growth. Subsidies spread out to smaller local organic farmers might have a better impact on the environment, the economy, etc.
    Also, when the real costs of subsidized agri-farming is calculated, some say that organics end up being less costly. So maybe ‘organics is for rich folk’ only cuz it hasn’t been subsidized yet.
    It just seems logical that the US gov would want to support organics also because it’s what the market is demanding.

    Birth education/control is another solution that hasn’t really been tried yet.