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.