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The Problem With Organic Food

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The environmental and aesthetic virtues of organic agriculture have been overblown.

Organic agriculture has been growing rapidly in recent years—by a factor of 10 from 1992 to 2005—but still accounts for a tiny 0.5 percent of total farmland in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Yet organic food has garnered an extraordinary amount of attention from the media and, along with “local” food, is a darling of foodies and environmentalists, who talk up its civic virtues and benefits to the environment. There’s just one problem with this: agriculture has moved away from small-scale, local, and organic farming because these types of farms are land- and labor-intensive and don’t do a very good job of feeding lots of people. In addition, they are not definitively better for the environment, and their growth would lead to higher food prices than most Americans are willing to pay.


Industrial agriculture has its costs, and buying from farmers’ markets or local farms carries with it various aesthetic appeals. It’s generally possible to find types of produce outside the mainstream agricultural system, such as heirloom tomatoes and wild strawberries, that are too fragile for grocery stores, which select crops for hardiness and long shelf lives. Also, for some people, the idea of eating fruits and vegetables that are grown on a small plot of land with just seeds, sun, water, and care is attractive, and some farmers are carving out profitable niches in the market by catering to those impulses.


Beyond meeting certain aesthetic desires, however, the case for local and organic agriculture breaks down. In a recent New York Times op-ed, chef and small-farm advocate Dan Barber noted that a four-acre farm in the United States nets, on average, $1,400 per acre, while a 1,364-acre farm nets $39 an acre. This is supposed to demonstrate that small farms are significantly more productive than large farms; in fact, it does nothing of the sort. What Barber’s statistic shows is that the crops being grown on very small farms are different from the crops being grown on large farms, and that the sorts of crops that make financial sense to grow on small, labor-intensive plots are expensive to cultivate and therefore expensive to buy. No matter what breed of corn you cultivate, there is no meaningful market demographic that will allow you to net $1,400 an acre for it.


Small farms have their own set of environmental inefficiencies. The concept of “food miles”—the idea that consumers should think about the distance their food travels to get to them—has acquired some cachet. The implication is that the number of food miles reflects the environmental cost of transportation. However, because of economies of scale, industrial agriculture captures efficiencies in transportation that small farms do not, so not every food mile is equally efficient. If you drive to your local farmers’ market to buy a few items from a farmer who has driven a truck several hours to be there, the number of food miles is relatively small; but compared to conventional agricultural products, the efficiency of each food mile is much lower.


The upside of buying organic produce comes down to this: if you want to pay more money for a really fantastic tomato, you can do so.

When done on a large scale, organic agriculture is similar to conventional agriculture. If you drink organic milk, you may picture happy cows wandering in fields full of grass; but in fact, as Michael Pollen discussed in his 2001 New York Times article “Behind the Organic-Industrial Complex,” it’s more likely your organic milk came from cows that spend their days in lots, eating grain and attached to milking machines—just like conventional cows. The same is true of organic crops: environmentalists take issue with crop monocultures (acre after acre of the same strain of a particular crop being grown); but as organic crops become just another part of agribusiness, these practices are being duplicated in their production. So while companies may make sentimental pitches for organic food based on the notion of small, diversified farms and happy roaming cows, that’s not for the most part what they’re selling.


Foodies and environmentalists like Barber and Pollen believe that large farms and the increasing resemblance of organic agriculture to conventional agriculture are problems, but also unavoidable problems, given how much Americans are willing to pay for food. The reason small farms tend to specialize in certain high-cost crops, and the reason that organic agricultural practices mimic conventional ones, is that our current system of agriculture is very good at inexpensively mass-producing food.


Between 1930 and 2006, the percentage of disposable income that Americans spent on food dropped from 24 percent to under 10 percent; during that same period, the percentage of America’s food budget that was spent on food away from home rose from 13 percent to over 40 percent, according to the USDA. These numbers show a very clear picture of what most consumers want: cheap food and convenience. The industrial agriculture system has provided them with both, and even as niche agriculture has made heirloom tomatoes and wild strawberries available for higher prices, most Americans have not significantly changed their spending and eating habits.


Shifting toward organic farming would require major changes in land and labor allocation. One of the successes of industrial agriculture has been its ability to create more with less. Over the past 60 years, the labor hours devoted to farming have shrunk by about 3 percent annually, even as output has skyrocketed, and the amount of land used for farming has decreased by nearly 30 percent. These aren’t problems to be overcome; they are major economic success stories that have resulted in cheaper food.


Indeed, the current model of agribusiness has led to massive increases in productivity, which is why organic operations have mimicked some of its practices. Before the advent of efficient fertilizers and technology, farming was dominated by small, family-owned farms whose inputs were seeds, water, natural fertilizer, sun, and labor. But the environmental case for that type of agriculture is weak, and even the aesthetic case is not applicable to most organic agriculture. The upside of buying produce from outside the mainstream agricultural system—whether from small, local farms or from larger businesses—comes down to this: if you want to pay more money for a really fantastic tomato, you can do so.


Abigail Haddad is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.


Image by Getty/The Bergman Group.


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