Academic journal article Agricultural and Resource Economics Review

Some Hard Truths about Agriculture and the Environment

Academic journal article Agricultural and Resource Economics Review

Some Hard Truths about Agriculture and the Environment

Article excerpt

Environmental problems in agriculture have proven difficult to address due to the spatial heterogeneity and temporal variability intrinsic to agriculture. Agriculture is largely a struggle against nature; both its sustainability and the prospects for improving environmental performance and farm income simultaneously are thus inherently limited. Agriculture's high degree of variability makes direct regulation inefficient. Subsidies for improving environmental performance can have negative consequences and have proven ineffective in practice, due largely to bureaucratic culture. Pollution taxes should be the most effective and efficient form of policy. Interdisciplinary research is needed to provide models for performance evaluation.

Key Words: agriculture, environment, fertilizer, livestock waste, pesticides, pollution

Figuring out how to handle environmental problems in agriculture has been extremely difficult-for academics as well as policy makers. On the one hand, there is a long-standing tradition of viewing farming as an industry that is intrinsically in harmony with nature, at least when conducted as it ought to be. Recently, however, the popular conception of farming has tended more toward a diametrically opposite view. In many ways, agriculture was the catalyst for the contemporary environmental movement: Rachel Carson's 1962 treatise, Silent Spring, remains a standard reference for today's environmentalism. And agriculture has remained one of the "usual suspects" in environmentalists' lineup of malefactors.

The standard litany of environmental abuses of modern society contains numerous contributions from agriculture, including, among other things: ecological damage from pesticides such as wildlife kills and depletion of pollinator populations; human health risks from pesticides from worker exposures, spray drift, residues on foods, and from leaching into well water; surface water quality problems due to nutrient runoff and leaching like the notorious anoxic "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, the disappearance of underwater grasses in the Chesapeake Bay, the salinization of San Francisco Bay, and BOD depletion in rivers and lakes throughout the country; nitrate contamination of well water from leaching of fertilizers and animal wastes; odor from concentrated animal feeding operations, notably hogs; bacterial contamination from spills from waste lagoons; and air pollution from animal feeding operations, burning straw, and dust.

Popular perceptions notwithstanding, the extent to which agriculture contributes to these problems remains fiercely contested in scientific circles. What policies to adopt are no less hotly debated. In this paper, I draw on almost three decades of scholarship and practical policy experience to offer some general lessons about how to devise policies for addressing these problems, the likely limitations of those policies, and how we as economists can best contribute to the formulation of better policies. I begin with a discussion of what I believe to be key inherent features of agriculture itself. I then consider the implications of those features for policy and for research.

In some important ways, those implications are not particularly heartening (hence the title of the paper). It turns out there are limits to what can be said and done about these problems: There are limits to our ability to generalize about them-which is a problem because policy discussions always revolve around generalizations-and there are limits to the degree of efficiency any policy can attain. Further, those policies likely to be most effective are unlikely to be popular with the farm community and governmental agricultural agencies-two of our most important constituencies. They may be equally unpopular with environmental groups and agencies, putting us in an uncomfortable position politically. Such a position might be an illustration of the popular saying "if all sides disagree with you, you must be doing something right"; but it's nonetheless disquieting. …

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