Invasion of the agro-bread-heads

This blog — or more accurately the topic it covers — has seen a recent flurry of economic activity. And while that may not be attractive to all, the fact is that money does make the world go round. Make something cheaper or more profitable, and people are liable to do more of that thing.

Latest entrant is a Policy Forum piece in Science1 that argues that policies that favour “multifunctional production systems” — systems that produce standard commodities and ecological services — will be profitable and will support a more sustainable agriculture.

The argument is reasonably straightforward. First, the authors note the trend towards growing biomass. Then they note that monocultures of fuel are likely to be just as bad as monocultures of food and fibre. They look at the amount handed out in subsidies and the often perverse impacts that has on the environment and on societies.

Despite troubling implications of these current trends, research and development (R&D) and policy have focused on maximizing biomass production and optimizing its use, with far less emphasis on evaluation of environmental, social, and economic performance. This imbalance may provoke many interest groups to oppose growth of such an agricultural bio-economy.

After examples of the kinds of multifunctional production systems they have in mind they outline some of the various ways in such biodiversity delivers valuable benefits.

There is mounting evidence that these systems can produce certain ecological services more efficiently and effectively than agroecosystems based on annual crops. Examples include (i) soil and nitrogen loss rates from perennial crops are less than 5% of those in annual crops; (ii) perennial cropping systems have greater capacity to sequester greenhouse gases than annual-based systems; (iii) in certain scenarios, some perennial crops appear more resilient to climate change than annuals, e.g., increases of 3°to 8°C are predicted to increase North American yields of the perennial crop switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); and, among species of concern for conservation, 48% increased in abundance when on-farm perennial land cover was increased in European Union incentive programs.

The final plank in the argument is a rough and ready survey of the value of those benefits, which I won’t quote. Take it from me, they are large.

So much for the foundations. On them Jordan and colleagues build a solid policy suggestion. Build a couple of large projects — 5000 square kilometres — and put some of the government money that naturally flows farming’s way into establishing genuine multifunctional systems and assessing properly the pros and cons of this approach from a variety of perspectives.

Seems like a pretty sound idea, and one on which I feel comment is largely superfluous. If the US government really wants to burnish its green credentials, it should just do it.

Agricultural subsidies in 2005 exceeded $24 billion, and the 2007 farm bill deliberations should highlight how these federal dollars could better achieve national priorities. In particular, the new farm bill should provide the agricultural R&D infrastructure with incentives to evaluate multifunctional production as a basis for a sustainable agricultural bio-economy. We judge that this can be done with very modest public investments (~$20 million annually). A variety of strong political constituencies now expects a very different set of outputs from agriculture, and the U.S. farm sector could meet many of these expectations by harnessing the capacities of multifunctional landscapes.

Oscar Wilde said that “a cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”. I say that those responsible for farm subsidies know neither costs nor values.

  1. Jordan et al. (2007), Sustainable Development of the Agricultural Bio-Economy. Science 316:1570-1. DOI: 10.1126/science.1141700 []

More on trade liberalization

Before you all start responding to my recent post by pointing me in the direction of the 2002 Convention on Biological Diversity paper on the impact of trade liberalization on agricultural biodiversity, let me say that I have read it, and that I stick to my call for more thorough analysis. First, despite its title, the CBD paper concentrates on the presumed effects of liberalization – via changes in land use and production intensification – on biodiversity in general rather than agricultural biodiversity in particular, something that was also discussed by an older IUCN paper. Second, it repeats a few too many times how complicated the issue is. And finally, it provides little in the way of empirical data.