There's No Conspiracy: Agriculture is Complicated

Some recent articles on agriculture have simultaneously claimed that our current agricultural system has problems (it does) and implied there is a conspiracy to ignore risks and change the system. But both articles do their desired movement a disservice. They encourage conspiratorial and extremist view points in their adherents and imply that farmers are at the best lazy or stupid, if not outright dupes of large agribusiness. That’s no way to encourage real political and social change to improve our agricultural system to reduce environmental impacts. It just plays into a polarized narrative of amoral (or evil) agribusiness uncaring of its effects on the environment against noble environmentalist campaigners.

Simple Fixes Rarely Are

The first article was a Mark Bittman opinion piece about a recent study published in the journal PLOS One. The study itself is good science about how to maintain yields in commodity (corn and soy) cropping while significantly reducing pesticide and synthetic fertilizer inputs. Brandom Keim’s article in Wired is a much better explanation of the results. However, Bittman’s will reach a much larger audience and sadly it encourages the idea that there is some conspiracy to prevent “better” agriculture from taking hold. The very title “A Simple Fix for Farming” says that it would be easy to move to this kind of farming leading to the immediate question: why haven’t we? Bittman’s description of the study publication encourages the conspiratorial view:

This was hammered home once again in what may be the most important agricultural study this year, although it has been largely ignored by the media, two of the leading science journals and even one of the study’s sponsors, the often hapless Department of Agriculture.

This is the second paragraph of the piece and it implies that the media ignores it, that major science journals rejected the work and the USDA barely tolerates it. The article later clarifies that the study was submitted to the journals Science and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences but both declined to publish it. Now, if you are aware of the field even in the slightest, you would realize this study is not ground-breaking. The study itself even cites other similar work. That alone makes it less likely that the top-tier journals would publish it1. So there’s no conspiracy there.

Since the study itself, while good work, isn’t actually finding anything that would surprise many in the field, a non-conspiratorial reader might wonder why these methods haven’t taken hold. Why wouldn’t farmers move to a system that requires fewer pesticides (less harm to them and the environment)? Why wouldn’t farmers move to a system that requires less fertilizer (less cost to them and lower environmental impact)? But Bittman believes there is a conspiracy: there’s no benefit to the “chemical companies” so obviously that’s why farming still pollutes more than it has to.

Pesticides are Useful

The second article is a blog post by Tom Philpott on a study in Nature on the effects on bumblebees of low doses of two insecticides, a pyrethroid (λ-cyhalothrin) and a neonicotinoid (imidacloprid). The results themselves are not terribly surprising in light of previous research: pesticides that will kill bees at higher doses seem to be causing problems at lower doses. There’s a great deal of worry from activists and environmental groups that the neonicotinoids are particularly harmful to bees. Given that the US corn crop almost entirely uses neonic seed coatings (which moves small amounts of the insecticide throughout the plant, including to pollen which bees eat), concern is not unreasonable.

But Philpott’s piece, like many about the neonicotinoid insecticides, portrays the issue as one about the EPA ignoring evidence of harm to protect Bayer’s profits (the maker of many of the neonicotinoid insecticides). In this world view, the reasons why the neonics are popular aren’t really relevant and getting rid of neonics would somehow magically restore bee populations. Moreover, activist literature tends to uniquely blame neonics for bee declines, even though the evidence is far from clear. Pesticides are likely involved, but it seems likely it’s the broad spectrum of insecticides harmful to bees. Honeybees (useful as a proxy for many pollinators) have been declining for decades, long before neonicotinoids. In North America, where honeybees are a “non-native” species, wild populations have declined by 90% since 1950. Recent problems with colony collapse (usually seen in captive populations) seem less apocalyptic in this context, though obviously still cause for concern.

The activists are probably right that pesticides are overused. However, their claim is usually that we don’t need pesticides at all2 which is an idea that I hazard to guess most farmers would laugh at. Moreover, the seed coating neonicotinoids (as I’ve noted before) are actually pretty useful: small amounts of insecticide on the seed is a low-cost, low-risk (to the farmer) method that mostly only targets the pest species. That certainly seems better than costly sprays or ground applications. A less conspiratorially inclined reader might thus ask: if neonics are so dangerous why are farmers using them? Are they actually more dangerous to bees than other insecticides a farmer might use[^]? Are there alternatives that would reduce their use?

False Conspiracy Narratives Won’t Fix Our Problems

The common theme to these posts is the idea that Big Bad Industry is in bed with Hapless (or Corrupted) Regulators. Farmers are caught in the middle and either have no choice or just don’t care. The environment is being destroyed.

But I think that narrative is false. For Bittman’s piece, there are good reasons why farmers may not have taken up these kinds of methods — and they are given right there in the study. The study notes that the conventional rotation takes about a third less labor. That’s a lot of labor. Labor in most industries is generally more expensive than materials and I would be surprised if it weren’t the case in farming. Industrialized farming (with machines, pesticide and fertilizer inputs, etc.) has allowed a very small number of farmers to more than feed all of us. Food is also extremely inexpensive. Why would a farmer, with no regulatory or economic incentives switch to a method of farming that looks to cost him more time and money? In other words, this “simple fix” might be simple on paper, but practically unlikely without broader social (and regulatory) change.

For Philpott’s piece, he also doesn’t consider underlying reasons why things are the way they are and how we change them3. Neonic seed coatings are very cheap, don’t require farmers to later buy more expensive applications (that put them at more risk) and mostly work. It’s likely that most farmers don’t need the seed coatings all the time, but since it’s so cheap and low impact there’s little incentive to forego them since the risk of crop damage is harder to prevent later in the season. Moreover, I can find little research on predicting when a planting might benefit from the seed coating and when it wouldn’t. Is it any wonder farmers would choose cheap, easy, risk-reducing strategies?

We won’t change anything by sitting to the side and telling farmers: “you’re doing it wrong and should use these other costlier and riskier methods”. If we want a less environmentally damaging agricultural system, we aren’t going to get there by berating farmers and throwing our hands up at the power of the “chemical companies”. We get there by changing incentives: if we want fewer pesticides we have to pay for them.

The current big fight in agriculture and food is around GMOs and whether they should be labeled. That should be a side story. That energy could be going towards pushing for rational regulations, incentives and labeling programs. Michael Pollan recently wrote an opinion in support of California’s GMO labeling initiative on the basis that it will let the public flex its influence against the industrial agricultural system. Adam Merberg notes that the proposition has unintended collateral damage, but it’s also a missed opportunity to direct people’s real concerns about agriculture to solve real problems with pesticide use, fertilizers, carbon emissions and more. Instead, food and agriculture writers are encouraging a polarized world view that demonizes the people running the industry we want to change. That’s just not going to work.

  1. Most top-tier journals, including Science, Nature and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, preferentially publish science papers that they perceive as being significant or new or groundbreaking. PLOS One, where this paper was published, is special. The journal’s philosophy is that all submitted papers that meet a scientific bar of quality — peer-reviewed, etc. — should be published without consideration of the reviewers’ or editors’ perceptions of its significance. The idea is that the science that turns out to be most relevant and high impact over the long-term often isn’t clear immediately and thus all quality work should be published to show impact or not.

  2. To be fair to Philpott, I don’t believe he thinks pesticides have no place in agriculture. However, given the comments that appear on his posts, I believe his readers are getting that impression. Other activists on pesticide issues are far more explicit in their belief that all pesticides are always bad.

  3. His other posts on neonic pesticides have a similar tone and outlook, primarily blaming Bayer’s supposed corruption of the regulatory process for the continued use of this class of pesticides.