Resenting Economics

Hi Elysabeth -

You ask great questions!  Some responses:

<<Can anyone suggest resources that discuss the cost of conventional
agriculture compared to that of alternative/sustainable agriculture.  I'm
interested in all costs - social, environmental, etc.>>

One article that I found quite interesting was by Cornell entymologist
David Pimentel (et al) in Bioscience, Vol. 42, No. 10 (1992). This is
published by The American Institute of Biological Sciences.  In this
article, they do a well-documented analysis of the indirect costs of
pesticide use in the U.S. They say their analysis is conservative - what is
more easily quantified and shown - and walk through each category - human
health, animal poisonings, contaminated products, destruction of beneficial
natural predators and parasites, pesticide resistance in pests, honeybee
and pollination losses, crop losses, fishery losses, bird losses,
groundwater and surface water contamination, and government regulations to
(try to) reduce some of this damage.  

They conclude that pesticides, conservatively, cost the U.S. each year at
least $8 billion in indirect costs.  These are costs that might not show up
when we buy a particular piece of produce, but instead show up in our
health care costs, taxes, etc.  Pimentel feels there are specific reasons
that the true figure is likely much higher.

Also, there have been some posts on SANet re: issues like yields in
conventional vs. organic.  For instance, "STUDIES SHOW SUSTAINABLE
and the recent story from Rodale Institute, which compared their
conventional and organic tests plots over 15 years so far, and noted that
yields were about the same during wet years, but organic was better in dry
years. (I can send you that one, if you didn't get it.)

Also, did you happen to notice the piece "ECOSYSTEMS PROVIDE VALUABLE
"SERVICES" WORTH $33 TRILLION, STUDY FINDS" within the 6/2 SANet email of
"Alternative Agriculture News, 6/97"?  If not, I'd be glad to send you a
copy of it.

<<On a personal note, as I travel down the road to risk reduction in my
own life, I can't help but wonder how much more I will need to spend
to find less risky alternatives to the "common" American existence. 
Fortunately, I'm able to afford many of these choices.  I have to admit
concern for those who can not afford to do the same.  <snip>  I wonder why
risk reduction seems to be so expensive these days.  Fewer choices,
greater risks?>>

I think a key reason for this dynamic is the whole issue of "externalized
costs". The current economic structure encourages and rewards externalizing
your costs - making someone else pay. So a company that can dump its waste
in the community river has lower costs than the one who invests in
technology to clean that water before dumping it.  

We've tried to balance this mechanism with environmental laws and such,
which I believe do help, but business chafes at these laws, because the
underlying mechanism is always looking at how to reduce costs.  Even for
someone who remembers the values higher than money that these laws are at
least supposed to represent - a clean environment, safe working conditions,
taking care of other human beings and living creatures, etc. - can be
stressed between these values and the need to compete on the economic

Some handle this tension by optimizing the equation as best they can (being
as environmental as possible, and looking for economies elsewhere), some by
being creative and innovative (for example, finding value in their waste
stream to other companies or themselves; or finding a market
opportunity/sales point in more responsible practices), and some by
collapsing into denial and self-interest ("I have to take care of myself,
my company; I can't concern myself with how my actions effect others). 
Still, underlying, there is a real tension, in the way the economic system
is currently designed.  

Unfortunately, some moves like flattening trade barriers and the way
NAFTA/GATT and the World Trade Organization are being setup will exacerbate
this problem - for instance, the new international laws that are saying
that when nations choose, for instance, to have principles that dolphins
are not being harmed when catching tuna, that rather than this being seen
as the wise principled stand it is, this is viewed in the new systemas a
"restraint of trade" in a system where only money and no other values are
allowed to be considered. This is already happening and will likely get
much worse, if these principles continue to be expanded in the
international sphere. This troubles me deeply.

There are things we can do at a consumer level to encourage higher values
than money.  As you say, some of us can choose to pay more, and we can vote
for our values in this way. And, as you say, some can't.  We also can use
innovation - such as those people who create organic urban gardens in poor
areas, where people can work in the garden - for all the learning,
nourishment, and empowerment that creates - and sometimes get some income,
from selling the food - and then they can keep some food for themselves and
their families as part of the deal.  Or we can support CSAs, which can
reduce consumer costs while increasing farmer income (at least in the
ideal), by cutting out the middleman, as well as providing other benefits
to consumers, such as a relationship with the farmer and farm for people
and their children.

And we can also, as citizens, work to support re-examination of the
underlying system. You might be quite interested in a book by Paul Hawken
caled "The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability". In it, he
asserts a model for what characteristics an ideal economic system should
have - including the notion that it needs to honor everyone's desire to
"save a buck" and make it so that one doesn't have to choose between that
and "doing the right thing." 

One way to do that - and this gets to the heart of your question, I believe
- is to seek to re-internalize the externalized costs, so that when we go
to buy a product, it more accurately reflects the true costs of that
product.  Then, the market mechanism can better work in alignment with
"doing the right thing", vs. being so opposed to it.  This may sound
impossible, from our current way of thinking, but once one asks the
question about how one might do it, interesting ideas emerge. I think
Hawken makes a valuable contribution to this process in his book, by laying
out the framework of a new model, then starting to sketch in what that
might look like.  This supports us all, I believe, in asking these
questions too, and starting to develop answers of our own. 

For instance, he talks about establishing 4 categories of products, with
different rules about each one. If something is (1) disposable, then it
should decompose into natural elements in x amount of time, etc.  If
something is (2) durable, like cars and refridgerators, then it is the
responsibility of the manufacturer at the end of its lifetime to dispose of
responsibly. As I understand it, this latter one is already being done in
Germany, and is positively impacting how cars are designed (they realized
that certain designs were hard to recycle, for instance because of toxic
materials, and have changed to different designs).  I believe I read
somewhere that the car companies are saving money with improved designs and
recovered materials - i.e., getting unexpected benefits - while of course
we would expect less poisoning of the environment.  

I don't know all the implementation details, but I find these ideas quite
provocative and powerful in examining how we can establish an economic
system that doesn't destroy (spend out) our natural capital at an
outrageous rate, for short-term individual gain but long-term community
loss - just because it doesn't show up on the balance sheets.  (What is the
cost when a forest is clearcut? On the balance sheet, there is only income.
 Plus, the land can now be used for a shopping center.  Still, there is a
loss that is not in the accounting - and should be.  If it did,then perhaps
recycling and using recycled products would show up as having the the true
long-term economic wisdom they have.)

Of course, some costs can't be quantified.  The emotional cost of disease.
The human cost of a lost community and its wisdom.  The degradation of
democracy and personal choice about risk. And I don't think we should wait
until we can quantify every risk, for that can take too long to really
protect us and be too expensive to implement.  But perhaps if we structure
responsibility and wisdom like the above into our economic "game rules" -
if we seek to avoid the pollution in the first place, rather than try to
calculate an "ok" amount of poisoning people - then I think it will be
easier to at least head the ship in the right direction toward a better
future for us all.

I hope you find these leads and this info useful in your quest - 

Best regards -

Patricia Dines

--- FORWARD ---

From: INTERNET:craig.harris@ssc.msu.edu
To: sanet-mg@amani.ces.ncsu.edu
Date: Tue, Jul 16, 1996, 4:18 AM
Subject: request

dear sanet'ers . . . 

the following item came across agnet recently . . .

11 Jul 1996
Manitoba Co-operator
A series of stories about organic agriculture. A study just released by
Dakota State University found the overall incomes of sustainable farmers
behind those of conventional farmers. But when their incomes were compared
a per-acre basis, the gap between the two groups closed.  The second
income source for sustainable farmers was livestock sales, while government

program payments were the second largest income source for conventional 
farmers. The study found that sustainable farmers grew more crops, and
included alternative crops such as alfalfa, buckwheat, hay, millet, oats or

rye. They nearly always raised livestock as well. Conventional farmers grew

more soybeans and wheat. 
AGnet July 12/96
Douglas A Powell <dpowell@uoguelph.ca>
Saturday 13 July 1996 3:49 AM