Sunday, August 31, 2003
In Countdown to Cancun
Kevin Watkins, head of research at Oxfam, repeats the muddled nonsense about agricultural subsidies so often heard of late. Using a combination of half truths and carefully selected case studies Watkins constructs a completely false picture of current agricultural practice in the developed world, a wildly unlikely scenario for unsubsidized free trade and a deceitfully false restatement of reform commitments.
Nobody gets rich from agriculture. Food is cheap and getting cheaper like all commodities. If the developed world bought as much food as the LDCs could produce and only produced to make up the shortfall the LDCs would still be poor. This is perfectly clear when we consider crops such as coffee that are not produced in developed countries. Oxfam's own reports document this and propose quotas, tariffs and subsidies for those coffee producers.
We have to think dynamically to see how changes in trade relations will turn out. If cotton, one of the commodities Oxfam bleats about, was no longer subsidized and so no longer produced in developed countries the demand for cotton would raise the price. But that would cause more cotton to be planted wherever it can be cheaply produced. Soon, as with coffee, there would be too much cotton and the price would fall below production cost. In time production would fall to meet demand and the price would be that of the lowest cost producer, the poorest of the poor. And they would stay poor.
Worse, those LDCs would face increasing costs of production over time and degraded environments as they exhausted their soils, used their water and plowed their meadows to produce a low priced commodity. There is a fundamental asymmetry when the environmental cost of producing a commodity occurs in a different place than where the commodity is consumed.
The relationship of agricultural production to environmental management is what US/EU subsidy reform proposals that decouple subsidy from production address. If the environmental management costs of agricultural products were included in their prices food would be too expensive for poor people to purchase.
Those poor people could be directly subsidized by their governments, given direct aid to buy food. But unless there were trade barriers cheap food would be imported from countries less concerned about their environments. To keep domestic food prices low farmers would be paid to do environmental management, subsidized at a flat rate independent of their production levels.
There are many defects in current US/EU subsidy programs that would be improved by changing from subsidy of production to subsidy, in effect, of land. The subsidies would be more evenly distributed among farmers. Market distortions that cause excess production of subsidized crops would end. Farmers would make their planting decisions based on their land's capabilities and market needs rather than government programs.
A sensible plan for agriculture that addresses the whole system needs to pay farmers enough to live well, manage the environment well and produce proper amounts of food and fiber. Each country needs to do this, rich or poor. Viewing food only in economic terms, as a commodity, leads to nonsense policies that don't achieve the required outcomes.
Seeking to grow richer from the export of cheap commodities is the wrong policy. The sensible thing to do when you have easy access to cheap and abundant raw materials is to develop value added products made from those materials. If you have cheap cotton then make cloth, clothing and industrial products for sale to rich markets. If you have cheap raw coffee beans then roast them, grind them, package them and advertise them to rich markets. Build brand name recognition and loyalty. The French don't sell grapes, they sell wine. Vertically integrating diversifies the economy and builds manufacturing capabilities that become self sustaining and spawn new applications. It provides jobs for different skill sets and creates a more robust and resilient society. If there are trade barriers for these value added goods then that is where pressure and negotiation should be applied.
Saturday, August 30, 2003
This New Scientist essay by Debora MacKenzie criticizes agricultural practices by painting a scenario of a great die off of humanity during the 21st century due to agricultural collapse on a global scale. The scenario is presented as an address to the Edinburgh Science Festival on the first day of the 22nd century.
By the 1990s it was apparent that population growth had slowed, and in 1994 demographers predicted that numbers would stabilise at 9 billion by 2050. Many people stopped worrying about a population crisis.
As we all now know, the demographers were half right. The population did reach 9 billion. But it didn't stay there long. By the 2050s, food production was declining sharply, and in many places, high-yield agriculture collapsed completely. This led to the great famines. Meanwhile, population density triggered two other agents of decline: the great migrations and the plagues. World population plummeted.
For many people these sorts of pseudo-scientific screeds are as close as they ever get to actual scientific knowledge or agronomic practice. Such essays just seem silly to those who have a smattering of knowledge but the majority of people can't refute them and tend to give them credence since they are published in decent quality popular periodicals which also publish sound popularizations of recent scientific papers.
This is an example of political subversion of science of the kind posted about in Creative Darwinism. MacKenzie is not an environmentalist, she's a politician using environmental doom scenarios as a wedge issue to advance a political agenda. Fomenting an atmosphere of crisis and impending disaster to persuade people to empower authoritarian governments that promise to save them from calamity is a practice as old as civilization but still sometimes successful.
As MacKenzie demonstrates it's really quite easy to do. All that is required is an assumption of worst case outcomes for all current issues and a careful selection of cited data points to omit any contrary information. In doing so the scenario can be defended as being plausible, though it's not, and immunize the creator of the scenario from criticism. She will not be held accountable for her public assertions though she has done harm to society by releasing a mental plague virus. We do not consistently punish this crime and have no good methods to do so that would not stifle social speech. It is interesting to note that this wanton act of destruction could well be more dangerous to humanity in the coming decades than any biological replicator.
A few extra data points may help slow the spread of this virus. The most important one is that though all of the threats to agriculture noted by MacKenzie are real they are all well known and techniques to alleviate them are already in use. Agriculture is not static or monolithic. New methods emerge from universities as well as other public and private research centers faster than anyone can consume them. Some ideas are at the theoretical stage, some are in laboratory test, some are in field trial, some are in tentative commercial use and some are current state of practice on a regional basis. Each region has its own current evolutionary state and changes at different rates. This broad diversity of practice and continuous state of change reveals the naivety of scenarios like MacKenzie's.
I won't do a full frontal fisking of the essay but a few specific data points to refute MacKenzie's overwrought assertions may be useful.
Chemical fertilisers could replace the mineral nutrients taken by the plants, but couldn't restore the soil's fine microstructure.
True, but they help quite a lot when used as part of an integrated system. Agricultural soils are exhausted only a few years after first being put into cultivation. For thousands of years farmers coped with this by serial use of land, first by slash and burn migration of field use and later by rotation and fallowing. It wasn't until the fifteenth century in Europe that western farmers began to consciously amend their soils by importing fertility. They added chemicals such as lime and gypsum to increase calcium and sulfur, rock dust to increase phosphorous, and grew nitrogen fixing legumes as a cover crop, inter crop or sub crop. They consciously managed their fields by rotating from crop back to pasture and so further improved their fields by the beneficial addition of dung and urine from grazers.
These farmers grew quite skilled in the chemical analysis of soil using the most sensitive instruments available - their noses and tongues. An experienced farmer can tell you the PH of soil and it's calcium content to a high degree of accuracy by taste of the soil and the plants growing there. Scientists and naive observers often misunderstand this due to conflicting terminology and ways of knowing. When a farmer says that soil is sweet or sour he is commenting on the PH.
Not surprisingly, some of the best farmers using these new methods were accused of witchcraft, especially if there was an existing grievance such as religious conflict. These good farmers were driven off and their lands seized. One especially competent group, the various sects of Anabaptists, fled Europe for the new world and can still be found in many parts of north and south America, often with prosperous and healthy farms.
Recent advances in the development of soil analysis equipment have made sophisticated chemical testing widely and cheaply available, and continuing progress with remote sensing and communication capabilities allow continuous real time monitoring. When used as part of integrated systems specifically designed to optimize soil fertility and structure it becomes possible to maintain fields in good tilth while in continuous use.
By 2000 we had pushed the plants to their limits.
Thirsty farm animals increased the demand for water. But their major impact was on grain reserves: it takes 3 kilograms of grain to produce 1 kilogram of meat.
Nonsense. A full grown cow drinks 30 gallons of water on a hot, dry day. The average urban American uses over ten times that much, often 20 times as much, just for domestic purposes. The inflated claims for livestock water use are based on the water used to grow the grain fed to them. But, they are only fed grain because it is abundant, cheap and high in carbohydrates that make them fat. Slow maturing animals, such as cattle, only get grain for a short period while they are finished (fattened) for market.
Where grain is not abundant or cheap livestock eat natural diets. Ruminants such as cattle, sheep and goats - animals with cloven hooves that chew their cud - evolved to eat grasses and thrive on them. Birds, such as chickens, do eat seeds but specialize in bugs and worms which are sources of high quality protein, as well as getting a significant percentage of their diet from grasses. Pigs are omnivores, like people, and can be pastured just like cows. Supplementing these animals with grains is a marketing decision, a way to fatten them faster and increase productivity that makes sense when the cost of grain is low.
In many parts of the world animals get little or no supplements. They are grazers all their lives. The fields they graze are among the most healthy and fertile agricultural lands on the planet. New Zealand, Australia and S. America are masters at pastoral agriculture and produce some of the finest meat, dairy and fiber products. In many parts of N. America and Europe the post WWII practice of massive grain supplementation is being curtailed or abandoned. Animals are being let out of confinement and returned to pastures for both economic, agronomic and nutritional reasons. These animals are healthier, more flavorful and produce more healthful meat and milk.
As this practice increases less land is cropped. Returning tired crop land to pasture restores it and increases total biomass produced as well as biodiversity. What makes this transition viable is the development of a suite of techniques and technologies. The techniques involve close coordination of pasture growth and consumption to maximize nutritional content and volume.
Pastures and grazers coevolved, adapted to one another, and both thrive in the presence of the other. It may seem contradictory that grass thrives when grazed, that it needs its predators, but grass evolved in the (anthropomorphizing) expectation of being grazed, trampled, shat upon and then abandoned for a time to recover while the grazing herd moved on to greener pastures.
Herd migration is not possible where there are cropped fields, roads and other human land uses. Land is fenced and livestock have less room to roam. Migration can be simulated by subdividing fields into small paddocks and moving animals from one to the next in rotations that allow the herd effect - intensive use followed by periods of rest. But, fences are expensive and the required size of a paddock varies with the season as grasses grow at different rates depending on day length, temperature and moisture. Recent advances in portable electric fence technologies have solved this problem. Grazing managers can quickly and cheaply set up light weight temporary fences and vary paddock size as conditions require.
This is a management intensive activity that requires skill, knowledge and attention but it requires comparatively few resources. Some managers simulate natural conditions to an even greater extent by managing multiple species on the same land. For example cattle, goats and chickens can be rotated through the same paddocks and each species finds their own type of preferred foods. They benefit one another because they don't share diseases or parasites. Gut worms that infect cattle spend part of their lives in the grass and depend on being consumed along with grass to get into a host. When a goat eats them they are foiled. The opposite is true for goat parasites. Chickens eat every bug and worm they can catch. They'll pick apart dung pats to get at any larvae excreted by cattle or deposited in the pats by flying insects such as flies. This further reduces the parasite load. Multi-species grazing increases the productivity of the land and the health of all species.
At the end of the article MacKenzie finally gets to the real subject; world domination.
Sometimes I wonder whether it would have been different if, when industry globalised at the start of the millennium, political power had globalised too. I know the idea of global government is a heresy. But so many of our crises were outside the realm of corporate concern, and beyond the power of national and regional governments. A global authority might have been able to monitor and perhaps stem the spread of human, animal and crop diseases.
This is pure rubbish. People, corporations and governments are all aware of the issues and are actively working to address them. Their diversity and personal interest in the issues is the perfect match for the types of problems they face. They are quicker to identify problems and quicker to respond. Diversity in analysis and response is a discovery machine that allows parallel development of varied methods and selection of superior solutions which can be shared about. The absolute worst thing we could do is to impede this form of organization which so perfectly matches the natural systems in question which are themselves developing new attacks in a distributed fashion.
The natural threats of globalization arise from increased communication and transportation. Pests have more contacts in more places with more various life forms. This presents them with more challenges and more opportunities from which they develop more varied methods to thrive. The same factors operate for farmers. They get more information at lower cost about varied techniques and technologies they can use to pursue their interests. The competition between life forms is eternal.
MacKenzie's worst case exaggerations for political purposes are foolish and despicable but so would be an opposite scenario of some fantasy future where all problems are solved by some combination of technology and organizational wisdom. It won't happen either way, the future will be like the present and the past. People will continue to have problems and continue to develop solutions. There will be material progress as there has been in the past, the trend to do more with less will continue, the trend of substituting knowledge for material resources will continue but things will never be easy.
We are our only worthy opponents. The only truly dangerous threat is people like MacKenzie. If we come to ruin it will be for social reasons not natural or technological reasons. We have the choice. We can learn to live well together as we must to be so numerous and powerful or we can shrink from the task and retreat into seductive utopian illusions that will end in grief.
Friday, August 29, 2003
In Leftist Criticism of "Nature" Environmental Protection in a Postmodern Age Paul Wapner
runs a few laps around the various modern, post-modern and post-post-modern views of environmentalism. It's not simply an exercise, he actually goes somewhere and by taking the scenic route and pausing to observe and evaluate selected monuments and trail markers he illuminates a murky subject.
His purpose is to rescue environmentalism from the post-modern critique which is so influential for leftists. His method is to build a well reasoned account of the observations and ideas that make the PM critique valid and then offer a way past that critique that doesn't simply dismiss it as sophistry.
First he establishes why the PM critique is important to leftists.
Postmodernism is a natural ally of the left in that it deconstructs existing conditions and shows that, although they may appear natural or necessary, they are really contingent; they can be changed. This is a doctrine that has helped people look critically at their society and consider the possibility of other arrangements.
Then he states the critique.
Leftist critiques of environmentalism start from this same premise. They point out that our notions of nature-the nonhuman world that environmentalists care so much about-are themselves social constructions and thus subject to various interpretations, none of which can provide absolute guidance for environmental policy. We never experience nature directly but always through the lenses of our own values and assumptions. "Nature" is thus not simply a physical entity that is "out there" or given; it is an idea that takes on different meanings in different cultural contexts, a social construction that directs us to see mountains, rivers, trees, and deserts in particular ways. Raymond Williams expressed this understanding when he wrote, "The idea of nature contains, though often unnoticed, an extraordinary amount of human history." To postmodernists, "nature" is not something the mind discovers but something that it makes.
What one person values as an endangered species is potential income, a threat, or dinner to someone else. Leftist criticism has been important in reminding us that "nature" is not a single realm with a universalized meaning, but a canvas on which we project our sensibilities, our culture, and our ideas about what is socially necessary.
The traditional environmentalist position is modernist and unable to refute the leftist critique other than to dismiss it and reassert the modernist view.
Yes, they say, there is a social dimension to how we think about nature, but nature is fundamentally a physical entity, and our understanding of it can be based on clear-eyed observation, direct experience, and scientific description. The whole notion that nature is constructed is simply intellectual sophistry practiced by those who either spend too much time indoors or who work at such high levels of abstraction that they never engage the phenomenal world.
But there is some importance to developing a response to the leftist critique since anti-environmentalists make good use of it.
When anti-environmentalists claim that, because there is no authentic entity called "nature," we can choose to use trees, animals, canyons, and rivers as we see fit, staunch environmental modernists have little to say. They can disagree about first principles, complain about ontological and epistemological premises, but beyond this they have little to say. Simply rejecting eco-criticism and reasserting a modernist narrative doesn't reckon with the intellectual weight of contemporary attacks on "nature."
One attempt at response circles back to an older concept of stewardship that Berry might find compelling.
A second, more engaging, response goes in the other direction. It comes from people who agree with the critique of "nature" and, by way of response, advocate a post-nature environmentalism. Because everything we call "nature" is relative to our ideas, they argue, we should accept (indeed, embrace) our role as creators of "nature" and assume full responsibility for governing the so-called natural world. ... Noting the ungrounded character of the idea of nature, Walter Truett Anderson suggests that we see ourselves for what we, in fact, are: eco-artists-designers and builders of the nonhuman world. This second response calls for dispensing with the category of nature altogether and fashioning an environmentalism along other lines of interest and concern.
Wapner sees a flaw in this ungrounded view since "dispensing with the category of "nature" means that there are no reigning guidelines for valuing one set of arrangements, or one artistic creation, over another" and proposes a way out.
I would like to present a third response to contemporary eco-criticism, accepting the intellectual insights of postmodern critics and, at the same time, providing some guidelines for protecting the nonhuman world. My argument will focus less on the fundamental character of reality-an endless debate-and more on the ethics of environmentalism. The two responses that I've just described ask whether a postmodern sensibility has the right epistemological or ontological "take" on reality-with the first denying and the second defending the rightness. I will ask instead how we want to live in the world and what kind of people we want to be. But I will try to build my answers on (or out of) the ontological debris created by postmodern criticism.
But Wapner's proposal, an ethical system, is no more grounded than the aesthetic system proposed by Anderson. Both are important and useful perspectives that contribute to the simple fact that we do have to choose "how we want to live in the world and what kind of people we want to be", but they need grounding.
Wapner provides a basis for a more grounded view when he says: "... preserving the nonhuman world-in all its diverse embodiments-must be seen by eco-critics as a fundamental good." This is not an ethical issue, it is sound biology. It is life itself that is useful, indeed a requirement, for human existence. Policies that tend to increase life tend to be useful for humans and other life. We can make choices based on aesthetics and ethics but they are constrained by the need to privilege abundance and diversity of life.
There are practical applications of this more grounded approach for resolving some of the agricultural issues discussed in earlier posts. Environmentalists object to industrial agriculture enabled by subsidized production, especially of grains. Fair trade advocates object as well since it leads to overproduction and dumping, acts which they claim keep poor countries poor.
So we can ask: Is a maize field good? Does it make sense to grow maize to make food or fuel?
And we can answer: No, a maize field has very little life, compared to a natural meadow or prairie, and extremely little diversity. A healthy meadow has more biomass below ground - worms, fungi, insects, bacteria, burrowing mammals, etc - than a maize field has above ground. The meadow also has much life above ground. All things considered it is incomparably more alive and diverse.
We can't stop growing grain and still have human civilization but it is clear that choosing to grow more than is needed, especially for wasteful objectives such as fuel, is not a sensible aesthetic or ethical choice.
How about an old growth forest? Is it good, in need of preservation? Would more life exist if the forest was managed to be diverse, with a mix of young, middle aged and old growth? Would there be more diversity of life in a mixed age forest? Yes, in most types of forest there would be far more life and far more diverse life if managed to be mixed age rather than old growth. There are exceptions, not all forests are alike, and there are possibly forms of life that are unique to old growth forests. Details count but by using the concepts of existence and diversity rather than fuzzy aesthetic and ethical decision tools we can make useful judgements.
How about ethical systems. Shall we be vegetarians because we measure the value of life on an anthropocentric scale, life more like ourselves is more valuable? No, growing maize, wheat, soybeans, rice etc. greatly diminishes life though it is most destructive of life forms least like ourselves. Fungi, worms and bacteria, grass and weeds are not cute, don't have doe eyes to tug our heart strings but are much more essential to environmental health. Better we should have more meadows and eat higher on the food chain since it is less destructive.
The leftist critique of environmentalism is useful, a tool to help think our way past the Ludditism and anti-humanism of the green barbarians-in-training. But we still need grounding in physical reality to constrain the range of aesthetic and ethical choices we might make and so make better decisions. Repeatedly applying the principle of maximizing biomass and biodiversity to human agriculture, industry and settlement practices would not only 'preserve' wilderness, it would heal areas already made comparatively lifeless. Human behaviors - diet, leisure, housing, industry etc, - can all be measured against this metric and provide useful policies. Where there is conflict - humans do love their maize and pasta - we can knowingly bear the consequences rather than wallowing in confusion about our acts. The amount of life is a barometer of our activity telling us whether our actions endanger ourselves and the other.
Thursday, August 28, 2003
This essay, Reclaiming the Commons by David Bollier published in the New Democracy Forum of the Boston Review voices the views most directly refuted by Berry.
One of the great questions of contemporary American political economy is, who shall control the commons? "The commons" refers to that vast range of resources that the American people collectively own, but which are rapidly being enclosed: privatized, traded in the market, and abused. The process of converting the American commons into market resources can accurately be described as enclosure because, like the movement to enclose common lands in eighteenth-century England, it involves the private appropriation of collectively owned resources.
The commons and enclosure are archaic, unfamiliar terms. But this strangeness is appropriate. We currently lack a vocabulary for identifying a wide range of abuses that harm public assets and social ecology.
What Bollier reveals is a complete lack of scholarship about the historical events and institutions he cites as well as complete misunderstanding of America. In Berry's words:
Historically, the commons belonged to the local community, not to "the public." The possibility of a commons, in the true sense, depends on local adaptation, a process in which Americans have, at times and in places, made a few credible beginnings, always frustrated by the still-dominant belief that local adaptation does not matter because localities do not matter. At present it is generally true that we do not know in any useful sense where we are, much less how to act on the basis of such knowledge. If we humans know where we are and how to live well and conservingly there, then we can have and use the place "in common." Otherwise - and it is still far otherwise with us - we must find appropriate ways to parcel out, and so limit, both privilege and responsibility.
Bollier's points regarding tangible assets such as land are undermined by his confused use of the concept of a commons and end up being little more than advocacy for state control. But as Berry has so eloquently pointed out this is a recipe for destruction of assets because they are treated as assets rather than someone's home and life.
Bollier continues to spin in confusion by claiming that intangible assets such as knowledge are a sort of commons, by which he mistakenly means owned by the public rather than a community intimately aware of how to live well and honor the requirements of that commons. It has been said that knowledge is power and in a sense it always has been. In the past before the concept of enforceable intellectual property rights existed knowledge was hoarded and concealed, only revealed to initiates in guilds and societies since that was the source of their livelihood and power. The system of lawful uses of knowledge and intellectual products opened up the secret societies so that knowledge could be expanded by building on those foundations. Trade secrets are still kept but not to the extent they once were and usually not to useful effect. The secret recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken's 11 herbs and spices is a marketing claim not a concealment of knowledge.
In a final confusion Bollier attempts to redefine community creations, such as Linux, as a commons in the sense he means of public ownership. That isn't how it works.
Bollier's failed metaphors have collapsed at this point in his essay but he doesn't notice and claims:
In an age of market triumphalism and economic myopia, it is an open question whether the notion of "commonwealth"—that we are a people with shared history, common values, and control over collectively owned assets—has practical meaning. As private interests have quietly seized the American commons, we have lost sight of our heritage as a democratic commonwealth. A society in which every human transaction is increasingly mediated by the market, in which everything is privately owned and controlled, may come to resemble a network of medieval fiefdoms, in which every minor property-holder demands tribute for the right to cross his land or ford his streams. This balkanization is bound to impede the flow of commerce and ideas—and the sustainability of innovation and democratic culture. 2 Furthermore, such extreme market dominance tends to undermine the civic trust and shared commitments required by any functioning society.
He commits the post modern sin of analytic collapse by equating markets with feudalism though they have nothing in common. More importantly, he has it quite backwards. It is bureaucracy that creates transaction friction between political boundaries. Market players do everything they can to reduce transaction friction and so increase trade. They have strong incentives to do so since transaction costs simply make some markets untenable. When the cost of metering and billing for goods and services exceeds their value then there is no market.
Markets fail when there are no ways to measure and value the resources used in producing a product or service. As Berry makes plain agriculture, silvaculture, fisheries and other forms of natural resource extraction have this problem because we currently have no ways to measure environmental change or assign values so that the products can include those costs in their prices. Subsidies, tariffs, quotas and other forms of regulation can help with these problems so long as we understand what we are doing and why we are doing it. Where there is a true commons - where there is a community of practice where all are engaged in shared use of resources, understand the issues involved with common use, and are accountable to one another for fair use - then market regulation is not required.
The tragic consequences for large numbers of humans that resulted from failure to understand human behavior, societies and other complex natural systems in the past century need to be fully understood. Statism and collectivism in the failed idea that this somehow represents public ownership of assets and that this mythical public can somehow do a competent job of managing those assets has caused the impoverishment of societies and the destruction of environments on a grand scale. A useful mental tool for resisting the temptations of this simplistic and ineffective approach to social organization is to understand what a commons really is and how it differs from state/public ownership.
Wednesday, August 27, 2003
This essay Environmental Colonialism by Robert Nelson deals with another aspect of the issues of land, property and environment discussed earlier the Wendell Berry essay.
The greatest current efforts to “save” Africa are associated with contemporary
environmentalism. The results have not been as devastating as the experience of slavery,
yet they have often served Western interests and goals much more than the interests
of ordinary Africans. In some cases, local populations have been displaced and
impoverished in order to create national parks and to serve other conservation objectives.
Under the banner of saving the African environment, Africans in the last half
century have been subjected to a new form of “environmental colonialism.”
In further exploring the neocolonial character of Western environmentalism in
the African setting, I draw here on an impressive body of recent scholarly research.
Many of these studies are by people who would be placed on the traditional left of the
political spectrum. As seen from their perspective, it is no longer businessmen who are
today most likely to be exploiting Africans for their own gain (most current capitalists
are actually almost entirely indifferent to Africa, preferring to put their money elsewhere,
where the returns are higher and more predictable), but rather the activities of
the environmental movement.
I am not suggesting that the problems of environmental colonialism have gone
entirely unnoticed until now; some observers, even some within important components
of the environmental community, have noticed it. Indeed, for at least a decade
international conservationists based for the most part in southern and eastern Africa
have led a strong movement for community-based natural resource management
(CBNRM) (Hulme and Murphree 2001; Western, Wright, and Strum 1994). The
CBNRM advocates have argued that successful wildlife conservation requires the
assistance of local African populations (Child 1995; Murombedzi 1992) and have
emphasized the importance of local economic benefits in order to create positive
incentives for the protection of wildlife.
Nelson speaks at length about the moral and ideological failures of environmental NGOs whose efforts disenfranchise, displace and impoverish African people. More important perhaps is the fact that their policies are bad for the environment. When African people are removed from their lands then no one is left to know it, love and protect it. The environmentalists want people removed from the land so that they won't use it, won't eat the creatures or use forest resources. This doesn't stop other people from using the forest resources, but they are only interested in extracting wealth, the quicker the better. So, guns are hired to police the forests and smugglers and poachers play a game of cops and robbers with them.
There is something thoroughly broken about this western environmentalist vision of depeopled lands that is especially poignant in Africa, the home of humanity. Environments are changed by people and when people are numerous and powerful change can be great. We have a long historical record of such changes in the old world - in the middle east, Asia and Europe - and a shorter but more precise record in the new world - in N. America, New Zealand, Hawaii and Australia. Only S. America and Africa have remained comparatively poor with large areas of low human population and so less changed. The urge to put fences around these remaining places and only allow people to visit is mistaken. While populations must be constrained and use must be limited to avoid the massive changes industrialized countries have inflicted on their own lands, local populations with intimate knowledge living on and from the land are the very best ones to do that.
Tuesday, August 26, 2003
An interesting essay
about the foundations of public sector policy confusion.
Being a ‘Renaissance person’ was a lot easier in the Renaissance than it is now. Trying to bring together knowledge from different pools risks ridicule from the inhabitants of each of these highly specialised knowledge ponds.
I was, for a decade or so in the 1970s, a Marxist of the Trotskyist, new left, variety. It was an article of faith on the left - not just Marxists but virtually all progressives - that there was no such thing as ‘human nature’. Whenever argument flared on this issue the works of anthropologists like Margaret Mead and her famous ‘Coming of Age in Samoa’ were called in aid of the infinite variety of human cultures that ‘proved’ there could be no such thing as human nature. Human behaviour was constrained by social-economic, political and cultural forms not by inheritance. Both individually and collectively any ‘bad’ behaviour was merely the result of inadequate social systems, and new and better ones had to be created either by reform or revolution.
I believe some of the major problems in social sciences today are a result of the on-going split between social and physical sciences. Social scientists have only avoided confronting the findings of modern biology, behavioural genetics and evolutionary psychology by remaining in splendid isolation and even ignorance of these developments. This has left us vulnerable to those who have developed more consistent approaches, especially the (one-sided) views of the rational-choice economists. On the other hand, I believe that evolutionary psychologists could benefit from the challenge of the ideas about paradox, derived from organisational theory, which I have tried to develop in this article. It is time, I believe, for a little more ‘militant eclecticism’, more ‘consilience’, and a little less academic isolationism.
This essay is another aspect of the idea in the previous few posts that multidisciplinary approaches can allow progress on a host of problems that have bedeviled public policy.
This Science Magazine Essay
about the GDR theoretical biologist Georg Schneider who was "a propagandist for an allegedly progressive, antifascist Soviet biology, which it was important to defend against a supposedly reactionary bourgeois genetics with its racist tendencies", i.e. a Lysenkoist, is a useful cautionary tale in that there are other creative Darwinist groups still active. Politics and ideology can subvert scientific practice but they can't subvert science. Subverting scientific practice harms societies that do so.
The Ukrainian agronomist Trofim D. Lysenko (1898-1976) became well known in the 1930s through his research into Jarowization (the cold treatment of seed to stimulate germination), which meant grain could be sown in the spring instead of the previous fall. This made it theoretically possible to extend land use within the Soviet Union for agriculture. Building on this early success, Lysenko developed his anti-Mendelian theories over the next few decades. His idea--that acquired characters could be inherited--was totally at odds with what was known about genetics at this time. This notion was first known as "Michurin biology" [Ivan D. Michurin (1855-1935) was an early proponent of acquired inheritance, gaining his ideas from fruit-tree selection studies] and later as "creative Darwinism."
American Scientist Online - Ethnoclimatology in the Andes
"For at least the past four centuries, indigenous potato farmers of the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes have gathered in midwinter to gaze up into the night sky and observe the Pleiades. If this star cluster appears big and bright to them, they think that they will have plentiful rains and big harvests the next summer; if the cluster appears small and dim, they anticipate less abundance. Their belief is so strong that they time the planting of their crops accordingly. One might imagine that this practice amounts to nothing more than an odd superstition, but it turns out that this scheme actually works: The apparent size and brightness of the Pleiades varies with the amount of thin, high cloud at the top of the troposphere, which in turn reflects the severity of El Niño conditions over the Pacific. Because rainfall in this region is generally sparse in El Niño years, this simple method provides a valuable forecast, one that is as good or better than any long-term prediction based on computer modeling of the ocean and atmosphere."
This is another example of the need for multidisciplinary approaches to natural systems research and a trenchant example of tacit knowledge. What these farmers have known for 400 years using their local way of knowing was incomprehensible to science researchers until very recently.
This paper gives an interesting perspective on the Wendell Berry essay mentioned earlier
Conservation Ecology: Cultural Landscapes as a Methodology for Understanding Natural Resource Management Impacts in the Western United States:
"Inadequate cultural knowledge stems from the current approaches, the formats of which do not bring out deeper understanding of other cultural groups’ relationships with the land. In a public forum, for example, an Indian person might state that the mountain is sacred, which non-Indian people hear as religion. Although religion is part of what is meant by sacred, it is not the entire or even dominant meaning. The lack of understanding results from using one culture’s term for another culture’s concept, and from the reluctance to express intimate feelings or share sensitive knowledge in a public forum (Appendix 2).
The lack of a consistent strategy to obtain cultural knowledge stems from the traditional management approach that relies on biophysical sciences to understand natural resources, and on social sciences, such as history, archaeology, and sociology, to understand cultural resources. Each science may provide an understanding of a resource, but those understandings often are not contextualized or are restricted to material or man-made cultural items." [emphasis added]
Conservation Ecology is a fine journal published by The Resilience Alliance. "The Resilience Alliance is a multidisciplinary research group that explores the dynamics of complex adaptive systems in order to discover foundations for sustainability." They are holistic, take the long view of the big picture, as well as assiduously measuring and modelling particular systems. They believe that it is possible to usefully model complex systems with a small number of factors if they are well chosen and well measured.
That Rebecca S. Toupal recognizes the disconnect of scientists from the systems they study, and the fragmentation of scientific disciplines which map poorly to reality, is a measure of the quality of the journal and the promise of their multidisciplinary approach.
But it also seems like the efforts of the android Commander Data to understand humans so that he can behave appropriately and perhaps have a sort of transcendent experience. If we are generous we can agree that his computational intelligence is conscious, that he is not a clever flat-line that simulates consciousness well enough to fool Turing and Searles, but even so he is not human and will never understand humans unless he is sufficiently superior to humans to model them within himself, while remaining himself. He would have to be vast.
What the scientists attempting to model natural systems that include humans don't have is the intimate tacit knowledge Berry speaks of in his essay. More importantly, even if we granted the eventual ability of the scientists to fully model these complex systems they still couldn't operate them, couldn't define policies that could be implemented to allow remote powers to control local systems, to regulate them. To Berry's assertion that "If one out of every two of us should become a public official, we would be no nearer to good land stewardship than we are now" we can add "no matter how many computers they have or how sophisticated their models".
That doesn't mean that the scientists efforts are wasted or that their models have no value. If Berry's interested and engaged residents living on the land, by the land, had these tools in addition to their tacit and experiential knowledge they could make good use of them. This principle generalizes. Scientists should come to see that their clients are not public agencies, they are the people and systems being studied. The tools and techniques they develop should be informed by this reality from beginning to end.
Monday, August 25, 2003
An NSU brief highlights a laboratory in Kampala, Uganda devoted to improving bananas through biotechnology. [the faux green crowd moans].
Ugandans consume more bananas than anyone else - each year they grow and eat 11 million tonnes of East African highland bananas, a savoury version of the yellow fruit that is such big business in the West. Farmed solely for local consumption, the crop is a cornerstone of most meals and is used for brewing beer.
Because edible bananas do not produce seeds, new groves are planted from cuttings of existing stock. This spreads diseases and pests such as the black sigatoka fungus, root- munching worms, and weevils.
But the institute's main purpose is to genetically modify bananas. The fruit's sterility hampers breeding to fight off pests and diseases. Crossing disease-resistant varieties with popular crops is usually possible only through gene insertion.
"In no other crop is there stronger justification for genetic transformation," says Frison. He hopes that the government-funded lab will help to win support for genetic modification of bananas in a country that is as resistant to the technology as Europe. "It could focus a sterile debate on a relevant problem," says Frison.
Bananas seem to be the classic example of the perils of asexual reproduction. Bill Hamilton's Red Queen Hypothesis is based on this simple idea, that sex evolved and became dominant because life forms that shuffle their genes this way provide a moving target for diseases and parasites. The diseases and parasites do it too so it is a continual race. As the Red Queen told Alice in Through The Looking Glass "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place".
So why aren't all life forms sexual? Well, sex is hard. It's awkward, expensive, and requires one to seek out and establish a relationship, however brief, with the proper sort of other. Hamilton demonstrated with computer models that asexual life forms out compete sexual life forms, all things being equal, in simple situations. But, life isn't simple and with the added complexity of parasites Hamilton's models showed sexual life forms were often more successful.
Often more successful, not always more successful. Asexual life forms have defenses too. Parasites might kill some of the species but other families of members can be resistant. The resistant members survive and proliferate. Each family of the asexual species might have slightly different defenses but when a parasite attacks a family lacking a defense for that particular parasite their arsenal of defenses, useless in this instance, is lost to the species.
Sexual life forms do better at keeping large arsenals of defenses, promiscuously sharing their techniques about with one another to the benefit of their weans. However, they are also more likely to retain deleterious mutations, unlike asexual life forms that quickly purge themselves of harmful mutations...by dying out. They harbor them as recessive or dormant genes that pop up from time to time.
So, why are bananas asexual? What's their story? Why do they have those large edible fruits with no seeds? Fruits are usually bait that entice other creatures to eat them and the seeds they contain and so spread the seeds about the landscape, often in dung.
Cultivated bananas, most familiarly the Cavendish variety, like seedless grapes, were domesticated, bred by humans to be seedless. Wild bananas have abundant, sometimes huge, seeds but edible (by humans) bananas are seedless. This may have happened as long as 9,000 years ago in Papua New Guinea though it's hard to be sure and some researchers point to S.E. Asia as the origin. It also seems that bananas didn't make it to Africa until 3,000 years ago though there are about 30 different varieties cultivated there.
There are still abundant stocks of wild bananas, plantains, growing all across the southern hemisphere, from Asia to India. It might be possible to breed resistant varieties of edible bananas from this wild stock, but since domestic varieties are sterile and so can't be crossbred with resistant wild varieties this means starting all over again, a process that would take a very long time.
Sunday, August 24, 2003
Reading through the World Development Report 2003: Sustainable Development in a Dynamic Economy
provides a stark contrast to Berry's essay. The report reads as if composed in air so thin that a humble farmer would need a space suit to survive were he ever invited to participate in such a composition. Much of the report has concerns similar to Berry's but completely lacks tacit knowledge of the issues.
This is important because Berry will be ignored, as he has been all these years, while the WDR will be used and referenced widely. Every rent seeker in existence has lobbied the WDR to include their perspectives, to grant them a seat at the table and a place at the trough.
It isn't that the authors and contributing institutions have foul intentions. They're not a cabal of conspirators seeking to exploit the world for their own benefit, not completely. They do all have interests, agendas, biases, careers, reputations and personal capital at stake, but they imagine that they are doing useful work for which they will not be condemned by history.
They are wrong. They approach life as if it were a video game, a virtual reality not much richer than The Sims, and that their cartoon conceptions of people, environments and societies can be modeled and manipulated to implement agendas. They all see the world this way but have slightly differing ideals about which cartoon reality should be programmed, which boxes should be checked on the control lists. They see world governance as a competition among ideals for control of the command console while never understanding that the film will be nothing like the novel, that reality cannot be modeled or controlled by a virtuality less complex than the world itself.
They don't understand people, they don't understand environments and they don't understand societies. No one does. I'm reminded of the saying by Alan Watts:
"Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth."
Approaching world development from above, as a control activity, gives results similar to industrial agriculture. The difficulty, time and expense of nurturing fertile fields, the muck and mystery of intimate involvement with seemingly capricious natural systems, the limitations and inconsistencies of biological life, can be avoided for a time by focusing on just a few major parameters and optimizing them. Abundance can be reliably and uniformly wrested from natural systems with mechanical efficiency.
But, it can't be sustained. The parameters that were ignored in the simplified models, the externalities considered minor or inconsequential to the primary objectives, are important and can't be ignored forever. Over time debts accumulate, systems degrade, and require ever more inputs for diminishing yields. In time such systems collapse or become uneconomic and are abandoned.
Perhaps more importantly such systems are inhuman, depend on eliminating humans from the models as much as possible and sanitizing them when they can't be eliminated. Such systems are unsatisfying while they work and unacceptable when they eventually fail.
It's not enough to speak of sustainability, to add sustainability check boxes to the control system. It's like painting a red heart on the chest of a steel robot to humanize it. The top down approach, the idea that natural systems can be controlled, is false. It's the difference between subsidarity and devolution, little endian as opposed to big endian, emergence as opposed to construction. To succeed sustainability must emerge from the multitude of intimate acts chosen by humans working and living in appropriately scaled environments. It isn't simply an aesthetic preference, a belief, it's an informed judgement about systems design and functioning.
This old Wendell Berry essay, Private Property and the Common Wealth
, amplifies some of the ideas discussed in previous posts about agricultural subsidies but does so in a more passionate and altogether better written way. Berry is a novelist, essayist and poet but also a farmer from a long line of farmers.
His subject is property; private property, public property, commons, commonwealth and the various ways we think about land, communities and nature. His purpose is to advocate conservation. His method is intimacy.
"If in order to protect our forest land we designate it a commons or commonwealth separate from private ownership, then who will care for it? The absentee timber companies who see no reason to care about local consequences? The same government agencies and agents who are failing at present to take good care of our public forests? Is it credible that people inadequately skilled and inadequately motivated to care well for the land can be made to care well for it by public insistence that they do so?
The answer is obvious: you cannot get good care in the use of the land by demanding it from public officials. That you have the legal right to demand it does not at all improve the case. If one out of every two of us should become a public official, we would be no nearer to good land stewardship than we are now. The idea that a displaced people might take appropriate care of places is merely absurd: there is no sense in it and no hope. Our present ideas of conservation and of public stewardship are not enough. Duty is not enough. Sentiment is not enough. No mere law, divine or human, could conceivably be enough to protect the land while we are using it.
If we want the land to be cared for, then we must have people living on and from the land who are able and willing to care for it. If-as the idea of commonwealth clearly implies-landowners and land users are accountable to their fellow citizens for their work, their products, and their stewardship, then these landowners and land users must be granted an equitable membership in the economy."
I think he's right - "you cannot get good care in the use of the land by demanding it from public officials. That you have the legal right to demand it does not at all improve the case" - and that from this truth flow many implications for agricultural policy. By what means can we achieve Berry's idea that "landowners and land users must be granted an equitable membership in the economy"? How can we see to it that farmers are paid an equitable amount for their work? What would this mean for urban consumers, especially those who have little income? Wouldn't they just buy their food elsewhere, buy food imported from other lands where there is no sense of stewardship or where poor farmers sell their produce for a pittance?
Policies about subsidies, protectionism and world citizenship must be illuminated by the requirements of stewardship. It does not seem that market mechanisms are adequate to the task since the concept of stewardship is neither well understood nor widely held. We can clean our own house, gradually eliminate production subsidies and reverse the cheap food policy, but we can't change the world.
Friday, August 22, 2003
Chris Bertram blogged about Crazy science, crazy reporting a few days ago. Chris cited an Observer article by WIll Hutton that wonders:
When our media are more interested in reporting opinion as fact, how will we ever discover the truth?
There are two issues in the problems noted by Hutton:
- Lack of media accountability and self-critcism
- Scientific Misconduct
The two issues mingle in that bad science is eagerly reported by sensationalist media when it fits their agenda and generates revenues. Scientists that have dodgy studies not well received by peers or qualified for publication in reputable journals seek out sensationalist media. In some cases these scientists anticipate peer rejection and seek publication in the popular press before peer review. Usually those scientists have political agendas they consider more important than sound science.
Scientists can face rejection for heresy when their work is revolutionary. Consider Hannes Alfven, 1970 Nobel Prize winner in Physics:
for much of his career Alfven's ideas were dismissed or treated with condescension. He was often forced to publish his papers in obscure journals; and his work was continuously disputed for many years by the most renowned senior scientist in space physics, the British-American geophysicist Sydney Chapman. Even among physicists today there is little awareness of Alfven's many contributions to fields of physics where his ideas are used without recognition of who conceived them.
But Alfven was honorable, he published in obscure journals rather than seeking an audience in the sensational popular press. Would he have acted differently if his work had political implications? Unlikely, but the question is still pertinent for those who do so today. Are they innovators hounded by the academy for heresy or are they nutters?
This is where we depend on the media to self regulate and where they increasingly fail. As Hutton notes:
Britain's least-accountable and self-critical institutions have become the media - and the way they operate is beginning to damage rather than protect the society of which they are part.
It's not just The Guardian and not just Britain that suffers from media failure. The problems in the US with the NY Times are relevant too and whatever can be said about the BBC, Guardian and NYT is even more true in other nations and languages.
The need for critical thinking skills noted by Lawrence Kuhn in the previous post in order to have strong democracies applies to scientists, media and citizens.
Lawrence Kuhn, moderator for the PBS series Closer To Truth, has an interesting advocacy article in American Scientist Online that proposes a causal connection between science and democracy.
science, even "pure" science, can strengthen democracy and promote public participation in the political process
He struggles with correlation and causation...
In general, countries that have stronger sciences have stronger democracies. And in countries where science has little strength and scientific ways of thinking have no apparent impact, governments tend to range from undemocratic to totalitarian. This is quite obviously correlation, not cause—and even if cause, the direction of the causation arrow is unclear. A democratic country might foster science, perhaps as a second-order effect of the prosperity and high literacy conventionally coincident with democracy, just as logically as a scientific country might foster democracy.
but asserts a credible causal connection...
A key to changing the way people think is "critical thinking," the ability to draw logical conclusions, or (more often, in the messy world of social issues) the reverse—to discern gaps in logic, to detect broken conceptual links in the causative chain of, say, campaign promises. Science amplifies our power of discernment; the scientific way of thinking enables us to assess whether facts fit theories, or, in the political arena, whether actual circumstances support proffered positions. Critical thinking is the essence of the scientific method. Knowing the difference between assumption and deduction, and between presumption and proof, can alter one's outlook and transform an electorate. The cognitive skill to distinguish among hope, faith, possibility, probability and certitude are potent weapons in anyone's political survival kit and can be applied in all areas of life and society.
and enumerates the benefits of clear thinking for societies as well as the threats.
A fully democratic political system gives all its citizens the right to choose their leaders and representatives; the reciprocal responsibility, implicit in the social contract, is that citizens exercise their franchise with dedication and discernment. Democracy works successfully only when participants are informed and able to make independent judgments. The degree to which they can be swayed by demagogues, influenced by parochial interests, incited by jingoism, or inflamed by ethnic or religious chauvinism is the degree to which democracy does not work.
It is interesting to review the issues of agricultural subsidies spoken about in previous posts using this lens. Doesn't it seem that the efforts of The Guardian, Oxfam and others are demagogic, parochial, jingoistic? Can we discern the gaps in logic and detect broken conceptual links in the causative chain of their campaigns?
Of course we can as individuals, and have done so, but Kuhn's assertion that the "responsibility, implicit in the social contract, is that citizens exercise their franchise with dedication and discernment" also means that we should speak out and confront the miscreants.
Thursday, August 21, 2003
They've Been Reading My Briefs
kickAAS: A stone thrown into the water . . .: "This is an experiment because it is quite possibly the first time the new medium of weblogs has been used for such an ambitious (non party) political end – the abolition of all agricultural subsidies. It is a massive task. All we have done is to throw a stone into the water to see what ripples it makes."
hmmm, well, yes, that's true. All they've done is make a dramatic gesture, the infosphere equivalent of streaking, and have now reached the uncomfortable moment when the first intimations of doubt tickle the back mind as they realize that they've exposed themselves and may not have the equipment to bear close scrutiny with confidence. They need to either keep running and trust motion to blur the picture, or simply make an exit.
In the comments Reuben notes that "My fear is that by being campaign-based (anti-subsidies) rather than issue-based ("subsidies: discuss"), you may actually draw less people to the issue and thus do less good."
Reuben is right that a campaign-based approach to subsidies will quickly fall flat. Only the nerdiest wonks can maintain fist-in-the-air fervor about such a bloodless issue. However, an issues based approach would require our streaker to undergo a short arm inspection and cavity search in public. An issues-based approach would reveal that agriculture isn't simply an industry that manufactures food and fiber and so would undermine their economically and socially naive arguments.
So, there it is. They've tossed a pebble and have nothing more to say. End of story.
Wednesday, August 20, 2003
kickAAS: Countdown to Cancun
In following the ripple of interest in the blogosphere about eliminating agricultural subsidies my nose for deceit began to itch. Reducing state control of any part of society, especially one that redistributes material, is so contrary to leftist ideology that there has to be a catch, a hidden agenda. The standard explanation - that agricultural subsidies are poorly targeted and end up enriching the rich, that they are a form of corporate welfare - fails given that reform proposals such as Fischler's were not supported.
There hasn't been a Damascene change, Fischler's proposals are still not supported. Every feasible and sensible idea for reform is still rejected by both the left and libertarians on principle - different principles to be sure, but still... What can this mean?
Perhaps it is a means to discredit reform of subsidies while forcing the political opposition into the awkward position of defending them in apparent disregard for the poor starving children of the third world, and so discredit the conservatives while souring the public on market solutions to economic and social problems. It's a triple win; agricultural reform is poisoned for the foreseeable future, conservatives are damaged, and liberalism in general with its focus on markets is damaged too. It's a socialist's wet dream wedge issue, political kung fu that uses the momentum of libertarians, conservatives and other market liberals against them to sweep them off their feet. There is no down side. Even in the extremely unlikely case that agricultural subsidies were eliminated the socialists would still benefit when the disastrous results of such a nonsensical policy eventuated, market failure on a grand scale.
The problem with this sort of tin foil conspiracy thinking is that there is no evidence that socialists are capable of doing the analysis much less the planning to mount such an effort. And if I can see the silliness of their proposals so can those more informed and talented. It's not a conspiracy, it's just a stunt, an attempt by a declining newspaper to gain some street credibility by dabbling in web logging with an issue sure to have support among the large libertarian contingent of the web. The campaign will fail, subsidies will be secure for the foreseeable future, real attempts at reform like those Fischler has proposed will be ignored, and the world will be unaffected. This is the sort of plan The Guardian is capable of making and implementing. It is the sort of destructive, rabble rousing plan that GROLIES can tolerate if not love.
Monday, August 18, 2003
The Guardian, confused and thoughtless as ever, has started a web log
to advocate abolishing all agricultural subsidies. The kick-off
post and associated responses preview what some have called a looney alliance of leftists and libertarians and others have called typical leftist attack on conservative rural values and communities. It may be all of those things but subsidies are an important issue.
Agricultural subsidies are damaging when they target production. This leads to overproduction, lowering prices and leading to further subsdised dumping in foreign markets. The benefits of production subsidies disproportionately accrue to high volume producers, which leads to industry concentration seeking economies of scale, as well as leading to agronomic methods that privilege production over resilience.
Fischler's reform proposals deserve attention since they advocated switching subsidy away from production to more durable agronomic concerns such as environmental management. Those proposals also advocate gradual lowering of subsidy level. When we look at the whole agroeconomic system rather than peering down a tube focused on just one bit of the system where there seems to be a political opportunity then Fischler's proposals seem quite good.
Farming is not just widget manufacture, not properly an industry like textile or automobile production, it is also land management. It is extensive rather than intensive. It is location dependent in ways that integrated circuit fabrication is not and slower to respond to changes in production strategy. Sitting in an office manipulating numbers and planning agricultural policy as an abstraction which equates the production of food and fiber with other types of production leads to nonsense policies.
Local production of food and fiber is not just a warm and fuzzy idea embraced by short sighted and narrow minded green barbarians-in-training. Every place requires management. Neglecting lands in service of a false concept of unmanaged wilderness doesn't bring about a pristine, primitive wilderness, it brings about an unlovely mess that may over geologic spans of time evolve to a self regulating though unstable wilderness very little like the one that existed before humans began managing the land eons ago.
Farmers have two major tasks; they produce food and fiber and they manage the majority of the world's area. Their activities determine air and water quality, soil fertility and bio-diversity, as well as food quality and volume. However, they are only paid for the food and fiber since environmental quality and aesthetics are not explicitly valued. They might get a little compensation from tourists but even that money is not well targeted or sufficient to reward good management. The most important aspects of farming for sustainability and resilience are externalities ignored by subsidies for production.
Eliminating production and export subsidies would stop ruinous over production but would not solve the existing problem of unbalanced valuation which ignores the value of land management to society. It would doom farmers to lives of comparative poverty and drive them from the land. Agriculture would become a bipolar mix of impoverished peasant small holders and huge agribusiness able to eek out margins with economies of scale enabling industrial methods. Then we would understand the value of what farmers had been doing since the land would erode away, floods and droughts would increase, air and water quality would degrade, and tourists would find little of interest in the moonscapes outside their urban hives.
Cities, from an environmental perspective no different than confined animal feeding operations (CAFO) - like pig factories which confine porkers to small areas where food is transported to them and wastes transported away - must pay for land management or face decline. They can hire armies of bureaucrats and field workers to do the monitoring, measuring, thinking and acting or they can pay farmers to do what they have always done without explicit pay. The cost of food would have to rise steeply to provide sufficient compensation for farmers or farmers can be subsidised not for production but for land management, for simply being farmers doing what they have always done for free.
If food prices rose to their true cost of sustainable production in developed countries the poorest members of society couldn't afford to eat. They would have to be subsidised. High prices to consumers would lead to importing cheaper food from places with comparatively lower costs of production in less developed countries. All developed countries would become net importers of food. This might seem to be the objective of those who claim that this is the road to development for poor countries but it ignores the reality on the ground in those countries. They don't produce enough food to feed their own populations at prices they can afford and those prices would rise too. The need for food is rising in poor countries since they are also the places still experiencing high population growth levels.
The market for food is not in developed countries, it is in undeveloped countries now and to an increasing extent in future. That market is not a premium market able to bear high prices and has different requirements, prizes different foods than developed countries. Not surprisingly, the foods they value are the ones well suited to being grown locally, ones that they eat now having developed the cultivars over the centuries of farming the area.
The market for food in developed countries is just the opposite. It is small and getting smaller as population declines. Fertility rates are far below replacement levels which will mean large population decline unless technology finds ways to keep those doddering old soixante-huitards alive and productive.
Immigration will even things out a bit, excess population will drift to available locations, but the point is that narrowly focused and static views of the world agroeconomic system lead to nonsense policies. Food needs to be produced close to where it is consumed for many reasons. Producing the desired types of food, in the needed quantities, at affordable prices while preserving and enhancing the environment and communities is the problem to be solved. Both current systems that subsidise production and proposed systems to eliminate subsidies are brain dead ideas that utterly fail to define the problem or offer workable solutions.