OCTOBER 1, 2002: The headline in the August
16 issue of Science magazine is ominous -- "Dead Zone
Grows." To the right of the headline is a map of the
Gulf of Mexico. And drawn on the map, hugging the shoreline,
is an irregular green stripe. This is the Dead Zone, an area
of the Gulf where oxygen levels are so low that most marine
organisms -- including crab and shrimp- cannot survive. A
primary cause of the problem is fertilizer runoff from farms
in the Mississippi River watershed. The runoff stimulates
algae blooms. When the algae die, they sink to the bottom
and decompose, using up oxygen in the process. This year the
Dead Zone is bigger than ever before- 22,000 square kilometers
-- an area larger than New Jersey.
And of course the Dead Zone is only one of many impacts of
agriculture. The other day a visitor was sitting in my office,
talking about driving through Kansas, seeing vast tracts of
land under irrigation. "Don't those farmers read National
Geographic?" he said. "Don't they understand about
the depletion of aquifers?"
Then there are the herbicides that accumulate in groundwater,
the manure from hog farms that pollutes rivers, and the uncertain
effects of genetically modified crops. Take it all together
and you might end up concluding it is all the farmers fault.
After all, they are the ones out on the land, applying the
chemicals and planting the genetically modified seed. But,
after four years spent on a project trying to understand the
root causes of issues like these in corn production, I can
tell you that the problem lies more in the realm of economics
than in farmer greed or indifference.
Farmers -- like all entrepreneurs in free-market systems --
compete to stay in business. And the terms of that competition
are well defined. Who can produce the most grain for the least
cost of labor, land, machinery, and inputs? The farmers who
are the best at maximizing this equation -- the most "efficient"
farmers -- are the most likely to stay in business. As the
"least efficient" farmers and farming practices
disappear, farming as a whole becomes more and more efficient.
This has brought enormous innovation and gains in productivity.
Yields of corn have risen from about 30 bushels per acre in
1940 to around 120 bushels per acre today.
That's the whole point, you might be thinking; that's what
our market system is supposed to achieve for us.
But what about the Dead Zone, the herbicides in groundwater,
the manure in streams? Wouldn't a really efficient solution
to human needs include a healthy fishery downstream of our
farms, and plenty of pure water beneath them? Why hasn't our
free market system -- our cherished tool for finding solutions
to human needs -- delivered more on these fronts?
After interviewing farmers, farm advocates, environmentalists,
and policy makers, my colleagues and I have concluded that
part of the answer lies in our society's definition of efficiency.
The kind of efficiency that determines whether a farmer earns
a profit and manages to hold on to his land is a very particular
efficiency. It is the efficiency of producing just one thing
-- a crop -- with the frugal use of a few things -- labor,
land, equipment , and inputs, like seed and fertilizer. There
is nothing in this equation about producing health in the
Gulf of Mexico or about being frugal with water quality. In
the equation that determines who survives in farming, the
Gulf of Mexico is invisible. And that is why the Gulf of Mexico
has a Dead Zone and why that Dead Zone is growing.
It doesn't have to be this way. There is nothing in our current
definition of efficiency that is a natural law. We could re-orient
our thinking to expand what we reward. We could begin to think
of clean water or regenerating soil as products of farming
in addition to wheat or barley. Many European countries have
done just that. Farmers and farmland are seen as producing
beauty, water purification and biodiversity as well as crops,
and government programs offer payments for these other kinds
We could expand the list of things we want our farmers to
be frugal with. There is more that needs efficient use than
labor and capital. There is also soil, and water and community
quality of life. Getting our markets to work for us requires
figuring out how to reward the careful use of these resources.
It's not that we lack the policy instruments. Economists already
have a toolbox full of suggestions, from stewardship payments
to pollution taxes. But we won't make use of these tools until
we stop expecting that competition on only a few grounds can
somehow deliver broader goals. That is like a university selecting
its freshman class based only on SAT scores and assuming that
the students will somehow excel at football and chamber music.
These are not things to be left up to chance. If you want
football and music -- or healthy ecosystems -- these goals
must shape the criteria that determine who is successful enough
to participate in your university, or in your farming system.
The university's admissions criteria must give some credit
to music or athletic skill, and we need to use those tools
of taxes and incentives to make sure that the most profitable
farmers are the ones whose farms produce healthy food, wildlife
habitat, accumulating inches of topsoil, and exiting streams
full of clear water.
When our policy is informed by such an expanded definition
of efficiency, oxygen levels will rise once more in the Gulf,
and the headlines will proclaim, "The Dead Zone is Shrinking."