Appreciating Agriculture

Lang, Mahlon George. “Economic Efficiency and Policy Comparisons” American Journal of Agricultural Economics, November 1980, Page 773

It is possible to achieve different economically efficient allocations of resources when different initial endowments of property rights shape market exchange.  Under different definitions of property rights affecting factor use, the firm can still achieve overall productive efficiency with respect to the remaining variable factors of production.  Each definition will raise or lower private, pecuniary costs of production depending on whether irrigated water is publically subsidized in the first place as, in fact, it is.  Thus, given each definition of property rights, productive efficiency would be achievable and consistent with economic efficiency depending on public goals with respect to the output….

Dave Iverson “Economic Advice for Forest Managers: Project and Program Planning” 2/9/95, from <www.fs.fed.us/eco/eco-watch/ew950209.htm>

When resources are used to pursue one end, though, they cannot be used to pursue another. There is a tradeoff. The tradeoff between means is wherein economics has a say. On ends, however, economics must be silent. In environmental disputes, as in many other settings, tradeoffs between ends are moral choices and therefore outside the purview of economics. As recognized by the Council of Environmental Quality, weighing the “merits and drawbacks of the various alternatives need not be displayed in a monetary cost-benefit analysis and should not be when there are important qualitative considerations.”(40 CFR 1502.23)

In choosing between ends, monetized cost-benefit analysis plays a very limited role: to appraise the means available to achieve each end or set of ends. This suggests that benefit-cost ratios, and present net value indices, cannot be used directly to compare alternatives that confer benefits and impose costs in different ways on different people. It makes no sense, for example, to say that a “commodity emphasis” forest plan alternative is better (or “more efficient”) than an “amenity emphasis” alternative if it has a higher present net value. The comparison is simply meaningless, despite the fact that it is frequently made by practicing economists….

When evaluating efficiency I find it useful to ask four questions: Efficient at what?, Efficient for whom?, Efficient for how long?, and Efficient by what standard? If businesses become very efficient at shifting costs to others, through environmental pollution for example, then we must wonder whether such ‘commerce’ is helpful or harmful. Maybe we need to redefine our efficiency standard and change the politicial/institutional framing for commerce.

  1. E. Trainer, Abandon Affluence, London:  1985   ISBN 0862323118Page 12

The core problems facing us, however, are not technical problems.  For instance, it is often assumed that world hunger requires the development of more efficient agricultural methods or the breeding of higher-yielding crops or the development of ways of farming the seas or at least the spread of existing technology to farmers now using primitive methods.  But no technical advances are necessary in order to enable us to feed all the people who are hungry; we could do this now, because more food is already produced than is needed.  The problem is that the available food is not distributed according to need.  The reasons why millions of people do not get enough of the available food are social and political, not technical.

Grace, Patrick.  “Milk Subsidies:  More Than Efficiency at Stake.”  The Christian Science Monitor  September 28, 1999

The pricing of mild currently makes milk producers (not farmers) in California and Texas the most “efficient” producers of milk.  Producing milk and being a farmer are not the same animal.  I am not a farmer, but as a small-business person, I can see that small-farm families cannot compete against giant corporations like Borden Inc. when it comes to producing milk.  Giant feedlot operations will never be farms.

Farmers do more than produce milk.  They add to the local economy through purchasing from local suppliers; their families add to the community through participation in schools and churches; and they support local goodwill projects.  The best farmers also act as stewards for the ever-decreasing amount of open lands and woodlands.  There is a renewed interest in Wisconsin in sustainable agriculture that can only begin to work on a local level.

I do not believe any American would want to start a business that does not have the potential to at least break even.   The American consumer will be ill-served in the long run when milk production is no longer in the hands of many farmers but in the hand of a few large corporations.   — Letter from Patrick Grace of  Alma, Wis.

Beresford, Tristram.  Limits of Efficiency.  1974, Page 13

The original meaning of the verb ‘to husband’ is to administer as a good steward; to manage with thrift and prudence; also to save.  This is the sense of Henry Fell’s definition, which I quoted earlier: careful management to secure the greatest good; conservation of resources; a cherishing; thrift; above all, awareness of responsibility and continuity. Three hundred years ago, husbandry in this sense was used in industry generally, but after the industrial revolution the term efficiency was used instead.  In farming the word has not yet lost its meaning.  We have not had an industrial revolution yet, and until we do, and produce our food by biochemical engineering, or synthetically, it is well to regard the word efficiency as inapplicable and to stick to Middle English.  Our question should be, not is farming efficient, but is it husbandry?  If the husbandry is good, then, and then only, will it be efficient.