Agricultural presents a particularly challenging set of environmental issues because of its complexity and the myriad ways agriculture affects environmental variables; from pesticides to soil erosion to water use, agriculture is by far the greatest human-induced alteration of the natural environment on the planet.
In order to mitigate agriculture’s worst environmental effects and ensure that the price of food accurately reflects its true environmental costs, here’s what would need to happen:
- Remove all agricultural subsidies, tariffs, and quotas across the globe (this, by the way, is one of the stated goals of the WTO);
- remove all associated subsidies, such as subsidies for water (especially) and energy;
- heavily regulate and/or restrict agriculture in especially sensitive ecological areas, i.e., near rivers, on marginal land, etc.; and
- impose carbon taxes on fuel use and taxes on the most toxic pesticides that reflect the damage they cause.
In the presence of all of these policy changes, the price of food would settle at the rate that reflects the “true” costs of production and, at the same time, agriculture’s harmful environmental effects would be greatly reduced. While agriculture can never be entirely benign, that is the price we must pay for our caloric desires, which far exceed what is needed for survival.
Farmers on the whole would be much better off, since there wouldn’t be policies that led to over-production and collapsing prices (as well as land capitalization), and the system would be much more transparent and closer to a level playing field.
Consumers might in many instances be faced with higher prices for food, but this would likely be more than offset by higher quality, a healthier environment, and savings in government revenue that could be returned to them in other ways (even lower taxes).
Although what I have laid out is the ideal circumstance, any steps in this direction should be warmly embraced and advocated.