Urban Elites, Organic Farming & The Hypocrisy of No Skin-In-The-Game

The first two years I returned to America from the El Toledo coffee farm in Costa Rica, I was convinced that every farmer everywhere needed to adopt the practices El Toledo had. Armed with a job as a columnist and as a regular shopper at farmers’ markets, I wasted little time shaming anyone who used chemicals.

Then I became a dad. Putting food on the table took on new meaning. And almost overnight, I realized what an ignorant ass I was being. The problem: my opinion was completely free, and I had nothing to lose by voicing it. Those I was talking at had everything to lose.

Have things really changed that much? Perhaps not. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Many of the ideas I’ll talk about here borrow heavily (exclusively?) from the work of best-selling author and trader Nassim Taleb. He would argue that the fact that I had no skin in the game — or exposure to positive and negative consequences as a result of my opinions — rendered my opinions moot.

In ancient times, societies realized the best way to align incentives was by forcing decision-makers to have their skin in the game. The bridge builder was forced to live underneath his bridge; the King would be on the front lines of any war.

Our world today is a far cry from that: bankers that almost brought down the financial system got golden parachutes, and can you imagine Donald Trump — or any world leader, for that matter — being the first in line to fight in Syria?

But there are more subtle ways of being a no-skin-in-the-game hypocrite: by being an urban, college-educated “elite” who had nothing to lose by calling for organic goods to become standard fare, I was committing the same sin.

What happened to those academics?

During a recent tour at El Toledo, I was covering these very revelations. Then a man shared his story. He was forty years-old, but recounted what happened when he was a child, and his father — a soybean farmer — took advice from professors at nearby Penn State University.

“The professors convinced my dad to make a wholesale change from conventional soybean farming to organic. They warned him that he might lose up to 15% of his yield, but that this would be offset by a number of factors:
He could sell his soybeans for more, as they were organic.
His soil would be healthier.
He would spend less on chemical inputs, and thus save money.
The reality was very different. Instead of losing 15% of our yield, we lost 50%. Instead of spending less money, he spent more: the gas he spent to tractor over the weeds alone outstripped his usual chemical spending.
He ended up taking a job in a factory to avoid bankruptcy. All I remember is that when I was eight, I never saw my dad: he was either weeding the soybeans or at the factory.
As soon as that season ended, we went back to chemical farming.”
Image source: Flickr

Here’s the real kicker that most people forget: What happened to those three PSU professors that convinced this farmer to make the change?

Absolutely nothing!

While we can debate how wise it was for the farmer to make this wholesale change, the fact remains that the professors had a free and seemingly virtuous opinion: “Save the environment by practicing organic farming!”

They might have felt bad about the outcome, but they had huge upside and limited downside for their opinion. The farmer had limited upside and enormous downside. That’s no way to be making decisions.

Thirty Years Later, Exact Same Story

All I had to do was think for two minutes about what I was desiring out of my local farmers in Wisconsin to realize how wrong I was.

The family at El Toledo had to go through 15 years of working in multiple industries just to make ends meet. That’s because they had to give up chemical farming cold turkey. With their patriarch getting sick from the pesticides, they had no choice.

But who in their right mind would ever willingly choose to go through that? Undoubtedly, I — and many other urban, educated elites — would claim that it’s a sacrifice worth making. But from a skin-in-the-game perspective, we’re only allowed to say “Me” if we’re ready — right now — to undertake that task. None of us really are.

The fact of the matter is that transitioning from chemical inputs to truly sustainable agriculture takes time. You have to have enough diversity on your farm so that each form of life provides an input for the next form of life. In Costa Rica, where the weather is almost always favorable, it took 15 years to reach this level. How long would it take in far colder climates, like in my native Wisconsin?

A transition to sustainability would take far longer. Photo: Pixabay

It is the transition time that is so difficult for farmers to navigate. The idea that we can just stop using chemicals for three years, obtain organic certification, and enjoy a perfect balance with nature is absurd.

If we push organic farming to the extreme, we’ll get lots of family farms that eventually go bankrupt because they’ll lose so much yield. When that happens, the land is offered up for cheap, and likely bought out by Big Agribusiness. They might produce “organic” goods, but not in the way that most of us think (a topic for next week’s post).

In fact, by not recognizing that a truly sustainable transition takes decades and centuries — instead of months and years — we will be taking massive steps backwards towards creating a better ecosystem for our great-grandchildren.

So the next time you talk about how all of our food should be organic, realize that you’re opinion is free, and in the grand scheme of things, you have little to lose for belittling farmers who use chemicals.