Tragedies of the Commons in Modern Agriculture

The Tragedy of the Commons is a well-known dilemma to economists. It occurs when several individuals act in a way which is in their own self-interest yet the sum effect is to deplete a valuable resource, leaving all worse off.

The classic examples are overfishing and overgrazing: the revenue of taking one more fish from the lake or adding one more animal to the common pasture benefits only the individual, yet the damage is felt by all. Left alone and as long as there is any benefit to taking one more fish, theory says, the individuals will completely destroy the resource.

In 2004, I wrote of the  ability of chemical pesticides to prevent catastrophic crop loss as a type of commons. It is reasonable thing to have potent pesticides as a last resort to prevent famine, for example. Yet, as I wrote, the routine use of pesticides has increased pests’ resistance, to the point where according to one study, crop losses due to pest losses have increased since the advent of pesticide use.

Two more examples have caught my attention in recent days. Earlier this summer, organic farmer Klaas Martens of central New York posted on SANET,  the Sustainable Agriculture networks listserve. He discussed devastating outbreaks of army worms in his region, causing  colossal crop damage and the sudden ineffectiveness of Dipel (the product name for Bacillus thuringiensisa.k.a. Bt, a bacterium long used by organic farmers to control pests) to control them. Martens asks, “Has the widespread planting of Bt corn caused the army worm to become resistant and rendered Bt products ineffective for this pest?” (click here to see more).

Martens’ idea makes intuitive sense: taking an effective toxin and putting it everywhere is probably the fastest and surest way to make it ineffective. This portends badly for organic farmers  who rely on Bt. Insect resistance to Bt is a valuable commons: overuse is likely destroying it.

Another, more devastating tragedy-in-the-making is the routine use of sub-therapeutic antibiotics in livestock production. A recent Washington Post editorial captures the issue well. Note that these farms are not using antibiotics to treat sick animals: they are essentially putting our public health at grave risk in  order to lower the cost of production. Clearly, this is creating a huge externality: the social cost of sub-therapeutic antibiotic use is not reflected in the price of meat. A few obvious options to address this include:

1. Ban their use except to treat sick animals.

2. Tax their use on farms to equal the social marginal cost.

3. Require mandatory “produced with sub-therapeutic antibiotics” labeling.

Given the lobbying power of vested interests, I am not optimistic any of the above (even the  most “free market” option, #3) will be enacted anytime soon. But it is not hyperbole to call this a ticking time bomb, one of many caused by our inability and unwillingness to address external costs and create an efficient and just economy.

Posted in: Economic, Environmental.