The Downside of Efficiency

What looks like efficiency often makes us worse off in ways that are hard for the human mind to grasp.
Is efficiency killing the bees?

Much of human activity is focused on the quest for efficiency -- getting the most out of our resources so that we can improve our standard of living. Problem is, what we perceive as efficient is often making us worse off in ways that are difficult for the human mind to grasp.

Consider, for example, the constant improvement of crop yields. On the surface, it's a classic illustration of Adam Smith's assertion that society benefits from individuals' desire to enrich themselves. The profit motive drives farmers to get more corn, wheat and rice from their land, and companies to produce pesticides and herbicides to help them do so. As a result, agricultural production more or less keeps up with a growing population, averting a Malthusian famine.

This relentless pursuit of efficiency, though, has repercussions that humans are only beginning to understand. Researchers have found that typical honeybee colonies contain trace residues from more than 120 pesticides, which, in concert, can interfere with the bees' immune systems, making them more susceptible to diseases. Bees also lack the nutrients they would normally get from flowering plants, which have been eradicated from huge expanses of single-crop fields. This may help explain why honeybee colonies, which can be crucial to improving crop yields, have been dying all over the world.

Fewer bees might also mean fewer birds. A recent study in the journal Nature, looking at insect-eating birds in the Netherlands, reported that their populations in the 1990s fell faster in places with more pesticide pollution. It's likely an effect of the depletion of the insects, bees included, on which the birds normally feed. Pesticides may reach further through food webs than we thought.

Sometimes the conflict between efficiency and its unintended effects borders on the absurd, as in the case of a plant called Palmer Amaranth. Also known as Pig Weed, it's an invasive "superweed" that threatens U.S. agriculture, especially the farming of soybean, corn and cotton. Amaranth grows fast and has developed resistance to glyphosate-based herbicides, including Monsanto's famous product Roundup, the most important herbicide in global agriculture.

Palmer Amaranth is resistant to Roundup in large part because we've been subjecting it to Roundup. Now it is costing U.S. farmers millions of dollars every year. The deeper irony is that the weed is edible and was once widely cultivated by Native Americans across North America. It's extremely nutritious, containing more protein than common grains such as corn, wheat, and rice, and is several times richer in calcium, iron and vitamin E.

In other words, the U.S. agricultural industry is killing off a valuable food source in its efforts to produce more raw material for the fast foods and sodas behind the country's problems with obesity. The myopic focus on certain crops means that many farmers and businesses see no option but to use increasingly powerful and more toxic chemicals, even though this will only further increase weed resistance.

Stories like these make lots of people angry, and typically draw accusations of scaremongering. A climate-skeptic friend of mine once told me that a big factor in his doubting the science was that, ultimately, it all made him feel so guilty. It's painful to think that we are responsible. But guilt isn't a helpful focus.

Ecological disasters often have their roots in ordinary human attempts to solve problems. Absolutely no one, I'm sure, wants to see marine life or bees or birds disappear, but -- and it's a topic I've touched on before -- we do have a limited ability to imagine or foresee how different facets of our world may depend on or influence one another.

I doubt we'll ever learn how to solve one problem without creating another. So we need a different approach, demoting efficiency as the only goal and instead pursuing greater flexibility. If we can't know what will happen in the long term, then we need to maintain a diversity of approaches over time and avoid getting "locked in" to any one crop or industry.

In farming, for example, lots of inspiring people are working to develop polyculture farms that grow a diversity of crops, including Amaranth. The biologist Mark Winston has argued that allowing some land to go wild, which provides bees with a place to nest and forage, can actually boost productivity and profitability.

Better environmental stewardship won't always improve a farmer's bottom line. Sometimes the benefit will go to society as a whole. Which is why, despite Adam Smith's insights, we can't always count on self-interest to realize socially desirable ends.

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