Evolution, agriculture, and economics


Alfons Balmann has reviewed my book in the Journal of Bioeconomics.

"As opposed to the somewhat ideological arguments frequently raised by the proponents of these approaches in public debates on topics like GMOs and organic farming, Denison's concerns are not motivated by a wholesale rejection of these approaches, but by a substantiated assessment of their limitations, and by developing alternatives."
I wasn't familiar with the journal, but keep running into interesting parallels and differences between economics and evolutionary biology. See, for example, this interview with economist Robert Frank, author of The Darwin Economy. I've enjoyed his previous books, but haven't read that one yet. And I've agreed to participate in a symposium on ""The Significance of Evolution for Understanding the Economy : Perspectives from Anthropology, Biology, and Economics" in September, hoping to learn more.

First, though, I'll be speaking at Evolution 2013, in Snowbird, Utah. I was also planning to speak at the Intecol (Ecology) meetings in London -- until I saw their outrageous registration fee, with no single-day option. I'll be at the the much-cheaper Ecology meetings in the US, though, right across the river in Minneapolis.


I’m worried about Balmann’s view that GMOs and organic are two ‘ideological’ extremes, and his implication that you chart a non-ideological middle course. You avoided ideology in your book by illuminating various choices in the food and farming system with biology, challenging a lot of received wisdom along the way. I’ve got nothing but admiration for your analysis, but ultimately when those food system choices are made they will be ideological ones, both intrinsically and in their knock-on effects. There’s just no such thing as a non-ideological position on farming or on anything much else – the notion that common sense or scientifically-validated choices can be made that are ideology-free is an insidious one of our age.

Economics is a discipline par excellence that turns political ideology into apparently neutral science, for example in notions like Pareto optimality. But the Frank interview was very interesting – looks like social scientists are finally beginning to incorporate Darwinism into their thinking with subtlety, unlike the disastrous dalliances with social Darwinism of earlier times. Frank’s distinction between the monopoly power criticised by the left and what he considered to be the true problem of market advantage accruing to early market entrants seemed a pretty fine one to me, though. I posted on this – perhaps not very eruditely – in relation to farming and agrarian history in a few blog posts a while back: http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=112 ; http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=157 and http://www.campaignforrealfarming.org/2011/10/city-capitalists-or-agrarian-peasants-where-does-the-future-lie/ . It seems to me one key difference between the human economy and the economy of nature is that, in the latter, organisms aren’t usually able to manipulate the meta-processes conditioning the allocation of resources, whereas it’s routine in the human economy (if ‘organism’= ‘corporation’). The ‘free’ market is a naturalising metaphor concealing a politics in which liberty is curtailed – although that’s not to say that other kinds of economy are necessarily superior.

I've just returned from a meeting in which advocates of agribusiness-as-usual and organic farming both came across to me as pretty 'ideological' in your terms! But my worry about the term is that we tend to see other people's 'ideology' but not our own. I agree though that it's good for everyone to think through as much as possible the actual consequences of their various agendas.

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