Friday, February 17, 2017

Harvard Public Health Alternative Facts Debunked, Organic Food, and Neonics

Apparently Harvard School of Public Health is not immune to alternative facts-when it comes to one associated researcher's influence on recommendations about organic food vs conventional: HT -Kevin Folta: 

Are there yield differences between organic and conventional crops?  Research in 2012 asks some important questions with findings realted to this: 

More recently from PNAS:

We get a synopses of this from the GLP:

"Recent meta-analyses of plot-scale studies suggest organic yield penalties of 20–25% on average, although possibly as low as 8%. Farmer surveys, on the other hand, report organic grain yield penalties of 27–34%."

Jayson Lusk recently pointed out that making large scale organic work (i.e. read if we want more access to organic food that means 'large scale') we need large scale conventional producers:

"Indeed, if one wants large scale organic, it almost certainly implies (given the current population) the need for large scale non-organic.  All that life-supporting nitrogen has to come from somewhere.  Until we find a better way, right now it is coming from Haber and Bosch and is smuggled into organic agriculture via animal manure. "

So organic thrives on positive externalities related to N use in conventional production. 

Let's not forget the positive externalities of biotech traits....which not only help conventional producers use fewer pesticides but also help organic producers get by without sytnthetics:

Positive Externalities of Biotech Bt Traits on Non-Biotech Crops and Non Target Insects 

On another note From the WSJ, Why the EU should revoke neonicotinoid pesticide ban.

Millenials and Science Literacy - When facts are not enough

A nice article at by David Ellos regarding the role of science and "facts" and opinions about GMOs:

   "Women who had backgrounds in plant science said the lack of evidence of harm meant that GM food was safe to eat. But the women in health sciences said it was a lack of evidence of safety that made them cautious about consuming GM food. These perceptions are based on two very different concepts of risk, despite both groups being highly educated in science.

"For women without science backgrounds, GM food presented 'unknown' risks, and hence was to be avoided. There was a range of other issues apart from the science that arose in our study, a major one being a general lack of trust of science," Dr Bray says."

"It's important for scientists to realise that science has economic, social, and cultural impacts, and if people are presented with 'just the facts', the discussion leaves out critical topics and values," Professor Ankeny says.

Read more at:
 "It's important for scientists to realise that science has economic, social, and cultural impacts, and if people are presented with 'just the facts', the discussion leaves out critical topics and values," Professor Ankeny says."
"It's important for scientists to realise that science has economic, social, and cultural impacts, and if people are presented with 'just the facts', the discussion leaves out critical topics and values," Professor Ankeny says.

Read more at:

Again...obsession with just the 'facts' and the mantra about 'alternative facts' might not advance science and its role in policy the way we think it might. I fear largely what I keep repeating, the invocation of the prestige of science to override other people's choices.  You can't just jump from the science to policy.

Read more at:

Its interesting that millenials are often championed as agents of change when it comes to advancing progressive policies. However, they are not champions of science just because they support policies related to climate change as this article states:

“That’s right, millennials—not stodgy old guard Republicans—are responsible for fueling this particular crusade against science…As our eating habits have gotten more health-conscious, they have also become more and more divorced from any scientific fact.”

On a positive note, science triumphs with this blogger when it comes to food.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Kevin Folta on the March for Science

A couple pieces in the HP by Kevin Folta recently:

Be effective with your rage:

"Willful ignorance has spawned a hot planet, expensive ballot initiatives for warning labels on safe food, calls to teach about a 6,000 year old planet in science class, and outbreaks of diseases long believed to be defeated. And that’s the tip of a melting iceberg....The best way I can support science and scientists it to create durable work and actively create the change I want to see.  I’m in this for the long game, not an expensive afternoon in DC. The cure to science ills is deliberate and visible investment of our non-existent time in public-impact pursuits.  I protest non-scientific perspectives daily, and have paid a professional and personal price for doing so, but we are making wonderful advances in the understanding of various publicly-controversial topics."

In a more recent piece he provides a nice succinct description of CRISPR technology and its applications:

“Gene editing uses precisely guided enzymes that digest DNA to install precise changes to genetic sequence, typically by removing a few little bits of information that disrupt the function of the gene. It is like cellular surgery, precise, effective and testable.These technologies have been used with astounding success in medicine and animal agriculture. Gene edited cells have brought infants into remission from leukemia and produced cattle that don’t grow horns, or don’t catch tuberculosis. The applications in these areas are endless.”

He also talks about how scientists can be effective right now by commenting on FDA's proposed regulations for gene editing technologies:

"Where are the protesters and science marchers? It’s stand up for science time!…this technology should not be hampered by the same strangling regulatory system that burdens new crop variety development with standard genetic engineering approaches. The ball is in your court. Stand up for science, study this issue and make your voice heard! "

See also: 
 Facts, Alternative Facts, Evidence, and Marching for Science
 CRISPR Technology

John Cochrane asks the right questions about climate change


“A plea to commenters. Don't fall in to the trap of arguing whether climate change is real or whether carbon (and methane) contribute to it. That's 5% of the debate…Science might tell us that the temperature will warm 2 degrees in a century, with a band of uncertainty. But the band of uncertainty of the economic, social and political consequences of 2 degrees is much bigger…Both sides have fallen in to the trap of arguing about climate change itself, as if it follows inexorably that our governments must respond to "yes" with the current system of controls and interventions. The range of economic and environmental effects from the "how" question are much, much larger than the range of the effects of the "is climate change real" question.”

This echoes what I have written previously:

If we are going to make progress here we have to accept that it does not make one a climate change denier to understand that our response to climate change also has to be based on facts and evidence held to the same level of rigor and scrutiny as the science supporting its existence.

 and mirrors the point Steve Horwitz made some time ago about the fallacy of jumping directly from the "science" to policy:

“It is perfectly possible to accept the science of global warming but reject the policies most often put forward to combat it.  One can think humans are causing the planet to warm but logically and humanely conclude that we should do nothing about it. In fact, those who think they can go directly from science to policy are, as it turns out, engaged in denial” 

See also:

The Progressive Way to Deny Climate Change
Facts, Alternative Facts, Evidence, and the March for Science
Doing Nothing: A science based policy prescription for climate change

Friday, January 27, 2017

Choices Magazine Theme on Herbicide Resistance

There was a really nice collection of articles recently featured in Choices:

From the theme overview:

"When resistant weeds are mobile, managing resistance can suffer from the classic “tragedy of the commons”—no one controls the resource—in this case, the effectiveness of herbicides—so no one manages it sustainably. For guidance on how to proceed, Ervin and Frisvold look to the research of Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues on the management of common property resources (CPRs). "

This is the kind of work I was interested in in graduate school and this convergence of social science, economics, and genomics is very exciting. I veiwed the problem as an externality or commons problem that could be described by an Nash Equilibrium. In a later white paper I also discussed some of Elinor Ostrom's work in a similar context. If ever there was a middle ground for policy approaches to environmental challenges her work provides a nice foundation.

See also:

Game Theory, A Foundation for Agricultural Economics

Externalities, Coase, Ostrom & Demsetz

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Why corn is king when it comes to sustainably feeding a growing population

A few weeks ago there was a nice article in the Washington Post about a misguided vision emphasizing vegetables vs row crops as the focus for a sustainable food system:

We need to feed a growing planet. Vegetables aren't the answer.

I recently re-watched Food, Inc. One of the most egregious and misleading themes I get from that movie is that farm subsidies and our 'industrial' food system leads to a monoculture of mostly corn and soybeans that threatens both our health and environment. The WaPo article clearly explains why a shift away from row crops or commodity based cropping systems toward more vegetables is both non-pragmatic and more threatening to sustainably feeding the world.

There are a number of myths about commodity agriculture, monoculture, farm subsidies, and large scale agriculture, unfortunately many retailers and food products companies know how to exploit them.

See also:

 What's the big deal about farm subsidies? Four big questions about big ag, subsidies, food, and GMOs

Big Data + Genomics ≠ Your Grandparent's Monoculture