Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Science + Economics = Sound Policy

There has been a lot of controversy over the last year regarding IARC and their opinion of Glyohosate. Recently from Reuters, Exclusive: U.S. lawmakers to investigate funding of WHO cancer agency.  By Kate Kelland, Health and Science Correspondent:

"In a Sept. 26 letter to NIH director Francis Collins, Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz describes IARC as having "a record of controversy, retractions, and inconsistencies" and asks why the NIH, which has a $33 billion annual budget, continues to fund it.
"IARC's standards and determinations for classifying substances as carcinogenic, and therefore cancer-causing, appear inconsistent with other scientific research, and have generated much controversy and alarm," Chaffetz wrote."

This is interesting. I think that critics are so tired of hearing that science is NOT on their side, they are desperate to (as Thomas Sowell has said) use the 'name and prestige of science to override other people's choices.' i.e they would like governments to ban or restrict glyphosate on the basis of their science.

And this is where economics comes into play. Economics is the study of people's choices and how they are made compatible, or the study of people's choices and the unintended consequences of those choices. So even if the IARC statements were based on rigorous science, the relevant question, at the margin, does not turn necessarily on whether glyphosate is carcinogenic, the question is how carcinogenic (or persistent in the environment or other environmental factors for that matter) is it in comparison to other chemistries or products that farmers would substitute in place of glyphosate and the consequences that follow.  Previous research has shown that the use of biotechnology has led to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and that biotech trait adoption related to glyphosate (Roundup) has resulted in a substitution away from more toxic chemistries. So if even if we did take the IARC statements about glyphosate as gospel and acted on them, would it make sense from a health and environmental standpoint to discontinue its use and substitute with more toxic chemicals and farming practices that on a systems level be worse for our health and the environment?

In the case of glyphosate, it looks like both the science and economics are in favor of more...not less, or at least some optimal level. Economics can put science, good or bad, into a context relevant to the things we really care about. Unfortunately, many activists have an ax to grind that cuts counter to the principles they claim to be promoting. Economics can dull these sharp charades.

See also:

A Safer Food Future

More on how economic theory can help us determine which 'facts' are 'relevant'


Genetically Engineered Crops: Has Adoption Reduced Pesticide Use? Agricultural Outlook ERS/USDA Aug 2000

GM crops: global socio-economic and environmental impacts 1996- 2007. Brookes & Barfoot PG Economics report

Greenhouse gas mitigation by agricultural intensification Jennifer A. Burneya,Steven J. Davisc, and David B. Lobella.PNAS  June 29, 2010   vol. 107  no. 26  12052-12057

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