Saturday, April 22, 2017

Science Vs. Podcast on Organic Food

Episode #5 of the Science vs. podcast addressed organic food. Very well done. And they actually talk with real organic farmers, some of which are a little disturbed by the myths surrounding organic, from the intro:

"It’s an epic three-way battle this week — organic vs conventional vs …science. Three out of every four American grocery stores sell organic products, but what are you really getting when you buy them? Better taste? Fewer toxic chemicals? A cleaner environment? Farmers Mark, Andy, and Brian Reeves, nutritional epidemiologist Dr. Kathryn Bradbury, Prof. Cynthia Curl, and Prof. Navin Ramankutty help us sort it all out."

One thing that is brought up is that the manure used in organic food production may not have came from 'organic' livestock operations. This is an important point Jayson Lusk mentioned previously:

"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. "

Not to mention the positive exernalities (i.e. benefits) that biotech provides non-biotech producers in terms of pest protection- see here.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Self driving cars in a rent seeking society

"If every car on the road carried that kind of capability, which can keep the car in its lane and a safe distance from other vehicles in simple settings like highways, fatal crashes would drop by 80 percent"

While the public is praising this wonderful technology I'm sure progressives are already thinking of mandates and regulations to make cars even more unaffordable (read regressive-progressive) and the special interests and rent seekers have open arms with a mouth watering embrace.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

What Happened at Cargill?

A couple years ago I wrote a piece about an EconTalk podcast with Cargill's former Greg Page:

Here is a quote from the interview:

"I think if our water is precious, if our topsoil is precious, if we really care about the hydrocarbon footprint that we have in terms of the amount of cultivation that we need to carry out, that we should think very carefully about eliminating or demonizing genetic engineering."

But this past week I ran across an unfortunate tweet via  @VanceCrowe that caught a lot of attention. This relates to a collaboration with the Non-GMO Project. Many people have pointed out that the Non-GMO project is involved in more than just verification of the sourcing of ingredients. There is an underlying agenda that is inherently anti-GMO and anti-agriculture across a number of dimensions.
How did this happen? There is surely a garden of forking paths we could go down if we give Cargill the benefit of the doubt or try to offer criticisms about how this should have been handled (assuming they were hell bent on making this deal to start with). Maybe I understand how there is definitely money to be made with a niche market carved out by snake oil fear based marketing by shady food companies that has helped drive demand for non-GMO products. But surely someone that knows the industry like Cargill knew that if they were going to sign a deal with the devil (surely they knew that is how it would be viewed industry wide) that they should have a well thought out PR strategy first to keep it as low key as possible and 2nd an immediate response at hand in case things got out of control. I'm not advocating they be sneaky and shady but definitely should have had a well calibrated communication strategy ready for this kind of deal. Right?

So assuming this is understood from the top down that means not every tweet that goes out is super-scrutinized because if it were I doubt anyone at Cargill would have thought tweeting about this was a good idea. So maybe some of the people in social media have the leeway to tweet about new deals and ventures and collaborations as if it is something to be proud of. Maybe not everyone in a large organization like this has the solid 360 degree view of the industry you would expect. But that is OK to have different talent with different backgrounds and ideas across a large organization. If this is what happened I think they need to look internally at onboarding and education about the industry as a whole.

But if this is not what happened, if leadership was full force in favor of making this deal in your face public via social media outlets in this way what were they thinking? Surely someone in the company knew better and warned against it but they went forward anyway?

Maybe its just easy for me to be a monday morning quarterback or back seat driver on this but this whole thing is surprising given the lessons learned already from companies like Yellow Tail and Chipotle.
With more thought what alarms me is perhaps the public ignorance and level of anti-science fear mongering has crossed a critical threshold and emboldened a great company like Cargill to take the calculated risk in this kind of partnership...even to the point of tweeting about it.

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

Monday, January 9, 2017

Whole Foods Facing Turf War With Mainstream Grocers

Via AgWeb:

"Whole Foods’ poor inventory and vendor management, high costs and failure to make the most of its unique appeal to millennial shoppers among the key issues…Larger mainstream grocers, including Kroger Co. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., continue to advance on Whole Foods’ organic turf, weighing on sales. Kroger has a market value of about $29 billion and Wal-Mart is valued at about $214 billion. Whole Foods is trying to fight back by offering more discounts and starting a new chain aimed at younger shoppers. Organic products have become widely available at U.S. stores, often at lower prices than Whole Foods offers. Analysts have since questioned whether there’s capacity for more high-end organic grocers in the U.S."

MarketWatch did an interesting comparison of products and prices here.

I wonder what really motivates Whole Foods customers? this a true preference for taste and quality, or how much of this is actually driven by misperception and fear?

As the article says..."Larger mainstream grocers, including Kroger Co. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., continue to advance on Whole Foods’ organic turf, weighing on sales." The kind of snake oil  marketing that firms like Dannon and Chipotle engage in has probably been a major driver of this fear and Kroger and Wal-Mart are exploiting the fact that now consumers are economizing on the fear and misconceptions that may have previously driven them to stores like Whole Foods.

Perhaps if Whole Foods can trim margins via better supply chain or inventory management (as suggested in the article) that will help with pricing more competitively. It seems like they may also need to capitalize on some other source of differentiation in products or services. I don't see food fads and fears going away anytime soon unfortunately.

See also:

Modern Sustainable Agriculture 


The Twisted Economics of Local Food

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Monsanto Expanding CRISPR Technology Rights


"Two other companies, DuPont Pioneer and Calyxt, are currently using CRISPR gene-editing techniques for agricultural applications, GenomeWeb reported. In addition, the Life Science Center at Bayer—the European pharma giant that recently made an offer to buy Monsanto—has licensed CRISPR for biomedical uses, but the company’s Crop Science division has not obtained a license for CRISPR/Cas9."

In a previous post (CRISPR Technology and Agriculture) I speculated that companies like Monsanto would leverage this technology heavily with less emphasis on traditional recombinant DNA based techniques (aka GMOs). The article above indicates some synergy between Monsanto and Bayer in this regard in terms of licensing and applications related to crop science. 


How Big Data and Genomics are Crushing the Myth of Monoculture

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

GIPSA , Lemons, and Cattle Markets

I was recently reading about how proposed GIPSA rules will impact cattle marketing in Beef magazine:

Here is one slice from the article:

"USDA’s decision to move forward with publishing final rulemaking on the 2010 Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Act (GIPSA) could force packers to pay the same price for all cattle. That would narrow or remove any spread in prices offered by cattle feeders. So, every cow-calf producer would receive the same price for calves, regardless of value."

Other places in the article talk about alternative marketing arrangements (AMAs) and thinning cash markets as well. But one thing I always thought, was that AMAs were one way that the market worked to solve the lemons problem. Conventionally, people might support regulation in cases where there are in fact lemons, and they want government intervention to fix the so called market failure.

You can read about lemons markets here, but generally in the case of cattle marketing, if you are a buyer and not sure about the quality of cattle you are buying, you would at best assume average quality and pay an average price in order to avoid overpaying for bad cattle. Unfortunately producers with good cattle would not receive a price that reflected superior genetics or management that they have invested in.  AMAs help identify better cattle with specific traits of interest and allow producers to get more for their value and allow buyers to get the quality they want without overpaying.

This looks like a case where the market solved a major problem, and the new GIPSA rule may in effect create a lemons problem all over again. The article does a good job describing the ramifications to producers, buyers, and consumers.