Saturday, August 16, 2014

Untested Unlabeled Genes in Your Food: It's Your Right to Know

The article linked below gives some interesting context that helps us to understand partly why the scientific consensus on GMO foods is that the insertion of specific genes into a plant pose no substantially differential risk to human health. We know that genomic disruptions from biotechnology are dwarfed by those caused by the millions of unknown and uncharacterized genes introduced into conventional and organic foods by hybridization, and crossing with wild relatives. (Or even through the use of radiation or mutagenic chemicals used in accordance with USDA organic standards). The numerous toxins whose genes are hidden betwixt sequences of thousands of DNA  base pairs have all along been much more of a threat than the very few and specific well known Bt and glyphosate resistant genes we have inserted in the staple crops we eat every day. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Antarctic Melt And Calls For Action | On Point with Tom Ashbrook

Ashbrook asks, if the market were the answer and not a carbon tax, then why aren't we seeing anything from the market? And that is the issue, we could have said the same thing about mail and parcel delivery before email and UPS, and who saw google, Wikipedia, and Netflix on the horizon? The hybrid cars, wind farms, and solar seem like obvious solutions that the government has poured lots of money into. But the market's solution will not be so blatant and obvious as a government tax or subsidy, and Ashbrook's question will never have an obvious answer. Modern hybrid corn with no subsidy or tax for instance has done more to combat climate change than hybrid cars in the US.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

The Oregon GMO Ban: Who is really harming who?

“Was the government to prescribe to us our medicine and diet, our bodies would be in such keeping as our souls are now” - Thomas Jefferson Notes on the State of Virginia

This past May two counties in Oregon voted to ban the production of GMO crops. Was this good policy?

For a moment let’s sidestep the fact that modern molecular applications of crop improvement are just as safe if not safer than conventional and organic methods.  Let’s also forget that using a democratic process to override other people’s choices may not be the optimal strategy for making the most of imperfect information and limited resources.

Often, this law is discussed in the context of property rights, and rightly so:

“This local effort is important because it’s a way for local growers to protect their property rights from genetically engineered pollen contaminating their seed crops.”
-Ivan Maluski, Friends of Family Farmers

The assignment and protection of property rights is an important role of government, and definitely serves a key function in dealing with what economists refer to as negative externalities, and what most people would think of when they think of nuisances or environmental pollution.  However, the GMO bans represent a very narrow and restrictive assignment of property rights.

Property Rights and Externalities

Basically a negative externality occurs when  a second party is harmed from an activity without their consent or compensation. In the context of the Oregon law, we might view genetic contamination as a negative externality.  In these cases, the principle of polluter pays is often the basis used to require polluters to either stop their activity, pay a fine, or perhaps levy a tax related to the level of pollution.  However, in 1960 economist Ronald Coase brought new insight in his Journal of Law and Economics paper “The Problem of Social Cost.”  Coase stated that in many cases, the issue of pollution or negative externalities was in fact reciprocal.  This can easily be understood in the context of the Oregon case. While banning GMOs certainly protects organic and conventional producers from the harms of cross-pollination it reciprocally imposes significant harm on most family farmers by limiting their ability to grow food in a way that is both profitable and sustainable.  The question becomes, who may harm who?

Put another way, who should get the right to grow the kind of crops they want? The answer is that the right should be assigned to the party that values it the most. According to what has come to be known as the Coase Theorem, the initial assignment of rights does not matter. With clearly defined property rights, the optimal level of GMO vs. non-GMO crops planted as well as optimal levels of cross-pollination can be determined through cooperative processes.  Of course in this case, we may not be assigning physical rights to property so much as we are assigning liability.

 If liability goes to the organic producers, and they want to restrict the planting of GMO crops, then they have to find a way to compensate GMO growers to reduce planting . If liability falls on GMO growers and the economic and environmental benefits of growing GMO crops exceeds the value that organic producers place on uncontaminated crops, then GMO growers can pay for damages (or buy insurance for such purposes), or compensate organic producers for shifting their crops to another location. They may also alter their GMO planting decisions in highly susceptible areas.

The assignment of property rights and the potential for bargaining results in behavior that is changed or altered to account for the negative impact our choices have on others, regardless of who holds the rights. This is the essence of what is known as the ‘Coase Theorem and sets a standard of morality and efficiency that the Oregon law falls tragically short of meeting and in fact egregiously preempts.

Positive Externalities

Positive externalities occur when one or more parties engage in some activity and actually benefit another party without getting compensated for it.  An example of a positive externality is the concept of herd immunity that can occur when most people are vaccinated for things like measles.  Government funding of vaccination programs is often justified on the grounds of positive externalities. An unintended side effect of the Oregon law banning GMOs is the elimination of positive externalities associated with the planting of GMO crops. Research has shown that genetically modified crops have improved the genetic diversity of beneficial pest populations and have provided external pest protection benefits to non-gmo crops worth billions of dollars annually. In addition, biotechnology has contributed to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and reduced the use of toxic chemicals and pesticides.  The Oregon laws eliminate all of these positive externalities associated with GMO crops in effect harming organic producers and all consumers.

Are these options practical or realistic? Nothing I could put in print likely would be. Policy makers and economists are not in a situation to know exactly all of the margins that individuals consider in their decision making and the options available, which is another flaw in the Oregon laws which make this assumption.  Some assignment of property rights or liability that accommodates a cooperative space for individuals to live their lives would be superior to both no law at all, or one as draconian as the two counties in Oregon have adopted.


The Problem of Social Cost. R. H. Coase. Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 3 (Oct., 1960), pp. 1-44

Areawide Suppression of European Corn Borer with Bt Maize Reaps Savings to Non-Bt Maize Growers. Science 8 October 2010:Vol. 330. no. 6001, pp. 222 - 225 DOI: 10.1126/science.1190242W. D. Hutchison,1,* E. C. Burkness,1 P. D. Mitchell,2 R. D. Moon,1 T. W. Leslie,3 S. J. Fleischer,4 M. Abrahamson,5 K. L. Hamilton,6 K. L. Steffey,7, M. E. Gray,7 R. L. Hellmich,8 L. V. Kaster,9 T. E. Hunt,10 R. J. Wright,11 K. Pecinovsky,12 T. L. Rabaey,13 B. R. Flood,14 E. S. Raun15

Communal Benefits of Transgenic Corn. Bruce E. Tabashnik  Science 8 October 2010:Vol. 330. no. 6001, pp. 189 - 190DOI: 10.1126/science.1196864

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 reportOctober 2010:Vol. 330. no. 6001, pp. 189 - 190DOI: 10.1126/science.1196864

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

Comparison of Fumonisin Concentrations in Kernels of Transgenic Bt Maize Hybrids and Nontransgenic Hybrids. Munkvold, G.P. et al . Plant Disease 83, 130-138 1999.

Indirect Reduction of Ear Molds and Associated Mycotoxins in Bacillus thuringiensis Corn Under Controlled and Open Field Conditions: Utility and Limitations. Dowd, J. Economic Entomology. 93 1669-1679 2000.

A Meta-Analysis of Effects of Bt Cotton and Maize on Nontarget Invertebrates. Michelle Marvier, Chanel McCreedy, James Regetz, Peter Kareiva Science 8 June 2007: Vol. 316. no. 5830, pp. 1475 – 1477

"Why Spurning Biotech Food Has Become a Liability.'' Miller, Henry I, Conko, Gregory, & Drew L. Kershe. Nature Biotechnology Volume 24 Number 9 September 2006.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

LETTERS: Farm Bureau speaks for farmers everywhere | Opinion | The Free Lance-Star | December 23rd, 2013

This farmer may not have ever read "The Use of Knowledge in Society" but they get it: 

"I know my farm much better than a bureaucrat trying to apply blanket solutions to thousands of farms that vary greatly in size, type, soil capacity and a hundred other ways. Voluntary practices, encouraged by some cost share and technical assistance have proved effective in reducing runoff from farms. Now much of that effort will be wasted in forms, paperwork, deciphering regulations and similar nonsense that fulfills some bureaucratic goal but doesn't help the bay at all."

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Agritalk Discussion of the Impact of Biotechnology, Big Data, and Genomics on Seed Choice

On December 17th I was invited on AgriTalk with Mike Adams to discuss the impact of biotechnology on farmers' choices in seed options. Agricultural markets in the seed industry (as imperfect as they may be when we compare them to unrealistic and idealistic standards) function as they should by solving the knowledge problem related to seed choices and technology. This will only be enhanced with the convergence of big data, genomics, and biotechnology. That is truly the social function of markets and prices.  Even if a single corporation controlled all of the IP related to existing biotech traits, the disruptions of new technology, big data and genomics (applications like FieldScripts, ACRES, MyJohnDeere or the new concept Kinze planters that switch hybrids on the go etc.) will require the market to continue to offer a range of choices in seeds and genetics to tailor to each producer's circumstances of time and place. There are numerous margins that growers look at when optimizing their seed choices and it will require a number of firms and seed choices to meet these needs as the industry's focus moves from the farm and field level to the data gathered by the row foot with each pass over the field. The concerns related to monoculture and monopoly in the seed industry are largely overrated when these factors and trade offs are considered.

The audio is available in the archives (Dec 17) below via Farm Journal Media or iTunes (@33:00) (play in browser):  

See also: What does the Farmer Say About Seed Choices- Channeling Hayek.
Big Ag Meets Big Data: Part 1 & Part 2

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

What does the farmer say...about seed choices? (Channeling Hayek)

I recently came across the following article in the Huffington post: Do Farmers Have Choices? by Jenny Dewey Rohrich who also has a very nice blog replete with some very good ag photography. The article discusses seed and hybrid selection issues based on actual responses from real producers. The responses are what I expected, of course they have a choice and its a tough one!

I've seen the concern out there that many people think big agribusiness and biotech companies have a gun (figuratively) to growers heads when it comes to seed choices and that justifies government interventions like labeling, more regulation, or bans on GMOs . As this article states, seed choice is a very complicated decision that involves many variables and traits. From the article, one producer describes their decision process that involves comparisons of hundreds of varieties from hundreds of corporations and mom and pop seed companies:

"First we go through the list of potential seed candidates every year comparing conventional, GM, and hybrids. Then we compare yields, cost per acre to keep plants alive, and then we throw in the variables: drought, flood, extreme heat or cold, early frosts, and untimely rains during harvest."

 The choice of what crops we should grow, how they should be produced in terms of management practices and technology, and ultimately the variety of foods we choose to consume is an example of what economists refer to as the knowledge problem. While it might be possible to patent a given trait or hybrid, no one company can get too firm a grasp on this knowledge problem, regardless of their market share in the seed industry today. (not to mention, no government agency would have sufficient knowledge either). Given the vast array of considerations in seed choice and management practices, there is always going to be an incentive for some supplier to cater to the unique needs of individual producers, as advances in genomics and technology drive production not farm by farm or acre by acre but inch by inch. That's also why the market has driven companies to treat hybrid selection like a 'big data' problem and they are developing multivariate recommender systems as tools to assist in this (like ACRES and FieldScripts). The market's response to each individual producer's unique circumstances of time and place also ensures continued diversity of crop genetics planted. Referring to the great article Blake Hurst recently wrote in The American, the synergy between genomics, big data, and modern technology in agriculture is amazing!

Another great comment from a seed dealer in the article states "Seed companies, including ours, bring to market those varieties and traits that farmers want to buy" and the author's statement "Farmers drive the demand for the seed that is researched, bought, and sold" pins down exactly how agricultural markets in the seed industry function as they should by solving the knowledge problem related seed choices and technology. That is truly the social function of markets and prices, as imperfect as they may be when we compare them to unrealistic and idealistic standards. The concerns related to monoculture and monopoly in the seed industry are largely overrated when these factors and trade offs are considered.

The comments made in the Huffington post article are based on a survey of farmers. Its likely not scientific, and my comments above are based on my own industry knowledge and personal experiences from past years working as a crop consultant as well as a few producers I know. I'd be curious to know what the mindset of a larger number of producers is on this issue.

See also my previous posts:  Big Ag Meets Big Data Part1 & Part 2 and  Monsanto Antitrust Case

Friday, December 06, 2013

Our Stake in GHG Emissions

I recently saw this tweet (which I'll keep anonymous out of respect of the author):

"We all cause greenhouse gases to be released into the sky; but most of us do not have special interest in continuing to do so"

I'm not sure that is true. Of course, it's true we don't all have special interests in the context of a team of lobbyists and a corporate rent seeking apparatus. But we all do have an interest in GHGs being released into the sky. We all enjoy refrigeration, air conditioning, transportation, fire, police, and rescue services, as well as telecommunications, personal computing, smartphones, iPads, google wickipedia, Instagram etc. Access to all of these goods and services at affordable prices involve trade offs related to GHG emissions and we all have direct interests in their continual release into the atmosphere, and indirect but strong interests in the 'special' interests that work to keep that path as clear and unobstructed as possible.