Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Time : Get Real

In a recent article in Time Magazine, ( Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food) I think that I have witnessed one of the worst pieces of pseudo science I've seen in a long time.

Isn't obesity the result of diet, genetics, and exercise? Personal choice and genetics are the drivers, not agricultural production practices as the author seems to claim. There are some other 'unbalanced' assertions made in the article as well:

'He's fed on American corn that was grown with the help of government subsidies and millions of tons of chemical fertilizer. '

>From this statement one might thing that 'subsidies' are leading farmers to produce corn instead of healthy apples and spinach. The reason we produce so much corn is not due to the subsidies, the reason we have the subsidies is that we produce so much corn ( and thus have strong lobbying arms for production and processing industries). Grains are a worldwide food staple. They would be produced with or without government programs.

A main assertion made in the article is that modern science based agriculture ( or 'industrial agriculture' if you prefer the more negative connotation) is leading to ever more use of ever more toxic chemicals and environmental degradation. On the contrary modern agriculture is becoming more sustainable every day. Biotechnology, a key factor in modern agriculture, is not mentioned at all in the entire article. The adoption of biotechnology has led to decreased levels of chemical applications and in some cases the elimination of certain pesticides completely. 1.04 million fewer pounds of insecticide are applied each year as a result of biotech Bt cotton alone. With Bt cotton, 4 million gallons of fuel and 93.7 million gallons of water are saved on the farm each year from fewer insecticide applications.In addition, Bt corn also has reduced levels of carcinogenic toxins produced by fumonisin . Last year, in Britain, two organic corn meal products were recalled because testing showed that they had unacceptably high levels of fumonisin. Roundup Ready technology has allowed for glyphosate herbicide to substitute for 7.2 million pounds of other chemicals that are more toxic and persistent in the environment.There are also economies of scope or synergies between sustainable production practices such as crop rotation and reduced or no tillage farming and biotech plantings. As a result biotechnology has also contributed to increased biodiversity among pest populations while maintaining yield gains. Further, with fewer chemical applications and less tillage, energy inputs to grain production are down, while yields continue to increase, reducing the overall environmental impact and carbon foot print. Between 1987 and 2007 energy use per unit of output is down in corn, soybeans and cotton production by nearly 40 . Irrigated water use per unit of output decreased by 20 percent while carbon emissions per unit of output have dropped by about one-third in the three crops. In addition to the lower carbon and water foot print, these practices have decreased groundwater pollution as well. The use of biotechnology in the livestock industry has demonstrated similar environmental gains.
( see here, here, here for more examples. )

'The UCS estimates that about 70% of antimicrobial drugs used in America are given not to people but to animals, which means we're breeding more of those deadly organisms every day.'

This is meaningless. What matters is of the antimicrobials given to animals, what % actually target pathogens that affect humans. Resistance requires selection pressure, and if the majority of antimicrobials used in livestock production are not selecting against deadly pathogens, then the risks are overblown. What we have observed is that in countries where food grade antimicrobials used in livestock production have been more heavily regulated or banned, the resulting increase in livestock illness has lead to an increased use of antibiotics actually used in human medicine. This policy results in increased selection pressure for antibiotic resistance among pathogens dangerous to humans and should be avoided. The article also avoids to mention the environmental benefits of antimicrobials as well as the benefits of other pharmaceutical products such as growth enhancing hormones. Pound-for-pound, beef produced with grains and growth hormones produces 40% less greenhouse gas emissions and saves two-thirds more land for nature compared to organic grass-fed beef.

'Worldwide, organic food — a sometimes slippery term but on the whole a practice more sustainable than conventional food '

There is little scientific consensus on this conclusion. There is certainly evidence to the contrary, and while there are very desirable qualities associated with organic food ( some of my favorite frozen foods are Amy's brand of organics) organic should not be sold as a panacea in contrast to modern agriculture. The fact that many organic producers are now ( see here) considering adopting biotech options indicates that organic alone as it stands today is not a solution. Reduced yields as a result of organic practices imply a larger carbon footprint and decreased biodiversity compared to biotech crops. No where in the article did I find the author mention any of the downsides of organic production such as toxic biological controls used in organic production including nicotine* sulfur, pyrethrum, neem, sabadilla, and rotenone* that government regulators don’t even track data for.These can be just as persistent in the environment and detrimental to biological diversity as some conventional products. Nor does the author mention increased risks of E coli contamination ( which the author of the Time piece attributes to conventional agriculture).

Notes and References:

*Nicotine, one of the more toxic organic insecticides, has a rat LD50 (lethal dose in 50% of animals tested)of 55mg/kg. The newest synthetic insecticide, imidacloprid, has a rat LD50 of 425mg/kg, making imidacloprid nearly 10 times less toxic than nicotine. Rotenone has an LD50 of 60-1500 mg/kg and is more acutely toxic than Malathion or Sevin. Cats are highly susceptible to pyrethrum.

Science 31 May 2002:
Vol. 296. no. 5573, pp. 1694 - 1697
DOI: 10.1126/science.1071148

Munkvold, G.P. et al . Plant Disease 83, 130-138 1999.

Dowd, p.J. Economic Entomology. 93 1669-1679 2000.

Miller, Henry I, Conko, Gregory, & Drew L. Kershe. Nature Biotechnology Volume 24 Number 9 September 2006.

Agricultural Outlook ERS/USDA Aug 2006.

Science 8 June 2007:
Vol. 316. no. 5830, pp. 1475 - 1477
DOI: 10.1126/science.1139208

Capper, J. L., Cady, R. A., Bauman, D. E. The environmental impact of dairy production: 1944 compared with 2007. Journal of Animal Science, 2009; 87 (6): 2160 DOI: 10.2527/jas.2009-1781

Smith, J.S.C.; Smith, O.S.; Wright, S.; Wall, S.J.; and Walton, M. (1992)
‘‘Diversity of United States Hybrid Maize Germplasm as Revealed by
Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphisms.’’ Crop Science 32: 598–604

International Journal of Food Microbiology
Volume 120, Issue 3, 15 December 2007, Pages 296-302

The Environmental Safety and Benefits of Growth Enhancing Pharmaceutical Technologies in Beef Production
By Alex Avery and Dennis Avery, Hudson Institute, Centre for Global Food Issues.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Government and Public Choice

Our founders certainly had a good idea of the things that Government may be more effective at, as indicated in the specifically enumerated powers of A1S8 of the constitution.

There are cases, in general where, government may have a role ( when goods are non rival and nonexclusive- education, national defense). Or when there are external effects, example: you and I engage in voluntary exchange and harm a 3rd party. However, the existence of 'public goods' or 'externalities' alone does not guarantee that government will offer any improvement.

Past posts related to the function of government:

Type I and Type II Errors

Type II Error Bias -the FDA

Type II Error Bias and Hurricane Katrina

The Tragedy of The Commons

Our Commons Our Choice

Public Choice

Public Choice Theory

Voting Paradoxes

The Median Voter Theorem

The Coase Theorem

Knowledge Problem

Tragedy of the Anticommons

Public Choice Recapitulation

Public Choice and the Constitution

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Government and Capitalism

Governments allocate resources in a fundamentally different way than free individuals behaving cooperatively in voluntary exchange via market capitalism. Individuals acting in their own interest results in a spontanous order guided by prices which reflect tradeoffs based on the knowledge and preferences of millions of individuals. Governments allocate resources based on the limited knowledge and preferences of a few voters, elected officials, or appointed bureaucrats. The fundamental problem facing government is that it never has enough information ( or incentives) to carry out plans effectively. As Economist F.A. Hayek (1945) said:

'the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form, but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all separate individuals possess'

We must also recognize that there is a moral difference between the two processes as well. With government, resources are coercively taken from one individual and given to another. Through the voting and legislative process, government picks winners and losers ( this would not be so bad if we limited government to a few basic functions but becomes problematic with greater intrusion into our lives). Markets do not pick winners and losers. For voluntary exchange to take place, all parties must gain ( although some may gain more than others). Again, as F.A. Hayek (1973)noted :

'the particulars of a spontaneous order cannot be just or unjust'

Certainly there are situations where government has a role in our lives. Our founders outlined many of these in the constitution and explained them well in the federalist papers. While government may provide a necessary mechanism to achieve certain societal goals, we must also be aware of it's weaknesses and its threats.

We should especially be on guard when we hear political leaders justifying some policy or condemning capitalism because the current system has 'benefited the wealthy and well-connected at the expense of the vast majority of Americans.' They are likely staking the deck to take what you have and give it to someone else, or pass some law that benefits a corporate competitor over your small business in the name of some lofty social goal. Ironically, the effect of their policy will likely be to benefit the wealthy and well connected and will likely be at the expense of the majority of Americans.

Instead of just changing who the government picks as winners and losers, it is time that we inform our leaders that we want a change from these collectivist polices, because 'those theories have been tested, and they have failed.'


F.A. Hayek.The Use of Knowledge in Society. American Economic Review (1945)
F.A. Hayek. The Mirage of Social Justice (1973)

Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Dairy Crisis

I'm still looking into the economics of this issue, but here are various related links I've looked at so far:

From the New York Times :

Of course, I should have known, government intervention in the financial markets via the federal reserve fixing interest rates led to malinvestment and a boom in the dairy industry. Because of fixed resources ( it takes years to develop the genetics necessary for an optimal operation) there continues to be a glut of production on the market. Culling poor performing cows isn't enough, and high end dairy genetics don't translate into high quality beef. It would be like trading in your i-phone for a telegraph.

From: The Food Renegade Blog

"MPCs are basically a cheaper, foreign alternative to non-fat dry milk (NFDM) usually coming from water buffalos or yaks in places like China, India, Poland, and Ukraine. MPCs are created when milk is ultra-filtered through a process which drains out the lactose and keeps the milk proteins and other large molecules intact. Unbelievably (or believably, depending on the level of your lack of trust in the FDA), MPCs are not in the FDA’s Generally Recognized As Safe category and are therefore not approved as a food ingredient in the US. (source) - and it's in everything"

"In one interesting turn of events after the National Family Farm Coalition’s press conference of March 4th, State Senator Darrel J. Aubertine of NY introduced legislation requiring a product to be made with milk — not MPCs — if it wants to be labled a “dairy product.”

I may be able to go along with that. I don't like too much government, and oppose mandatory labeling on fast food and GM foods, but I don't even like 2% milk. I want the real thing whole milk. If it's dairy it better be milk in my opinion- truth in labeling. Let consumer's choose at what level of purity they want to consume.

A final quote:

"Once again, our insistence on finding the absolutely cheapest way to manufacture “food,” coupled with a healthy dose of government interference in the market, is causing farmers everywhere to watch their already meager incomes fall a dramatic 50% in the last quarter alone!"

I'm all for cheap food, but again let's be honest about what we are marketing, and get the government out of the way from there.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Can Somone Tell Me What Duck's Unlimited is All About

On the Duck's Unlimited Web page I found the following information about their support of the Clean Water Restoration Act.

See related stories & Opinions :

From cattlenetwork here and the National Cattleman's Beef Association here.

The Heritage Foundation Blog

The Ohio Environmental Law Blog

This is the letter I wrote questioning their support and asking for clarification about their principles. I may have just had the wrong impression about what this organization stands for. I thought they were a free market conservation group.


Although I can see how this legislation may benefit Wetlands, I must have gotten the wrong impression about Ducks Unlimited. I thought this was an organization based on private efforts by private citizens, landowners, and hunters exercising free choice to donate and contribute to conservation efforts while respecting private property rights.

I thought that the name 'Ducks Unlimited' implied that with private property, markets, and caring support from members we could maintain a sustainable and unlimited waterfowl population.

Is it the philosophy of Duck's Unlimited to take a 2 pronged approach of a regulatory and a private market solution? If so, what does the organization value most, private property rights, markets, and constitutional government, or expansion of federal government. If a government power grab helps wetlands ( which I am skeptical) at the expense of private property and individual liberty it appears by supporting the CWRA Ducks's Unlimited has come down on the side of more government.

Shouldn't this organization favor cooperative solutions over the use of force?