Sunday, February 27, 2011

EWG Post Misleading About Modern Ag and Women

In a recent Corn Commentary post, Pam Johnson pointed to this article posted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) addressing the role of women in agriculture. The EWG post is another example of an activist group, giving the impression of  being 'pro family farm' and 'pro sustainable agriculture' yet making statements and accusations that actually undermine the sustainable practices of most family farmers.

For example, here are some quotes from the article:

"Big Ag is big business – and big profits. And when anyone raises questions about the billions of tax dollars lavished on the largest industrial growers of corn, soybeans and other commodity crops or points out the harm that these perverse incentives do to the environment, Big Ag's lackeys lash out."

"More important, though, is how these women farm the land and conserve natural resources. The Organic Farming Research Foundation reports that 22 percent of organic farmers are women. They, and their fellow male organic farmers, follow practices that  conserve soil and biological diversity by rotating crops and avoiding synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, hormones and genetically-modified seed."

It almost has a sexist overtone, but we'll ignore that, and Pam Johnson did a great job taking on misconceptions about women in ag in her post. I am more interested in other topics.

Is it true that we are lavishing tax dollars on the largest industrial growers of corn and other commodities? Well it is certainly true, as Michael Pollan points out, that when ever he tries to follow food from the shelf back to its origin, he ends up in a corn field. It is in fact a miracle of science, and the market place, that we can feed the world in so many ways with just a few commodities- and do it sustainably!  The state of technology and market fundamentals determine this, not subsidies. In terms of incentives, subsidies do not promote the production of commodities over fruits and vegetables. The market fundamentals, costs, technology, labor inputs etc.  guarantee that those production decisions are distinct. (i.e.  the presence or absence of a loan deficiency payment is not going to incentivise you to retool for tomato production over corn or vice versa).  It is also true that many of our commodity programs are based on production and so larger producers will as a group get a larger share of the government's money, but as pointed out in a recent post at  the Truth in Food blog, this does not imply that subsidies promote large scale agriculture at the expense of smaller farms:

"The food ActiviSphere was quick to unanimously pat the Times on the back, bobbing their heads in agreement with the party line that farm subsidies distort the $2.8 trillion food system, encouraging "mainly large-scale farmers" to apparently slavishly plant (or not plant) regardless of what the market tells them.....while it's true the largest dollar amount of farm subsidies go to the largest farms (as you would expect, since subsidies are typically tied directly to production, and production is tied directly to gross sales), looking at the microeconomic effects of subsidies on individual farms should correctly lead you to an entirely different conclusion.

When it comes to impacts on marginal income,  the author provides data showing that subsidies make a bigger difference to the smaller producers, not the larger ones. Get rid of the subsidies, and corn is still king, and it is likely we'll see more consolidation vs. a well spring of smaller farms. And of course, the largest overlook in this is the fact that 98% of all farms are still family farms, an inconvenient truth that activists typically overlook. They have often tried to get around this by getting away from terms related to ownership and trying to focus on technologies used, but they then dig themselves another hole in terms of sustainability. Which brings us to another topic.

Are there perverse incentives that lead to production decisions that are harmful to the environment as the EWG article implies? On the contrary, modern production agriculture is one of those industries that make a prime example of 'the invisible green hand.' Individual family farmers have overwhelmingly adopted sustainable green technologies such as genetic modification or  growth enhancing pharmaceuticals. (reducing or eliminating the use of toxic chemicals,improving insect biodiversity, reducing food toxins, reducing erosion and groundwater pollution, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing water and fossil fuel use)  This is done without overbearing direction given by government regulations and is invariant to incentives created by subsidies. Market incentives have led farmers, acting in their own self interest, to adopt these technologies producing environmental benefits for all. (for peer reviewed research related to the sustainability of modern agriculture see here, or see this fact filled video related to modern sustainable agriculture). If anything, incentives in the ag industry promote behavior that is better not worse for the environment.

I'd like to revisit a quote from the EWG article:

"They, and their fellow male organic farmers, follow practices that  conserve soil and biological diversity by rotating crops and avoiding synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, hormones and genetically-modified seed"

Bear in mind, that most modern family farmers employ crop rotation to better manage fertility, pests, and to combat issues related to resistance. It's great that organic producers implement these practices, but these practices are not unique to organic production. It is certainly true that organic standards restrict the use of synthetic chemicals, but do make allowances for many toxic chemicals (see here for a list from § 205.601  Synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production.) Alex Avery does a good job pointing this out in his articel 'Natures Toxic Tools.' I've already spoken about the improved sustainability from genetic modification and pharmaceutical technologies, but what is not made clear is the sci-fi type mutated plants that organic standards find perfectly acceptable.  As Pamela Ronald points out in her book Tomorrow's table: organic farming, genetics, and the future of food, mutation breeding involves exposing plants to radiation or chemicals to produce random mutations that hopefully produce better performing crops. Unlike the very precise and controlled methods used by Monsanto to create Roundup Ready Soybeans, mutation breeding is perfectly acceptable according to U.S. organic standards. Not something they seem proud of promoting. Secondly, organic producers, compared to their modern not-till counterparts, essentially rape and pillage the soil through tillage, destroying soil structure, increasing run off and groundwater pollution.

Comments on the Corn Commentary Blog:

"At EWG we value transparency: transparency in farm payments to the largest and wealthiest operations and transparency in the millions spent on marketing campaigns that are too often designed to mislead consumers."

 There are lots of reasons to consume organic food. Some people have nostalgic preferences for foods produced the old fashioned way. Others have preferences just about the way food is produced in general. I'm sure there are many environmental and non environment related benefits. I personally prefer to consumer certain organic products based solely on taste. I don't go around attacking people for their food choices, however, I don't hold back from teachable moments when others mischaracterize production agriculture or mislead consumers.  The point of my post is not to attack organic food, but to point out the lack of transparency and misleading implications that some promoters of organic employ to attack the sustainable efforts of most family farms. The EWG post seems to mischaracterize both modern agriculture and the role that women play it, and in this way seems quite misleading. I wonder if most actual organic producers really want the EWG and others out there using these divisive tactics to promote their products?

§ 205.601 Synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production

§ 205.601 Synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production.


In accordance with restrictions specified in this section, the following synthetic substances may be used in organic crop production: Provided, That, use of such substances do not contribute to contamination of crops, soil, or water. Substances allowed by this section, except disinfectants and sanitizers in paragraph (a) and those substances in paragraphs (c), (j), (k), and (l) of this section, may only be used when the provisions set forth in §205.206(a) through (d) prove insufficient to prevent or control the target pest.

(a) As algicide, disinfectants, and sanitizer, including irrigation system cleaning systems. (1) Alcohols. (i) Ethanol. (ii) Isopropanol.
(2) Chlorine materials— Except, That, residual chlorine levels in the water shall not exceed the maximum residual disinfectant limit under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
(i) Calcium hypochlorite. (ii) Chlorine dioxide. (iii) Sodium hypochlorite.
(3) Copper sulfate—for use as an algicide in aquatic rice systems, is limited to one application per field during any 24-month period. Application rates are limited to those which do not increase baseline soil test values for copper over a timeframe agreed upon by the producer and accredited certifying agent.
(4) Hydrogen peroxide.
(5) Ozone gas—for use as an irrigation system cleaner only.
(6) Peracetic acid—for use in disinfecting equipment, seed, and asexually propagated planting material.
(7) Soap-based algicide/demossers.
(b) As herbicides, weed barriers, as applicable.
(1) Herbicides, soap-based—for use in farmstead maintenance (roadways, ditches, right of ways, building perimeters) and ornamental crops.
(2) Mulches. (i) Newspaper or other recycled paper, without glossy or colored inks. (ii) Plastic mulch and covers (petroleum-based other than polyvinyl chloride (PVC)).
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(c) As compost feedstocks—Newspapers or other recycled paper, without glossy or colored inks. (d) As animal repellents—Soaps, ammonium—for use as a large animal repellant only, no contact with soil or edible portion of crop. (e) As insecticides (including acaricides or mite control). (1) Ammonium carbonate—for use as bait in insect traps only, no direct contact with crop or soil. (2) Boric acid—structural pest control, no direct contact with organic food or crops.
(3) Copper sulfate—for use as tadpole shrimp control in aquatic rice production, is limited to one application per field during any 24-month period. Application rates are limited to levels which do not increase baseline soil test values for copper over a timeframe agreed upon by the producer and accredited certifying agent.
(4) Elemental sulfur. (5) Lime sulfur—including calcium polysulfide. (6) Oils, horticultural—narrow range oils as dormant, suffocating, and summer oils. (7) Soaps, insecticidal. (8) Sticky traps/barriers. (9) Sucrose octanoate esters (CAS #s—42922–74–7; 58064–47–4)—in accordance with approved labeling. (f) As insect management. Pheromones. (g) As rodenticides. (1) Sulfur dioxide—underground rodent control only (smoke bombs). (2) Vitamin D3. (h) As slug or snail bait. Ferric phosphate (CAS # 10045–86–0). (i) As plant disease control.
(1) Coppers, fixed—copper hydroxide, copper oxide, copper oxychloride, includes products exempted from EPA tolerance, Provided, That, copper-based materials must be used in a manner that minimizes accumulation in the soil and shall not be used as herbicides.
(2) Copper sulfate—Substance must be used in a manner that minimizes accumulation of copper in the soil. (3) Hydrated lime. (4) Hydrogen peroxide. (5) Lime sulfur.
(6) Oils, horticultural, narrow range oils as dormant, suffocating, and summer oils. (7) Peracetic acid—for use to control fire blight bacteria. (8) Potassium bicarbonate. (9) Elemental sulfur.
(10) Streptomycin, for fire blight control in apples and pears only.
(11) Tetracycline, for fire blight control only and for use only until October 21, 2012.
(j) As plant or soil amendments.
(1) Aquatic plant extracts (other than hydrolyzed)—Extraction process is limited to the use of potassium hydroxide or sodium hydroxide; solvent amount used is limited to that amount necessary for extraction.
(2) Elemental sulfur. (3) Humic acids—naturally occurring deposits, water and alkali extracts only.
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(4) Lignin sulfonate—chelating agent, dust suppressant, floatation agent. (5) Magnesium sulfate—allowed with a documented soil deficiency.
(6) Micronutrients—not to be used as a defoliant, herbicide, or desiccant. Those made from nitrates or chlorides are not allowed. Soil deficiency must be documented by testing.
(i) Soluble boron products. (ii) Sulfates, carbonates, oxides, or silicates of zinc, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, and cobalt.
(7) Liquid fish products—can be pH adjusted with sulfuric, citric or phosphoric acid. The amount of acid used shall not exceed the minimum needed to lower the pH to 3.5.
(8) Vitamins, B1, C, and E.
(9) Sulfurous acid (CAS # 7782–99–2) for on-farm generation of substance utilizing 99% purity elemental sulfur per paragraph (j)(2) of this section.
(k) As plant growth regulators. Ethylene gas—for regulation of pineapple flowering. (l) As floating agents in postharvest handling. (1) Lignin sulfonate. (2) Sodium silicate—for tree fruit and fiber processing.
(m) As synthetic inert ingredients as classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for use with nonsynthetic substances or synthetic substances listed in this section and used as an active pesticide ingredient in accordance with any limitations on the use of such substances.
(1) EPA List 4—Inerts of Minimal Concern.
(2) EPA List 3—Inerts of Unknown Toxicity allowed:
(i) Glycerine Oleate (Glycerol monooleate) (CAS #s 37220–82–9)—for use only until December 31, 2006.
(ii) Inerts used in passive pheromone dispensers.
(n) Seed preparations. Hydrogen chloride (CAS # 7647–01–0)—for delinting cotton seed for planting.
(o)–(z) [Reserved]
[65 FR 80637, Dec. 21, 2000, as amended at 68 FR 61992, Oct. 31, 2003; 71 FR 53302 Sept. 11, 2006; 72 FR 69572, Dec. 10, 2007; 75 FR 38696, July 6, 2010]

Modern Sustainable Agriculture Annotated Bibliography (updated)

Below is a review of literature discussing the sustainability of modern agriculture.

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

-reduced carbon footprint in dairy production
 "Antimicrobial Resistance: Implications for the Food System." Doyle et al., Institute of Food Technologists

Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, Vol.5, Issue 3, 2006ter for Molecular

-safety of pharmaceutical technologies in food production in relation to antibiotic use in livestock

"Microbiological Quality of Ground Beef From Conventionally-Reared Cattle and "Raised without Antibiotics" Label Claims" Journal of Food Protection, July 2004,Vol 67 Issue 7 p. 1433-1437

-factors other than the sub therapeutic use of antibiotics in beef production contribute to antimicrobial resistant bacteria in ground beef

San Diego Center for Molecular Agriculture: Foods from Genetically Modified Crops ( pdf)

-summary of environmental and health benefits of biotechnology

''Hybrid Corn.'' Abelson, P.H. (1990) Science 249 (August 24): 837. -improved diversity of crops planted

Enterprise and Biodiversity: Do Market Forces Yield Diversity of Life? David Schap and Andrew T. Young Cato Journal, Vol. 19, No. 1  (Spring/Summer 1999)

-improved diversity of crops planted

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

-reduced impact on biodiversity

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

-improved diversity of crops planted

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.

-Improved safety and reduced carcinogens in biotech crops

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.

-Improved safety and reduced carcinogens in biotech crops

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

-Health and environmental benefits of biotechnology

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

-environmental benefits and reduced pesticide use of biotech crops

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

-environmentalbenefits of biotech: reduced pollution, improved safety, reduced carbon footprint

Soil Fertility and Biodiversity in Organic Farming. Science 31 May 2002: Vol. 296. no. 5573, pp. 1694 – 1697 DOI: 10.1126/science.1071148

-20% lower yields in non-biotech organic foods

'Association of farm management practices with risk of Escherichia coli contamination in pre- harvest produce grown in Minnesota and Wisconsin.' International Journal of Food Microbiology Volume 120, Issue 3, 15 December 2007, Pages 296-302

-comparison of E.Coli risks and modern vs. organic food production methods, odds of contamination are 13x greater for organic production

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.

-Grain feeding combined with growth promotants also results in a nearly 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gases (GHGs) per pound of beef compared to grass feeding (excluding nitrous oxides), with growth promotants accounting for fully 25 percent of the emissions reductions- see also: Organic, Natural and Grass-Fed Beef: Profitability and constraints to Production in the Midwestern U.S. Nicolas Acevedo John D. Lawrence Margaret Smith August, 2006. Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture)

Lessons from the Danish Ban on Feed Grade Antibiotics. Dermot J. Hayes and Helen H. Jenson. Choices 3Q. 2003. American Agricultural Economics Association.

-Ban on feed grade sub- therapeutic antibiotics lead to increased reliance on therapeutic antibiotics important to human health.

Does Local Production Improve Environmental and Health Outcomes. Steven Sexton. Agricultural and Resource Economics Update, Vol 13 No 2 Nov/Dec 2009. University of California.

-local production offers no benefits to sustainability


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

 "Bt corn planted near non-Bt corn can provide the unmodified plants with indirect protection from pests"

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,

"Cumulative benefits over 14 years are an estimated $3.2 billion for maize growers in Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, with more than $2.4 billion of this total accruing to non-Bt maize growers."

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

-'industrial agriculture' aka family farms utilizing modern production technology have a mitigating effect on climate change

Clearing the Air: Livestock's Contribution to Climate ChangeMaurice E. Pitesky*, Kimberly R. Stackhouse† and Frank M. MitloehnerAdvances in Agronomy Volume 103, 2009, Pages 1-40

-transportation accounts for at least 26% of total anthropogenic GHG emissions compared to roughly 5.8% for all of agriculture & less than 3% associated with livestock production vs. 18% wrongly attributed to livestock by the FAO report 'Livestock's Long Shadow' Conclusion: intensified 'modern' livestock production is consistent with a long term sustainable production strategy

Large Agriculture Improves Rural Iowa Communities

-"favorable effect of large-scale agriculture on quality of life in the 99 Iowa communities we studied"

Comparing the Structure, Size, and Performance of Local and Mainstream FoodSupply Chains
Robert P. King, Michael S. Hand, Gigi DiGiacomo,Kate Clancy, Miguel I. Gómez, Shermain D. Hardesty,Larry Lev, and Edward W. McLaughlin
Economic Research Report Number 99 June 2010

-Study finds that fuel use per cwt for local food production was 2.18 gallons vs. .69 and 1.92 for intermediate and traditional supply chains for beef

The environmental impact of recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST) use in dairy production Judith L. Capper,* Euridice Castañeda-Gutiérrez,*† Roger A. Cady,‡ and Dale E. Bauman* Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 July 15; 105(28): 9668–9673

-rBST supplemented cattle lead to an 8%  reduction in cattle requirements vs a 25 % increase in organic cattle numbers to produce equivalent amounts of milk. For every 1 million cows, the reduction in GWP from rBST supplemented cows is equivalent to removing 400K cars from the roadways or planting 300 million trees

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Manufacturing On The Rise

"Americans make more "stuff'' than any other nation on earth, and by a wide margin. According to the United Nations' comprehensive database of international economic data, America's manufacturing output in 2009 (expressed in constant 2005 dollars) was $2.15 trillion. That surpassed China's output of $1.48 trillion by nearly 46 percent. China's industries may be booming, but the United States still accounted for 20 percent of the world's manufacturing output in 2009 — only a hair below its 1990 share of 21 percent"

"A vast amount of "stuff'' is still made in the USA, albeit not the inexpensive consumer goods that fill the shelves in Target or Walgreens. American factories make fighter jets and air conditioners, automobiles and pharmaceuticals, industrial lathes and semiconductors. Not the sort of things on your weekly shopping list."

Job Creation & The Knowledge Problem

"  It's hard to object to  feel-good terms like "infrastructure" or "green" initiatives, but in a world of scarcity and choice, some spending is likely to be more beneficial, or at least less wasteful (Can you say Cash for Clunkers?), than another alternative. Do we choose bridges and overpasses instead of a high-speed rail network, restoring government buildings, more day-care centers and homes for senior citizens, or some elected official's pet project to placate his or her political base of support? Or perhaps shore up our human capital infrastructure—education, health—or address environmental concerns?  In a world of finite resources, "Let's do them all" is simply not an option."

This does a good job describing the 'knowledge problem' plaguing stimulus & job creation. This is not an issue with market prices.  Prices reflect tradeoffs based on the knowledge and specific preferences of millions of individuals, coordinate that information & provide  incentives to act on it. (taking into account the multivariate array of alternatives, interactions, and consequences of each choice or action taken) Planned job creation & stimulus must rely on the relatively minute pool of knowledge at the disposal of a few voters, politicians, experts, or administrators, in the face of adverse incentive structures. 

  This doesn't mean to me that 'stimulus' spending has a zero multiplier. It means that it won't produce results that will allow us to get the most out of our scarce resources.