Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Earth Day: In celebration of affluent middle class fetishes?

Last Friday was earth day, and across the country I can guarantee a lot of attention was given to eating sustainably, with a focus on local,natural,and organic food. I doubt much emphasis was given to the sustainability of modern food supply chains made possible by large agribusinesses like Cargill, ADM, or Wal-Mart, or the positive environmental impact of biotechnology. As economist Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek states regarding sustainability:

"No word currently in vogue among Very Smart and Oh-So-Concerned People smuggles in more mistaken presumptions wrapped in a sentiment that no one in his or her right mind can disagree with than “sustainability.”

Let's look at these presumptions about sustainable agriculture.

Eating Local

One presumption is that eating local implies that food has to travel less, and as a result leads to less energy use. However, this precludes the notion that modern food supply chains and their efficiencies can actually be close competitors to, if not exceed local food in their greenness. As pointed out here in National Geographic (citing this research Environ. Sci. Technol. 2008, 42, 3508–3513) here from the USDA, and here from UC Davis, local foods are often not as energy or climate friendly as those we get from more industrial sources.

Eating Natural

Natural food often implies  grass fed, hormone and antibiotic free livestock. However, there are many reasons that corn, hormones, and antibiotics can add a little green to your plate. Based on research from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture Alex and Dennis Avery (in The Environmental Safety and Benefits of Growth Enhancing Pharmaceutical Technologies in Beef Production, Center for Global Food Issues) found that grain feeding in combination with growth enhancing pharmaceuticals results in nearly a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to natural grass fed livestock. This is corroborated by research from Jude Capper, which found that for every 1 million dairy cows utilizing the hormone rbST,  the annual decrease in global warming potential is equivalent to removing 400 thousand cars from the road annually.


Organic foods have particular restrictions related to biotechnology- essentially zero tolerance on GMO ingredients.  This is a major drawback to trying to 'go green' on an all organic diet. According to research from the USDA, biotechnology has led to large reductions (and in some cases total elimination) of many toxic chemicals. According to research from PG Economics, in 2009 alone,  greenhouse gas reductions associated with biotechnology were equivalent to removing 7.8 million cars from the road.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with local, organic, or natural food. I am a regular consumer of certain local and organic brands, and frequent places like Trader Joe's fairly often (despite the nearest location is 70 miles away). The problem is, that local, organic, and natural have become almost like a fetish to many sustainability enthusiasts, and this distraction has kept many well intending environmentalists (and the media and perhaps even some educators) from noticing the drastic improvements in the sustainability of modern agriculture.  As a result many of earth day celebrations have become occasions for indulging in these affluent middle class fetishes at the expense of exploring a greener world of possibilities offered by modern agriculture.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Constrained Capitalism? Not

From the Guardian and you can find an article entitled "Arguments for Constrained Capitalism in Asia."

And we wonder where people get ideas, like ending our addiction to economic growth.

The article is very thought provoking, but I'm not sure the author truly understands economics, prices, or capitalism, or they are confusing their terms.

They advocate "constrained capitalism – which limits the use of natural resources and inhibits the behavior of consumers" and state that  "Governments need to tell their people that they can't have everything"

Prices, interest rates, profits, property rights, torts- all the things that make up a system of capitalism, by definition, work to limit the use of natural resources and constrain the behavior of consumers. They serve as reminders that we can't have everything and that our choices always involve trade offs. Often times, it is the intent of government policy to override these constraints, sending the false signal that yes you can have everything. (i.e. socially planned interest rates  and the excess that lead up to the financial crisis that reminded us, no you can't have everything and prices matter).  Prices reflect information related to scarcity and the knowledge and preferences of multitudes (billions) of individuals, and force each of us (consumers and businesses), with nearly every decision we make, to consider the impacts of our choices on others and the environment.  There are of course instances when we think that prices don't capture the full impact of our behavior  (externalities- see Hardin, Coase, Demsetz) but many times over the answer isn't less reliance on market forces, but more.  Paul Ehrlich and Jared Diamond have tried to make similar arguments related  to 'constrained capitalism'  and economic growth, but technological change and economic growth have undermined their claims time and time again. 

"investment in rural areas to improve sustainable farming methods and raise farming incomes."

This is one area, perhaps, where I agree, but modern agriculture in general (with GM foods, the application of genomics, proteomics, and pharmaceutical technologies in livestock production, GPS, modern intricate supply chains) is an example of an industry that has drastically reduced its environmental impact, mostly as a result of voluntary decisions by farmers on a global scale to adopt these practices.  Investment in these green technologies has paid off. How much of it is due to government sponsored R&D I'm not sure.

"He uses a telling fact: 2.2 billion Asians now have mobile phones, but far fewer have access to drinking water or toilets."

Access to potable water is perhaps one of the areas where increased reliance on markets and the price mechanism could offer the greatest improvement.

"The problem is not about needing more technology but about restructuring an economic system to meet human needs."

Economics and capitalism are all about meeting human needs. There are cases, where according to the article, it may seem that capitalism has not favored nations or peoples that are less than well off, but take the case of Egypt for example, or the many countries in Latin American.  As Hernando DeSoto has pointed out, they suffer from a lack of markets and capitalism as opposed to suffering from markets and capitalism. In a market system, if needs are not met, then competition drives profits down. If needs are met with great difficulty or under constraints of scarcity (as the article in the Guardian implies), then prices and profits will reflect that.

"There is no future unless we constrain human behaviour, how you do that is the question of our time"

That is the question of all time, and the subject of economics, which is the study of people's choices and how they are made compatible. Understanding economics and the nature of the price mechanism and spontaneous order provides the analytical framework for addressing so many of the concerns of this article.

Science 13 December 1968:
Vol. 162 no. 3859 pp. 1243-1248
DOI: 10.1126/science.162.3859.1243
The Tragedy of the Commons
Garrett Hardin

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

Toward a Theory of Property Rights
Harold Demsetz
The American Economic Review, Vol. 57, No. 2, Papers and Proceedings of the Seventy-ninth
Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association. (May, 1967), pp. 347-359.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Facts for Ag Fact Friday

Today is Ag Fact Friday, so here are 10 facts about modern sustainable agricultrue.

Dairy & Livestock Production

#1 The carbon footprint for a gallon of milk produced in 2007 was only 37 percent of that produced in 1944. For every 1 million cows, the reduction in global warming potential from rBST supplemented cows is equivalent to removing 400K cars from the roadways or planting 300 million trees.

#2 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 in the U.S.

#3 The use of grain and pharmaceutical technology in beef production has resulted in a nearly 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gases (GHGs) per pound of beef compared to grass feeding.

#4 Bans on feed grade sub- therapeutic antibiotics in European countries lead to increased reliance on therapeutic antibiotics important to human health.

Crop Production

#5 Biotechnology improves insect biodiversity, crop plant diversity, and has lower levels of carcinogens than conventional and organic corn.

#6 The use of biotech Roundup resistant crops has led to reduced herbicide use and allowed roundup to replace other herbicides that were up to 17 times more toxic.

#7 Total decreases in carbon dioxide as a result of using biotech crops was equivalent to removing 6 million cars from the road in 2007. (that’s a lot more than the # of hybrid cars sold in 2007)

Modern Agriculture in General

#8 Rather than having a negative impact on climate change, intensive agriculture has actually has a mitigating effect on climate change with a reduction of 68 kgC (249 kgCO2e) emissions relative to 1961 technology.

#9 Small farms actually benefit more from subsidy programs than large scale farms, despite the relative shares of total subsidies paid. The impacts of subsidies on food choices have not contributed to the obesity epidemic.

#10 Local food production can actually be more energy intensive than modern efficient supply chains. On average, fuel use per cwt for local food production is about 2.18 gallons vs. .69 and 1.92 for intermediate and traditional supply chains for beef production.


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

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

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

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.

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

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

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.

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

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.

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

Farm Subsidies and Obesity in the United States. Julian M. Alston, Daniel A. Sumner, and Stephen A. Vosti. Agricultural Resource Economics Update V. 11 no. Nov/Dec 007 U.C. Davis

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

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

Comparing the Structure, Size, and Performance of Local and Mainstream FoodSupply ChainsRobert 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

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

''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

USDA Report- Government Payments and the Farm Sector: Who Benefits and How Much?


USDA Report-Farm Income and Costs: Farms Receiving Government Payments


Saturday, April 09, 2011

EWG Headine: A Bailout for Corporate Agriculture?

Previously I found an article published by the EWG regarding the role of women in agriculture, that I found somewhat misleading. Recently, I  ran across a piece by the EWG titled 'Government's Continued Bailout of Corporate Agriculture' which, in addition to the title, made some pretty bold and possibly misleading statements. I'm not saying this is intentional on the part of EWG, but these statements could easily be misinterpreted.

From 1995-2009 the largest and wealthiest top 10 percent of farm program recipients received 74 percent of all farm subsidies

This is true, but it could give the false perception that farm subsidies benefit large farms perhaps at the expense of smaller farms, but I addressed this before in another post Do Farm Subsidies Benefit the Largest Farms the Most?

It's true that many subsidies are tied to commodity production. As a result, those that grow more commodities (i.e. larger farms) will get more money from the government. As a result larger producers take in a larger share of all subsidies (especially those related to commodities). However, subsidies account for a much smaller percentage of income for large producers, and make up a much larger percentage of total income for medium or small producers.  

EWG  does admit that they favor subsidies going to smaller and midsize farms, where they have the biggest impact on operating budgets.  Another quote:

The vast majority of farm subsidies go to raw material for our industrialized food system, not the foods we actually eat. Even less money goes to support the production of the fruits and vegetables that are the foundation of a healthy diet.

This couldn't be further from the truth. It is true, as I discussed above, that most of the subsidies go to commodities, but it isn't true that they don't contribute to the production of foods that we actually eat. In fact, as Michael Pollan has brilliantly stated:

"What I keep finding in case after case, if you follow the food back to the farm — if you follow the nutrients, if you follow the carbon — you end up in a corn field in Iowa, over and over and over again." -Michael Pollan 
 As I've pointed out many times before, it is a miracle that modern sustainable agriculture can feed so many people in so many ways, with just a few common staple crops, and do it sustainably! 
The EWG quote also could give some people the perception that healthy supplements in our diets, like fruits and vegetables, are more expensive than processed foods containing corn and soybeans because corn and soybeans are subsidized more heavily than fruits and vegetables. Again, this couldn't be further than the truth. The agronomics, labor, risk, economies of scale, and capital costs associated with fruit and vegetable production make those crops much more expensive than commodities, and have a much larger role on their prices than subsidies.  Eliminating commodity programs would have an insignificant impact at the retail level, and the subsides required to make fruits and vegetables more affordable would dwarf what we are currently spending on commodties. 

Finally, while this corporate giveaway has gone on unabated, conservation continues to be shortchanged.

While this may be true, in terms of the allocation of funds, conservation and sustainability in terms of on the farm practices isn't shortchanged in the least. Market forces have overcome subsidy related distortions and led producers and agribusinesses to focus heavily on green technologies including herbicide and pest resistance, water use efficiency, fuel efficiency etc.  Again, all the practices that make modern agriculture, sustainable agriculture.

Text Mining Tweets About Factory Farms

On another blog last year I noted the how those in the agriculture industry were benefiting from the use of social media. (like the Yellow Tail and Pilot Travel incidences).  While social media has allowed farmers to organize and communicate about their industry, it also provides a rich data source for measuring sentiment or perceptions about their industry. Companies are finding that by mining text from web pages, comments, blogs, and social media, they can get measure consumer perceptions almost as well or better than they can through explicit surveys. These powerful analytics could be very beneficial to those in the ag industry or agvocacy groups.

After a week as SAS Gobal Forum, I've been pretty excited about some of the text mining presentations that I got to see.  After getting home I found a tweet from @imusicmash sharing a post from the Heuristic Andrew blog that shared text mining code from R.    (although SAS has some pretty powerful text mining tools, I don’t have access to them for personal blogging purposes)  Anyway, I thought I’d take a stab at mining tweets related to ‘factory farms’ using open source R.

I extracted about 2000 tweets containing the term ‘factory farms’ and produced the following cluster analysis on the text:

 This seems to give an idea about the content of conversations regarding ‘factory farms.’  Some of these appear to center around gmo foods and Monsanto. This already informs me of misperceptions about ‘factory farms’ and biotechnology. Should people tend to associate these terms when 98% of farms are family farms and most of them raise biotech corn and soybeans? 

It seems there are separate clusters of conversations, some related to Monsanto and gmo’s, others related to food and livestock production in general.

It also appears that the topic of ‘factory farms’ is often discussed by the #agchat group, and other food and animal related issues.

I also ran some correlations, or ‘word associations.’  Terms that tend to be used in association with ‘factory farms’ include hens, debeaked,suffering, cruelty,secretive, excess.  All of these terms tend to be related to livestock production, and seem to have negative sentment.  Words correlated with family farms are more neutral, hauled, Missouri, beans, peas, operated, battling.   Terms associated with ‘gmo’ include ban, irreversible, killing.  Interesting the term ‘sustainable’ brought up neutral terms. It doesn’t appear, at least from this sample, that sustainable agriculture is associated with biotechnology, at least in the context of tweets related to ‘factory farms.’  Again, to me this speaks more about misperceptions related to modern sustainable agriculture.

Of course, this is just a first jab at this, I’m no expert in text analytics, and I had to rely on my subjective interpretation to some extent. And, obviously, I have not discovered anything that most people in the ag industry don’t already know. However, more sophisticated analysis is possible and could be more revealing than the example I just gave. I truly believe that text analytics can be a powerful tool for the ag industry and agvocation in the future.