Sunday, October 15, 2017

Endogenous Growth Models and Stagnation in Agricultural Innovation

See also: Ideas and Research Productivity in Agriculture 

From: Big Ideas Are Getting Harder to Find - Stanford Business Insights:

"big ideas are getting harder and harder to find, and innovations have become increasingly massive and costly endeavors, according to new research from economists at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research. As a result, tremendous continual increases in research and development will be needed to sustain even today’s low rate of economic growth." 

One of the key equations in the paper relates the number of researchers working in an area to the number of new ideas: research productivity = (A*/A)/S(t) = # new ideas / # researchers One particular area they looked at was with productivity in agriculture, measuring ideas as crop yields.

 “For instance, to measure productivity in agriculture, the study’s co-authors used crop yields of corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton and compared them against research expenditures directed at improving yields, including cross-breeding, bioengineering, crop protection and maintenance....On average, research productivity in agriculture fell by about 4% to 6% per year, the study found....Research productivity is simply the ratio of average yield growth divided by the number of researchers." 

They were careful to tease out research related to non-yield related traits. However, is 'yield' always the best way to measure productivity? Maybe it is a good proxy, but it looks like their data really starts in the 60's....about the time when corn seed was being transitioned away from double cross to single cross hybrids, which were more uniform and higher yielding. In terms of having a large marginal impact on yield, that seems like it could be a tough act to follow, even 40+ years later (its not like we will rediscover hybrid vigor or heterosis) no matter how many PhD's we throw at increasing yield. Other developments in crop improvement may in fact be inflating the denominator in the equation above. The convergence of big data and genomics has opened the door to numerous potential lines of research related to crop improvement, that although may only marginally impact yield provide other significant technological benefits to growers, consumers, and the environment. This would be important, even if yield were constant.

Advances in big data and genomics may have resulted in many more possible needles to search for in a much greater number of haystacks than before. Each crop has a different genome and a seemingly infinite number of biochemical pathways that could be of interest. Then there is the micro-biome and who knows what is next. We just need way more researchers than before.

 I'm not sure how much this applies in other fields, and in some ways this could be making the authors' point....look at all the lines and directions of research and scientists pursuing them vs. actual improvements in crop yields. But again, even if yield were constant, for every bushel of corn/soy produced today, how much have we improved with regard to CO2 reduction, energy use, erosion/leaching, reduction in toxic chemical exposure (thanks largely to roundup and Bt traits), and biodiversity (in terms of non-pest targets)?

Yield just seems to be one outcome among many of importance to creating sustainable development in the agriculture space (although it is important enough to sustainability that we certainly would not want to revert back to older technologies, genetics, and chemistries as some have argued). It would be interesting to see this modeled with traits or variety patents or total hybrids as a measure of new ideas.


Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find? By Nicholas A. Bloom, Charles I. Jones, John Van Reenen, Michael Webb. September 2017Working Paper No. 3592

Modern Corn and Soybean Production. Rober G. Hoeft, Emerson D. Nafziger, Richard R. Johnson, and Samuel R. Aldrich. MCSP. First Edition. 2000.

Environmental impacts of genetically modified (GM) crop use 1996–2015: Impacts on pesticide use and carbon emissions. Graham Brookes & Peter Barfoot. GM Crops & Food Vol. 8 Iss.2, 2017 Genetically Engineered Crops: Has Adoption Reduced Pesticide Use?

Agricultural Outlook ERS/USDA Aug 2000 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

Friday, September 01, 2017

Voter Irrationality and Systematic Bias: Applications in Food and Biotechnology

In the Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, Bryan Kaplan discusses issues related to the median voter theorem and systematic biases by voters.

One interesting concept he discusses is the miracle of aggregation. According to the miracle of aggregation democracies can make decisions as if all were well informed. If we assume that less informed voters make random mistakes,  errors will cancel and the votes that matter will be the informed ones. The well informed median voter determines the outcome.

This all breaks down if the most informed voters make systematic mistakes. In that case the median preference becomes biased away from the optimal policy. But why would well informed voters make systematic mistakes?

Sometimes our values and views are part of who we are. Believing certain things gives people higher levels of utility. They let preferences drive beliefs over evidence. To entertain information or evidence to the contrary would upset preferences and lower utility. To quote Caplan:

"letting emotions or ideology corrupt thinking is an easy way to satisfy such preferences"

He also quotes Lebon:

"the masses have never thirsted after the truth, they turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste...whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim"

This idea of preferences driving beliefs explains a lot. For instance, the election of demagogues. There are clear benefits to be reaped in customizing political platforms and media content that feeds into the preferences of these different segments of the population. The media capitalizes on that at the expense of actually informing the electorate. So do politicians and pundits.

This also may explain the explosion of growth in organic, natural, hormone free and other niche food markets.  Or the popular support for GMO labeling initiatives despite the science behind both safety and environmental benefits of biotechnology.

All of these are cases where acceptance of scientific evidence should potentially change opinions and behavior as it relates to food and agriculture. However to change those opinions and choices would be to drastically upset the preferences of a number of consumers. This makes it hard for those in agriculture and science communication trying to help the public navigate the complex world of modern agriculture. It also makes it hard for companies, wanting to do the right thing, to make a stand for science (i.e. by not going down the non-GMO/hormone/gluten free negative labeling route).

For instance, what if a t-shirt manufacturer wanted to promote the use of Bt cotton in their products on the basis of a reduction in use of toxic pesticides and improved insect biodiversity? Or what if a food company wanted to promote their dairy products for having a lower carbon footprint due to rBST? Taking this position would likely upset the illusions and preferences held dearly by many consumers. Noone wants to become 'their victim' to borrow from Lebon. Just ask Monsanto or BPI, the company behind finely textured beef. (however ABC eventually paid a price for feeding the masses the pink slime 'illusion'). In response, we don't see these kinds of promotions, and to the contrary we actually see companies removing these technologies from their product lines (and advertising the fact!).

Due to systematic bias in relation to food and technology, the median of voters' preference distribution will be biased toward more restrictive regulations than is scientifically appropriate. This will influence the types of products we see on the shelves and the potential for healthier and more environmentally sustainable solutions to challenging worldwide problems.


The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, Bryan Kaplan

The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind.  Gustave Le Bon.

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

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

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

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

Environmental impacts of genetically modified (GM) crop use 1996–2015: Impacts on pesticide use and carbon emissions
Graham Brookes & Peter Barfoot
GM Crops & Food Vol. 8 , Iss. 2,2017

Batista R, Saibo N, Lourenço T, Oliveira MM. Microarray analyses reveal that
plant mutagenesis may induce more transcriptomic changes than transgene
insertion. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Mar 4;105(9):3640-5. doi:
10.1073/pnas.0707881105. PubMed PMID: 18303117; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2265136

Baudo MM, Lyons R, Powers S, Pastori GM, Edwards KJ, Holdsworth MJ, Shewry PR. (2006). Transgenesis has less impact on the transcriptome of wheat grain than conventional breeding. Plant Biotechnol J. 2006 Jul;4(4):369-80

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Single Peaked Preferences and the Median Voter Theorem

In the last entry on voting paradoxes, I mentioned that things are different if preferences are single peaked.

Let’s look at another scenario. Again, consider a set of policies A,B,C following a sequence from  (A) less to more extreme (C) - maybe tax rates or some level of spending- with (B) being the intermediate policy. Suppose voters rank policies in order of preference/utility as follows:

Voter X:  ABC
Voter Y : CBA
Voter Z : BCA

In this case, no matter what order is undertaken, B always ends up being the law that is enacted. These preferences are single peaked. Each individual has a most preferred choice along the A to C spectrum. If you move away from that choice (in the A-B-C spectrum) they prefer the other choices less.  In the previous example, voter Y did not have single peaked preferences and that is what caused the cycling or order dependent outcomes. With single peaked preferences there is a new problem. With single peaked preferences, the median point of the preference distribution will elicit the most votes. Only those laws or candidates with a centrist twist will get the majority of the votes. Only those voters with centrist views will be happy, and it makes it very difficult for candidates to be elected if they want to bring about major reforms. This phenomenon is referred to as the ‘median voter theorem.’

Both voter cycling (when preferences are not single peaked) and the median voter theorem can have negative implications for majority rule policy adoption. Voters are either governed by irrational ever changing majorities, or they are subjugated by entrenched majorities whose views are maintained by the status quo of median preferences.


Lemieux, Pierre, The Public Choice Revolution. Regulation, Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 22-29, Fall 2004. Available at SSRN:

Majority Rule and Vote Cycling with Non-Single Peaked Preferences

Is majority rule the best way to represent voters preferences for a given set of policies?

Let’s look at a particular voting scenario to illustrate this. Consider a set of policies A,B,C following a sequence from  (A) less to more extreme (C) - maybe tax rates or some level of spending- with (B) being the intermediate policy. Suppose voters have the following preferences:

VOTER X: A >B >C  'single peaked '


VOTER Z: B>C >A  'single peaked'

Both voters X and Z have single peaked preferences. As we move away from their optimal choice the strength of their preferences or utility decreases. However, voter Y does not exhibit single peaked preferences. They prefer the extreme policy C most, but their next preferred policy is in the direction of the other extreme A. They prefer the intermediate policy B least.

If the voters were voting on these issues, voter X would prefer law A over law B and law B over law C. In shorthand – A >B >C. To summarize all of the choices of the voters we see that 2/3 of the voters have preference A >B, 2/3 of the voters have preference B > C, but when voting A vs. C, 2/3 have preference C >A.

See if you follow the application of this. If we vote on policies in a pairwise fashion and have two elections and the first is made between policy B and C, then B will win (2/3 of the voters have preference B > C). If this is followed by a second election A vs. B (Because C was eliminated in the first election) then A will be the law that ultimately passes by majority rule.

Now if the order is changed, in which the first election is between A and B, A will win (because 2/3 of the voters rank A > B). Then in the second election when A goes against C, C will be the law that passes by majority rule (again because 2/3 of the voters have preference C >A).

So when voting on these policies, the process becomes arbitrary. The outcome depends on the order of the vote, so a cycling of choices ensues. According to public choice economist Gordon Tullock, any outcome can be obtained in majority voting by at least one voting method. This indicates that majorities can be irrational and dangerous unless preferences are all single peaked. 


Lemieux, Pierre, The Public Choice Revolution. Regulation, Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. 22-29, Fall 2004. Available at SSRN:

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Risk, Uncertainty, Speculation and Granger Causality

What is the difference between 'risk' and 'uncertainty'?

"Uncertainty refers to outcomes that we cannot foresee, or whose probabilities that we cannot estimate. In other words, uncertainty is a way of characterizing what we don't know about the distribution of the random variables themselves...Risk can be quantified, priced,and traded. It can even be hedged with large pools of assets." - Froeb et al 2014.Managerial Economics: A problem solving approach. 3rd edition.

This distinction was first made by economist Frank Knight.

Insurance of all kinds and commodity futures markets are examples of financial products based on quantifiable risks. Those involved in these markets, often speculators, have an important role to play. Speculators and futures and options markets make it possible to allocate resources across time, essentially from periods of abundance to periods of scarcity smoothing consumption and alleviating risks.

This is described well in The Economic Way of Thinking:

"Speculators coordinate market exchanges through time...that both inform people and provide them with the opportunity to allocate their risks...Speculators accept the risk at a mutually agreed upon price that hedgers seek to avoid."

Elaine Kub, author of Mastering the Grain Markets puts it beautifully in her book:

"All life on earth depends on agriculture, how well we distribute agriculture's products-how well we trade grain-determines how Earth's population gains access to its most fundamental needs."

However, speculators and funds involved in commodities trading often come under heavy scrutiny perhaps without understanding the important role they play in actually increasing food security as Nevil Speer explains below:

“Reining in speculators seems politically expedient.  But we live in complex times.  Throwing darts becomes perilous when policy makers begin to advocate (and worse yet, actually believe) that speculators should be removed  from ag / food markets.   Such a move would dismantle futures markets.  Imagine what the world might look like a without market liquidity, price discovery and risk mitigation; not to mention the inability to establish pricing plans, attract new capital investment and stimulate innovation across the food business.   The absence of those influences, facilitated by futures markets, would ultimately lead to less food production, availability and security – NOT the other way around.  Taking speculators out of the mix would be devastating.”  Dr. Nevil Speer, No Speculators? No thanks!, Drovers Cattle Network Agsight, March 2011

So what impact have speculators had on markets? One way is to look at the impact of index funds on commodity prices and volatility. Economist Scott Irwin at the University of Illinois has looked at this in depth. Below are three examples of studies (although not a complete review of the literature) looking at these impacts based on granger causality tests and other methods:

The Impact of Index Funds in
Commodity Futures Markets:
A Systems Approach
The Journal of Alternative Investments
Summer 2011, Vol. 14, No. 1: pp. 40-49

"The system of Granger-style causality tests fails to reject the null hypothesis that that trader positions do not lead market returns. Hence, there is no evidence of a linkage between index trader positions in commodity futures markets and price levels."

Irwin, S. H. and D. R. Sanders (2010), “The Impact of Index and Swap Funds on Commodity Futures Markets: Preliminary Results”, OECD Food, Agriculture and Fisheries Working Papers, No. 27, OECD Publishing. doi: 10.1787/5kmd40wl1t5f-en

“There is no statistically significant relationship indicating that changes in index and swap fund positions have increased market this time, the weight of evidence clearly suggests that increased index fund activity in 2006-08 did not cause a bubble in commodity futures prices.”

Index Trading and Agricultural Commodity Prices:
A Panel Granger Causality Analysis
Gunther Capelle-Blancard and Dramane Coulibaly
CEPII, WP No 2011 – 28
No 2011 – 28

"Our results show that, in agricultural futures markets, there is no evidence of a causality relationship from index funds to futures prices. This result holds for the period 2006-2010, but also for the sub-periods 2006-2008 and 2008-2010. These findings imply that index-based trading has not been an important driver in the substantial increase in commodities prices. Changes in commodity prices may instead reflect fundamental supply and demand factors."


Explained: Knightian uncertainty
The economic crisis has revived an old philosophical idea about risk and uncertainty. But what is it, exactly?
Peter Dizikes, MIT News Office
June 2, 2010

Foeb, Mcann, Ward, and Shor. Managerial Economics: A problem solving approach. 3rd edition. 2008.

The Economic Way of Thinking. Heyne, Boettke, and Prychitko. 10th Edition. 2002.

Mastering the Grain Markets: How profits are really made. Elaine Kub.

See also: 

Fat Tails, Kurtosis, and Risk

Fat Tails, the Precautionary Principle and GMOs

Friday, July 07, 2017

Stawman Arguments Against Statements Related to GMO Safety

Previously I discussed how the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the National Academy of Sciences have all issued statements regarding the safety of foods derived from genetically engineered crops.

In addition I discussed how critics have questioned these statements. One set of assertions supports the invocation of the precautionary principle.

I have written before about issues related to using the precautionary principle with respect to genetically modified vs conventional food crops.

In this post I would like to specifically discuss the assertion that  "There are no epidemiological studies investigating potential effects of GM food consumption on human health."

To those unfamiliar with modern crop science and genetics, that could sound like a very condemning statement. But that begs the question, have there been epidemiological studies investigating the potential effects of conventionally and mutagenically improved crops on human health?

Its also a true statement that there are no epidemiological studies investigating the relative safety of using the stairs vs. elevators vs. escalators vs. leaping out the top floor window with regard to human health. (although I am sure actuaries have assessed property/casualty probabilities associated with similar kinds of risks related to building design, we don't have people losing sleep over lack of publication in this area)

These last examples might seem extreme and unrelated, but they illustrate the point that for some things, conducting an expensive (and difficult) epidemiological study to assess impacts on human health makes little practical sense. 

What reasoning would make us think this is necessary for genetically modified foods? If we were discussing inclusion of traits known to impact metabolism or hormone levels or some other biological function this might make sense. But the types of crops approved for human consumption don't have traits known to behave this way. Some critics might assert that it is the unknown consequences (changes in DNA, changes in proteins, or metabolism) that we should be worried about. 

However, scientists know that these kinds of genetic disruptions are not any more proliferate with genetically engineered crops than those related to traditional and mutagenic crop improvement that have been consumed and accepted by consumers without question for hundreds (thousands) of years or more in some cases and decades in others. They are substantially equivalent in this regard.

It turns out that the statement about the absence of epidemiological studies is really irrelevant when it comes to assessing the risks associated with genetically engineered food consumption. Arguments using epidemiological studies to form a psychological baseline or frame of reference are akin to strawman statements that could raise unnecessary doubts and fears about a technology that actually exhibits characteristics beneficial to human health and the environment.


No scientific consensus on GMO safety. Environmental Sciences Europe. 2015 27:4

Batista R, Saibo N, Lourenço T, Oliveira MM. Microarray analyses reveal that
plant mutagenesis may induce more transcriptomic changes than transgene
insertion. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Mar 4;105(9):3640-5. doi:
10.1073/pnas.0707881105. PubMed PMID: 18303117; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2265136

Baudo MM, Lyons R, Powers S, Pastori GM, Edwards KJ, Holdsworth MJ, Shewry PR. (2006). Transgenesis has less impact on the transcriptome of wheat grain than conventional breeding. Plant Biotechnol J. 2006 Jul;4(4):369-80
First citation:

Monday, July 03, 2017

Defining Consensus Regarding the Safety of Genetically Modified Foods

The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the National Academy of Sciences have all issued statements regarding the safety of foods derived from genetically engineered crops. However, in a recent letter critical of the documentary film Food Evolution, the following paper is cited:

No scientific consensus on GMO safety. Environmental Sciences Europe. 2015 27:4

This was the first time I had seen this paper so I spent some time going through it to see what kinds of arguments were being made. Below are a few excerpts and some discussion.

"the scarcity and contradictory nature of the scientific evidence published to date prevents conclusive claims of safety, or of lack of safety, of GMOs. Claims of consensus on the safety of GMOs are not supported by an objective analysis of the refereed literature."
"The health, environment, and agriculture authorities of most nations recognize publicly that no blanket statement about the safety of all GMOs is possible and that they must be assessed on a 'case-by-case' basis."

"There are no epidemiological studies investigating potential effects of GM food consumption on human health"

"an expert panel of the Royal Society of Canada issued a report that was highly critical of the regulatory system for GM foods and crops in that country. The report declared that it is 'scientifically unjustifiable' to presume that GM foods are safe without rigorous scientific testing and that the 'default prediction' for every GM food should be that the introduction of a new gene will cause 'unanticipated changes' in the expression of other genes, the pattern of proteins produced, and/or metabolic activities."

"We support the application of the Precautionary Principle with regard to the release and transboundary movement of GM crops and foods."

 I have not had a chance to check every single reference and citation made. However the general framework sketched out in the paper I am getting is this:

  • there is no absolute or conclusive evidence that genetically engineered foods are safe or unsafe
  • the risks are associated with unintended effects related to gene insertions (i.e. genetic disruptions)
  •  invocation of the precautionary principle is used to obviate the statements often cited by the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and the National Academy of Sciences

This leads me to ask, can we make a blanket statement about the safety of all conventionally modified or organic foods that utilize plant breeding and mutagenesis? Have there been epidemiological studies investigating the effects of these methods on human health?

Suddenly this thinking brings up a question I have addressed before: why would we invoke the precautionary principle in the case of  food from genetically engineered crops and not for conventionally and mutagenically improved crops? 

From the literature:

“We found that the improvement of a plant variety through the acquisition of a new desired trait, using either mutagenesis or transgenesis, may cause stress and thus lead to an altered expression of untargeted genes. In all of the cases studied, the observed alteration was more extensive in mutagenized than in transgenic plants” - (Batista, et al; 2008)

With greater disruptions, critics might favor increased regulatory scrutiny. However, we do not have a framework in place for mutagenically improved crop varieties that have been safely used for decades and approved by the organic food industry and accepted by consumers, nor do we have anything like this for conventionally bred crops. If an argument for the precautionary principle holds for genetically engineered crops on this basis, then it should also hold for all types of crop improvement.

Therefore it seems tenuous to make a scientific risk based justification for special treatment of genetically engineered crops without further evidence. When many refer to a consensus on the safety of genetically engineered foods, this is what I have in mind.

Policies related to genetically engineered foods leveraging the precautionary principle could lead to increased risk of doing more harm than good to human health and the environment if policies prevent or delay adoption of traits that could decrease use of toxic pesticides, or reduce carbon emissions and improve soil conservation as some biotech traits have been shown to do in the literature.

See also:

Fat Tails, The Precautionary Principle, and GMOs
Comments on Rules for Gene Editing Technology
Organic Activists Realize Hypocrisy in Opposition to Gene Editing Technology


Batista R, Saibo N, Lourenço T, Oliveira MM. Microarray analyses reveal that
plant mutagenesis may induce more transcriptomic changes than transgene
insertion. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Mar 4;105(9):3640-5. doi:
10.1073/pnas.0707881105. PubMed PMID: 18303117; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2265136

Baudo MM, Lyons R, Powers S, Pastori GM, Edwards KJ, Holdsworth MJ, Shewry PR. (2006). Transgenesis has less impact on the transcriptome of wheat grain than conventional breeding. Plant Biotechnol J. 2006 Jul;4(4):369-80

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Are Soda Taxes Effective

Over at RealClearAgriculture I have been blogging about food subsidies and soda taxes.

Research from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition finds no link to obesity and soft drink consumption.

"We showed no association between sugar-sweetened
beverage consumption, juice consumption, and adolescent weight
gain over a 5-y period. A direct association between diet beverages
and weight gain appeared to be explained by dieting practices.
Adolescents who consumed little or no white milk gained significantly
more weight than their peers who consumed white milk. Future
research that examines beverage habits and weight among adolescents
should address portion sizes, adolescent maturation, and dieting behaviors."

This corroborates previous findings from the journal Nutrition:

"Our analysis shows no evidence for an association between SSB consumption at age 5 or 7 y and fat mass at age 9 y in this cohort of British children"

A recent blog post (link) gets close to accurately reporting the issue of high fructose corn syrup- a sweetener chemically identical to table sugar found in soft drinks:

"Fructose and high-fructose corn syrup aren't the same. It appears that the writer, Lois Rogers, conflated the two and jumped to all kinds of incorrect conclusions. For example, that the research had anything at all to do with "the obesity epidemic." It didn't."

"The environmental site Grist tends to see everything through an ideological lens, and so is always on the hunt for evidence that high-fructose corn syrup is somehow more harmful than common sugar"

But then the article starts to get off track in stating:

"It is cheap (high fructose corn syrup) in large part because of farm subsidies. As a result, it is ubiquitous and is making a lot of people fat, diabetic, and prone to heart disease."

Research taking the claim of a connection between obesity and farm policy in a more direct fashion can be found here( from UC Davis).

"'The culprit here is not corn subsidies; rather,it is sugar policy that has restricted imports, driven up the U.S. price of sugar, and encouraged the replacement of sugar with alternative caloric sweeteners...Given that consumers generally show limited responses to retail food price changes, eliminating the corn subsidy would reduce corn-based food consumption by at most 0.2 percent.""

Similarly, this weak response of consumers to food prices undermines policies that advocate taxing soft drinks to reduce consumption and obesity. Research ( from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University) indicates that the taxes required to have any real affect on obesity would be in the 1200 percent range, and even if taxes eliminated ( in this case soda) consumption, the impact on obesity would be very small. The study concludes that "the sensitivity of individuals to changes in relative food prices is not sufficient to make “fat taxes” a viable tool to lower obesity."

These campaigns are nothing more than emotional appeals designed to solicit support for new taxes and regulations that ultimately undermine the agriculture industry and family farms.


Media Gets Stuck in High-Fructose Corn Syrup
Dan MItchell
Daily Bread, The Business of Food Blog
The Big Money by Slate

Am J Clin Nutr doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.27573
Adolescent beverage habits and changes in weight over time:
findings from Project EAT1–3
Michelle S Vanselow, Mark A Pereira, Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, and Susan K Raatz

Nutrition July-August 2007, Volume 23, Issues 7-8, Pages 557-563
"Is sugar-sweetened beverage consumption associated with increased fatness in children?"

Taxing Sins: Are Excise Taxes Efficient
The Mercatus Center
George Mason University

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

Monday, June 19, 2017

Food Facts: Food Insecurity and Food Deserts

According to the USDA, "an estimated 12.7 percent of American households were food insecure at least some time during the year in 2015, meaning they lacked access to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members."

Here are a few more notes:

1) 5.0 percent of U.S. households (6.3 million households) had very low food security
2) There were sizable differences by state
3)   ~59% used SNAP, WIC, or the national school lunch program in the previous month
4)  The median food-secure household spent 27 percent more for food than the typical food-insecure household

Prices Matter

In a 2013 Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy article, researchers found a significant impact of local food prices on food insecurity developing a novel index of local food prices:

“We find that the average effect of food prices on the probability of food insecurity is positive and significant: a one-standard deviation increase in food prices is associated with increases of 2.7, 2.6, and 3.1 percentage points in household, adult, and child food insecurity, respectively. These marginal effects amount to 5.0%, 5.1%, and 12.4% increases in the prevalence of food insecurity for SNAP households, adults, and children, respectively. These results suggest that indexing SNAP benefits to local food prices could improve the ability of the program to reduce food insecurity and economic hardship more generally in areas with high food prices.”

Food Insecurity, SNAP, and Health Outcomes

In 2012, researchers publishing in the Journal of the American Statistical Association found that SNAP can have positive mitigating effects on the health of children.

"Under stronger but plausible assumptions used to address the selection and classification error problems, we find that commonly cited relationships between SNAP and poor health outcomes provide a misleading picture about the true impacts of the program. Our tightest bounds identify favorable impacts of SNAP on child health."

Gundersen (2015) finds a relationship between food insecurity and health outcomes for children and seniors.

"after confounding risk factors were controlled for, studies found that food-insecure children are at least twice as likely to report being in fair or poor health and at least 1.4 times more likely to have asthma, compared to food-secure children; and food-insecure seniors have limitations in activities of daily living comparable to those of food-secure seniors fourteen years older. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) substantially reduces the prevalence of food insecurity and thus is critical to reducing negative health outcomes"

What we can conclude from this research is that  prices matter - while policies that help reduce or subsidize the purchase price of food can help reduce food insecurity and provide positive outcomes, policies that increase prices could have the opposite effect.

What about food deserts?

Over at the UofI Policy Matters blog, Craig Gundersen and others discuss the relationship between food deserts and prices. They cite a few studies:

Availability And Prices Of Foods Across Stores And Neighborhoods: The Case Of New Haven, Connecticut. Health Aff September 2008 vol. 27 no. 5 1381-1388

The above was a case study looking at stores across lower vs higher income neighborhoods. They find lower quality and fewer options in the lower income stores.

Does Healthy Food Cost More in Poor Neighborhoods? An Analysis of Retail Food Cost and Spatial Competition. Patrick L. Hatzenbuehler, Jeffrey M. Gillespie, and Carol E. O’Neil. Agricultural and Resource Economics Review 41/1 (April 2012) 43–56 

The above was an interesting study that found that the impacts of spatial distribution of store locations impacted consumption, although there were no price effects.

 In their blog post, the authors discuss how they develop a local price index for food bundles and compare prices for areas that are and are not classified as food deserts.

"Our findings suggest that living in a food desert affects the overall food prices faced by households to a small extent when consumers can shop within their home census tracts and in contiguous census tracts. The difference in prices is largely driven by differences in available variety. As such, while higher food prices are associated with higher rates of food insecurity, the results of our work suggest that living in a food desert is unlikely to influence food insecurity to a great extent"

In their related paper, presented at the 2015 Agricultural and Applied Economics Association and Western Agricultural Economics Association annual meeting you can read more.


Alisha Coleman-Jensen, Matthew P. Rabbitt, Christian A. Gregory, and Anita Singh.
Household Food Security in the United States in 2015, ERR-215, U.S. Department of
Agriculture, Economic Research Service, September 2016.

Christian A. Gregory, Alisha Coleman-Jensen; Do High Food Prices Increase Food Insecurity in the United States?. Appl Econ Perspect Policy 2013; 35 (4): 679-707. doi: 10.1093/aepp/ppt024

Kreider, B., Pepper, J. V., Gundersen, C., & Jolliffe, D. (2012). Identifying the effects of SNAP (Food Stamps) on child health outcomes when participation is endogenous and misreported. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 107(499), 958-975. DOI: 10.1080/01621459.2012.682828

Gundersen C, Ziliak J. Food insecurity and health outcomes. Health Affairs 2015;34(11):1830-1839.

Sustainably Feeding the World: Organic Food and Vegetables vs Conventional Commodities

Can we feed the world sustainably using organic crop production methods? Several studies have indicated that there is a yield penalty for organic crops

The crop yield gap between organic and conventional agriculture. Agricultural Systems
Volume 108, April 2012, Pages 1-9

The above indicates ~ 20% yield penalties for organic vs conventional production

Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture. Nature 485,229–232.(10 May 2012) doi:10.1038/nature11069 

The above finds a range of differences in yield between organic and conventional agriculture, from 5-35% depending on different crops, practices, and conditions.

Alexandra N. Kravchenko, Sieglinde S. Snapp, and G. Philip Robertson. Field-scale experiments reveal persistent yield gaps in low-input and organic cropping systems
PNAS 2017 114 (5) 926-931; published ahead of print January 17, 2017, doi:10.1073/pnas.1612311114 

The above indicates much of the previous research was based on research plots, and penalties for organic vs conventional yields could actually be worse when scaled up to field size production practices.

To what extent does organic farming rely on nutrient inflows from conventional farming?
Benjamin Nowak1,2, Thomas Nesme1,2, Christophe David3 and Sylvain Pellerin1,2
Published 5 December 2013  2013 IOP Publishing Ltd
Environmental Research Letters, Volume 8, Number 4 

The above research indicates there are significant inflows of N, P, K from conventional sources. For example, many organic production systems may rely on manure from animals raised or fed conventionally. If these positive exteranalities were excluded, the increased energy and land devoted to organic production would reduce its sustainability further.

 Often in addition to some calling for increased organic food production, you will hear additional criticisms of commodity or 'monocrop' agriculture. Themes include criticisms of agricultural policies favoring 'industrial' agriculture at the expense of healthy fruits and vegetables. However, these criticisms ignore the importance of calorie density and consumption at a global level. According to the FAO rice, corn, and wheat provide 60% of the world's energy intake. Costs of production and economies of scale favor large scale production of these staples over specialty crops like broccoli and tomatoes when it terms of providing affordable calorie dense food to a growing population.

Additional References:

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

Thursday, June 08, 2017

CRISPR Mediated Off Target Mutations in Mice

In a very recent paper in Nature Methods , researchers used CRISPR technology to repair a gene mutation related to blindness in mice. But what they found was a large number of off target mutations compared to what is typically expected.

An article in The Conversation discusses some of the possible explanations for these findings. Some critics have suggested that the large number of off target mutations could be related to the specific methods used to control the activity of the Cas9 enzyme, which would impact the number of cuts/edits made in the host DNA that occur.

Others have pointed out that there are various flavors of CRISPR, and even temperature can impact enzyme activity and off target impacts, as well as better and worse methods of detection of off target mutations.    

Xiang et al. (2017). Temperature effect on CRISPR-Cas9 mediated genome editing. J. Genetics & Genomics. (Apr 20) 44(4):199-205.

High-fidelity CRISPR–Cas9 nucleases with no detectable genome-wide off-target effects. Nature 529, 490–495 (28 January 2016)

Analysis of off-target effects of CRISPR/Cas-derived RNA-guided endonucleases and nickases Genome Res. 2014. 24: 132-141

When it comes to food crop applications, critics of CRISPR technology, as well as older recombinant DNA technologies have been largely concerned with genetic disruptions. These criticisms imply that genetic disruptions indicate increased risk to consumers. I think a very relevant question in this regard (give or take the Nature Methods paper) is related to the comparative differences in genetic disruptions between CRISPR mediated genetic improvements vs traditional plant breeding methods including mutation breeding (chemical and radiological mutagenesis used in conventional and organic foods).

Given that previous risk management/regulatory reviews and agencies have found little evidence to restrict or highly regulate traditional and mutagenic crop improvement methods, if genetic disruptions for CRISPR mediated crop improvements are comparable the argument for increased scrutiny of CRISPR based crops is weakened. Previous research indicates that genetic disruptions for traditional plant breeding methods are actually greater than what we observe in recombinant DNA methods.

Batista R, Saibo N, Lourenço T, Oliveira MM. Microarray analyses reveal that
plant mutagenesis may induce more transcriptomic changes than transgene
insertion. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Mar 4;105(9):3640-5. doi:
10.1073/pnas.0707881105. PubMed PMID: 18303117; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2265136

Baudo MM, Lyons R, Powers S, Pastori GM, Edwards KJ, Holdsworth MJ, Shewry PR. (2006). Transgenesis has less impact on the transcriptome of wheat grain than conventional breeding. Plant Biotechnol J. 2006 Jul;4(4):369-80

 To reiterate two important questions in relation to the Nature Methods paper as it may apply to food seem to be:

1) are the drastically higher than expected off target mutations based on sound methods/application of CRISPR

2) What is the weight of evidence comparing genetic disruptions in CRISPR vs conventional crop improvement methods.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

TalkingBiotech- Technology and Society

TalkingBiotech 079: Technology and Society (link)

Very nice. One thing that moved me toward studying both genetics and economics was the realization that science does not occur in a vacuum. No matter how great the scientific discovery or technological breakthrough, its ability to make a positive impact is governed and shaped by political, social, economic, and financial forces. Everything from venture capital funding, regulatory constraints, government grants, to the influences of food marketers and celebrity tweets.

 "There are scientists that help define the social reaction to science and the way that scientists need to communicate issues in technology.  Dr. Matthew Harsh is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Engineering Technology at Concordia University in Montreal Canada.  The discussion talks about the interface of natural sciences and social sciences, and how discussions can affect policy"

Monday, June 05, 2017

Game Theory and Antibiotic Resistance

I found an interesting article in Quanta Magazing discussing a 2012 paper in PNAS discussing game theory in the context of evolutionary processes. The article in Quanta is very detailed and nicely written as well as accessible.

This was interesting because in graduate school and other work I am familiar with, the context of games is defined around human-environment interactions leading to a Nash Equilibrium/prisoner's dilemma situation where the dominating strategies involve overuse of a given technology (antibiotics, herbicide resistant crops, insect resistant crops). In this context the equilibrium strategies create selection pressure which ultimately lead to insects, weeds, or bacteria that are resistant to the given technology. However, the Quanta article provides some examples where researchers are using game theory to describe actual behavior in nature (i.e. fish, monkeys, or the bacteria themselves). Here is a slice:

"For example, scientists studying antibiotic resistance are using a game theory scenario called the snowdrift game, in which a player always benefits from cooperating. (If you’re stuck in your apartment building after a blizzard, you benefit by shoveling the driveway, but so does everyone else who lives there and doesn’t shovel.) Some bacteria can produce and secrete an enzyme capable of deactivating antibiotic drugs. The enzyme is costly to produce, and lazy bacteria that don’t make it can benefit by using enzymes produced by their more industrious neighbors. In a strict prisoner’s dilemma scenario, the slackers would eventually kill off the producers, harming the entire population. But in the snowdrift game, the producers have greater access to the enzyme, thus improving their fitness, and the two types of bacteria can coexist."

Below is the citation related to the Dyson and Press paper discussed in the Quanta article:

Press, W. H., & Dyson, F. J. (2012). Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma contains strategies that dominate any evolutionary opponent. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109(26), 10409–10413.

Game Theory- Applications in Trait Resistance Managment

See also: Game Theory- Selected Works

In graduate school  (2005) I worked on an independent studies project exploring the idea of combining population genetics and game theory to model pest resistance to Bt traits in corn. Recently I decided to look at the literature in that space to see what others have been doing in this space. Below are some articles I have found from a quick search:

Press, William H., and Freeman J. Dyson. “Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma Contains Strategies That Dominate Any Evolutionary Opponent.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 109.26 (2012): 10409–10413. PMC. Web. 5 June 2017.

Miranowski, J.A., & Lacy, K.M. (2016). When do resistance management practices pay for the farmer and society? The case of Western Corn Rootworm. AgBioForum, 19(2), 173-183. Available on the World Wide Web:

Joel S Brown, Kateřina Staňková, Game theory as a conceptual framework for managing insect pests, Current Opinion in Insect Science, Volume 21, June 2017, Pages 26-32, ISSN 2214-5745,

Jussaume, R., & Ervin, D. (2016). Understanding Weed Resistance as a Wicked Problem to Improve Weed Management Decisions. Weed Science, 64(SP1), 559-569. doi:10.1614/WS-D-15-00131.1

Ervin, D., & Frisvold, G. (2016). Community-Based Approaches to Herbicide-Resistant Weed Management: Lessons from Science and Practice. Weed Science, 64(SP1), 609-626. doi:10.1614/WS-D-15-00122.1

Nicole Haynes McCoy, Pradyumna Amatya, Games People Play: Human Behavior and Invasive Weed Management, Rangelands, Volume 27, Issue 6, December 2005, Pages 8-14, ISSN 0190-0528,[8:GPP]2.0.CO;2.

Game Theory - Selected Works

In graduate school I looked at trait resistance management through  the lens of game theory. Below are some links to some related posts, references, and short articles that I have written.

Game Theory- TalkPython podcast

Game Theory- An Introduction

Matt Bogard. "An Econometric and Game Theoretic Analysis of Producer and Consumer Preferences Toward Agricultural Biotechnology" Western Kentucky University (2005) Available at:

Matt Bogard. "An Introduction to Game Theory: Applications in Environmental Economics and Public Choice with Mathematical Appendix" (2012) Available at:   

Matt Bogard. "Game Theory, A Foundation for Agricultural Economics" (2004) Available at: 

Molecular Genetics and Economics

A really interesting article in JEP:

A slice:

"In fact, the costs of comprehensively genotyping human subjects have fallen to the point where major funding bodies, even in the social sciences, are beginning to incorporate genetic and biological markers into major social surveys. The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, and the Health and Retirement Survey have launched, or are in the process of launching, datasets with comprehensively genotyped subjects…These samples contain, or will soon contain, data on hundreds of thousands of genetic markers for each individual in the sample as well as, in most cases, basic economic variables. How, if at all, should economists use and combine molecular genetic and economic data? What challenges arise when analyzing genetically informative data?"


Beauchamp JP, Cesarini D, Johannesson M, et al. Molecular Genetics and Economics. The journal of economic perspectives : a journal of the American Economic Association. 2011;25(4):57-82.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Organic Activists Realize Hypocrisy On Gene Editing and Biotech

There is a segment of the organic movement that wants to get their ducks in a row so that they can oppose gene editing technologies without hypocrisy. Quote:

“Without regulatory review” is bad enough. But to allow the use of mutagenesis, a process that involves “dousing seeds with chemicals,” in organic is a serious breach of consumer trust in the USDA organic certification program.”

Well no kidding. Not that I agree that this is a concern for safety, but its always been odd to me that recombinant DNA technologies would be ineligible for certified organic labeling (especially when Bt traits would make it much easier to exclude pesticides) while the gross number of other foods produced via mutagenesis were perfectly fine. Perhaps this cognitive dissonance was just fine until recent advances in gene editing technologies like CRISPR-Cas9. With the FDA taking comments regarding regulation of gene editing in new plant varieties, this is likely not a coincidence. 

As I stated in my comments:

"Similar to organically certified crop varieties that use chemical and radiological methods to create in-genome changes, gene edited technologies operate within genome, vs. across species.  (one popular example of gene editing includes the CRISPR-Cas9 system).  Unlike mutagenic approaches used in organically approved plant breeding systems,  these in-genome tweaks are planned, controlled, and designed to bring about very specific outcomes."

This presents a problem. Of course the page I have linked to does not explicitly state this as their rationale, you can't oppose new technologies that are actually more precise and safer than the old technologies you stand by unappologetically. (I realize in terms of safety we are splitting hairs but those hairs represent lots of money and marketing opportunities). So I don't blame this group for trying to get everyone on the same page.  Another quote:

"How do you know if your organic food comes from mutant seeds? You don’t. If you buy local, you can ask your local farmer. Alternatively, you can avoid rice, wheat, barley, pears, cotton, peppermint, sunflowers and grapefruit. These are the only mutant crops that you could potentially find in the organic section."

Slim pickings if you want to oppose gene editing with integrity.

See also: Fat Tails, the Precautionary Principle, and GMOs.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Positive Externalities and Spillovers of Conventional Food Production on Organic Food

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 

Note: To be more precise, externalities represent uncompensated benefits so technically the benefits related to N use might not be true 'positive externalities.' The point is the importance of the interdependence between production systems that have been overlooked by a broader segment of the public.

Vance Crowe and Shark Farmer Discuss Ag Outreach and Communication

Previously the ag industry and companies like Monsanto seemed to have a focus on a one-size fits all solution to crop protection and seeds. Although research indicates significant diversity within species existed in the age of hybrid corn, this was the era in which old school arguments about monoculture probably dug in along with the other critcisms that go along with 'big ag.'

With the convergence of big data and genomics, row crop agriculture is transforming. Its not your grandparent's monoculture anymore. Companies like Monsanto are both positioning themselves to compete in this new environment and playing a major role in the transformation.

Recently I discussed an interview on the Closing Market Report with Robb Fraley, Chief Technology Officer at Monsanto and the kind of people they are hiring to help lead this transformation. 

One challenge is, have those that have spent the last decade nostalgically and critically looking back at the way we used to do things missed this transformation? Will they be willing to embrace its benefits going forward.

This may be part of what Vance Crowe, Director of Millennial Engagement at Monsanto is trying to address in his role. Recently I discovered the Shark Farmer podcast, and Crowe was a guest in one of the archived episodes. One part of the conversation really got me interested. Here Vance is describing the challenge that he discovered during his job interview that made him really want the job he has:

"if the company is what everybody on the outside thinks it is then I get unfettered access...and if its not as dark as what people think it is then you have just stumbled upon one of the greatest problems of our age which is a really misunderstood company that is producing important technology that really has world changing impact that people really misunderstand"

I always wondered, how is it that people get so enamored with Apple and its great products or embrace hybrid car technology, self driving cars, or pay premiums for food at Chipotle and Whole Foods because they think they are doing great things for the environment while shunning Monsanto and all of its technologies which are basically cutting edge green technologies (see links below).  One thing they discussed in the podcast (my description not their words) was that historically the Monsanto that catered to yesterday's agriculture and had an obvious focus on its customer core, farmers, but did not really market to or emphasize outreach to consumers. I think that is an important and informing observation to make. And I think the solution going forward is a gate to plate strategy of communication, outreach, and transparency to help consumers at all levels better understand the transformation that is going on with modern sustainable agriculture.

See also:
Shark Farmer Podcast 
The Biotech Story: As told in the literature
The Convergence of Big Data and Genomics in Agriculture 
Not Your Grandparent's Monoculture
Hybrid Corn vs Hybrid Cars

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Comments on Rules for Gene-Editing Technology

From the literature:

“We found that the improvement of a plant variety through the acquisition of a new desired trait, using either mutagenesis or transgenesis, may cause stress and thus lead to an altered expression of untargeted genes. In all of the cases studied, the observed alteration was more extensive in mutagenized than in transgenic plants” - (Batista, et al; 2008)

So what are the implications of this? Currently the FDA is accepting public comments related to genome editing in new plant varieties used for foods.

Gene editing represents an opportunity to move forward with advanced technologies to sustainably feed the planet without the same regulatory hurdles that make development costs for transgenic plant varieties (aka GMO) up to 20x greater than conventionally bred plants(Conko and Miller, 2003). Similar to organically certified crop varieties that use chemical and radiological methods to create in-genome changes, gene edited technologies operate within genome, vs. across species.  (one popular example of gene editing includes the CRISPR-Cas9 system).  Unlike mutagenic approaches used in organically approved plant breeding systems,  these in-genome tweaks are planned, controlled, and designed to bring about very specific outcomes. Gene edited plants are not ‘gmo’ in the manner that the term has traditionally been used (or misused) by regulatory proponents, and in fact are just as natural as their organically approved counterparts in terms of their development. However they stand out in very important and positive ways.

The article above (see also Baudo  et al; 2006) does not specifically address gene edited plants, while it does indicate that genomic disruptions are greater in mutagenic plants vs standard transgenic plants. (one common argument for increased regulation related to transgenic crops has been based on the concern that the introduction of new genes can have unknown consequences and genomic disruptions are one way of characterizing this*) With greater disruptions, one might favor increased regulatory scrutiny similar to the existing framework in place for transgenics. However, we do not have a framework in place for mutagenically improved crop varieties that have been safely used for decades and approved by the organic food industry as well as consumers.  Because both mutagenic and gene edited technologies represent similar in-genome approaches to crop improvement, this in fact argues against additional regulation for both mutagenic and gene edited plants, or it begs for the possibility of a revision of the existing regulatory framework for transgenics.

The benefits of gene editing technology offer far greater option value* than either conventional and organic mutagenically improved or even traditional ‘GMO’ or transgenic crops while the risks to human health and the environment are equally minimal. To impose new costly regulations on gene-edited plants would be to create huge hurdles for the development of next generation green technologies in food and fiber production in the United States and have significant environmental, public, and personal health implications for the rest of the world.


Batista R, Saibo N, Lourenço T, Oliveira MM. Microarray analyses reveal that
plant mutagenesis may induce more transcriptomic changes than transgene
insertion. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Mar 4;105(9):3640-5. doi:
10.1073/pnas.0707881105. PubMed PMID: 18303117; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC2265136

Baudo MM, Lyons R, Powers S, Pastori GM, Edwards KJ, Holdsworth MJ, Shewry PR. (2006). Transgenesis has less impact on the transcriptome of wheat grain than conventional breeding. Plant Biotechnol J. 2006 Jul;4(4):369-80

Henry Miller and Gregory Conko. Bootleggers and Biotechs. Regulation. Summer 2003

 *this post has been modified to better clarify some posited arguments some have made for regulation of genetically modifed crop plants as well as to express the potential option value that gene editing might provide in addition to previously existing technologies. Special thanks to input via twitter from @CosmicHominid for constructive input

Transforming a Company for a New Kind of Agriculture (WillAg closing market report w/Robb Fraley))

Last week there was an interesting interview on the closing market report with Robb Fraley, Chief Technology Officer at Monsanto. The discussion related to possible future spending on R&D related to the potential merger with Bayer. Some interesting comparisons were made between R&D spending by Monsanto vs other research intensive industries like Samsung and Apple and pharma.  The takeaway is that the combined company would have more resources to invest, and based on what is spent on R&D in other sectors there is a lot of untapped opportunity here that the combined companies could take advantage of.

I would love to know how much is spent on regulatory compliance given the extreme overkill in this area related to biotech making transgenic varieties cost as much as 20X more to develop vs conventional technologies. I'd like to know direct costs and indirect compliance costs in terms of lost revenue due to delays in approvals etc. One would wonder how much better these companies could serve the industry if those resources could be re-allocated to more productive R&D?

But to me the interesting question related to what kind of people are they looking to hire going forward? The answer included people working in or studying data science, engineers, mathematicians, statisticians. This is not a surprise to anyone following the industry, but its indicative of the kind of company that Monsanto has transformed and is transforming into. The phrase that stuck with me most was "breeding gene by gene and farming plant by plant".

The future direction, merger or not, is the integration of agronomy, bioechemistry, molecular biology, and data science to develop new products, solutions, and services that serve producers, consumers, and the planet as a whole. This is what I have written about before in terms of the convergence of big ag, genomics, and big data.

And this means more choices and opportunities going forward:

"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." - From Big Data + Genomics ≠ Your Grandparent's Monoculture


Henry Miller and Gregory Conko. 'Bootleggers and Biotechs.' Regulation. Summer 2003 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Biotech Story: As told in the scientific literature

Has biotechnology lived up to its promises? What were the ‘promises’ of biotechnology? Does genetic engineering present food safety risks greater than conventional plant breeding methods? These are controversial questions. There is one version of the story that indicates that biotechnology has not lived up to so called promises expressed by critics and creates risks to the environment and consumers. However the story that we find in the scientific literature tells us that biotechnology in crop production and applications in the livestock industry is just as safe or safer than traditional technologies, promotes biodiversity, reduces the levels and toxicity of herbicides and pesticides used in row crop production, improves food safety, and reduces our carbon footprint. This annotated review of key scientific papers from sources including The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Science, Nature Biotechnology, Crop Science, Ecological Economics, and others tells this story.
Matt Bogard. "The biotech story: as told in the scientific literature" (2017)
Available at: 

See also: Modern Sustainable Agriculture (video)

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

The progressive way to deny climate change

Julie Kelly makes an interesting point with this question:

"who are the real deniers: those who are reasonably skeptical about climate change or those who give lots of lip service to it while living a lifestyle totally inimical to every tenet of the climate change creed?"

A different but related argument is given by Steve Horwitz:

“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” 

This is not that different from what I have argued before. To me this is the fundamental problem of climate change:

Without being able to accurately predict future damages, or discount them to evaluate them in today's dollars, it's hard to value future climate related gains that today's sacrifices (driving less or smaller or hybrid cars, switching from coal fired electricity to natural gas or solar, changing our diet or other lifestyle changes, lost income or returns from capital investment etc.) will buy. In other words it's hard to know to what extent it makes any sense to do anything about climate change.

Bringing these perspectives together, some of the most ardent proponents of doing something about climate change based on 'science' are in denial about real world workable solutions:

Unfortunately, many of the same people so vocal about adopting policies based on the so called science of climate change (taxes, permits, dietary restrictions, regulations etc.) are also many of the same people that would restrict us (via GMO labeling laws, bans, strict limitations on hormone and antibiotic use, demonization of LFTB via derogatory terms like 'pink slime' etc.) from doing the very things that would have the greatest positive impact on our climate and environment. 

So it seems we have some people that want to as Steve says, jump straight from the science to policy and skip over asking the hard questions or making a critical case for it. At the same time they are they are ignoring real world workable solutions, which are in fact based on solid science, if not actually trying to block them. For progressives of this flavor its not about science, its about invoking the name and prestige of science to override other people's choices while being in denial about rigorous evidence to support their position.

See also:
Doing Nothing: A science based policy prescription for climate change
Facts, Alternative Facts, Evidence, and Marching for Science 
Science + Economics = Sound Policy

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Facts, Alternative Facts, Evidence, and Marching for Science


Scientists planning their own march in Washington (CNN Politics)

"There are certain things that we accept as facts with no alternatives," according to the site. "The Earth is becoming warmer due to human action. The diversity of life arose by evolution. ... An American government that ignores science to pursue ideological agendas endangers the world."

While I could not agree more with this, one thing that concerns me especially since this last election is the extreme emphasis given to isolated facts vs critical thinking and evidence.  Ideological agendas thrive on isolated facts. The real danger as economist Thomas Sowell points out in some of his writings is when an American government invokes the name and prestige of science to override other people's choices.

Take for example the following "facts" we often hear from activists in the agriculture space.:

1)  Over the last two decades we have seen increased plantings of "GMO" crops resistant to roundup as well as weeds resistant to roundup herbicide. 

2) GMOs have lead to increased use of chemicals in agriculture and that increases risks to health and the environment.

3) Industrial scale farms get subsidies from government to grow mostly monocrops of corn and soybeans which are primary ingredients going into cheap unhealthy foods at the same time we are seeing an obesity epidemic

 And this fact from the article above:

4) The Earth is becoming warmer due to human action.

One could take these "facts" and then lobby for policies to address all of these concerns including increased regulation, carbon taxes, changing farm subsidies, labeling laws, or taxing foods. In every case we are pushing an agenda to override the choices of millions in the name of science, based on "facts".  But there is a big difference between facts and evidence that supports one policy or another. When we consider each of these facts in the proper context, when we begin to think critically instead of ideologically, science based policy becomes something different.  For instance, we know that roundup (or glyphosate) has largely replaced other chemicals much more toxic and persistent in the environment (USDA, 2000). We also know that monoculture and its implications for genetic diversity and sustainability  are quite different than what popular stigmas imply. And finally, the links between farm subsidies, commodity crops and obesity are very very frail when we look at the actual impact these policies have on food prices or even the potential for things like soda taxes. But what about climate change?  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.

 Economics teaches us that the world is complicated. There are numerous facts and details to consider when trying to solve a problem. While it is certainly bad for governments to deny the truthfulness of established facts based on sound science, we must also understand how to make sense of them. Economics provides a theory for deciding which facts are central and which are periphreal.* To quote Paul Heyne, Boettke, and David Prychiko in their text the economic way of thinking (10th ed) "we can observe facts but it takes a theory to explain causes. It takes theory to weed out the irrelevant facts from the relevant ones".

As I stated before economics can put science, good or bad, into a context relevant to the things we really care about.

So while I support a march for science and appreciate the driving concerns around politicians efforts to muzzle science, at the end of the day lets emphasize critical thinking and sound theory over isolated facts and talking points. While the "facts" stated in the article may have no alternatives, there are numerous alternatives with regard to the policies so called purveyors of truth may have in mind to address them. These policies imply numerous margins and tradeoffs to be considered. Only critical thinking, evidence, and sound theory can help us find the best path among many for addressing these issues. Economics provides mathematically precise theories and empirically sound methods that together provide a rigorous policy analysis framework for addressing these problems. 

Isolated facts grounded in the truth of science but devoid of critical thinking about causal relationships and policy tradeoffs can be just as dangerous and little better than alternative facts that deny the truth of science.

It's probably also true that the truth of science can risk losing ground to alternative facts if not properly communicated. We know this when it comes to alternative facts about biotechnology that currently drive the snake oil marketing practices of many food companies and lobbying for related policies.

From what I can tell the March for Science is nonpartisan and its more about freedom of speech and science communication than taking a stance on one policy vs another, so I don't think they are attempting to recruit activists for one policy vs another. But the march for science could present an awesome opportunity for science communication about many of the issues in agriculture related to biotechnology, genomics, technology, and modern production practices that so often come under the radar of activists, politicians, and the media. Or, at least the chance to segway into conversation.

See also:

Diversity in Agricultural Production

Modern Sustainable Agriculture -  Video with Annotated Bibliography

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

*taken from Alan Stockman, Introduction to Marcoeconomics. 2nd Edition.

Left vs Right vs Propensity to Regulate

Fat Tails, the Precautionary Principle and GMOS