Thursday, December 27, 2012

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Agricultural producer support declining over time

We hear all sorts of generalizations about U.S. farm policy.

Some say U.S. farm programs are too stingy and should provide more help to farmers, especially small farmers. Others say U.S. farm programs are a boondoggle that just makes rich farmers richer. Still others say farm programs make consumers fat by encouraging too much cheap food.

Instead of generalizing, it is important to think quantitatively.

One good data source is the Producer Support Estimates (PSE) from the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (a club for the world's upper-income countries). I use this data source in several chapters of my forthcoming book from Routledge/Earthscan called Food Policy in the United States: An Introduction.

The PSE data measure diverse agricultural programs and policies in a consistent way across countries and over time.  One problem with the PSE is that it can seem a little complex.  To provide an orientation, Rebecca Nemec and I created the following data gadget.  Nemec is a graduate student at the Friedman School at Tufts and the teaching assistant for my class on U.S. Food Policy.  The top panel shows broad categories of support for agricultural producers.  The bottom panel shows more detail about each broad category in turn.   

Just click on each colored broad category in the top panel to see the corresponding detail in the bottom panel.

Working from top to bottom, we learn about trends in several major categories of producer support.
  • Price supports and deficiency payments help farmers in years when prices are low.  OECD worries about these programs because they distort international trade and hurt farmers overseas.  Michael Pollan criticizes deficiency payments for making corn too cheap.  Notice that in recent years -- with greater scarcity and higher prices -- these distorting policies have fallen to almost nothing under current policy.
  • Conservation programs have been growing in recent years, and also do not respond to price fluctuations as wildly as deficiency payments do.
  • The other payments category includes direct payments, which pay farmers regardless of the current price.  These direct payments may end under some current farm bill proposals.  They do not distort agricultural markets very much, but it is unpopular to pay farmers when they are prospering during high-price years.
  • Market Price Support represents the economic impact of the trade barriers that protect some producers, especially for milk and sugar, from imports.  Although they do not have a budget cost, these supports benefit farmers at the expense of consumers.  As with deficiency payments, the impact of these trade barriers has declined to almost nothing in recent high-price years.
An especially clever feature is that PSE data allow sensible comparisons across two seemingly different types of policies:
  • payments to farmers at the taxpayers' expense (the first three broad categories), and
  • trade policies that support farmers at the consumers' expense (the fourth broad category).
To speak coherently about U.S. agricultural policy, one must make important distinctions across several types of programs and be aware of rapid changes in program impacts from one year to the next.

There are a couple limitations that I should mention.  First, the OECD data may have some limitations of their own.  Second, while I did the best I could to classify programs from the OECD data into sensible categories, I did make some judgement calls about these program classifications.

In general, U.S. support for farmers has been declining in recent years, mainly because of high food prices that result from greater scarcity on world markets.  Though some people are more optimistic, I think population and environmental constraints may generally keep prices fairly high in the future.

This means that governmental support for U.S. farmers can be smaller over time, unless legislators replace existing programs with new and poorly designed alternatives.  For example, I worry about new and potentially expensive crop insurance programs that have been proposed in draft farm bills.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

FDA urged to make public information about antibiotic use

The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and the Government Accountability Project have spent a couple years asking the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to release information about the amount of antibiotic use in farm animals.  Overuse of antibiotics in farm animals may lead to the evolution of more dangerous drug-resistant strains.

FDA releases some summary data each year, but denied the request for more detailed tabulations,citing an exemption in freedom-of-information law that applies to commercial information and trade secrets.  This seems wrong.  Misuse of antibiotics is an important public health issue, and the aggregated data requested were not firm-specific.

In response, the Center for a Livable Future and the Government Accountability Project brought a lawsuit this month.  The Center's director Robert Lawrence explains this week:
Since 2008, when the Animal Drug User Fee Act (ADUFA) began requiring drug companies to report basic information about antibiotic sales to FDA, the agency has released limited summaries of these data to the public. Sadly, though, the FDA conceals most of what gets reported by the drug companies. This concealment protects the producers and the drug companies, both of which make tidy profits from injudicious dosing of food animals.

In the meantime, the Center's staff has done some clever sleuthing, exploiting a glitch in FDA's annual release of summary data, which was followed by a correction to the agency's numbers.  The Center tracked down the source of the change in order to conjecture about the amount of antibiotics used in one particular category called arsenicals.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Home-made cheese

I have been preparing home-made soft cheeses for the past couple years, working my way through the recipes in Ricki Carroll's book on Home Cheese Making.  Here is a photograph of neufchatel curds draining in my kitchen last week.

In a future post, I will tell about building a makeshift cheese press with my son this month at the holiday Craft Day, an inspiring Boston area tradition organized each year by Carolyn Mugar (who is executive director of Farm Aid).  For more than a year, I had promised myself not to take up more arduous hard cheese making as a new hobby until I submitted a manuscript for my food policy book, but that goal was completed this fall.  So this weekend, armed with the new press, I claimed my reward and began my first attempt at cheddar.

For entertainment during the waiting periods for that project last night, I sat, with a beer in hand, reading the relevant sections of Harold McGee's classic, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen.  You will think I was tipsy if I tell you it felt like grasping a thin and nearly invisible thread connecting my kitchen to 5,000 years of kitchens inhabited by inventive cheese makers (and brewers) responsible for a truly remarkable group of technologies using living microorganisms to convert perishable foods into shelf-stable treasures.  McGee writes:
Cheese is one of the great achievements of humankind.  Not any cheese in particular, but cheese in its astonishing multiplicity....

Minor Update 12/13/2012: According to an NPR story by Adam Cole and Helen Thompson today, based on an article from Nature, the thread is even longer, connecting 7,000 years of kitchens!

FDA is missing deadlines for implementation of complex food safety rules

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been missing the implementation deadlines that Congress set in 2009 as part of the landmark FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). 

Food safety advocates have sued the agency because of the delays.  In a legal motion to dismiss (.pdf) filed today, FDA argues that the courts should not hold the agency liable for this failure to implement the law:
The sole remedy available for an unreasonable agency delay claim is for the court to compel agency action, such as by issuing an order requiring the agency to act, without directing the substantive content of the decision....  Although FDA has been unable to meet the aggressive statutory timelines for the seven new rules, there is no indication that Congress believed that strict adherence to those timetables is more important than careful consideration and development of these complex regulations to create an effective and modernized food safety system, provide clear guidance to the industry, and minimize later challenges or revisions to hastily adopted regulations. Accordingly, judicial intervention is not warranted at this time.

There is a certain sad logic to this argument! The courts should mind their own business, because the only possible punishment is to order the very same achievements that FDA already is failing to achieve.

I considered disputing FDA's claim about there being "no indication" of Congressional intentions for adherence to timetables.  After all, Congress did write these timetables into law.  On the other hand, Congress has not given FDA sufficient funding to meet all of its food safety objectives in the past year, and of course the next year looks even more bleak.  Although food safety advocates are unimpressed with the agency's excuses, FDA really does seem justified in implying that Congress has sent mixed signals about prioritizing food safety implementation.

I think we'll just have to be patient ... and go easy on the peanut butter.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

New Entry Sustainable Farming Project

Tufts University's New Entry Sustainable Farming Project was covered this week in the Boston Globe, which described the project's matchmaking service connecting new farmers to both mentors and tillable land.
New Entry uses GIS mapping data to screen for potential farm plots.

The map sets contain a long list of criteria to distinguish individual parcels. For example, New Entry can filter the parcels based on size, ownership, zoned usage, and the quality of the soil.

The system is so sophisticated it can pick out suburban homesteads with large patches of unused land, so New Entry was no longer limited to looking at obvious candidates, such as existing farms.

The screenings are used to narrow the farmland hunt to the best candidates to approach about allowing use their land.

Once New Entry identifies sites, it approaches agricultural officials in the towns involved to work with landowners interested in turning over property to farmers.

See the project's website for an inspiring array of resources and training programs for both farmers (including a special focus on small-scale immigrant farmers in Massachusetts) and consumers.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

A proposal for a global ban on trans fats

While labeling strategies provide a sound public policy response to some food ingredient dilemmas, in other cases it is simpler and more effective to make do without the ingredient altogether.  Some argue that trans fats fall into the category of ingredients that should just be eliminated (with the exception of the small amount of trans fat that occurs naturally in animal food products).  These fats replaced healthier traditional oils and fats just a few decades ago, and some countries have recently been rapidly shifting back away from their use without any major food system damage.

In a commentary this week for the World Public Health Nutrition Association, Vivica Kraak, Uriyoán Colón-Ramos, and Rafael Monge-Rojas recommend a near-complete global ban on trans fats.
This commentary presents a case for public health professionals, practitioners, academics, industry and government representatives, funders, public-interest non-governmental organisations and consumer advocates, to collaborate to support a global trans-fat ban. Coordinated actions to remove this harmful substance from our food and eating environments will be able to contribute to reducing chronic non-communicable disease mortality by 2025.

New book: US Programs Affecting Food and Agricultural Marketing

The new book edited by Walter Armbruster and Ronald Knutson is titled: US Programs Affecting Food and Agricultural Marketing (published by Springer).  I have ordered it from my university library and look forward to reading it.  It includes many chapter authors whose work is covered here from time to time.  A theme appears to be that food policies may need to change over time, just as the private sector markets have been undergoing dramatic transformations over the years.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

New USDA organic agriculture survey

USDA in October released results from its 2011 survey of certified organic production.  Previously, the most recent such statistics came from a 2008 survey. 

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition explains how the survey results could be used to make crop insurance more accessible to organic producers.  Carolyn Dimitri, who used to do economic research on organic agriculture for USDA, and who now teaches and blogs at New York University, summarizes the differences in methods and results from 2008 to 2011.
The one sweeping generalization that I quickly reached is that the number of certified farms with sales declined between 2008 and 2011 for most, but not all of the commodity categories. At the same time, the value of sales increased for most categories, even for those with a decline in the number of farms. Several possible explanations come to mind: (1) farms exited the organic industry after 2008 because of the recession; (2) farms grew larger in terms of acres, which I can check (but haven’t yet); (3) the value of farm sales increased because prices farmers were paid increased, or because they were more productive, or a combination.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Pork alliance removes National Pork Board from Alliance Partners list

U.S. Food Policy reported on Wednesday that the National Pork Board (a federal checkoff program) was listed as an Alliance Partner on the website of the Pork Alliance, a lobbying entity sponsored by the National Pork Producers Council (a private-sector trade association).

It is against the law for federal checkoff funds to be used for lobbying.

I see today that the Pork Alliance website no longer lists the National Pork Board.  The alliance must have removed the board from the list in the past 3 days, after a complaint was filed by the Humane Society of the United States.

Here, for the historical record, is my screen capture from last Wednesday (click the image for a higher-resolution view).  The National Pork Board appears right below Merck Animal Health.

The carbon footprint of food

Recently, I was in the market for a good layperson's summary of the environmental impact of food choices.  The one I liked best so far was the brief chapter on food late in the book How Bad Are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything, by Mike Berners-Lee.

Berners-Lee takes measurement seriously.  At the same time, he is completely frank about how rough some measurements are.  He doesn't waste time figuring out every last significant digit.  Instead, he stays focused on the information that really matters for making sensible lifestyle choices.

Berners-Lee has a talent for explaining technical material.  As just one simple example, he has a delightfully clear explanation of a financial discount rate, an important concept for evaluating payback periods for investments (p. 188).  Other authors might be tempted to skip the topic, but Berners-Lee recognizes that the layreader can understand this issue, without needing any equations.

From the food chapter, here is a summary food tips:
  • Eat what you buy. 
  • Reduce meat and dairy.
  • Go seasonal, avoiding hothouses and air freight.
  • Avoid low-yield varieties.
  • Avoid excessive packaging.
  • Help the store reduce waste.
  • Buy misshapen fruit and vegetables.
  • Lower-carbon cooking. 

On related issues, I enjoyed seeing a presentation at the Friedman School's Wednesday seminar series last week by Susanne Freidberg from Dartmouth College, who spoke about Life Cycle Analysis (LCA).  Her most recent book is Fresh: A Perishable History.

Among other topics, Freidberg described the use of LCA in corporate sustainability initiatives, of which a leading example is Walmart's.  Although a major retailer won't say "reduce meat and dairy" or "avoid excessive packaging," I nonetheless find the Walmart initiative interesting.  Just for example, this video is blunt: "The raw truth is that the design of this system is unsustainable."  And it provides a nice visual explanation of a food product's life cycle.

December issue of the Friedman Sprout

The December issue of the Friedman School's graduate student publication, the Friedman Sprout, came out today.  It includes articles on the local Slow Food chapter, how to survive a New England winter, craft ideas, and book reviews.  I was interviewed for an article on the Prop 37 vote in California over GMO foods.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Pretty much everything you read about cancer from authoritative sources is likely to be worth taking seriously

Here is my paraphrase of the most important results from a study by Schoenfeld and Ioannidis in the current issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition:
  • Meta-analyses do fairly well at correctly stating their conclusions.  Meta-analyses are quantitative literature reviews that combine results from across studies, essentially increasing the sample size and breadth.
  • For example, Schoenfeld and Ioannadis looked at 9 meta-analyses showing an association between consuming particular foods (I think of foods such as fruits and vegetables) and reduced risk of cancer. For all 9, the results were statistically significant at conventional levels (p<.05).
  • Schoenfeld and Ioannadis looked at 4 meta-analyses showing an association between consuming particular foods (I think of foods such as processed meats) and increased risk of cancer.  For 3 of the 4, the results were statistically significant at conventional levels (p<.05).
  • While the meta-analyses did well at reporting results, individual studies sometimes report results in their abstracts even when they were not statistically significant.  Some of these reported results may be attributed to random happenstance rather than real cancer effects. This is why it is unwise to change eating habits with every new study.  It is wiser to rely on the balance of scientific evidence connecting particular foods to cancer risks and benefits.
Based on these results, you may be interested in the excellent collections of meta-analyses and systematic literature reviews available from a well-respected source such as the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute of Cancer Research. The new paper by Schoenfeld and Ioannadis reflects fairly well on the type of research posted by the WCRF and AICR.

But, journalists will report the conclusions of the new study to say something completely different from the above.  In the endless search for novelty, journalists write each day that everything you previously believed about diet and health is mistaken.

For example, Sarah Kliff at the Washington Post's Wonkblog writes today under the headline: "Pretty much everything you eat is associated with cancer. Don’t worry about it." 

Food industry public relations folks will love this message.

To make things worse, Kliff garbles the statistical material (see the comments to the Wonkblog post):
Don’t panic yet, though: The vast majority of those studies, Schoenfeld and Ioannidis found, showed really weak associations between the ingredient at hand and cancer risk. A full 80 percent of the studies had shown statistical relationships that were “weak or nominally significant,” as measured by the study’s P-values.
This description seems to ignore the meta-analyses and also it seems to describe perfectly fine statistically significant results (p<.05) as if they were "weak or nominally significant."

Perhaps the authors share some of the responsibility.  Kliff quotes the author:
“I was constantly amazed at how often claims about associations of specific foods with cancer were made, so I wanted to examine systematically the phenomenon,” e-mails study author John Ioannidis ”I suspected that much of this literature must be wrong. What we see is that almost everything is claimed to be associated with cancer, and a large portion of these claims seem to be wrong indeed.”
As with climate change skepticism, people twist genuine heterogeneity in scientific results to cast doubt on both marginal claims and widely accepted claims alike.  I wish that neither journalists nor authors would cavalierly say that most of the literature is wrong, when even the new study shows quite trustworthy results for the authoritative meta-analyses that actually merit attention from the public.

Just for example, the balance of scientific evidence from WCRF and AICR suggests that fruits and vegetables reduce risk and that red meats and processed meats increase risks of certain cancers.  Such conclusions based on meta-analyses fare well in the new AJCN study.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Pork checkoff funds lobbying alliance

The federal government's semi-public checkoff programs collect mandatory assessments from producers.  Of course, it is illegal to use these funds for lobbying.

Yet, the National Pork Board (the pork checkoff program), overseen by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, is listed as an "Alliance Partner" for a National Pork Producer Council lobbying organization.  The NPPC is a private-sector pork industry trade association.  The NPPC's alliance web page explains the lobbying goal:
Pork Alliance dues are used to fund outreach for critical legislative and regulatory industry priorities, including foreign trade access, environment, food safety and animal welfare issues.
The dues mentioned in the web page are large.  The application form (.pdf) on the NPPC website says that the dues for becoming an "Alliance Partner" are $20,000.

I am not surprised that the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has filed a legal complaint with the USDA Inspector General.  The mandatory assessments are being funneled to a lobbying organization.  No matter what you think of the HSUS, it seems wrong for the federal government to use its power of taxation to place a finger on the scale of the public debate.

Monday, November 19, 2012

DOJ drops case against Monsanto

The Department of Justice has dropped its anti-trust case against Monsanto for anti-competitive behavior in the seed market.  The company is very happy.

I imagine that DOJ staff are disappointed that their efforts in recent years to ensure competitive ag-sector markets have come to very little.  Here is the section on the seed industry from DOJ's May 2012 summary of its field hearings:
Genetically Modified Seeds. The rise of genetically modified seeds generated intense and extensive discussion. Many farmers spoke about the high price of genetically modified seeds, restrictions on the use of genetically modified seeds, and a dearth of choices of genetically modified and conventional seeds. For example, during the public comments in Iowa, there was testimony that “many farmers say that the prices they’re paying are indeed out of hand for seed,” that “farmers say that their choice, their seed options are dramatically reduced, especially in the way of conventional corn and soybean varieties,” and that “farmers fear that the best and newest genetics will only be introduced with expensive patented traits stacked into them.”56

A farmer echoed these comments, asserting that the advent of genetically modified seeds “has reduced my options for non-GMO seeds” and “increased my costs to raise corn.”57

Participants argued that seed traits or “nature” should not be patentable. They asserted that the current patent landscape stifled innovation and competition.58 Many also voiced philosophical objections to the patenting of seed technology and lamented that licensing restrictions imposed by seed companies upset centuries-old folkways. As one rice and soybean farmer put it, “We lost the thing [that as] farmers and inhabitants of this planet . . . is most precious to us, and that is the intellectual property rights to our food.”59

Other participants extolled the virtues of genetically modified seeds, including, they stated, higher yields and less environmental impact. One crop farmer summarized, “The use of GMO seeds makes economic and agronomic sense and provides efficacy with less trips across the field, less fuel, and a safer environment for us farmers, our families, and the environment.”60

Here is the American Anti-trust Institute's 2009 summary of the leading competition concerns (Update 12/2/2012: AAI receives support from DuPont, a Monsanto competitor), Monsanto's 2009 response (.pdf), and a 2010 article in Choices Magazine by agricultural economist GianCarlo Moschini.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Feeding nine billion

From Evan Fraser at the University of Guelph, a nicely balanced 12-minute lecture on the global food prospect. I like the choice of 4 solution strategies, including both high-tech solutions and local food systems without exaggerating the strengths of either.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

From nutrition scientists "on behalf of Corn Refiners Association"

Here is a newsletter I received today from an email account labeled oddly: "ASN on behalf of Corn Refiners Association."

Follow the link for the full web version of the email.

The ASN is of course the American Society for Nutrition.  "Experimental Biology 2012" is the most important annual meeting for nutrition scientists.

The tiny footer to the email's web page says:
This email is a paid advertisement sent by ASN on behalf of Corn Refiners Association. ASN occasionally promotes to its members the efforts of other organizations promoting products, services or events that advance ASN's mission: excellence in nutrition research and practice. ASN never releases members' email addresses to any third party. 
While this footer to the email discloses the advertisement, the newsletter's .pdf file from the link does not mention that it is an advertisement.  Clearly, the whole package is designed to look like a newsletter from a scientific association.  In the gentlest way, the newsletter defends fructose and corn sweeteners from criticism.

Does this type of advertisement cost the scientific association much in terms of independent authority and reputation?

Strategies for reforming poultry contracts

For many years, advocates for farmers have been concerned about production contracts in the poultry, pork, and beef industries.

In the current issue of the Washington Monthly, Lina Khan has a captivating feature article criticizing the Obama Administration for retreating on proposed reforms to contracting rules.  A taste of Khan's theme of deflated hopes:
Big processing companies remain free to treat independent poultry, cattle, and dairy producers largely as they please. “You had farmer after farmer after farmer telling the same story, basically pleading for help, and absolutely nothing has come of it,” said Craig Watts, a poultry farmer from Fairmont, North Carolina, who drove 512 miles to attend the hearing in Alabama. Staples agreed. “We had really thought something might change.”

This issue is complex, however.  Recent years have generally been high-profit years for poultry growers (.pdf) -- a key piece of context that readers of Khan's article might miss.  In particular, for the industrial-scale poultry producers who get contracts with the big processors, both farm income and household income are comparatively good on average.  Certainly, I lose more sleep over poverty among hired farm workers in the poultry sheds than among poultry business owners!

Furthermore, many economists are instinctively reluctant to have government agencies write rules for questions as difficult and complex as poultry production methods and pricing.  Tina Saitone and incoming AAEA President Richard Sexton argue that contracts offer some efficiencies and benefits for consumers and farmers alike.

In my view, not all contracts are bad, but some contracts may be abusive and anti-competitive.

Even if you take the economists' view on this issue, there still is an important role for government reform.  In particular, it is essential for contract terms to be transparent, so that farmers are not trapped into contracts with a single processor because they cannot find out their competitive alternatives.

For this reason, when USDA retreated on its proposed contract reforms, one of the passages I read most closely had to do with the transparency of contracts.  Under pressure from Congress, USDA backed down on a simple and entirely sound proposal to require processors to publish sample contracts.  Buried deep in the Federal Register notice (.pdf) where USDA explained its revisions to the rule, a careful reader may find that the USDA officials themselves seemed to recognize that this would have been a good provision, and they sound disappointed that they had to back down.
Livestock and Poultry Contracts Section 201.213 of the proposed rule required the submission and potential publication of sample contracts. Most supporting comments stated that implementation of this rule would assure fairness and market transparency which would allow farmers and ranchers the opportunity to make informed decisions, it would promote fair competition, and it would allow efficient and evenhanded enforcement of the P&S Act. Some comments expressed concern with the lack of clarity and the ambiguity of this section of the proposed rule.

Upcoming event: Hack // Meat on Dec 7-9

During a period of time when food policy-making at the federal level seems nearly dysfunctional -- witness the continued absence of a farm bill! -- I have been reflecting on innovations in the private sector and in civil society.

Just for example, here is the announcement for an upcoming event in New York City:
Mark your calendar! From December 7 – 9, Food+Tech Connect, GRACE Communications and Applegate are bringing together technologists, entrepreneurs, creatives, policy experts, non-profit leaders and industry executives for Hack//Meat, the first-ever “meat hackathon” in New York City.

Over the course of the weekend, “steakholders” will work with teams to rapidly prototype innovative solutions to business and consumer education challenges in the way meat is produced, processed, distributed, sold and consumed. Our goal? We want to bring together the best and brightest minds to develop technologies and tools that help democratize meat. Some of the areas we will be tackling include:

Production: Develop tools to help small and medium sized ranchers more efficiently and sustainably manage their herds, process their meat and sell direct to consumers or wholesale buyers.

Health: Reimagine how technology can eliminate or minimize antibiotic use and improve animal health.

Processing: Design ways for processors to more easily demonstrate that they are complying with federal regulations, manage processing demand and access financing.

Distribution: Streamline the process of selling “non-choice” cuts of meat, and improve the efficiency and financial viability of getting meat from farm to buyer.

Foodservice: Make it easier and more affordable for restaurants and foodservice to source sustainable ingredients, as well as to manage supplier adherence to worker and animal welfare.

Consumption: Improve consumer insight research and education on the benefits of sustainable meat and nose-to-tail cooking.

Developers, designers, gamers, marketers, storytellers, academics, farmers, butchers, restaurateurs, policy experts and anyone who is in the business of meat is invited to participate. As always, you can be sure to expect great food, lots of learning and invaluable new connections. We also want to make sure teams are able to actualize your prototypes, so we’re offering cash prizes and consulting services to winning hacks.

Visit the Hack//Meat website to learn more about the event and for updates on additional prizes and judges. You can register for the event here.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Choices Magazine: An evaluation of food deserts in America

A Choices Magazine theme issue released today explores the economics of food deserts.

Guest editors Dave D. Weatherspoon, Shelly Ver Ploeg, and Paula Dutko provide the theme overview and links to four more articles.  Weatherspoon and colleagues use data from a natural experiment, when a new retailer set up shop in a low-income neighborhood of Detroit.  Tatiana Andreyeva suggests that WIC's new fruit and vegetable vouchers may have improved the healthfulness of local food retail in Connecticut.  Dutko reviews the economic disadvantages observed in food deserts.  And Alessandro Bonanno's article stands out for its attention to the economics of food retail supply as well as consumer needs.  Attention to both need and supply is essential for people who want to think sharply about the food retail improvements that are truly feasible, not merely wishful thinking.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Are Taubes and Couzens too hard on the Dietary Guidelines?

Gary Taubes and Cristin Kearns Couzens have a remarkable expose in Mother Jones of the sugar industry's misleading public information efforts over several decades.  The feature article stands out for its effective use of previously overlooked archival materials.  The indictment of sugar industry influence on policy advice and nutrition science research is devastating.

Everybody interested in U.S. food policy should read this story.

I do have one substantial complaint.  As in previous work by Taubes, this article does well in describing sugar industry public information campaigns, but it unfairly characterizes the recent editions of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

One of the best things about the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, for example, is that any reader can see the systematic evidence reviews -- published free on the internet -- that form the basis for the document's conclusions.

Here is what Taubes and Couzens say about the 2010 Dietary Guidelines:
The authors of the 2010 USDA dietary guidelines, for instance, cited two scientific reviews as evidence that sugary drinks don't make adults fat. The first was written by Sigrid Gibson, a nutrition consultant whose clients included the Sugar Bureau (England's version of the Sugar Association) and the World Sugar Research Organization (formerly the ISRF). The second review was authored by Carrie Ruxton, who served as research manager of the Sugar Bureau from 1995 to 2000.

But following the first link in the preceding paragraph, the federal government's evidence review says exactly the opposite of what Taubes and Couzens claim:
Conclusion.  A moderate body of epidemiologic evidence suggests that greater consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with increased body weight in adults.

Taubes and Couzens say USDA cited "two scientific reviews," but anybody following the link can see that USDA cited four reviews.  The review that USDA gives most weight was not mentioned by Taubes and Couzens, and it endorses the warnings against sugary drinks.

The whole advantage of systematic evidence reviews is to avoid cherry-picking evidence that favors one's own argument.  I think it would be great for science journalists to adopt the same practice of specifying a selection protocol in advance, just as the federal government's evidence reviews do, so that the journalists are not tempted to report only evidence that corroborates their thesis.

As this blog noted recently, the MyPlate guidance is accompanied by well-crafted terse advice about sugary drinks:

Drink water instead of sugary drinks.

Taubes and Couzens seem right on target in their criticism of the Sugar Association but quite unfair to the federal government and recent editions of the Dietary Guidelines.  (The authors' criticism of earlier editions may be more justified.)  Part of the reason I accept the main thrust of Taubes' critique of sugar-sweetened beverages is that -- despite his tone -- this particular aspect of Taubes' work seems fairly consistent with the sober judgement of mainstream dietary guidance in 2010.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

New data from USDA about international food safety audits

USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) this week began posting more information than ever before about foreign food safety audits.

Helena Bottemiller at Food Safety News, who had been pressing for greater transparency, reports today that USDA has been conducting fewer of these audits in recent years:
During the Bush administration, in-country audits generally happened annually, but, according to data provided to Food Safety News by FSIS earlier this month (which were posted online Wednesday), the number of in-country audits has dropped dramatically under the Obama administration.
Online documents show that from 2001 to 2008 FSIS inspectors were routinely evaluating, in-person, the foreign plants processing meat for American consumers. The number of countries audited annually, with only one exception (in 2006 there was a large drop in audits), was between 25 and 32, so FSIS was auditing an average of 26.4 countries per year. From 2009 to 2012, however, the number of countries audited annually dropped to between 3 and 20, so FSIS was auditing an average of 9.8 countries per year.
Food Safety News has released an interactive illustration of the data.  Hover over a particular year to see the countries audited that year.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Choices Magazine: What happens when the well goes dry?

The special theme for the current issue of Choices Magazine is: "What happens when the well goes dry?  And other agricultural disasters."

The theme's overview, by Dave Shideler, puts the 2012 drought into context:
[T]he increasing probability of drought conditions across the U.S. due to increasing climate variability should cause decision makers to think beyond the immediate crisis.
Other contributors include K. Bradley Watkins, David P. Anderson, J. Mark Welch, John Robinson, Kurt M. Guidry, J. Ross Pruitt, Kurt A. Schwabe, and Jeffery D. Connor.  Choices Magazine is an outreach publication of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Conservation Crossroads from C-FARE

The Council on Food, Agricultural, and Resource Economics (C-FARE) in July released a nice accessible report series entitled Conservation Crossroads.  The reports review important conservation policies at a time when U.S. agricultural programs are in flux, so it is unclear whether new farm programs will have the same connections to conservation objectives that older programs had.  I serve on C-FARE's board of directors.  Through outreach publications and webinars, C-FARE seeks to share the excellent work of food and agricultural economists with a wider audience.

Top 10 Design Elements to Achieve More Efficient Conservation Programs
Prof. David Zilberman, University of California at Berkeley and Prof. Kathleen Segerson, University of Connecticut
Top 10 Design Elements to Achieve More Efficient Conservation Programs
This paper examines how conservation programs for agriculture provide significant social and environmental benefits. However, given budget constraints and pressures to increase production, Conservation programs must further evolve to maximize effectiveness at the lowest possible cost to the American taxpayer. This paper provides a "Top 10" list of improvements that could be made to Conservation programs in order to get the biggest bang for the buck, both for taxpayers and the environment.
[ Click to download PDF ]

Economic and Environmental Effects of Agricultural Insurance Programs
Prof. Daniel A. Sumner, University of California at Davis and Prof. Carl Zulauf, Ohio State University
Economic and Environmental Effects of Agricultural Insurance Programs
This paper observes that over the past decade crop insurance has evolved into the largest subsidy among U.S. farm programs. With the impending elimination of direct payments, crop and revenue insurance and the related "shallow loss programs" will be even more important, especially for program commodities. However, agricultural insurance programs stimulate production of the more subsidized crops and likely result in less diversification of crops, expanded planting on marginal land, and increased potential for adverse environmental effects of farming.
[ Click to download PDF ]

Examining the Relationship of Conservation Compliance & Farm Program Incentives
Prof. Otto Doering, Purdue University and Katherine Smith, American Farmland Trust
Examining the Relationship of Conservation Compliance & Farm Program Incentives
This paper reviews the historical context of the Conservation Compliance farm program, and its impact on both farmers and civil society. The paper discusses the incentive structure of the modern Conservation Compliance system and highlights the risks and dynamics associated with changing this structure.
[ Click to download PDF ]

Implications of a Reduced Conservation Reserve Program
Prof. JunJie Wu and Prof. Bruce Weber of Oregon State University
Implications of a Reduced Conservation Reserve Program
This paper provides an analysis of the economic and environmental impacts of a reduced Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The current context of federal budget constraints coupled with historically high commodity prices has led to scrutiny of the program. However, the paper points out that there should be an equally robust discussion of the macro-economic relationships between strong conservation reserve programs and economic well-being. Furthermore, the authors examine the historical relationship between the CRP and the conditions of rural communities, recreation and the environment. [ Click to download PDF ]

State-level data on children's poverty and nutrition programs

The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center this week released new resources about breakfast and lunch participation in Massachusetts schools.  A chart pack (.pdf) illustrates data describing the extent of take-up of nutrition benefits, and a summary graphic (.pdf) traces a wide variety of nutrition assistance programs from the federal funding sources to the state and local implementation level.

More generally, the Kids Count data center from the Annie E. Casey Foundation has a wide variety of state-level data resources for all states.  For example, here is an interactive map showing children's poverty levels by regions within Massachusetts (you can mouse over selected counties to see specific statistics).

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Two communication strategies for reducing sugary drinks

First, I like the plain matter-of-fact tone of the federal government's MyPlate graphic. It paints a pleasant portrait of a healthy meal, and then underlines several key messages for consumers by stating them in blunt English.  One of the key recommendations is to "drink water instead of sugary drinks."

A reasonable person may add that one should drink water instead of sugary drinks most of the time, but the mainstream message of the dietary guidelines reflects the best judgement of scientists in this field.

Balancing Calories
  • Enjoy your food, but eat less. 
  • Avoid oversized portions. 
Foods to Increase
  • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables. 
  • Make at least half your grains whole grains. 
  • Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk. 
Foods to Reduce
  • Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals and choose the foods with lower numbers. 
  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks. 
Second, in a new video from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), public health marketers seek to both imitate and expose the emotive power of soda advertisements.  In the video, a family of polar bears endures the harsh effects of diabetes and learns that the soda advertisements offer only a false promise of happiness.  The video strays close to playing on guilt themes as motivation for healthy behaviors, but the polar bears are fundamentally sympathetic, and they take charge of their own lives in the nice ending. 

If you dislike the video's harsh imagery, I'd be interested to hear about it.  But I do think the beverage association spokesperson's rebuttal -- in a USA Today article -- rings false:
But ABA spokeswoman Karen Hanretty says, "CSPI is better at producing videos than they are doing math. People are drinking fewer calories from soda -- and have been for a decade -- so how can soda be to blame for rising obesity?" 
The basic message that it is better to limit sugary drinks is well-established and denying this with misleading trend statistics just makes the video look like the more serious party in this conversation.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Survey says more than three quarters intend to vote "yes" on California Prop 37 GE labeling proposal

According to a new poll (.pdf) conducted during September 20-27 in California, 76.8% of respondents would vote "yes" on Prop 37 -- calling for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods.

This estimate is much higher than I would have expected.  The survey report, by Jayson L. Lusk and Brandon McFadden from Oklahoma State University, has several interesting features. (Lusk keeps a lively blog, where he discussed U.S. Food Policy's earlier post on Prop 37.)

First, among those intending to vote "yes," 71% said their motivation had to do with the right to know what is in their food, while 16% listed food safety concerns.  It is reassuring that comparatively few respondents listed food safety concerns.  In my opinion, food safety concerns are not the most sound reason for supporting biotech labeling.

Second, the survey included some sharp questions about whether people would still favor mandatory labeling even if it made food more expensive.  Sensibly, fewer than half of respondents would support mandatory labeling if it led to price increases of more than 12%.  That would be a very large price increase!  More than half of respondents would still support Prop 37 if there were smaller price increases.  To me, although the median price point seems high, this again suggests that the respondents perceived the essentials of the economic tradeoffs implied by the proposition.

To put the price increase issue in perspective, Dan Sumner and Julian Alston recently estimated (.pdf) that Prop 37 could lead to $1.2 billion in new costs on California food manufacturers for labeling, segregation, and monitoring.  (Sumner and Alston served as my hosts and mentors during a terrific sabbatical year at the University of California in 2010-2011, though nobody should assume they endorse or are to blame for any opinions offered in this blog!).  I suspect that Sumner and Alston's cost estimates imply a food price increase far smaller than 12%.

Here is one more very interesting thing about Sumner and Alston's paper.  They believe that mandatory labeling "would reduce choices by driving some food products containing GE ingredients from the market."  In this view, the label would influence manufacturing methods, and many food manufacturers would use a label that says "made without GE ingredients."  Their colleague at UC Davis, Colin Carter, believes that many food manufacturers would find it impossible to source non-GE ingredients and that most conventional (non-organic) food would be labeled "may contain GE ingredients."

Another important finding from Lusk and McFadden's report is that many consumers do not understand which foods contain GE products.  I think that if Prop 37 passes (a) GE-free foods will be labeled GE-free, (b) foods that contain GE ingredients will be labeled "may contain GE ingredients" and (c) consumers will be much better informed.

In my view, the strongest case against Prop 37 is subtle.  If consumers care about genetic engineering, then voluntary GE labeling should be widely promoted.  But, if government scientists are not persuaded that GE foods are dangerous, then one could argue that the government should not make GE labeling mandatory.

October Friedman Sprout: Organic issue

The Friedman Sprout (the Friedman School's graduate student newspaper) has just posted its October issue, with an organic food theme.
Welcome to our Organic Issue! Here at Friedman, organic and local foods are more synonymous with lunch than peanut butter and jelly.  But more and more it's not just nutrition students who care about where their food is from and how it's grown.  In fact, a study on organic food and health recently stirred up some national controversy.  We break down the research for you in this issue.  We also feature an alumni interview with Jody Biergiel, who certifies organic farmers and handlers as Director of Handler Certification for CCOF.  In addition, read on to find a delicious recipe featuring organic apples, a restaurant review of a local organic restaurant, and a spotlight feature of Friedman's own organic garden.
Check out our very own organic vegetable garden.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Growing pains for an open-air food market

Porta Palazzo: The Anthropology of an Italian Market is Boston University anthropologist Rachel Black's study of cultural changes in a large open-air market in Turin.

Black described her work at a dinner event hosted last night by Kitchn Table, a Boston-based event/class series organized by Wheeler del Toro (author of an ice cream cookbook, The Vegan Scoop).  

What happens if there is no Farm Bill?

Many farm programs and policies have never been permanently authorized, so, if there is no Farm Bill, policy reverts to a messy jumble of past authorities from more than 60 years ago.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) has clear and detailed answers to 15 questions about Congress' failure this year to pass a Farm Bill.  Here is an example.
What happens if we ... revert to the 1949 Farm Bill?

If a new farm bill is not enacted or the current farm bill is not extended for a period of time, the farm bill commodity programs revert to permanent law contained in the 1938 and 1949 farm bills. Each successive farm bill since that time has suspended permanent law for the period of time provided for the newly enacted farm bill. But the permanent law provision is scheduled to pop back up and become the law of the land again if Congress does not enact a new bill or extend current law.

This peculiar feature normally induces Congress to get its work done on each new farm bill in a timely fashion. Without a 2008 Farm Bill extension or a new farm bill, dairy policy reverts to permanent law on January 1, and grain and other commodities do so once the new 2013 crop is ready for planting.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

After WIC package revisions, mixed changes in breastfeeding outcomes

A Tufts press release last week describes recent research by Ann Collins, Meena Fernandes and Anne Wolf at Abt Associates, and myself, which was published in the September 2012 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) (may be gated)
In 2009, the federal government’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) changed the make-up of its food packages to meet several nutritional goals, including stronger promotion of breastfeeding. For new mothers participating in WIC, there were mixed outcomes after implementation of the policy change, according to an analysis from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science Policy at Tufts University and the global research and program implementation firm Abt Associates.

WIC provides three main food packages for mothers and infants: a full breastfeeding option with no infant formula but more supplemental food for the mother, a partial breastfeeding option with some formula, and a full formula option with less supplemental food for the mother. Among other changes, the new 2009 policy, called an “interim rule,” lowered the amount of infant formula in the partial breastfeeding option.

By studying administrative records of more than 206,000 mother-infant pairs from 17 local WIC agencies (LWAs) nationwide, the researchers found that more mothers received the full breastfeeding option after the 2009 package change but more mothers also received the full formula option. Fewer mothers received the partial breastfeeding option.

In the first four weeks following birth, the percentage receiving the full breastfeeding option increased from 9.8% to 17.1% and the percentage receiving the full formula option increased from 20.5% to 28.5%. The percentage receiving the partial breastfeeding option fell from 24.7% to 13.8%. The remaining mothers fell into other miscellaneous classifications.

After the implementation of the interim rule, there was a small increase in the amount of infant formula provided in the first month of life (548.6 fluid ounces to 559.6 fluid ounces per mother). The percentage of mothers who “initiated”, or reported trying to breastfeed the infant at least once, remained unchanged at approximately 65%.

“There had been some hope that breastfeeding initiation would increase after the policy change,” said Parke E. Wilde, Ph.D., corresponding author and an associate professor at the Friedman School. “While this did not happen, the good news is there was no decrease in the breastfeeding initiation, and more mothers did, at least, adopt the full breastfeeding package.”

The article in the AJCN also discusses opportunities for WIC to make further progress in breastfeeding promotion.

“We asked WIC participants about the point in time when they made their decisions about breastfeeding and what helped them when they made their choices about the decision to breastfeed,” said senior author Ann Collins, a principal associate at Abt Associates.  “More than three quarters of the women reported that they had decided before delivery how they wanted to feed their baby. What’s more, more than 84% of women reported that information on breastfeeding from WIC was ‘important’ or ‘very important.’ These findings suggest that special efforts by WIC agencies to reach out to WIC participants during pregnancy with information on breastfeeding could be very beneficial.”

The analysis does not account for all factors that changed during the same time period, for example the volatility of the 2009 economy. The study compared outcomes in the three months before the policy change and the nine months afterward.

The study also is a "recent featured journal article" on the Abt Associates front page.  The analysis was conducted with the support of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service.  [Minor edit Sep 27:] The views and opinions expressed by the authors of the journal article do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

There is a lot happening on the topic of further improving WIC's impact on breastfeeding.  Here are some links.  A longer report (.pdf) from this same research effort is available on the USDA FNS website.  An excellent literature review (.pdf) by Silvie Colman and coauthors helps put the new study in the context of a larger body of research.  In another report, Nancy Cole and colleagues explain the various detailed options selected by different states (.pdf), which is important for understanding how the changes actually were implemented.  A workshop summary (.pdf) posted on the FNS site describes a wide variety of ambitious options for future research.

Figure 1.  Food packages issued to new mothers, by age of infant.
(click for larger image)

Monday, September 24, 2012

Lawsuit challenges pork board purchase of "Other White Meat" slogan

A lawsuit filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia charges that the $60 million sale of the pork industry's "Other White Meat" slogan illegally diverts money to the lobbying efforts of the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC).

One of the plaintiffs is Harvey Dillenburg, a pork producer in Adair County, Iowa.  Mr. Dillenburg is not a member of the NPPC.  He is required by law to pay a portion of every sale to the National Pork Board, which is supposed to use the money for promotions and advertising.  The National Pork Board is not allowed to lobby.  In 2006, the National Pork Board agreed to pay the NPPC $60 million in return for the property rights to the "Other White Meat" brand.  The resulting payments of $3 million per year for 20 years help fund the NPPC's powerful lobbying machine.

Think about how this arrangement looks from the point of view of Mr. Dillenburg.  Although he does not choose to support the NPPC, the federal government forces him along with all other pork producers to pay the National Pork Board, which in turn pays the NPPC.

The other plaintiff is the Humane Society of the United States, a leading animal welfare organization.  As the Congressional Research Service (.pdf) explains, the HSUS recently brokered a successful agreement with egg producers, reaching a judicious compromise about what type of cages seem ethically acceptable for hens.  Although the leading trade association for egg producers is now working with HSUS to get this balanced policy approved by Congress, the agreement faces implacable opposition from the NPPC.  The egg agreement causes no harm to pork producers, but the NPPC is worried that the precedent of a successful egg agreement will generate unrealistic hopes for similar good-faith negotiations about gestation crates for pork.  It is not surprising that HSUS has been looking into how the federal government's pork board -- which is not supposed to support lobbying -- helps fund the NPPC's efforts to spoil the egg agreement.

This blog, U.S. Food Policy, began covering the tale of the "Other White Meat" sale in a June 2006 blog post, which called for greater transparency about the terms of the sale.  When nobody would give me the documents voluntarily, I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.  USDA initially turned down my request, arguing that the information was "pre-decisional and deliberative".  When I appealed, USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service in December 2006 released partly-blacked out versions of the key documents.

Although AMS hid critical details, enough information was revealed in 2006 to suggest that this was a poor use of pork producers' money.  For example, I pointed out accounting flaws in the supposedly independent appraisal upon which the $60 million sale price was based.  In the HSUS and Dillenburg lawsuit today, I learned for the first time that Mark Williams, who is largely responsible for pulling together the supposedly independent price appraisals, actually has been responsible for developing the "Other White Meat" branding since its inception. 

The HSUS explains further:
Through months of research, The HSUS uncovered glaring legal violations, conflicts of interest, and an exorbitantly over-inflated $60 million price tag associated with the deal. Much of the extraordinarily inflated value of the slogan resulted from 20 years of promotional campaigns funded entirely with pork producers’ own checkoff funds: roughly half a billion dollars. In essence, NPPC charged pork producers twice: once to make The Other White Meat successful, and again to pay for the value of that success.

Now, the case against this sale has only gotten stronger.  The National Pork Board has largely retired the "Other White Meat" slogan, in favor of the new "Be Inspired" slogan, and yet the pork board continues to pay the NPPC $3 million each year for the nearly worthless old slogan.  The NPB has an escape clause allowing it to cancel the payments, but it chooses not to exercise this clause.

The HSUS and Dillenburg lawsuit (.pdf) is well written, with astonishing details beyond what can be described in this space.  It was covered today in Feedstuffs and other trade publications.  I encourage everybody interested in U.S. Food Policy to read it in full.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Hill District supermarket is delayed by multiple challenges

The supermarket that is planned for the Hill District neighborhood in Pittsburgh has been delayed by serious challenges. The project requires several million dollars in public and non-profit financing, in addition to the usual private sector financing, but not all of the expected money has been confirmed. The opening had been expected in November 2011 but is now scheduled for spring 2013.  Neighborhood residents are angry and frustrated.

This blog reported in July 2011 on early plans for the supermarket.  I viewed the cleared building site and took a long walk through the Hill District while visiting Pittsburgh for the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association annual meeting that summer.  I was interested in this particular supermarket because it will be the subject of economic analysis in Rand's Phresh study, comparing food and health outcomes before and after the introduction of the supermarket.

The Hill District is famous for its jazz history and as the setting for the plays of the great American playwright August Wilson.  There is some question about whether the Hill District meets official definitions of a food desert, because some parts of the neighborhood do have other supermarkets less than a mile away, but these official definitions cannot easily adjust for the steep hills that give the neighborhood its name.  Some federal financing sources seek to target neighborhoods that meet a technical definition.  Any visitor on foot would immediately recognize the Hill District as an exceptionally impoverished neighborhood, which seems like a food desert in laypersons' terms.

Even as recently as September 30, 2011, a report (.pdf) from the Reinvestment Fund, a neighborhood financing initiative, seemed to expect the store to open in November 2011.  However, the report did explain just some of the challenges facing the Hill House Economic Development Corporation (HHEDC), which played a central role in organizing the supermarket project.  About $6.8 million in financing was anticipated from multiple sources, which may have been difficult to coordinate.  The Reinvestment Fund wrote, "Despite a strong board and significant community support, a project of this scale was still a daunting task for HHEDC as a small [Community Development Corporation]."

These challenges have worsened.  Julie Matthews, who had led the Hill House development arm, was fired on February 9 this year, a day before she was scheduled to make a presentation about the project's financing.  In April, Matthews filed a whistleblower lawsuit, alleging that Hill House used restricted funds from the Reinvestment Fund and the Mellon Foundation in other unspecified ways. I have no information other than the news report about this allegation.  This week I noticed that the Reinvestment Fund's website has a whistleblower policy (.pdf), making clear that people involved in projects financed by the fund, who become aware of any misuse of funds, are obliged to report the misuse.

It seems likely that the project will go forward in 2013 despite these challenges.  Politicians and institutions in both local and national food financing initiatives would lose face if this high-profile project failed.  It is possible that resolving all the problems will require even more public and non-profit financing than initially expected.

Nobody should judge major national policies from one example, but this episode is likely to contain some cautionary lessons by the time it is over.  Though I fear some readers might think me an incorrigible economist for saying so, I think we should ask why supermarket chain managers could not make this project work using purely private financing, or even with just $1 or $2 million in public financing.  Supermarket chains are astute judges of local food retail conditions and market demand.  Just to take one example, they must recognize that not all Hill District residents will use the local market even after it arrives.  Despite the very high level of poverty, about a third of local resident households own an automobile, and even more have some access to shared automobile transport for grocery shopping.  One reason a supermarket may require a large public subsidy before choosing a particular location may be that they anticipate a tough competitive environment when they start operating. 

If the public bill reaches $6 or $8 million for a single supermarket, and even then the project is stressed by financial management challenges and delays, it raises hard questions about this supermarket-centered and high-budget approach to addressing food retail problems in low-income neighborhoods.

Pittsburgh, July 2011 (Wilde)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Incorrect reports say that California's Prop 37 has zero tolerance for accidental GMO content

California voters are considering a ballot initiative to require mandatory labeling for foods that contain Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) ingredients.

A recent Oakland Tribune editorial against the initiative gets key facts wrong. The editorial, which was widely published in other newspapers, claims that the proposal has a zero-tolerance for accidental GMO content in foods that aren't labeled as containing GMOs. Such a policy would force producers of essentially non-GMO products to use the label "may contain GMOs," simply out of fear of litigation.  But the editorial is mistaken. The initiative rightly allows foods that do not intentionally contain GMOs to carry a "non-GMO" label.

The initiative has several moderate and reasonable features.  For example, it would require genetically modified animals -- such as a fast-growing genetically modified salmon -- to contain a "GMO" label, but it would not require such a label for ordinary beef that had been fed genetically modified corn and soybeans.  A farmer or food manufacturer would not have to do any fancy testing to prevent accidental contamination with GMOs (for example by drifting seeds from a neighboring field, or from GMO-containing dust left over on farm machinery).  It suffices for the food producers to claim in writing that they used crop varieties and food ingredients that they reasonably believed were not genetically modified.  For example, a food manufacturer purchasing non-GMO corn would have to get the supplier to sign such an affidavit, but would not have to do scientific testing.  Some anti-GMO advocates might have wanted stricter rules, but there are good common-sense reasons why the initiative took these positions.

In this context, the Oakland Tribune editorial is particularly disappointing.  Whether you support or oppose GMOs, it is important to explain the initiative clearly so that our democracy can function as well as possible.

The Tribune editorial echoed a point that was also made in a recent working paper by the highly esteemed agricultural economist Colin Carter and several coauthors.  They wrote:
The California initiative would implement a zero-tolerance policy for accidental presence of small amounts of GM substances, even if the U.S. government has approved the GM material for human consumption.
But, after reading the text of the initiative, this seems incorrect. I wrote Professor Carter to ask about this, and his brief response by email while traveling made several good points in opposition to Prop 37, but didn't really back up this claim that the initiative takes a zero-tolerance position on accidental contamination.  Essentially, opponents fear that firms will anticipate legal problems and prophylactically label their products with "may contain GMO" labels, but I cannot really find a reasonable basis for that fear in the initiative itself.

Here's a subtle but important point.  A food manufacturer with a complex ingredient list, including corn or soybean ingredients from commodity sources, may have to use a "may contain GMO" label, but that's not a policy error.  Given that most U.S. corn and soybeans are produced with GMO varieties, it really is true that such products may contain GMOs, so the label is correct.  A food manufacturer who has made reasonable effort to use non-GMO ingredients is permitted under this initiative to use a "non-GMO" label.  I really don't see any part of the initiative that requires these essentially non-GMO foods to be labeled as "may contain GMOs" merely out of caution.

There are good reasons why some people will oppose this California Prop 37.  GMO technologies may well not be dangerous to humans.  Or they may have some risks and tradeoffs, just as non-GMO foods do, that are worthwhile because of the production advantages from the new technology.  Or, as economists in particular are likely to point out, it may be that a well-crafted voluntary labeling regime would have functioned as well as mandatory labeling without as much burden on society.  Still, opponents should make those points clearly rather than mischaracterizing Prop 37. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

FERN asks: Whose Side is the American Farm Bureau On?

The Nation this week explores the American Farm Bureau, which, through affiliated organizations, is simultaneously one of the most important farm lobby groups and also a major insurance operation.  The story is by Pulitzer-winning writer Ian Shearn.  It was supported by the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN).

Interesting passages address influence over the upcoming Farm Bill ...
In Washington, the 2012 Farm Bill has predictably been a top priority for the Farm Bureau lobby team. They have surprised players from both sides of the debate by conceding cuts in traditional subsidies in exchange for a large expansion of subsidized crop insurance that protects against disasters and falling prices at an estimated cost to taxpayers of $9 billion a year. The tactical, philosophical shift garnered praise even from Farm Bureau adversaries. Nonetheless, it should be noted that crop insurance is a small, but significant piece of Farm Bureau insurance companies’ portfolio. In 2011, they collected over $300 million in crop insurance premiums. 
... and contribution to the tenor of U.S. agricultural policy debate:
American Farm Bureau Federation president Bob Stallman was succinct, almost militant in his opening address last year at the group’s annual meeting: “We will not stand idly by while opponents of today’s American agriculture…try to drag us down…try to bury us in bureaucratic red tape and costly regulation—and try to destroy the most productive and efficient agricultural system in the world,” he said.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Federal government says all sorts of things about soy milk

Mark Bittman this week describes how he overcame years of heartburn by giving up milk.  Though the NYT columnist agrees this experience hardly counts as a controlled experiment, it does point his critical attention toward USDA's dietary guidance message about dairy.
Today the Department of Agriculture’s recommendation for dairy is a mere three cups daily — still 1½ pounds by weight — for every man, woman and child over age 9. This in a country where as many as 50 million people are lactose intolerant, including 90 percent of all Asian-Americans and 75 percent of all African-Americans, Mexican-Americans and Jews. The site helpfully suggests that those people drink lactose-free beverages. (To its credit, it now counts soy milk as “dairy.”)
There’s no mention of water, which is truly nature’s perfect beverage; the site simply encourages us to switch to low-fat milk. 
Regarding MyPlate's inclusion of soy milk in the dairy group, however, not all federal government messaging seems to agree.

Soybean checkoff message

Like Bittman and MyPlate, the United Soybean Board also has high praise for soy milk. The board is a government-sponsored checkoff program, which has authority from Congress to issue federal government messages in favor of soybeans using money from a mandatory assessment on soybean producers. From the soybean checkoff website link we learn:
Soymilk is a great source of high-quality soy protein, frequently fortified with calcium and vitamin D for bone health, and an option for the lactose-intolerant.

Dairy checkoff message 

But the federal government's dairy checkoff program disagrees.  The program has authority from Congress to issue federal government messages in favor of dairy products using money from a mandatory assessment on dairy producers.  The dairy checkoff program has a bitterly sarcastic satirical flash-based interactive website, mocking soy milk for its sugar content, long ingredient list, and food science chemistry manipulations.

Mixed messages

By using checkoff programs to sponsor contradictory messages for different commodities -- while approving each message as "government speech" -- the federal government serves consumers poorly.  When will these programs be reformed?