Posts tagged ‘Food’

Apparently, Los Angeles Has Banned Oil Production in the City

Most folks who talk about oil production know very little about it.  One reality of oil production, particularly for older fields like those around Los Angeles, is that oil wells have to be frequently reworked to maintain such production  (fracking, by the way, is one of those rework techniques and has been used for over 50 years).  By  banning well rework and re-injection of water (most fluid flowing from older wells is water), the city council has effectively banned oil production.

The linked article is a good reminder of a technique used by many environmental activists.  Despite portraying themselves as being driven by science, they actually often make progress by taking words and both obscuring their meaning and adding emotional baggage to them.  Such is the case with "fracking"

Because with its pun-friendly name, the term fracking has become an effective nonspecific rallying point for extreme activist groups aiming to scare the public about environmental harms that have yet to be demonstrated. Amid the cheering after the vote, some of the national activists behind the effort acknowledged the true goal behind measure. The term fracking, it seems, is actually intended to be a catch-all phrase to describe all aspects of oil and gas production, conventional and unconventional alike, according to Washington-based Food and Water Watch, one of the activist groups behind the measure. In an interview with online publication Streetsblog Los Angeles after the vote, FWW organizer Brenna Norton boldly stated as much when she acknowledged, “It’s easier to engage and organize people around ‘fracking’ than a complicated list of practices.”

Another Possible Reason for Obama's Minimum Wage Push

Obama's minimum wage push could be an honest attempt to reduce poverty, but since only a trivial percentage of the American work force earns the minimum wage, and most of those are in starter jobs rather than trying to support a family, it does not make a lot of sense.

On the other hand, it could be another cynical payoff to unions that form the backbone of Obama's political support

Organized labor's instantaneous support for President Obama's recent proposal to hike the minimum wage doesn't make much sense at first glance. The average private-sector union member—at least one who still has a job—earns $22 an hour according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's a far cry from the current $7.25 per hour federal minimum wage, or the $9 per hour the president has proposed. Altruistic solidarity with lower-paid workers isn't the reason for organized labor's cheerleading, either.

The real reason is that some unions and their members directly benefit from minimum wage increases—even when nary a union member actually makes the minimum wage.

The Center for Union Facts analyzed collective-bargaining agreements obtained from the Department of Labor's Office of Labor-Management Standards. The data indicate that a number of unions in the service, retail and hospitality industries peg their base-line wages to the minimum wage.

The Labor Department's collective-bargaining agreements file has a limited number of contracts available, so we were unable to determine how widespread the practice is. But the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union says that pegging its wages to the federal minimum is commonplace. On its website, the UFCW notes that "oftentimes, union contracts are triggered to implement wage hikes in the case of minimum wage increases." Such increases, the UFCW says, are "one of the many advantages of being a union member."

The labor contracts that we examined used a variety of methods to trigger the increases. The two most popular formulas were setting baseline union wages as a percentage above the state or federal minimum wage or mandating a flat wage premium above the minimum wage.

More Lame Reasons to Supposedly Fear the Shutdown

Adam Goldberg in the Huffpo has 11 reasons why a shutdown would be "terrible" for me.   Many of these are absurd [sorry, left the link out originally]

1. HUGE NUMBER OF FURLOUGHS: As many as 800,000 of the country's 2.1 million federal workers could be furloughed as the result of a shutdown

There it is again.  Apparently the most useful thing these 800,000 people do is draw and spend their paycheck.

9. NATIONAL PARKS, MUSEUMS (AND PANDAS!): The country's national parks would be forced to close without a government funding deal

Parks! I think I have made my point here already (here and here)

2. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION ON HOLD: The head of the Environmental Protection Agency says that the regulator would "effectively shut down" without a deal to fund the government.

8. WORKPLACE SAFETY: Most Labor Department investigations into workplace safety and discrimination would cease if a deal is not reached to avert a shutdown.

6. FOOD SAFETY: Most routine FDA food safety inspections would be suspended in the case of a shutdown.

This is just playing on the public's ignorance of how these agencies operate.  I suppose there are low information voters out there who think that EPA officials are stationed at each plant with binoculars looking for emissions and once they get furloughed, companies will race to dump a bunch of stuff while they are not looking.  Monitoring is all by data reporting on these issues.  The departments conduct audits and investigations retroactively.  Delaying these investigations that can take years does absolutely nothing in real time to change health or safety.  As for routine food safety inspections, these happen on a timetable of weeks or months, so that a few days delay in an inspection that occurs every 90 days or so is not going to make a difference.

10. STOCK MARKET PANIC: The stock market reacted negatively on Monday amidst worries about a shutdown and an upcoming fight to raise the country's debt ceiling. The lack of a resolution could mean more market madness to come.

Dow up 20 points, S&P up about a half percent as I write this.

7. NO BACK PAY: Employees of one U.S. attorney have been warned that there is a "real possibility" they may not receive back pay if the government shuts down.

Holy crap!  Government workers might not get paid for not working.

11. DOJ DISRUPTION: Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday warned that a shutdown would have a "disruptive impact" on operations at the Justice Department. He pointed fingers at the House of Representatives and stated that there are "good, hard-working Americans who are going to suffer because of this dysfunction."

This is hilarious.  A partisan rant from one of the most partisan knife-fighters in the Administration is not data, and in fact there is no detail at all here.  As it turns out, the DOJ is mostly NOT affected except for some civil litigation, where cases that already drag on for years might take a week longer to complete, and a few lawyers may lose a few days of pay

Under the Justice Department's contingency plan for the shutdown, civil litigation will be curtailed or postponed. The employees of many DOJ agencies will be exempted from furloughs because their roles are deemed "essential."

This Was My Take As Well: Cut Farm Subsidies, Not Food Stamps

First, as many of you may have guessed, the "massive cuts" in food stamps over the next 10 years proposed by House Republicans are basically just a modest reduction in their rate of growth.  All attempts to slow the spending growth in any government program will always be treated by the media as Armageddon, which is why government spending seldom slows (see: Sequester).

But I have been amazed through this whole deal that Republicans want to extract a pound (actually probably just an ounce or so) of flesh out of the Food Stamp program but explicitly left the rest of the farm bill with all of its bloated subsidies alone.  Henry Olson asks the same question at NRO.

I will add one other observation about food stamps that is sure to have just about everyone disagreeing with me.  Of late, Republicans have released a number of reports on food stamp fraud, showing people converting food stamps to cash, presumably so they can buy things with the money that food stamps are allowed to be used for.

Once upon a time, maybe 30 years ago in my more Conservative days, I would get all worked up by the same things.  Look at those guys, we give them money for food and they buy booze with it!  It must be stopped.  Since that time, I suppose I never really revisited this point of view until I was watching the recent stories on food stamp fraud.

But what I began thinking about was this:  As a libertarian, I always say that the government needs to respect and keep its hands off the decision-making of individuals.  If people make bad choices, paraphrasing from the HBO show Deadwood, then let them go to hell however they choose.  And, more often than not, it turns out that when you really look, people are not necessarily making what from the outside looks like a bad choice -- they have information, incentives, pressures, and preferences we folks sitting in our tidy Washington offices, chauffeured to work every day, may not understand.

So if we are going to give people charity - money to survive on when poor and out of work - shouldn't we respect them and their choices?  Why attach a myriad of conditions and surveillance to the use of the funds?  Of course, this is an opinion that puts me way out of the mainstream.  Liberals will treat these folks as potential victims that must be guided paternally, and Conservatives will treat them as potential fraudsters who must be watched carefully.  I think either of these attitudes are insidious, and it is better to treat these folks as adults who need help.

The Real Culprit Behind High Food Prices

Here is an amazing bit of data on where the US corn crop goes:

 

The Department of Agriculture says the corn crop in the US will be down 13% due to the drought.  But corn available for food uses is down 40% due to the ethanol mandate.  You do the math.  Wait, I don't trust your math.  I will do it for you:

PS-  It's kind of amazing the supposed worst drought ever has dropped corn yields by just 13%.  Hurray for modern agriculture.   This year we will still produce about the same amount of corn we did in 2006.

Food Miles Silliness and the Virtue of Prices

I have written a number of times on the silliness of food miles and the locavore movement (here and here and here).  For some reason the energy and resource intensity of foods is being judged merely on one component - transportation of the end product - which actually is only a tiny competent of food costs (and thus their resource use).  Is it really more environmentally sensitive for us Phoenicians to grow our corn in the Arizona desert, where soils are unproductive and water must be imported from hundreds of miles away, rather than have it grown in the fertile soils of Iowa and trucked in?

Someone in the media, at least in Australia, finally notices:

TWO brands of olive oil, one from Australia, the other shipped 16,000 kilometres from Italy, sit on a supermarket shelf.

Most eco-friendly shoppers would reach for the Australian oil. But despite burning less fossil fuel to get here, it may not be better for the planet.

Contrary to popular belief, ''food miles'', or the distance food has travelled before we buy it, is a poor indicator of our food's total greenhouse gas emissions, or ''carbon footprint''.

More important is the way our food is farmed and produced, and how far we drive to buy it....

It turns out that stuff like economies of scale really matter

''Local food can often have a higher carbon footprint than food from afar,'' says principal researcher Brad Ridoutt.

He says even home-grown vegetables, with ''zero food miles'', do not necessarily have a smaller carbon footprint than those bought in the supermarket.

''With my veggies, I drive to Bunnings to buy fertiliser, and I go away for the weekend and forget to water them, and in the end I only harvest a few things that I can actually eat.

''By contrast, big producers, who can invest in the latest energy-efficient, water-efficient technology, and make use of all the parts of food, can be much more efficient,'' he says.

Of course, transporting food from producer to retailer still burns fossil fuels that release greenhouse gas emissions, in turn accelerating global warming. But freight emissions are only a fraction of those released during production, meaning even imported food, sustainably produced, can have a smaller carbon footprint than local alternatives.

Even the most rudimentary reading of economics should have given greenies a clue.  In commodity products like most foods, prices tend to be driven down to a point that they reflect resources (and their relative scarcity) that went into the product.  The cheapest foods tend to be those that use the least, and least scarce, resources in production.  So buying locally grown food, which often tends to carry a price premium, should have been a flashing red light that maybe this was not the least-resource-intensive choice.

Protectionism -- The Worst Form of Crony Capitalism

Food activists on the Left often point to the use of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) as one of those failures of capitalism, where rapacious capitalists make money serving an inferior product.  But HFCS resulted from a scramble by food and beverage companies to find some reasonable alternative to sugar as the government has driven up sugar prices through a crazy tariff system that benefits just a tiny handful of Americans, and costs everyone else money

For the last 10 years or so, HFCS-42 has actually traded at a price higher than the world market price for sugur, but lower than the US price for sugar.   There is a lot complexity to prices, but this seems to imply that HFCS would not be nearly as attractive a substitute for sugar if US sugar tariffs did not exist (not to mention subsidies of corn which support HFCS).  This can also be seen in the fact that HFCS has not been used nearly so often as a sugar substitute in markets outside of the US, even by the same manufacturers (like Coke) that pioneered its use in the US.

President Obama used a lot of his state of the union address again teeing up what sounded to me like a new round of protectionism.  Protectionism is the worst form of crony capitalism, generally benefiting a handful of producers and their employee to the detriment of 300 million US consumers and any number of companies that use the protected product as an input.

Yogurt Bubble

For some reason, Phoenix is in the midst of frozen yogurt wars.  A few years ago a store opened with a new concept - they set up about 12 self-serve frozen yogurt machines so you could fill your own bowl, and then gave the customer direct access to heaps and heaps of toppings (e.g sprinkles, chocolate sauce, m&m's, gummie bears, etc).  At the end, you weigh your bowl and pay based on weight, exactly as one might do in one of those salad bar restaurants.

Over the last few years, the market has exploded with new stores in the same model.  We must have at least 10 different chains.  We have about 6 within a short drive of our house.  Already, the price per ounce they charge has fallen by over half.

I have learned from my out-of-town visitors that this is not a concept that is common in other parts of the country.  Which leads me to ask why so many restaurants with the same concept are piling into Phoenix.  Is it just people in the local market thinking it is a great idea and deciding to copy the idea in their neighborhood? I can sort of see the appeal - these stores were (initially) popular, had low barriers to entry, and probably elicit dreams of creating a franchisable concept.  Which leads me to two questions:

  • Why is the tenth or twentieth incremental store being opened in Phoenix?  I would find some place like Georgetown or Harvard Square that has not seen this concept yet and open it there.  Or even better, open one on Sand Hill Road or wherever retail investors work.
  • Seeing the low barriers to entry and the quick proliferation in this market, combined with sagging visitation as the novelty wears off and steeply falling prices, why is anyone attracted to this at all?  One guy will probably get out ahead on this and establish a national brand, and everyone else will likely get slaughtered  (and the first mover will probably go bankrupt anyway as many fast-growing franchise model from Jiffy Lube to Boston Chicken have).  Is it the lottery value?  Or am I too much like the joke about Milton Friedman, who refused to pick up a twenty dollar bill on the ground because he argued that the money couldn't be real since in a free market someone would have already picked it up.

Food Miles Silliness

Maybe its because I live in Phoenix, but the local food movement has always seemed silly to me.  To somehow argue that food grown in our 6 inches of annual rainfall is better for the environment than trucking product in from more suitable growing regions has always struck me as crazy.  Russ Roberts links several good articles on the local food movement, one of which included this nice snarky observation:

The result has been all kinds of absurdities. For instance, it is sinful in New York City to buy a tomato grown in a California field because of the energy spent to truck it across the country; it is virtuous to buy one grown in a lavishly heated greenhouse in, say, the Hudson Valley.

Will Work for Food

I was reading through some leftish/alarmist environmental blogs, and I was struck by how many desperately want to buy into the story line that poorer nations are the true heroes of Copenhagen, holding the rich nations feet to the fire so they will commit to deeper CO2 cuts.

Really?  A bunch of dictators who demonstrably have little concern for their citizens and spend most of their time trying to figure out how to divert state funds into their Swiss bank accounts suddenly care about the effects of anthropogenic climate change on their nations?  Hugo Chavez, whose nation currently is avoiding following Zimbabwe down the toilet only by its oil revenues really wants the world to wean itself off oil?

Here is the perfect analogy for the Third World's sudden interest in climate:  The "I will work for food" sign.  Beggers learned that (at least for a while) this sign was a good marketing tool.  They had no intention of doing any work  (I had a friend who used to drive up to all of them and offer them landscaping work in exchange for lunch, always to be turned down flat) but they knew it made potential donors more sympathetic -  see, they really want to work but are just down on their luck.   If you haven't seen the movie Interstate 60, you really need to.  Relevant clip below:

This is exactly the equivalent of the Third World's sudden interest in climate change.  Up to this point, their leaders have shown no interest in stopping the raping of their own local ecosystems.  These guys are certainly not conservationists, but they know a good marketing tool.  Copenhagen is about these guys putting their hands out, and using climate as the marketing tool to soften up their marks in the West.  These nations certainly have no intention of having any targets or restrictions placed on their countries.   And it looks like they may succeed, at least in the treaty phase.

Obama has positioned himself in such a way that he feels that he has to have something he can call a win at Copenhagen.  So he goes to the politician's traditional playbook, which is to use taxpayer money to buy a deal to try to make himself look better.  He is working to do this with the passage of the health care bill and he probably will do this in Copenhagen, agreeing to $100 billion a year in payoffs to third world kleptocracies so he can look like a winner to western socialists.

Friday Funnies, via the UN

I just couldn't bear to post this at my climate site, which I really try to keep science-based.  Since this doesn't have even a sniff of science to it, I will post it here for your entertainment:  According to the UN, Global Warming Causes Prostitution

The effects of climate change have driven women in communities in coastal areas in poor countries like the Philippines into dangerous work, and sometimes even the flesh trade, a United Nations official said.

Suneeta Mukherjee, country representative of the United Nations Food Population Fund (UNFPA), said women in the Philippines are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change in the country.

"Climate change could reduce income from farming and fishing, possibly driving some women into sex work and thereby increase HIV infection," Mukherjee said during the Wednesday launch of the UNFPA annual State of World Population Report in Pasay City.

Open Letter to Whole Foods Boycotters

It is good to see that you have found a tangible way to respond to the editorial written by the Whole Foods CEO.  Your ability to pursue such a boycott is one of the great things about a free market. There are literally hundreds of food shopping choices in a large city, with a variety of value propositions from the low-cost but ambiance-challenged Wal-Mart or Target to the farmers market. Its great to see folks exercising their choice in the free market to take their business elsewhere.

Besides, if nothing else, it provides the majority of us entertainment value as we enjoy the irony of people exercising their free choice shopping in the highly competitive and diverse grocery marketplace to boycott someone who advocated maintaining choice and a diversity of options in the health care market. Hope all of you have great success boycotting the single payer medical system you long for when you don't like something it does, and I hope the single one-size-fits-all insurance option you have happens to match your individual preferences.

Anyway, I give you an A for political activism but an F for marketing if you believe Whole Foods customer base is all liberal or progressive. It may be so in downtown SF or Seattle. But most of Whole Foods stores are in places like Scottsdale, and Houston, and Dallas. For a large portion of Whole Foods customers, it is not some progressive statement, but it is simply a premium-priced grocery store selling premium quality foods. Though I suppose the Scottsdale country club mom in her new Jag gets some psychic boost from shopping there, kind of like buying a carbon offset.

Seriously -- I bet that most of Whole Food's most profitable customers just don't care about this progressive stuff. They don't go looking for fair trade coffee, or whatever. They don't care Whole Foods buys all wind power (in Texas, where the market allows this). They don't know how the employees are treated and paid. I shop there and I had no clue as to their HR policies until this week when they have been in the news.

Whole Foods does this stuff because Mackey and most of his team really believe in it. They are truly passionate about it, not like some company like Kraft who creates an organic cheese SKU because the consultants said there was a market niche for it. Really, are there 5 other corporate CEO's in the Fortune 500 whose beliefs and the way they manage more closely match what progressives would want to see? Is there even one? But this is the guy y'all are choosing to go after, this one company out of all the Fortune 500, because he disagreed with the progressive orthodoxy on a single piece of legislation? Jeez, this is like conservatives boycotting Fox News because they put a single liberal pundit on from 2-2:30AM.

This is a Feature of Nearly All Regulation

Via Overlawyered:

Sponsored by Congress' most senior member, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), HR 759 amends the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to include provisions governing food safety. The bill provides for an accreditation system for food facilities, and would require written food safety plans and hazard analyses for any facilities that manufacture, process, pack, transport or hold food in the United States.

It also calls for country of origin labeling and science-based minimum standards for harvesting fruits and vegetables, as well as establishing a risk-based inspection schedule for food facilities. "¦

The [Cornucopia] institute claims the preventative measures [on handling of food on farms] are designed with large-scale producers and processors in mind and "would likely put smaller and organic producers at an economic and competitive disadvantage."

You hear this all the time from proponents of certain regulations -- "even _____ corporation supports it."  GE supports global warming regulation.  Large health care companies support heath care regulation.  The list goes on forever.  That is because regulation always aids the large established companies over smaller companies and future upstart competitors.  Larger companies have the scale to spread compliance investments over larger sales volumes, and the political muscle to lobby Congress to tilt regulation in their favor (e.g. current cap-and-trade lobbying in Congress).  Regulation creates a barrier to entry for potential new competitors as well.

I hate to admit it, but regulation in my own business (which I neither sought nor supported) has killed off many of my smaller competitors and vastly improved our company's competitive position.  It is no accident that the list of the largest companies in heavily-regulated Europe nearly never change, decade after decade, whereas the American list has always seen substantial turnover.

Things No One Mentions When They Whine for the Good Old Days

Via Eugene Volokh:

Year Food spending as share of disposable income
1929 23.4%
1939 21.3%
1949 22.1%
1959 17.8%
1969 13.7%
1979 13.4%
1989 10.9%
1999 10.2%
2000 9.9%
2001 9.9%
2002 9.8%
2003 9.8%
2004 9.7%
2005 9.8%
2006 9.9%

My sense is the same pattern would emerge for gasoline prices, electricity (if you had it), phone service (if you had it), cross-country transportation, air conditioning, etc.

 

The Times Blunders on Ethanol (Even After I Explained it to Them)

Last week I tried to explain why the choice of plant, whether it be a food plant or a non-food plant, that is used to make ethanol is mostly irrelevant to whether ethanol mandates raise fuel prices, at least with current technologies.  I wrote:

Food prices rise not because food is converted to ethanol per se, but
because the amount of grains going into the food supply decreases.  The
issue is the use of farmer's time and resources and the use of prime
cropland to grow plants for fuel rather than food for consumption.  The
actual crop used to make the fuel, whether corn or switchgrass, does
not matter to food prices -- it is the removal of farmers and cropland
from food production that matters.  The only way cellulosic ethanol is
likely to improve food prices in substitution for corn is by being more
efficient per acre in fuel yields than corn  (which may turn out to be
the case, but has not yet been proven in this country).  But even so,
incremental improvements in yield don't help much, because we are
talking about enormous (40-50% or more) amounts of US cropland that
would have to be dedicated to fuel, whatever the plant technology, to
meet the current ethanol mandates.

I almost didn't post this the first time around, because I thought it was so obvious.  But on Sunday the NY Times blundered right into the same silly assertion:

This does not mean that Congress should give up on biofuels as an
important part of the effort to reduce the country's dependency on
imported oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What it does mean is
that some biofuels are (or are likely to be) better than others, and
that Congress should realign its tax and subsidy programs to encourage
the good ones. Unlike corn ethanol, those biofuels will not compete for
the world's food supply and will deliver significant reductions in
greenhouse gases.

Of course, the ability to produce such biofuels with these magic powers has never actually been demonstrated, but I am all for them when and if someone invents them.  Efficient conversion, for example, of corn stalks, rather than corn itself, to fuel would be great and would solve this trade-off.  This technology does not exist today -- and only a lot of hand-waving can translate cellulosic ethanol successes in switchgrass to corn stalks.  Also recognize that even this has costs hidden to us non farmers, because corn stalks are used for a variety of purposes today.  My guess is that cellulosic ethanol from corn may be economically feasible, but only after some genetic modifications of the plant itself.

A Thought on Cellulosic Ethanol

I am exhausted by people making policy suggestions by looking at small parts of complex inter-related systems in isolation.  One such example is the recent response of some ethanol mandate defenders to recent charges that corn-based ethanol is net harmful to the environment and its mandated and subsidized use is driving up world food prices.

The response by some (certainly not in the corn lobby, of course) has been that our problems would all be solved if we switched to cellulosic ethanol, which is generally made from non-food plants.  Supporters argue that this eliminated the food for fuel problem.

Huh?  Sure, in the narrowest possible sense, I guess, since we are no longer using food crops but rather grasses and such to make ethanol.  But at any reasonably holistic level of analysis, this is simply absurd.  Food prices rise not because food is converted to ethanol per se, but because the amount of grains going into the food supply decreases.  The issue is the use of farmer's time and resources and the use of prime cropland to grow plants for fuel rather than food for consumption.  The actual crop used to make the fuel, whether corn or switchgrass, does not matter to food prices -- it is the removal of farmers and cropland from food production that matters.  The only way cellulosic ethanol is likely to improve food prices in substitution for corn is by being more efficient per acre in fuel yields than corn  (which may turn out to be the case, but has not yet been proven in this country).  But even so, incremental improvements in yield don't help much, because we are talking about enormous (40-50% or more) amounts of US cropland that would have to be dedicated to fuel, whatever the plant technology, to meet the current ethanol mandates.  And remember, the net effect on fossil fuels may still be zero no matter how much land is dedicated, since no one has demonstrated large scale ethanol operations in the US that don't use more fuel to produce the ethanol than they produce. 

Postscript:  Related to this topic of thinking about economic systems narrowly, Lubos Motl discusses the supposed positive green impact on the economy in light of the open window fallacy.

Progressives Hate The Poor

Yeah, I know they seem to care so much, but nearly every policy they actively advocate turns out to be a disaster for the poor.  Here is a great example:

In May 2002, in the midst of a severe food shortage in sub-Saharan
Africa, the government of Zimbabwe turned away 10,000 tons of corn from
the World Food Program (WFP). The WFP then diverted the food to other
countries, including Zambia, where 2.5 million people were in need. The
Zambian government locked away the corn, banned its distribution, and
stopped another shipment on its way to the country. "Simply because my
people are hungry," President Levy Mwanawasa later said, "is no
justification to give them poison."

The corn came from farms in the United States, where most corn
produced"”and consumed"”comes from seeds that have been engineered to
resist some pests, and thus qualifies as genetically modified.
Throughout the 90s, genetically modified foods were seen as holding
promise for the farmers of Africa, so long as multinationals would
invest in developing superior African crops rather than extend the
technology only to the rich. When Zambia and Zimbabwe turned away food
aid, simmering controversy over the crops themselves brimmed over and
seeped into almost every African state. Cast as toxic to humans,
destructive to the environment, and part of a corporate plot to
immiserate the poor, cutting edge farming technology is most feared
where it is most needed.

This is simply awful, and is driven by progressive politics in Europe that abhor GM food, despite reams of scientific evidence and years of experience that it has no demonstrable health effect.  (It is particularly ironic that GM corn should be the target, since corn as we know it is a man-made genetically modified food, albeit by the slow process of cross-breeding.  The very existence of corn is one of the great triumphs of pre-Columbian agriculture.)

A key element of progressive politics is to apply western middle class perspectives to Third World problems.  In this case, Europeans who are wealthy and well-fed have time and capacity to worry about problems at the margin, such as "might GM corn somehow have a negative health effect on one in a million people?"  I believe this concern is absurd even at the margin in western society, but it becomes criminally insane when applied to countries beset with abject poverty and starvation.  So we would rather let a million people starve than have one person face some hypothetical health risk?

This same approach can be seen in a myriad of other instances.  For example, progressive wish to prevent Nike from building factories in the Third World that hire locals for fifty cents a day.  Again, the middle class western perspective:  I would never take a job that paid $5 a day for ten hours of labor, so they should not either.  But this is in countries where more than half of the population makes less than $1 a day performing subsistence farming for perhaps 12-14 hours a day, and even then risk starvation when the crop fails.  The Nike factory represents incredible salvation for many.  Do we all hope they will do even better economically in the future?  Sure, but you can't step from unskilled subsistence farming for a dollar a day to middle manager at GE all in one step.

And then there is climate.  The climate change hysteria, and the associated calls for reductions 80% or higher in CO2 output, is the greatest threat to the world's poor that has existed since the bubonic plague.  And yes, I mean the hysteria, not climate change itself.  Because if the world gets warmer because of man's CO2  (an iffy proposition), the poor might or might not be worse off.  After all, it was during warm periods of the past that the poor thrived, such as the population boom in Europe during the Medieval warm period.  But if the world's governments agree to shut down fossil fuel production and reduce the size of economies, over a billion people who are set to emerge from poverty over the next few decades will instead be doomed to remain poor.  Progressive environmentalists are not even subtle about what they want -- they are seeking a poorer, lower-tech worldThey are selling poverty.

Brendan O'Neil writes in this vein:

In these various scandalous schemes,
we can glimpse the iron fist that lurks within environmentalism's green
velvet glove. "˜Cutting back carbon emissions' is the goal to which
virtually every Western politician, celebrity and youthful activist has
committed himself. Yet for the poorest people around the world,
"˜reducing carbon output' means saying no to machinery and instead
getting your family to do hard physical labour, or it involves
collecting cow dung and burning it in an eco-stove in order to keep
yourself warm.... Carbon-offsetting companies have encouraged Kenyans
to use dung-powered generators and Indians to replace kerosene lamps
with solar-powered lamps, while carbon-offsetting tree-planting
projects in Guatemala, Ecuador and Uganda have reportedly disrupted
local communities' water supplies, led to the eviction of thousands of
villagers from their land, and cheated local people of their promised
income for the upkeep of these Western conscience-salving trees....

Carbon
offsetting is not some cowboy activity, or an aberration, or a
distraction from "˜true environmentalist goals' - rather it expresses
the very essence of environmentalism. In its project of transforming
vast swathes of the developing world into guilt-massaging zones for
comfortable Westerners, where trees are planted or farmers' work is
made tougher and more time-consuming in order to offset the activities
of Americans and Europeans, carbon offsetting perfectly captures both
the narcissistic and anti-development underpinnings of the politics of
environmentalism. Where traditional imperialism conquered poor nations
in order to exploit their labour and resources, today's global
environmentalist consensus is increasingly using the Third World as a
place in which to work out the West's moral hang-ups....

Carbon-offsetting also shines a light on the dangerously anti-development sentiment in environmentalism....

In the near term, countries are already using global warming as an excuse for protectionism, and in particular are cutting off imports from poorer countries that are trying to make some economic progress:

There is little
that angers me more than disingenuous attempts to employ "˜global
warming' as an argument against trade, especially against trade from
the developing world. More often than not, blatant self-interest - that
is, old-fashioned protectionism by another name -  is being masked
beneath self-righteous, middle-class gobbledygook.               

               

Such a case is brilliantly exposed today by Dominic Lawson writing in The Independent ["˜Food
miles are just a form of protectionism. Middle-class neurosis is being
exploited to protect an archaic form of agriculture'
(April 1)]:

               

"Was
Prince Charles' chum Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association,
expecting the Kenyan High Commissioner to fall to his knees in
gratitude? It rather sounded like it yesterday morning, when the two of
them met in a BBC radio studio.

               

They
were there to discuss the Soil Association's proposals to discriminate
against the "˜organic food' which is air freighted into this country,
mostly from East Africa. "˜One option was to ban it altogether,'
declared Mr Holden, but instead he and his colleagues had decided that
such food would only be banned if it was "˜not produced ethically' -
whatever that means....

"On the whole it
is a "˜lifestyle choice' limited to middle-class mothers in the
South-east of England who are neurotic enough to believe the
insinuations of the Soil Association that little Henry and Caroline are
more likely to get cancer if mummy doesn't buy organic (at twice the
price).    
Now
another largely middle-class neurosis - we are all doomed unless
everybody stops flying! - is being exploited to protect an archaic form
of agriculture which could never feed this country, still less the
world. It
is, at best, an exercise in self-delusion. At worst, it is a way of
using food as the instrument of a deliberate policy of racial
discrimination
."

Maxed Out Mamma has more on the global warming excuse for protectionism:

I am genuinely concerned
that environmental concerns are being used as a proxy for protectionist
economic legislation and may have severe consequences. I would like to
discuss this article from a Canadian source about carbon taxation:

Imposing
carbon tariffs on emerging economies with low manufacturing costs and
high greenhouse gas emissions could drive some manufacturers back to
Western countries
, according to two economists.

Jeff
Rubin, chief strategist and economist at CIBC World Markets, thinks
such tariffs could emerge quickly. Countries in Europe are already
becoming publicly intolerant of emissions elsewhere and the next
president of the United States is expected to institute a cap on
greenhouse gas emissions alongside the trading of carbon credits.

...Europe is in an extremely
protectionist mood, and I believe one of the reasons for the
non-scientifically based focus on carbon is that it serves as a
justification for tariffs. If the next president does institute carbon
tariffs, the result will have a real impact on world trade.

I
believe that many politicians are being deeply dishonest about their
"environmental" concerns. I also believe that instituting a carbon
tariff will cause Asian growth to slow remarkably and further
destabilize the world economy. The rise in food prices is very
dangerous because it has an impact on the ability of emerging market
countries to support consumption increases necessary to rebalance
trade. If you add to the situation by doing something like this, you
could recreate the conditions which caused the Great Depression.

No More Mike's Hard Lemonades For Me

OK, perhaps it is a guilty pleasure, but I enjoy downing a couple of Mike Hard Lemonade's on a hot afternoon.  Now, it seems, the Food Nazi's at the Center for Science in the Public Interest want to stop me"

Public Citizen's blog announced that CSPI
plans to sue the beverage sellers, asking for disgorgement of profits
from flavored malt beverages, unless they agree to take them off the
market. Their theory? By making flavored alcoholic beverages that taste
good, they are effectively marketing to children. (Because, after all,
adults don't like beverages that taste good.)

Food-Miles: Most Moronic Metric Ever?

For some reason, a group of people on this earth have convinced themselves that food-miles, or the distance food had to travel from the farm to the table, is somehow relevant to the environment.   Food-miles is one of the best examples of the very common environmental practice of looking at a single factor out of context of the entire system. I have written about the food-miles stupidity before.

We actually have a name for the system in which food-miles are reduced to their theoretical minimum:  Subsistence farming.  It used to be that most food was grown just a few feet from the table where it was eventually eaten because nearly everyone was a subsistence farmer (or hunter or gatherer).  We abandoned this system, and thereby increased food miles, for a number of reasons:

  • It is very inefficient, not just from labor inputs but from a land use standpoint as well.  Some places are well suited to potato or rice production and others are less so.  It makes a ton of sense to grow things on soils and in climates where they are well-suited rather than locally everywhere. 
  • It doesn't work very well in a lot of areas.  Subsistence farming here in Arizona is not very practical, and would use a ton of water
  • It leads to starvation.  Even rich countries like France were experiencing periodic famines just 150 years ago or so.

But the main reason food miles and local subsistance farming is stupid is that it has nothing to do with environmental health.  Everyone looks at the energy to transport food, but no one looks at the extra energy cost (not to mention the land use cost) of growing food locally in climates and soils to which the food is not well-suited.  To this point:

European consumers shunning imported food supposedly to limit climate
change should not make African farmers a scapegoat, a Brussels
conference has been told.

In Britain, several supermarkets have
begun labelling products flown into the country with stickers marked
"air-freighted," to reflect concern about the contribution of aviation
to global warming.

But Benito Müller, a director at the Oxford
Institute for Energy Studies, dismissed the concept of food miles as
"an extremely oversimplified indicator" of ecological impact.

Saying
he was "really angry" with the implicit message that agricultural
produce from Africa should be avoided, Müller claimed that less
greenhouse gas emissions are often emitted from the cultivation and
transport of such goods than they would be if grown in Europe.

Strawberries
imported from Kenya during the winter, he maintained, have a lower
"carbon footprint," a measure to ascertain the effect of a method of
production on the environment "” than those grown in a heated British
greenhouse, even when their transport by air from Africa is taken into
account.

Congress: We Can't Stop Ourselves From Doing Harm

From the Washington Post, via Tom Nelson, comes a nice summary of the consequences of Congress's addiction to ethanol mandates and subsidies.  The last sentence in particular is one I have warned about for a while on this issue.

To be sure, some farmers in these countries benefit from higher prices.
But many poor countries -- including most in sub-Saharan Africa -- are
net grain importers, says the International Food Policy Research
Institute, a Washington-based think tank. In some of these countries, the poorest of the poor spend 70 percent or more of their budgets on food.
About a third of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is
undernourished, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of
the United Nations. That proportion has barely changed since the early
1990s. High food prices make gains harder.
...
It's
the extra demand for grains to make biofuels, spurred heavily in the
United States by government tax subsidies and fuel mandates, that has
pushed prices dramatically higher
. The Economist rightly calls
these U.S. government subsidies "reckless." Since 2000, the share of
the U.S. corn crop devoted to ethanol production has increased from
about 6 percent to about 25 percent -- and is still headed up.
...
This
is not a case of unintended consequences. A new generation of
"cellulosic" fuels (made from grasses, crop residue or wood chips)
might deliver benefits, but the adverse effects of corn-based ethanol
were widely anticipated. Government subsidies reflect the careless and
cynical manipulation of worthy public goals for selfish ends. That the
new farm bill may expand the ethanol mandates confirms an old lesson:
Having embraced a giveaway, politicians cannot stop it, no matter how
dubious.

Burning the World's Food in Our Cars

It is good that doom mongers like Paul Ehrlich have been so thoroughly discredited.  But could anyone have imagined that not only are we not facing "Population Bomb" style famines, but we are in fact spending billions of dollars of taxpayer money to promote burning food in cars?

I am not sure how anyone thought this was a good idea, since

  1. Every scientific study in the world not conducted by an institution in Iowa have shown that corn-based ethanol uses more energy than it produces, does not reduce CO2, and creates new environmental problems in terms of land and water use.
  2. Sixty seconds of math would have shown that even diverting ALL of US corn production to ethanol would only replace a fraction of our transportation fuel use.

Apparently, Nebraska has reached a milestone of sorts: (HT Tom Nelson)

With three new plants
added in November, annual corn demand for ethanol production in
Nebraska passed the 500-million-bushel mark for the first time, using
37% of Nebraska's corn.

How much fuel has this produced?

"Today, that ambitious
directive has become a reality." Sneller says "At current rates,
Nebraska plants will use 514 million bushels of corn annually to
produce 1.4 billion gallons of ethanol. By the end of 2008, Nebraska
plants will process 860 million bushels into 2.3 billion gallons of
ethanol. Distillers grain, a co-product of ethanol production, is
widely accepted and marketed as a superior livestock feed."

This is enough ethanol to replace about a billion gallons of gasoline (since ethanol has less energy content than gasoline).  This represents about  0.7% of US gasoline usage.  The cost?  Well, I don't know how many billions of subsidy dollars have flowed to Nebraska, but there is also this:

Corn prices have
remained virtually unchanged since World War II. Increased demand from
ethanol production has raised average corn prices by 70% and is driving
an economic resurgence in rural Nebraska, according to Todd Sneller,
administrator of the Nebraska Ethanol Board.

So we have spent billions of taxpayer dollars, have diverted about 40% of Nebraska's corn output, and we've raised prices on corn 70% all to replace less than a percent of US gasoline usage.  If we could really do the fuel balance on the whole system, we would likely find that total fossil fuel usage actually went up rather than down through these actions.

Never have I seen an issue where so many thoughtful people on both sides of the political aisle united in agreement that a program makes no sense since... well, since farm subsidies.  Which, illustratively, have not gone away despite 80 years of trying.  As I wrote here:

Companies are currently building massive subsidy-magnets
biofuel plants.  Once these investments are in place, there is going to
be a huge entrenched base of investors and workers who are going to
wield every bit of political power they can to retain subsidies forever
to protect their jobs and their investment.  Biofuel subsidies will be
as intractable as peanut and sugar subsidies and protections.

LA Proposes to Institutionalize Red-Lining Poor Neighborhoods

For years, banks have been sued for "red-lining" poor neighborhoods, meaning they were accused of purposefully avoiding doing business in these poor areas.  National retail chains have been accused of something similar, causing poorer the oft-commented-on irony that poorer neighborhoods often have the highest retail prices.

The City of Los Angeles seems to like this practice and wants to pass new legislation aimed at further limiting retail choices in poorer neighborhoods:

"Amid worries of an obesity epidemic and its related illnesses,
including high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, Los Angeles
officials, among others around the country, are proposing to limit new
fast-food restaurants -- a tactic that could be called health zoning."
Zoning restrictions on fast-food outlets in towns such as Concord,
Mass. and Calistoga, Calif. are typically based on traffic or aesthetic
concerns, rather than a determination to second-guess what residents
choose to eat. The proposed L.A. restrictions would not be city-wide
but would instead be specifically targeted to the city's poorest
sections in and around South Central. Mark Vallianatos, director of
something called the Center for Food and Justice at Occidental College (more about it), says "bringing health policy and environmental policy together with land-use planning" is "the wave of the future."

Jesus, the Center for Food and Justice?  Another clear leading edge of health care as the Trojan Horse for fascism, which I have been warning against for years.

Food Miles Stupidity

Via the New York Times:

THE term "food miles" "” how far food has traveled before you buy it "” has entered the enlightened lexicon.

Which should tell you all you need to know about the "enlightened."

There are many good reasons for eating local "” freshness, purity,
taste, community cohesion and preserving open space "” but none of these
benefits compares to the much-touted claim that eating local reduces
fossil fuel consumption. In this respect eating local joins recycling,
biking to work and driving a hybrid as a realistic way that we can, as individuals, shrink our carbon footprint and be good stewards of the environment.

Actually, most recycling, with the exception of aluminum which takes tons of electricity to manufacture in the first place, does nothing to reduce our carbon footprint.  And I must say that I often enjoy buying from farmers markets and such.  But does "food miles" mean anything?  And should we really care?  Well, here is an early hint:  The ultimate reduction in food miles, the big winner on this enlightened metric, is subsistence farming.  Anyone ready to go there yet?  These are the economics Ghandi promoted in India, and it set that country back generations.

Well, lets go back to economics 101.  The reason we do not all grow our own food, make our own clothes, etc. is because the global division of labor allows food and clothing and everything else to be produced more efficiently by people who specialize and invest in those activities than by all of us alone in our homes.  So instead of each of us growing our own corn, in whatever quality soil we happen to have around our house, some guy in Iowa grows it for thousands of us, and because he specialized and grows a lot, he invests in equipment and knowledge to do it better every year.  The cost of fuel to move the corn or corn products to Phoenix from Iowa are trivial compared to the difference in efficiency that guy in Iowa has over me trying to grow corn in my back yard.  Back to the New York Times:

On its face, the connection between lowering food miles and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions is a no-brainer.

Sure, if you look at complex systems as single-variable linear equations.  Those of us who don't immediately treated the food mile concept as suspect.  It turns out, for good reason:

It all depends on how you wield the carbon calculator. Instead of
measuring a product's carbon footprint through food miles alone, the
Lincoln University scientists expanded their equations to include other
energy-consuming aspects of production "” what economists call "factor
inputs and externalities" "” like water use, harvesting techniques,
fertilizer outlays, renewable energy applications, means of
transportation (and the kind of fuel used), the amount of carbon
dioxide absorbed during photosynthesis, disposal of packaging, storage
procedures and dozens of other cultivation inputs.

Incorporating
these measurements into their assessments, scientists reached
surprising conclusions. Most notably, they found that lamb raised on
New Zealand's clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat
to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton
while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in
part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In
other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to
buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from
a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy
products and fruit.

All I can say is just how frightening it is that the paper of record could find this result "surprising."  The price mechanism does a pretty good job of sorting this stuff out.  If fuel prices rise a lot, then agriculture might move more local, but probably not by much.  The economies to scale and location just dwarf the price of fuel. 

By the way, one reason this food-mile thing is not going away, no matter how stupid it is, has to do with the history of the global warming movement.  Remember all those anti-globalization folks who rampaged in Seattle?  Where did they all go?  Well, they did not get sensible all of a sudden.  They joined the environmental movement.  One reason a core group of folks in the catastrophic man-made global warming camp react so poorly to any criticism of the science is that they need and want it to be true that man is causing catastrophic warming -- anti-corporate and anti-globalization activists jumped into the global warming environmental movement, seeing in it a vehicle to achieve their aims of rolling back economic growth, global trade, and capitalism in general.  Food miles appeals to their disdain for world trade, and global warming and carbon footprints are just a convenient excuse for trying to sell the concept to other people.

A little while back, I posted a similar finding in regards to packaging, that is worth repeating here for comparison.

Contrary to current wisdom, packaging can reduce total rubbish
produced. The average household in the United States generates one
third
less trash each year than does the average household in Mexico,
partly because packaging reduces breakage and food waste. Turning a
live chicken into a meal creates food waste. When chickens are
processed commercially, the waste goes into marketable products
(such as pet food), instead of into a landfill. Commercial processing
of 1,000 chickens requires about 17 pounds of packaging, but it also
recycles at least 2,000 pounds of by-products.

More victories for the worldwide division of labor.  So has the NY Times seen the light and accepted the benefits of capitalism?  Of course not.  With the New Zealand example in hand, the writer ... suggests we need more state action to compel similar situations.

Given these problems, wouldn't it make more sense to stop obsessing
over food miles and work to strengthen comparative geographical
advantages? And what if we did this while streamlining transportation
services according to fuel-efficient standards? Shouldn't we create
development incentives for regional nodes of food production that can
provide sustainable produce for the less sustainable parts of the
nation and the world as a whole? Might it be more logical to
conceptualize a hub-and-spoke system of food production and
distribution, with the hubs in a food system's naturally fertile hot
spots and the spokes, which travel through the arid zones, connecting
them while using hybrid engines and alternative sources of energy?

Does anyone even know what this crap means?  You gotta love technocratic statists -- they just never give up.  Every one of them thinks they are smarter than the the sum of billions of individual minds working together of their own free will to create our current world production patterns.

Postscript: There is one thing the government could do tomorrow to promote even more worldwide agricultural efficiency:  Drop subsidies and protections on agriculture.   You would immediately get more of this kind of activity, for example with Latin America and the Caribbean supplying more/all of the US's sugar and other parts of Asia providing more/all of Japan's rice.

Update on the Macular Degerneration Drug

After the post below, several have written to ask about the procedure itself.  My dad wrote with details, which I believe are from Science magazine:

The drug for treating macular degenerations is ranibizumab, sold under the brand name "lucentis" by genetech, its developer and manufacturer.

It is "a monoclonal antibody - made by using biotech methods, from genetically engineered bacteria that attacks a protein responsible for the leading cause of blindness in seniors.  In clinical trials with Lucentis, the eyesight of about 95 per cent of AMD patients either improved or stopped getting worse."

Lucentis was created by tweaking the molecular structure of another, older drug Avastin, which itself was originally approved for colorectal cancer but now has been approved for certain kinds of lung cancer, and has been submitted to Food and Drug Administration to be used against breast cancer and possible kidney cancer as well.

The editors of Science magazine, the widely respected journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, selected ten "breakthrough" discoveries of the year last December.  No. 6 on the list was the results of the clinical trial results for Lucentis.

PS:  My son and I often joke that they have run out of car names.  With a name like ranibizumab, they seem to have run out of drug names too.  I can must see the ad campaign:  "With a name like ranibizumab, it's got to be good."

This is Typical

The left was rightly ticked off a while back when the Bush FDA went against the scientific panel's recommendation and refused to approve the Plan B morning after pill for over-the-counter-sales.  But as I discussed here, the typical political response of our two political parties to such abuses of government power is NOT to reduce the government's power, but to try to redirect the abuses for their own ends. 

So, in this case, the left now is not necessarily upset that the FDA is using non-scientific criteria for approving drugs, they are just upset the FDA is not using their pet non-scientific criteria:

Now an interesting article in the Baltimore Sun
suggests that some left-wingers are also hinting that ethical concerns
should be included in FDA regulatory decisions. In a poll last fall,
the Pew Initiative on Food and Agriculture found
"a strong majority (63 percent) of Americans believe government
agencies should include moral and ethical considerations when making
regulatory decisions about cloning and genetically modifying animals,
with 53 percent feeling that way strongly."

Liberal bioethicist, Daniel Callahan, co-founder of the
Hastings Center in Garrison, N.Y., says that he is leery of having the
FDA rule on moral issues, but thinks that it might want to consider the
financial impact of approving new drugs on the health care system.
Presumably, the regulators might decide that a drug is too expensive
and refuse to approve it although it is safe and effective. The problem
is that deciding to withhold a drug from patients because regulators
think it's "too expensive" is a moral judgment. If the government
doesn't want to pay for an expensive drug that's OK, but why should
regulators forbid consumers, who might want to pay for it on their own,
access to drugs that are safe and effective?

Carol Tucker Foreman, director of food policy at the Consumer
Federation of America, points out that the FDA has already taken into
account non-scientific concerns in some of its regulatory system. For
example, she notes that the FDA requires that irradiated food be
labeled even though there is no scientific evidence that irradiation harms human health. The reason for the labels is that activist groups like Public Citizen
managed to scare some consumers into demanding them in the early 1990s.
Now the question is should the FDA be pushed further down this slippery
slope of non-scientific regulation?

The labeling for irradiated foods is stupid but fairly harmless, but the suggestion to hold life-saving drugs off the market if they are deemed too expensive by some bureaucrats is obscene.  I would suggest you run away screaming from anyone who suggests that this is a "moral" decision.