Monday, December 08, 2014

Two books on agricultural policy controversies

In my in-box are two new books on agricultural policy controversies, both written by agricultural economists. Both books seek, with partial but not complete success, to move beyond a certain fear of criticism, openly engaging readers who may have diverse public interest concerns and motivations.

First is Depolarizing Food and Agriculture: An Economic Approach (Routledge/Earthscan, 2014), by Andrew Barkley and Paul W. Barkley. I offered a comment for the back cover:
When criticized on environmental or nutritional grounds, U.S. farm groups sometimes are tempted to adopt a thickly-armored defensive posture. In this daring book, respected agricultural economists Andrew Barkley and Paul Barkley offer a persuasive alternative. Echoing Schmpeter's vision of creative destruction (naturally), but also drawing on John Stuart Mill and Nelson Mandela (more surprisingly), the authors argue for an open and understanding approach to contemporary food and agriculture controversies, eventually offering hope -- as the title indicates -- for depolarizing food and agriculture.

Second is Agricultural & Food Controversies, part of the "What Everyone Needs to Know" series from Oxford University Press (2014), by F. Bailey Norwood, Pascal A. Oltenacu, Michelle S. Calvo-Lorenzo, and Sarah Lancaster. In a Huffington Post review, Jayson Lusk -- who was author of a more strident 2013 book called the Food Police -- notes the value of the new book's respectful discussion:
Rather than striking a defensive or muckraking tone, as so often is the case in this genre of writing, Norwood and colleagues embrace the controversies, interpreting them as a sign of a healthy democracy struggling to deal with pressing challenges. They reveal what the best science has to say on topics ranging from food pesticides and GMOs to the carbon footprint of beef production and the well-being of farm animals. They weigh in on synthetic fertilizers, local foods, and farm policy. Theirs is a respectful discussion of the positions taken up by different advocacy groups, but there is no hesitation in drawing conclusions where logic and science warrant.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Mexican labor issues in U.S. food retail markets

To understand food policy in the United States, one must pay attention to Mexican and Central American farmworkers in this country, but also to farm labor in Mexico.

The Los Angeles Times today has started an article series and a remarkable video series on the Mexican workers who produce in Mexico for export to the United States.
The tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers arrive year-round by the ton, with peel-off stickers proclaiming "Product of Mexico."

Farm exports to the U.S. from Mexico have tripled to $7.6 billion in the last decade, enriching agribusinesses, distributors and retailers.

American consumers get all the salsa, squash and melons they can eat at affordable prices. And top U.S. brands — Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Subway and Safeway, among many others — profit from produce they have come to depend on.

These corporations say their Mexican suppliers have committed to decent treatment and living conditions for workers.

But a Los Angeles Times investigation found that for thousands of farm laborers south of the border, the export boom is a story of exploitation and extreme hardship.
One future contributor to a more just food system could be policies that U.S. importers and supermarkets may adopt, stipulating standards for farm labor in the upstream supply chain. To some extent, such policies are being developed. The LA Times article reminds us that these policies are not yet working smoothly.

Another contributor to a more just food system could be changes in the supply and demand for farm labor, leading to higher wages and better working conditions. It is important to pay attention to these fundamental economics, and not just to labor standards that supermarkets promise to adopt.

Two of the best agricultural economists covering this issue are Philip Martin and J. Edward Taylor. Their 2013 report, titled "Ripe with Change" (.pdf), summarizes (in somewhat blander language!) many of the same terrible conditions that the LA Times article reported, while also reporting some promising trends in tighter labor markets for Mexican farm workers. In particular, demand for agricultural production has been increasing across North America, while simultaneously employment demand in other Mexican industries has expanded. An essential question is whether Mexican workers will reap the benefits, or instead whether small increases in wages will provoke large increases in mechanization, leaving workers little better off than before.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Food, Farms, and Community (by Chase and Grubinger)

I am enjoying reading the new book-length coverage of local food systems in Food, Farms, and Community, by Lisa Chase and Vern Grubinger of the University of Vermont.
Food, Farms, and Community: Exploring Food Systems takes an in-depth look at critical issues, successful programs, and challenges for improving food systems spanning a few miles to a few thousand miles. Case studies that delve into the values that drive farmers, food advocates, and food entrepreneurs are interwoven with analysis supported by the latest research. Examples of entrepreneurial farms and organizations working together to build sustainable food systems are relevant to the entire country—and reveal results that are about much more than fresh food.
Chase is a natural resources specialist at the UVM and director of the Vermont Tourism Research Center (and a long-time friend and classmate from graduate studies at Cornell in the 1990s). Grubinger is an agriculture specialist with UVM extension.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Friedman School Wednesday seminar December 3: The secret life of cheese

Tufts biology professor Benjamin Wolfe will speak about "The Secret Life of Cheese" tomorrow at the Friedman School's Wednesday seminar.

Wolfe's work with Rachel Dutton, published in the journal Cell, was summarized earlier this year in Wired. The article discusses the remarkable connection between microbes in cheese and their possible ocean origins:
Benjamin Wolfe and Rachel Dutton ... recently brought 137 cheeses from 10 countries into Dutton’s lab at Harvard University for genetic analysis. In a paper published July 17 in Cell, they and colleagues describe their findings, which include a few surprises—like the presence of bacteria commonly found in marine environments on cheeses made nowhere near an ocean.
As a sometime amateur cheese maker with very mixed success, I'm looking forward to learning from this talk.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

With community eligibility, what data source will replace the free / reduced price rate?

U.S. school children with household incomes below 130% of the federal poverty guideline have long been eligible for free school lunch and breakfast, while those with slightly higher income but still below 185% of the poverty guideline are eligible for reduced-price lunch. With a new community eligibility provision, some districts will provide free lunches to all children.

The most important thing to know about this policy is that it may feed more children.

This blog post is about a less important secondary question that nonetheless has some potential interest for readers in U.S. food policy: "What new source of data will replace the free / reduced price rate as a proxy variable for local poverty?" In the past, the percentage of children who received free and reduced price meals served to indicate the level of local poverty -- a higher percentage meant the neighborhood is comparatively poor.

At FiveThirtyEight, Ben Wieder explains the many policy and research uses for this proxy poverty measure:
Two analyses (.pdf) found that school lunch data has been used in about 1 in 5 studies looking at academic achievement conducted by education researchers; that doesn’t take into account its role in work by psychologists, sociologists, economists and researchers in a host of other disciplines.

The data has been used in studies looking at best teaching practices, school discipline and whether playing an instrument improves academic performance. It was a measure of poverty for a study on why kids start smoking, used to differentiate swimming ability among minority students, and a measure of socioeconomic status in at least one article in the Journal of Happiness Studies.

Who gets to participate in the program can have policy implications as well.

Matt Cohen, chief research officer at the Ohio Department of Education, is chairing a working group organized by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to find alternatives to participation in the school lunch program for measuring students’ socioeconomic status.
I agree with some of the sources quoted in the article, who point out that this never was all that great a proxy for poverty in the first place. For example, consider a study seeking to measure whether childhood food insecurity is higher in high-poverty neighborhoods. The free / reduced price proxy variable is a poor indicator for neighborhood poverty, because the meals themselves may directly help reduce childhood food insecurity. Still, it will take some new effort to find a replacement variable, and some research and policy purposes will be inconvenienced in the interim period.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

U.S. food supply inconsistent with dietary guidance

The U.S. food supply is far out of balance with dietary recommendations. A new study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics quantifies the gaps. In brief, the U.S. food supply was quite unhealthy already by the 1970s and has not improved noticeably since then.

The authors -- Paige Miller, Jill Reedy, Sharon Kirkpatrick, and Susan Krebs-Smith -- use a measure more commonly applied to individual survey data, called the Healthy Eating Index. Getting this measure to fit national food supply data from USDA requires a bit of shoe-horning, but nonetheless the results are persuasive about the basic picture. As the video below illustrates, for example, Americans have for decades had all the protein we could possibly need, but the food supply for vegetables falls much short of recommendations.

The video -- from the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research (NCCOR) -- generally thinks of the food supply as "upstream" and food consumers as "downstream." A possible implication is that policies should alter the food supply so that downstream consumers could eat more healthfully. It should be noted that people in the food business, and perhaps most agricultural economists too, give greater weight to consumer preferences for unhealthy food as a key driver of the gap the study describes. Economists may suggest that the food supply would provide plenty of healthy food if that's what consumers actually would buy.

Still, nutrition scientists and agricultural economists have in recent years been doing better than ever at listening to each other's perspectives on these big questions. For example, in an accompanying article, which calls on dietitians to get involved in designing federal policies such as the Farm Bill, Claire Zizza reviews agricultural economics perspectives as well as public health perspectives on how such policies should be evaluated. It all makes a lively conversation.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Cod fishery in crisis

The federal government this week enacted what amounts essentially to a 6-month pause in commercial cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine, according to a report by David Abel in the Boston Globe yesterday. This is a sad day for New England's most famous fishery.

Cod fishing is a classic example of a situation where free markets would be devastating for everybody, including fishermen and their families. Because overfishing in the past has pushed stocks far below maximum sustainable levels, each fishing boat harms the economic interests of the next. Economists believe that liberated markets serve environmental goals wonderfully in many situations, where property rights to natural resources are well defined, but free markets are a disaster when each producer is chasing a common resource.

Nobody thinks the New England cod fishery should be unregulated. Yet, cod fishermen complain about the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) regulators who took action this week. Many fishermen believe the scientific estimates are overly pessimistic, leading regulators to be overly cautious.

Here you can inspect the evidence for yourself, in NOAA's report this past August. Using two different models of cod mortality (on the left and right), the figure reproduced here shows the downward trend over time in estimated spawning stocks biomass (top row) and the upward trend in estimated recent fish mortality (bottom row).

Of course, these estimates could be mistaken. Yet, as a non-expert reading them closely, I found them persuasive. If I were a cod fisherman, I would cry, plan, and organize politically, but I would resist the temptation to blame the messenger.

For the other side of the story, here is a link to the Northeast Seafood Coalition, but I haven't yet found a real scientific rebuttal to the NOAA estimates.

In the tragic political division in this country, so apparent in the recent election, the conservative party is (rightly!) devoted to the great prosperity economic markets can achieve, yet sadly unable to comprehend that vigorous and effective government sometimes is needed to let markets work well.