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Country of Origin Labeling

The WTO recently ruled against the US in the latest dispute over mandatory country of origin labeling (MCOOL).  Their latest ruling cites work I've conducted with Glynn Tosnor, Ted Schroeder, and Mykel Taylor at Kansas State, among others (not necessarily in an uncritical light).

In any event, I was skeptical of the way the US chose to respond to the original finding that they were out of compliance with the WTO, and the latest finding seems to only reinforce those views.

Darren Hudson had a few thoughts on the issue, with which I largely agree: 

Overall, Lusk and Anderson found that modest increases in total beef demand (2-3%) would offset any producer costs [Lusk note: subsequent research by Taylor and Tonsor have found no demand response to MCOOL]. But are we focused too myopically on U.S. beef/meat? If we step back and truly think about consumers and the functioning of markets, we have a highly integrated North American livestock complex. Does it help the consumer more to be able to identify which cattle are born in the U.S., or to have an efficient, lower cost movement of livestock to production and processing areas with comparative advantage to do those functions? That includes things like harmonized health and safety inspections and transport rules. Does COOL put a wedge between us and our North American partners so that we do not get those benefits simply for the possible benefit that someone out there would buy a rib-eye steak over another because it was born in the U.S.

The COOL ruling gives us a moment to step back and take stock of what is really important in this argument. I know there are those that value the information provided by the label, and I know there are those that are harmed by it. But we need to think big, strategically, and long-term if we are to remain competitive globally.

Paternalism - Immigration Edition

A lot of policies involve group A trying to pass laws that they perceive to improve group B's well-being.  But, how often do we ask group B what they really want?

This new paper by Grace Melo, Gregory Colson and Octavio Ramirez shows how such paternalism can might lead to policies that group B doesn't actually prefer.

This study presents evidence from a survey and choice experiment on the preferences of Hispanic immigrants who entered the United States illegally for different immigration reform proposal attributes. Key components of the current competing US Senate and House immigration reform bills are considered including pathways to legal permanent residence, temporary work visas, family visitation rights, and access to medical care. The results quantify the value Hispanic immigrants place on different policy attributes and suggest that longer-term work visas are highly valued. Ability to legally work in the United States and a pathway to citizenship are substantially more valued than social services such as medical care and social security benefits.

 

How should food decisions be made?

I enjoy reading Nathanael Johnson's writings about food.  While I may not always agree with every conclusion, his writings are typically thoughtful and well informed.  Such is the case with an article he wrote last week for Grist on the role of big business in food.  

While the article is ostensibly a neutral look a different ideological/political perspectives on the role of business in food, the article begins with what is a decidedly ideological perspective:

Let’s pretend we are the members of a committee with broad power to reshape the food system (perhaps for a nation, perhaps for a municipality, perhaps for the world). Our goal is to allow our polis to feed itself in a way that is equitable and environmentally sustainable. We can do whatever we want: dissolve Monsanto, provide guaranteed basic income for everyone, fund new forms of agricultural research, force everyone to drink gluten-free almond milk cocktails mixed with plant blood … anything!

What foundational principles should we use to form this food system?

The article positions the reader as the "decider" - as a member of the technocratic committee with the power to know and to choose.

But, there is another perspective that posits that no committee has enough information to reliably make such judgments.  That view is perhaps most reflected in the writings of Hayek (for example, see his 1945 article  in the American Economic Review- The Use of Knowledge in Society).

This perspective - with which I largely agree - typically doesn't ask what an idealized world looks like and then ask how we can top-down engineer that outcome, but rather looks at the world around us which is (largely) informed by individual choices incentivized by market prices to reveal information about what people think best makes them better off.  This is not a defense of "big business" in agriculture , but rather a recognition of why those businesses came to exist and how those businesses are influenced by millions of consumer and farmer choices.  

One can often crudely characterize left vs. right thinking by whether one thinks it is big business vs. government that is to blame for whatever ills exist in life.  No doubt both governments and businesses both do some good and some bad.  What causes me to tend toward favoring market-based decisions (which often gets wrongly conflated with being "pro-business") is precisely the sorts of discussion in the opining lines of Johnson's piece.  Government decisions are often made by committees of "experts" with deep knowledge in a narrow field of expertise, but without a lot of knowledge areas that fall outside their expertise.  Their decisions carry the force of law and are often difficult to overturn.  Market-based decisions, however, are based on millions of individual choices by people with their own disparate knowledge.  Markets tend to distribute power rather than concentrate it.  Yes, there are some big businesses in agriculture, but if you look at the data, they don't tend to be highly profitable, and they are in stiff competition with other agribusinesses.  If there are barriers that prevent competition, we should work to remove them (sometimes those barriers are the result of anti-business activities which drive up the cost of getting regulatory approval for new technologies).  

In any event, it is important to recognize that framing an issue as "how will 'we' decide" is as ideological (and I don't mean that in a pejorative way) as is the question of the role of business in agriculture.  A paper a few years back in Science on the "Social Values and Governance of Science" perhaps makes that as explicit as any when asking citizens, for a variety of technologies, how they believe such decisions should be made: by experts of the general public. 

Recommendations from the UK Food Police

A government task force in the UK has recommended that all new government policies include an "obesity test" to determine how the policy will affect weight and obesity.  

In the US, all new "economically significant" regulations already have to undergo a cost-benefit analysis.  Wouldn't a good cost-benefit analysis already incorporate effects on weight if they have substantive health and thus economic impacts?  Moreover, if you've ever read the federal cost-benefit analyses that are often conducted (as I have done), you'll see many of them are are based on some questionable methods or heroic assumptions.  Are we to believe that new obesity-impacts analyses will be better and more informative than present cost-benefit analyses?

In any event, here are the rest of the group's recommendations (I'd like to see a cost-benefit analysis on each of them):

Introduce licensing for fast food outlets to control the location and numbers of outlets in a local community.

Practical cookery skills and clear food education to be a compulsory part of the school curriculum for pupils up to the end of key stage 3 (age 14).

Clear disclosure of calories per items on restaurant and café menus which adhere to a defined standard for font size, formatting, contrast and layout of menus.

The ban on advertising of unhealthy foods aimed at children should be extended to day-time TV, from 7am to 9pm.

A review needs to be undertaken of the economic and societal impacts of a hypothecated tax on a range of food and drink contents at levels which are deemed harmful to health.

Increase awareness, coordination and reach of the Government’s ‘Healthy Start’ Voucher scheme. Extend voucher scheme to incentivise those who become active partners in their health by quitting smoking, reducing weight, walking a set number of steps etc.

Establish a cross departmental permanent government task force on obesity. This supports similar recommendations made by other health organisations.

All new policies to be reviewed and assessed against an ‘obesity test’.

Some recent writings

A few pieces I've put out in the last week or two:

1) In Defense of Frankenfoods.  Milken Institute Review.  An excerpt:

While it is possible to be pro-biotechnology without being pro-Monsanto, such a nuanced position is difficult to maintain in the current atmosphere. It seems that many suffer from what might be called Monsanto Derangement Syndrome, buying into all sorts of conspiracy theories. Yet genetically engineered foods are no more synonymous with Monsanto than hamburgers are with McDonald’s. When anti-Monsanto became de facto anti-biotechnology, many left-leaning commentators chose to swim with the tide. Thus emerged a (justifiable) belief that many on the left were anti-science on the issue of biotechnology. In the words of journalist Keith Kloor (writing for Slate), opponents of genetically engineered food “are the climate skeptics of the left.” Although there is some truth to this observation, the political reality is more complex.

2) Consumer Acceptance of Controversial New Food Technologies: Causes and Roots of Controversies with Jutta Roosen and Andrea Bieberstein in Annual Review of Resource Economics. An excerpt: 

The dread/control framework may partly explain aversion to new food technologies, particularly in our modern society. In most developed countries, only a very small fraction of the population makes a living by farming. That many consumers today have little connection to and knowledge of modern production agriculture means that new practices adopted by farmers are likely to seem foreign, unknown, and—from the consumer’s perspective—uncontrollable (Campbell & Fitzgerald 2001, Gupta et al. 2011). It has been argued that many consumers have a “romantic” notion of farming (Thompson 1993) and that agricultural literacy is “too low” in the population (Pope 1990). Empirical research suggests that agricultural literacy is loweramong urban children than among rural children (Frick et al. 1995). Thus, when consumers become aware of a new technology—e.g., lean, fine-textured beef or Roundup Ready soybeans—it may be interpreted as a signal of dread and of unknown risk, which Slovic (1987) argues is most aversive and prone to
elicit public panic.

3) New Tool (FooDS) Identifies Consumers' Views on Food Safety with Susan Murray in Choices.  An excerpt:

Figure 4 plots the FooDS price expectations index for beef, pork, and chicken against the same-month price data from the BLS on ground chuck, all pork chops, and boneless chicken breasts. For the first two meats, the correlations—a statistical measure of association, with 1.00 being a perfect correlation—between price expectations and actual prices are 0.72 and 0.83, showing a high correspondence between consumer expectations and actual prices. The correlation for chicken, however, was only -0.26. This latter result likely arises because actual prices for beef and chicken have trended up over this time period while chicken prices have not. However, consumers do not differentiate much between meat categories in their price expectations; the correlations among price expectations for beef, pork, and chicken are all above 0.89.