Food-Related Lawsuits of Interest

  • Chipotle has been hit with a couple lawsuits, at least one of which has made it through initial phases, related to its non-GMO claims.  One suit is in California and the other in Florida.  Both claim false advertising: despite the non-GMO claims, Chipotle's meat and dairy products continue to come from animals fed GMO.


  • In response to a Massachusetts ballot initiative that would change farm animal housing practices (and retailer's ability to source "caged" eggs/pork), a state farmer and a local anti-poverty activist (and SNAP recipient) have teamed up file a suit asking the courts to stop the ballot initiative. 


  • A couple years ago I commented on increasing amounts of litigation over "all natural" claims on food.  Several of those suits have now settled, with the food companies agreeing to compensate the plaintiffs  (e.g., Stevia, Kashi, Crisco, and others).  Kind bars are in the midst of a legal battle on its use of the word natural.   

Kitchen of the Future

Yesterday I recorded an interview with New Hampshire public radio about my new book, and at the beginning of our segment, the host played the following clip from the Jetsons.  I told the host I don't think we're quite there yet.  By the way, I love the mom's reaction to all the "work" involved in making breakfast (the kitchen segment starts at the 1:17 mark). 

Can I get that with an extra GMO?

That's the title the editors of the Wall Street Journal gave to my piece that was published today.  I touched on the issue of GMO labeling, but also tried to elevate the discussion a bit to delve into the broader issues at play.  

Here are a few snippets:

Lost in the politics is a deeper debate about the future of our food system. At the core of many anti-GMO arguments lies a romantic traditionalism, a desire for food that is purportedly more in line with nature. Perhaps we should eat only the food that God gave us. Yet manna rarely falls from heaven.

The truth is that what we eat today differs radically from the food eaten even a few hundred years ago. Carrots used to be purple. Random mutations and selective breeding led to their signature color during the 16th century in the Netherlands, where it later was claimed the new varieties honored the King William of Orange. Broccoli, kale, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts all emerged from the same wild plant. Potatoes and tomatoes originated in the Americas and were never eaten in Europe and Asia until after the New World was discovered. Today we eat more and better than ever, precisely because we did not accept only what nature provided.

and, in conclusion, after discussing the host of new biotech innovations coming to market:

Food manufactures today may be reluctant to label foods made using biotechnology. But one day soon, when the fad against GMOs fades, they might be clamoring to add the tag: proudly produced with genetic engineering.

Magruder Plots

I suspect one of the reasons there is a lot of concern over the future of food and agriculture is that most people are scarcely aware of the great research on these topics going on at universities all across the country.  In Unnaturally Delicious, I tell the story of Alexander Magruder, the first professor of agriculture at what is now Oklahoma State University, who started a scientific experiment on sustainability in 1892 that continues to this day (note: Oklahoma didn't even become a state until 1907).  Here are a couple of old images I obtained from Bill Raun who oversees the research today.



So, what did Magruder do?

On a plot donated to the college by a local family, Magruder plowed up virgin prairie soil to explore what would happen if the land was “sown in wheat year after year without the addition of any fertilizing material.” In short, Magruder was interested in the sustainability of farming practices that relied on no outside sources of nutrients. He wrote in 1892, “No fertilizers, either commercial or home-made, were used. It is our object to get at the natural value or strength of the soil that we may compare present yields with those of the future when barn-yarding and green manuring will have been practiced.” This was before the German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch figured out how to extract nitrogen fertilizer from the air. Mineral fertilizers were in short supply and were not widely used. The main fertilizer available to farmers was what it had been for centuries: animal manure.

You'll have to read the book to get the whole fascinating story of Magruder and the research plots. Despite a number of significant hurdles, amazingly the research is today still being conducted on the same soil Magruder plowed up in the late 1890s, and agronomists at Oklahoma State are still comparing yields of the original "check" plot to new treatments that have been added over the years to study the effects of adding manure or various "synthetic" fertilizers.  Here's a modern-day photo of the plot, which as you can see, is now a federal historic landmark. 

What have the researchers found?  Here's a slice:

The key message from the 120-year-old experiment on the Magruder plots is that, so long as genetics continue to improve, and especially if manure or nitrogen can be added back to the
soil, wheat yields on the Great Plains are not only sustainable but can experience continued growth.

Back in the 1890s, Magruder’s original check plot yielded fewer than thirteen bushels per acre. Remarkably, in the first decade of this century, that same check plot averaged fifteen to sixteen bushels per acre. Plots that have received only manure treatments for more than 125 years are now yielding more than thirty bushels per acre, and the plots receiving nitrogen, phosphorous,
lime, and potassium today routinely yield more than thirty five bushels per acre.

Impacts of Agricultural Extension

There is an interesting new article forthcoming in the journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy by Stephan Goetz and Meri Davlasheridze. 

Here's the abstract.

Numerous studies have evaluated the impact of Extension on farm productivity and related outcomes. Here we use annual data from 1983 to 2010 covering the 50 U.S. states to examine the impact of Extension on net changes in the number of farmers. The historical transition of farmers out of U.S. agriculture raises the question of whether Cooperative Extension and underlying Hatch-funded research spending keeps farmers in agriculture or accelerates their exit. On balance, nearly 500,000 more farmers left than entered agriculture over the period studied. We estimate that without Extension, as many as 137,700 (or 28%) additional farmers would have disappeared on net. Overall, Extension programs are a remarkably cost effective way of keeping farmers in agriculture. Alternatively, shifting just 1.5% of federal farm program payments to Extension would have reduced net exits over this period by an estimated 11%, or 55,000 farmers.

A few thoughts/comments:

  • It seems that spending on agricultural extension saves more farms than farm subsidies.  Surprisingly, the authors find a negative relationship between farm subsidies in one year and farm profitability the next year.
  • I'm not 100% sold that the authors have identified causal relationships.  A more vibrant agricultural sector will likely demand (i.e., lobby for) more extension.  The authors attempt to deal with this by looking at lagged (rather than current) spending on extension on current farm profitability.  I suppose they also partially deal with this by looking only at federal spending to states rather than state spending.  
  • While the authors find a positive relationship between spending on ag research and farm profitability, there is no relationship between research spending and change in farm numbers.  This finding must be interpreted in light of the large literature on the positive relationship between ag research and increased farm productivity; this research allows for long lag times between spending and impacts and finds very high rates of return to ag research spending.