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Producing More with Less

I’ve given a lot of talks over the past couple years about the importance of increasing agricultural productivity. Often these discussions get couched in Malthusian terms related to the need to produce more food for a growing world population. This 2009 document from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, for example, suggests agricultural production in developed countries needs to double by 2050 to meet the demands of expected population growth.

I’ve been in enough of these conversations at this point to know that a common retort is that we already produce more than enough food to feed today’s population. Isn’t this just an issue of distribution rather than supply? I’ve addressed this issue in previous posts. Here, I want to draw out an implication of productivity growth that is probably obvious to many academic economists, but perhaps not as widely appreciated as it should be.

In particular, when we talk about increasing productivity enabling us to “do more with less,” the focus is often on the “do more” part. That is, increase food production. But, one shouldn’t forget the “with less” part. In short, increasing productivity means producing more sustainably.

To illustrate, consider the figure below (this is what we economists call a production function).

productivitygraph.JPG

The bottom, lighter blue curve shows the relationship between various inputs (land, water, fertilizer, labor, etc.) and output (or food production). The figure shows that we can produce more food by adding more inputs - more land, more water, etc. However, there are diminishing returns. The first few gallons of water (or rain showers) produce a lot of extra bushels, but the next few gallons have a smaller effect. In fact, if we get too much water (i.e., a flood, as some parts of the Midwest are currently experiencing), production can actually fall. Diminishing marginal productivity was at the heart of the Malthusian concern - if we keep adding more population (or workers) to a fixed amount of land, the extra amount of food that will be produced (and available per worker) will fall, and hunger will ensue.

How do we escape this “trap”? Scientific research, innovation, and entrepreneurship allow us to shift up to a higher curve, as shown by the darker blue curve in the above graph. For a given amount of inputs (labor or land), we might actually have more food per person (now and on into the future as long as we continue to innovate and shift the curve outward).

Let’s, say, however, that one already thinks we produce “too much.” We don’t want any more food. Ok. I’ve drawn the vertical dashed line in the above figure to show a constant amount of food production. But look where this line intersects with the production functions. The figure shows that higher productivity curve allows us to use fewer inputs (less land, less water, less fertilizer, fewer pesticides, etc.) to produce the same amount of food as compared to the original lower production function.

The point? Even if one believes the problem of production is “solved”, don’t still want to find innovative ways to increase productivity to reduce our use of scarce natural resources?

So, how has US agricultural productivity fared? Here is data from the USDA Economic Research Service.

productivitygraph2.JPG

The figure shows that agricultural output has grown by factor of about 2.7 (i.e., we’re producing about 170% more food) since 1948, while use of agricultural inputs, in aggregate, have grown very little and is essentially flat. The gap between the output line at the top and the input line on the bottom is the definition of productivity.

How will this graph look in 2050? Is it possible the trend lines for outputs and inputs can flip? That is, flat output and falling inputs? If total output stays relatively constant, but we can find ways to improve productivity, then total input use will fall. That would be a great sustainability story.

Farming Isn't Just about Food

All businesses and industries have mantras and mental models that are used to motivate and inspire. A common motivator and rallying cry for those of us in agriculture is that we “feed the world.” You’ve no doubt seen bumper stickers on the back of a pickup truck proclaiming, “If you eat, thank a farmer.”

That message (“we need to feed the world”) is a good motivator inside the industry, although in the past I’ve argued it might not always be selling point to people outside the industry. The message is not entirely inaccurate, but it’s not entirely accurate either. There are other ways to think about what agriculture is “doing” that might also be productive and enlightening.

Another way to think about agriculture is as a means to harness and store energy and nutrients. Or, as a producer of biomass, some of which later gets turned into food. An apt analogy is think of corn (and many other staple crops) as living solar panels. The plants capture energy from the sun and store the energy in many tiny batteries (i.e., seeds) that are easily storeable and transportable.

So, how much of agriculture is about “food” vs. other things? A while back, I showed trends in farm acreage over the last century in the United States. As those data reveal, just four crops account for about 95% of all planted farmland: corn, soybeans, wheat, and cotton. Cotton (at about 5.6% of the total) is, of course, a fiber with a few minor food uses (oil and hulls/seeds fed to livestock). The two biggest crops, corn and soy, with roughly the same acreage planted to each, together account for about 70% of planted crop acres in the U.S. What happens to all that corn and soy?

Here’s a graph I a created about a year ago, showing the supply and use of corn in the U.S. (data are from the USDA). Of the total corn supplied to the U.S. market in the 2016/17 marketing year (454 million metric tons, MMT), more than 40% went to a category the USDA calls “food, alcohol, and industrial use,” which is mainly alcohol for fuel or ethanol. Some of this indirectly ends up as animal feed in the form of "spent” or “distillers” grain left over after fermentation (livestock as food waste preventers is a vastly underappreciated aspect of our food supply chain). More than 30% of corn supply goes directly to animal feed. The rest is exported, stored, or is seed for next year.

cornuse.JPG

Here is a similar figure for soy. About 44% is exported and then 41.5% is crushed for meal and oil. Most of the meal is used for livestock feed, and a little less than one-third of the oil goes to producing bio-diesel.

soyuse.JPG


In these two figures, we see that our two main commodity crops grown in the U.S. are primarily used to produce fuel, alcohol, and to feed animals.

There are of course many critics of agriculture who look at these facts and bemoan the amount of acreage devoted to feeding livestock and producing fuel. But, this get’s back to my original point. The criticism is premised on the notion that the purpose of agriculture is to grow food, but what if we instead re-imagined the purpose of agriculture is something different: to produce energy and nutrients? I’ve written a lot about whether it is proper to view corn and soy fed to livestock as an inefficiency or waste, so I won’t delve into that whole bit again in this post; the point for now is that this only looks inefficient if one views the entire point of agriculture as a means to produce calories that end up on our plate. (BTW, see this tweetstorm for a humorous and eye opening look at the ubiquity of corn in our food and daily lives. My favorite quote in all of it: “Corn is not a food. Corn is a platform.”).

If corn is a solar panel and seeds are batteries, then livestock and poultry are machines that are “hooked up” to the batteries, which power the animals to produce useful outputs, some of which are food and some of which are not.

When we take a closer look at animal production, we see that a big portion (maybe most?) doesn’t go to human food. A simple way to look at this is to consider the dressing percentage of cattle, hogs, and broilers. The dressing percent is the weight of the carcass (which contains most of the edible meat plus bones) divided by the live weight of the animal just prior to harvest multiplied by 100. For hogs, a typical dressing percent might be around 70%, so for a 250 lb live hog, one only has 175 lb of carcass, and much of that is bone. Or, for cattle, a 1,200 lb steer equates to only a ~750 lbs carcass. (I should note that some of the weight removed from the carcass is “food” - hearts, kidneys, etc., - that is infrequently eaten in this country unless we’re talking about our pets). From the carcass, one might end up with 400 to 500 lbs of edible meat, depending on how it is cut and the amount of fat. So, only about 30 to 40% of the live weight of a finished steer ends up in form of what we typically think of as “food.”

One might be temped to think: that’s really wasteful. But, it isn’t as if the other 60 to 70% of the animal is just thrown away! There are interesting stories of the late 19th century meat mogul Gustavus Swift trudging out in his dark suit and top hat to inspect the sewer pipes that flowed out of his Chicago packing plants to look for trace amounts of fat or hair in the river, because anything that escaped was lost revenue. Where do all the modern animal byproducts go? Check out this interesting video - cows end up in everything from lipstick to jet fuel.

Meet the Food Radicals

My friend and frequent co-author, Bailey Norwood just released a new book co-authored with Tamara Mix entitled Meet the Food Radicals published by Oxford University Press. Here was my blurb on the back:

A radically thought-provoking book about radical foodies and farmers. Norwood and Mix give voice to passionate people committed to impacting our food and farming systems, all in their own unique, and sometimes strange, ways.

This is not a book designed to confirm the priors of many of the folks currently involved in commercial agriculture. It is an interesting read about some of the subcultures that are shaping our food and farming debates.

A Case for a Carbon Tax - Meat and Livestock Edition

Frequent readers of this blog know I’m not a big fan of many food and agricultural regulations (I did write the Food Police after all), and I’ve been skeptical of “externality” arguments use to advance food and agricultural interventions. As such, the title of this post might seem out of place. However, stick with me for a moment.

Anyone who has been paying attention knows animal agriculture has come under various lines of attack in recent years (something I recently referred to as the coming meat wars). Whether it be animal welfare, health, or environmental arguments, there is a fairly consistent refrain in many media circles that we are eating “too much” meat and dairy.

What does it mean to say someone is “over-consuming” or having “too much” of any product? There is paternalism: I think I know better what someone else should be eating/consuming. Beyond cajoling our children or spouse, few will concede this motivation for broad policy action. There are claims of information asymmetries: perhaps people don’t know or understand the impacts of consumption on their health or the environment. This would seem to point to policies surrounding information provision rather than outright prohibitions or taxes. Finally, the most cogent argument is that of externalities: your consumption is imposing a cost on me that you’re not considering when deciding what to buy.

If “externality” is the basis of one’s claim that another is “over consuming,” then the economist’s normal answer to fix the problem is some sort of tax to encourage buyers to factor in the costs imposed on others (in fact, I’ve argued elsewhere it’s often more complicated than that, but let’s ignore those arguments for now).

Here’s an often overlooked point about taxing exernalities: even after such a tax, consumption will not be zero, and indeed consumption might still be very high if its a good (like meat) people enjoy consuming. I ran across a quote from the now retired agricultural economist, Luther Tweeten, which colorfully summed up the way economists think about the issue:

St. Augustine called for people to ‘Love God and do as you please.’ The economist advises to ‘Price right and do as you please.

Once the prices are “right” - perhaps via some sort of tax - there is no need for the buyer/consumer to feel guilt or discomfort in their purchases; they’ve already paid for their costs on others and can eat and consume as they please. Here is Steven Landsburg in his book The Big Questions in a section entitled A Cost is Not A Sin:

When things are priced correctly, there’s no need to moralize about them. Every time you eat an orange, you leave the world one orange poorer. But nobody thinks it’s sinful to eat an orange, because the eater pays for the privilege - and thereby reimburses the rest of us for the damage done. Under the right tax system, emitting small amounts of additional pollution would be as unobjectionable as eating an orange.

Ok, back to meat and dairy consumption. Much of the popular writing on the subject casts consumption of such products as almost sinful. One advantage of a carbon (or carbon-equivalent) tax is that it would undercut much of the argument that people are “over consuming.” It’s not the cow or meat that’s the “sin,” it’s the carbon and methane.

There are several factors to consider before such a tax would be effective in this regard.

First, it must be broad based across the economy, not just focused on meat and livestock, otherwise, there is no guarantee people wouldn’t just substitute from one emitting category to a now relatively cheaper emitting category and have no impact on overall emissions. If it is indeed the case that, as the EPA suggests, agriculture in general and livestock in particular, are relatively small sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., then the impacts of such a tax on the sector need not be particularly pronounced, especially if revenue from the tax is refunded to taxpayers. Indeed, in a global context, such a worldwide tax might be competitively advantageous to U.S. producers greenhouse gas emissions per pound of meat or gallon of milk produced is much lower in the U.S. than in other parts of the world because of greater efficiencies here.

Second, a cow isn’t just a cow. Any effective system of this sort would need to reward producers who are more efficient and who find ways, whether it be different genetics, different feed, or different grazing practices, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That is, any effective system would have to allow possibilities for producers to monitor, register, and update their own particular impacts. Something as crude as $X per cow or $Y per pound lacks the incentives to motivate innovation in greenhouse gas reducing activities. Such a policy would be as silly as charging a fixed tax per car regardless of whether it was a Honda civic or a Hummer.

Finally, if producers (and everyone else) are taxed for emitting greenhouse gases, it seems logical that producers (and others) ought to be paid for sequestering carbon. I know there is a lot of debate on this subject, and it’s a topic about which I’m intimately knowledgeable, but suffice it to say that it is not unrealistic to imagine particular farming or ranching practices that sequester more carbon than they emit.

I suspect many environmental organizations would be downright shocked if meat and livestock industry associations banded together in support of a carbon tax. I’m not necessarily advocating such a tax, as indeed there are many complications and unintended consequences that I haven’t discussed here, but it is one mechanism available to address the combat much of this implicit “sinful” type rhetoric suggesting that people are “over consuming” meat. Of course, there’s also the possibility some anti-animal agriculture groups might balk at the proposal. Here’s Landsburg again:

So why don’t we have such taxes? I suspect it’s at least partly because in a world with rational taxation, there would be fewer jobs for priests. Solve a social problem and there’s no evil left to rail against.

I’ll end with one last observation. Let’s say you are a conscious consumer worried about the greenhouse gas emissions that result from meat eating. Is the answer to completely refrain from burgers, yogurt, and steak? No. Just reduce your consumption by the amount you would have reduced it had the price been slightly higher. Landsburg described how to follow the Economist’s Golden Rule (EGR) in the context of the question: Is it okay to burn carbon-based fuels?

In our less then ideal world [without a carbon tax], the EGR tells you to curb your pollution as if you were paying a fair price. It’s been estimated that you cause about 50 cents’ worth of environmental damage for every gallon of gas you burn. If you believe that estimate, and if you currently pay $3 for gas, pretend you’re paying about $3.50 and adjust your driving habits accordingly.

And, I should add: drive without guilt.

So, what does that mean for meat consumption. The first website that came up when I searched the subject, suggested 1 burger is responsible for 8.8 kg of carbon-equivalent emissions [this is probably an overstatement; see a previous crude calculation I made here based on EPA’s numbers]. A commonly used social cost of carbon is about $40/ton or $0.04/kg. So, the questions is: how many fewer burgers in a year would you consume if the cost were $0.04*8.8 = $0.35 higher?

Why don't we vote like we shop?

Readers of this blog will know I’ve been interested in the divergence of voting and food shopping behavior for some time (e.g., see here, here, or here). Much of this interested was prompted by the stark example provided by Proposition 2 in California back in 2008, when about 64% of Californian’s went to the polls and outlawed the production of a good they routinely bought (caged eggs) resulting in a so-called vote-buy gap. I think it was Glynn Tonsor who I first heard refer to the outcome as an unfunded mandate: voters required producers to adopt costlier production practices for which shoppers had already revealed they were unwilling to provide sufficient compensation in the marketplace.

While we know this phenomenon exists, it isn’t clear why. Along with Glynn Tonsor, Bailey Norwood, and Andrew Paul, we set out to tackle this question by conducting some real-food, real-money experiments. The resulting paper is now forthcoming in the Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics.

What did we do? We recruited people to participate in a series of decision making exercise, where they first made a shopping choice. The shopping choice options were: A) a more expensive cookie made with cage free eggs, B) a less extensive cookie made with conventional eggs, C) a snack without animal products, or D) refrain from buying anything. Then, in a second step, people were placed into groups (of small or large size), where they voted on whether to ban option B (the cookie made from conventional eggs) for the people in their group. Finally, if the vote passed, people re-chose from the constrained set of options. This basic set-up was repeated in several conditions that varied information, group size, and more to test different reasons for vote-buy gap.

The first result is that we can replicate the vote-buy gap in our experimental setting. We note:

approximately 80% of the individuals who chose snacks with caged eggs when shopping subsequently voted to ban snacks with caged eggs. The finding rules out the suggestion that the vote-buy gap is an illusion or statistical artifact, as it can be re-created in an experimental lab setting at an individual level.

As the above results suggests, we are immediately able to rule out one explanation for the vote-buy gap - something we call the non-buyer hypothesis. The non-buyer hypothesis suggests the vote-buy gap is something of an illusion because, proverbially speaking, apples (voters) are being compared to oranges (shoppers). In the “real world”, many consumers of eggs are voters; however, not all voters are egg consumers. For example, individuals who are vegan do not buy eggs, but they may vote in favor of initiatives similar to that of Proposition 2. But, in our study we can compare each individual’s shopping choice to their own vote, and as the foregoing quote indicates, 80% of people switch.

We find a bit of support for the following, which is tested by giving one group more salient information about which options used cage and which used cage free eggs:

Knowledge Hypothesis: The vote-buy gap is caused by the fact that consumers themselves believe, or perceive that other consumers believe, that they are buying cage-free eggs when in fact they are buying cage eggs; better, more salient information about housing practices when shopping will reduce the vote-buy gap.

But, even in the condition where clear-transparent information was given about the types of eggs used to make each cookie, the share of people who voted to ban cage eggs was 15 to 20 percentage points higher than was the market share of purchased snacks made with cage free eggs.

I was personally most excited to test two hypotheses that related to group size (people voted in groups of roughly five or fifty). Here were those hypotheses, both of which suggest greater likelihood of voting “yes” to ban snacks with cage eggs in larger groups as compared to smaller groups.

Public Good Hypothesis: The vote-buy gap is caused by the fact that more animals and people are impacted by a ban than the impact of a single shopping choice for cage-free eggs; as the size of the group affected by a vote increases, individuals are more likely to vote in favor of the initiative if it has a desirable public good component, thereby increasing the vote-buy gap.

Expressive Voter Hypothesis: The vote-buy gap is caused by the fact that in large groups, an individual’s vote is unlikely to be a deciding factor, privileging expressive preferences over instrumental preferences; as a group size increases, and the likelihood that an individual’s vote is consequential and decisive falls, individuals are more likely to vote in favor of the initiative, thereby increasing the vote-buy gap.

Both hypotheses conjecture that the vote-buy gap will be larger in large groups than small groups. However, our data shows that when moving from small to large groups, the vote-buy gap is actually larger in the small groups than the large group, exactly the opposite of what is predicted.

In the end, we can be fairly confident the vote-buy gap is real and replicatable, but alas we still don’t have a good answer as for why. Here’s how we leave it in the paper:

A residual hypothesis that remains if all others fail to explain the gap is inconsistent preferences. That is, people may have different preferences when shopping as compared to voting. This sort of preference inconsistency is at the heart of the so-called consumer vs. citizen phenomenon. The thought is that people adopt more public-minded preferences when in the voting booth but rely on more selfish motives when shopping privately. ... While this explanation is perhaps not intellectually satisfying, it is perhaps consistent with one long strain of economic thought, De gustibus non est disputandum, while contradicting another, fixed and stable preferences.

But, make no mistake: just because we don’t know the answer to the “why” doesn’t imply the vote-buy gap is inconsequential. Recall the unfunded mandate? Here’s what happened in our experiment.

many individuals who originally chose to purchase a cookie decided, after the ban, to select “none” in their second selection when only higher-priced cookies were available. Depending on the treatment, anywhere from 21.74% to 43.38% of consumers who purchased cookies prior to the ban no longer did so after the ban. These lost purchases are precisely the worry of egg producers.