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Wizards and Prophets

I've been reading Charles Mann's latest book Wizards and Prophets, which was released earlier this year.  Overall, I've enjoyed the book.  The subtitle, "Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow's World" is an apt description for much of the content, which describes food, agricultural, and environmental problems through the lens of Norman Borlaug and William Vogt.  The history is informative, and Mann gives a fair comparison of the underlying philosophical differences, which he attributes to Borlaug and Vogt, driving much of the debate today around food, agriculture, and the environment. 

I am very much in the "Borlaug-wizard camp" (which advocates for innovation, science, research to solve food security and environmental problems) but I came away with a better appreciation for the Vogt-ian, prophet point of view (focused on resource constraints, ecological limits, need to reduce consumption, etc).  

While I thought the book was well done and well worth reading, Mann gets one aspect of this debate wrong.  Because I've seen other writers make the same mistaken point, it's worth delving into a bit.

Throughout the book, Mann refers to the Borlaug way of thinking as "top down" and the "hard way," and he contrasts this with Vogt's approach which he depicts as "bottom up", "localized", etc.  This is exactly backward. 

Mann aptly describes a core belief among the prophets: that there are finite resources on earth and just like any other species, we will grow exponentially until we exhaust our resources, and then our population and civilization will collapse. The analogy is a jar filled with few fruit flies given a fixed amount of food.  Initially, the flies have ample resources and they multiple rapidly.  However, at some point the population becomes too large for the fixed food supply, and the population collapses.  The fruit fly population follows something like an S-shaped curve over time.

Moving from flies to people, the issue is typically described in a Malthusian manner.  As the graph below shows, as we add more labor to a fixed amount of land, diminishing marginal returns kick in and the amount of food available per worker eventually falls.

malthus1.JPG

If this resource-constrained view is a core belief, how do you solve the problem?  Adherents to this point of view typically urge folks to consume less or use less resource-intensive systems/products or to constrain population in some way.  But, most individuals don't want less.  Particularly folks in the developing world - they want to have and consume the things those us in the developed world enjoy, whether it be meat, air conditioning, ipads, or MRIs.  Yes, persuasion may result in a few people cutting back, but not on a scale that matches the magnitude of the problem.  Thus, the only fully effective way for the prophets to accomplish their goal (preventing catastrophic collapse) is to force or constrain the population to adopt outcomes few individuals would choose on their own.  Thus, the call for policies to mandate a cap on the number of children one can have (as occurred in China), restrictions of resource use, taxes, bans, etc. In other words, top-down planning is required to constrain growth and population, which is often manifested in "one size fits all" or highly non-localized policies.  Just recall of all the clamoring by Vogt-type adherents when Trump decided to pull out of the Paris accord that had global (i.e., non-local) prescriptions to fight climate change [note: I'm not advocating for or against the Paris accord, only noting that it is non-local and more-or-less top-down).  

The wizardly Borlaug view, by contrast, operates via entrepreneurial innovation and individual decisions of whether to adopt or not.  When Borlaug worked for the Rockefeller foundation, he/they had no "power" to force individual farms to adopt their new seeds and production practices, rather as Mann himself reveals, the early Mexican adopters took on the new seeds precisely because they saw for themselves via Borlaug's demonstration plots that they could achieve higher yields.  Yes, the types of seeds and production practices developed by Borlaug et al. spread far and wide, but it is was largely because they "worked" not because it was mandated from on high.  And, the adoption was much more adapted to local conditions than Mann lets on.  Producers in different locations ultimately used different varieties, different irrigation and fertilization techniques, etc.  As time has gone on, precision agriculture has led to even more localization of management decisions.  

The promise and hope of the Wizard is that innovation can get us off the curve shown in the graph above and move us to a new, higher outcome, as shown below. 

malthus2.JPG

This isn't a denial of resource constraints, it is a recognition that innovation allows us to get more with the same or fewer or even different resources.  But, for those innovations to be adopted, they must pass the market test.  Real life-farmers and consumers need to choose to adopt them (or not). This is precisely the opposite of top-down.

Here's what I wrote a while back when Nassim Taleb referred to GMOs as a "top down" technology. 

Taleb makes reference to the Hayek bottom-up vs. top-down planning. He says GMOs are the top-down sort. I’m not so sure. Real life farmers and people have to be willing to buy varieties that have the GMO traits. No one is forcing that outcome. It is true that competition will limit - to some extent - the diversity of plants and genetics that are observed because some plants aren’t tasty or aren’t high enough yielding. But most plant breeders keep all kinds of “ancient” varieties precisely for the purpose of trying to breed in new traits to today’s varieties (and folks working on synthetic biology are creating their own, new strands of DNA, creating new diversity). Geography also increases diversity. Iowa grows a lot of corn, Oklahoma doesn’t because it isn’t our comparative advantage. I see little reason to believe that a single GMO variety will perform well in all locations. So, yes individual companies are planning and creating new varieties, but it is all our local knowledge of what works in our places and conditions that determine whether particular genetics offered by a particular company are used. We do not have a seed czar or a DNA czar.

Defining Meat

Meat and livestock producers are taking notice of the the rising interest in lab-based, cultured, and plant-based "meat."  Some of the larger meat packers and producers have chosen to invest in these new start-ups.  Other producers, facing the competitive threat, are turning to the legal system.  The U.S. Cattlemen's Association (not to be confused with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association) has officially petitioned the USDA to:

limit the definition of beef to product from cattle born, raised, and harvested in the traditional manner. Specifically, [the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service] should require that any product labeled as “beef” come from cattle that have been born, raised, and harvested in the traditional manner, rather than coming from alternative sources such as a synthetic product from plant, insects, or other non-animal components and any product grown in labs from animal cells.

The state of Missouri already passed a similar law (although it has yet to be signed by the governor).

The labeling requests are in keeping with a long list of "standards of identity" whereby the government defines how certain words can be used on food labels and in marketing.  The stated purpose of the laws are to protect consumers and to prevent consumers from being misled.  In some cases cases, I suspect they standards have done just that.  However, in other cases, the rules can be used by incumbent firms to ward off competition from potentially innovative entrants.  In one particularly egregious example, a small creamery marketing "natural milk" didn't want to add vitamin A to its milk.  However, because the standard of identity say that skim milk contains vitamin A, a judge ruled they must label their milk "imitation skim milk" even though they added literally nothing to the milk (the ruling was later overturned).  Another recent example is when Hampton Creek was told they couldn't label their product mayonnaise because it didn't contain eggs.  I wrote about that case here, and concluded by saying:

Ultimately, I think there are good arguments on both sides of this case, and it isn’t obvious what would be the consequences of the unraveling of these sorts of “food purity” laws. Sometimes it’s hard to know when consumer protection becomes protectionism.

In the case of beef, I am a bit skeptical that consumers will be mislead by the start-up meat alternatives.  Why?  These aren't generic products being sold by companies trying to water down or adulterate a product with cheaper inputs.  These are branded products created by firms whose whole marketing strategy is to tell people their product is NOT beef.  Here's a picture I took with my cellphone at a restaurant selling the Impossible Burger, where plain as day its says "Meat from Plants." 

impossibleburger2.JPG

Here is an image of package of Beyond Meat.  Again, plain as day, it says "Plant-Based Burger."

beyondmeat.JPG

In neither of the cases above, do the companies claim to be "beef" in the ads or packaging.  So, in a lot of ways, I suspect the calls for standards of identity may be much to do about nothing. 

Even without the identity standards, it is not as if consumers are totally unprotected.  If they are, in fact, misled, the legal system offers possible remedy. As witnessed by the numerous lawsuits over the use of the word "natural," I suspect there are plenty of lawyers out there willing to help a consumer who can show they've experienced damages.   

Food Demand Survey (FooDS) Finale - at least for now

Five years ago in May 2013, I put out the first issue of the Food Demand Survey (FooDS).  Every month since that time, a survey of over 1,000 food consumers (a different 1,000 each month), has been conducted where we've tracked concerns, attitudes, and preferences for various food issues over time.  This has been a really fun project.  Alas, all good things must come to an end and the May 2018 edition of FooDS will be the last - at least in its current incarnation.  

Here I wanted to highlight some of the findings we've generated and provide some graphs showing the trends we've observed over the past five years (every issue of FooDS and all the underlying data is available here).  At the end, I'll give a few "thanks" and give insights on where the project may be heading next.  

Some highlights.

Now for some trends (note: each of the graphs below shows data from at least 1,000 consumers surveyed each month for 5 years for a total of more than 60,000 observations).  Because I've discussed these results many times in the past, I'm going to let these graphs "stand on their own" without interpretation or description of how the data are collected or analyzed.

FooDS_1.JPG
 note: "average" is the average of about 16 other issues tracked in the survey

note: "average" is the average of about 16 other issues tracked in the survey

 note: "average" is the average of about 16 other issues tracked in the survey

note: "average" is the average of about 16 other issues tracked in the survey

 Food Values over Time

Food Values over Time

FooDS_5.JPG
FooDS_6.JPG
FooDS_7.JPG
FooDS_8.JPG
FooDS_9.JPG

Finally, I want to say thanks to Susan Murray who did the heavy lifting every month, Bailey Norwood who helped me conceptualize the project and kept it running for the last year, Glynn Tonsor who provided intellectual capital over the course of the project, and many graduate students who provided great ideas and analysis.  Early on, funding support for the project came from the Willard Sparks Endowed Chair.  Later, the Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Oklahoma State pitched in.  For the past several years, funding support came from a USDA-AFRI-NIFA grant.  I've had numerous conversations with Bailey (at Oklahoma State), Glynn (at Kansas State), and Trey (at Michigan State) about the future of the project, where it might "reside", and how it should change to be even more informative.  All the details are yet to be worked out, but I think there is a good chance FooDS will re-emerge in the next several months with a new "home" and focus.  

Blockchain - from Bitcoin to Bacon

It was probably about a year ago I started hearing some rumblings about blockchain technology be of use in tracking agricultural products.  I was familiar with bitcoin so I had a vague sense of how the technology could be used in a traceability system.  But, until a few months ago, it wasn't so obvious to me how it could also be used to increase transparency and even help with contract fulfillment.

Fortunately, the latest issue of Meatingplace Magazine has a great article by Julie Larson Bricher that provides an easy to read primer on blockchain technology - what it is and how it's starting to be used in the food industry.  

Here's one excerpt:

So, what is blockchain? It’s a type of digital distributed leger, or shared database, in which transactions from multiple computers are security recorded into “blocks” of verified data entries in real time. These time-stamped blocks of data are linked together in a sequential chain, which means that the leger cannot be modified or changed.

The distinctive feature of the blockchain is its assurance of data integrity, which makes the records trustworthy – and this is what makes it so attractive to food supply chain companies. In a blockchain, the data can be trusted because all members in a network must agree to each new record is added to the ledger …

Numerous examples of the blockchain being tested in the food supply chain are given, including Cargill's traceable turkeys (where people could text or enter an on-package code to "access the farm's location ..., view the family farm story, see photos and read a message from the farmer."  Other firms mentioned as testing the technology include Tyson, Walmart, IBM, and Carrefour.  

To imagine how the technology might ultimately influence the industry, the piece included the following graphic that showed the types of information that could be included in a blockchain for poultry.  

blockchain_poultry.JPG

I'll end with this final quote on how blockchain could facilitate contracts:

Blockchain also enables the use of “smart contracts,’ which means that previously agreed terms, conditions or business protocols are built into the digital ledger and automatically triggered and enforced as the terms of agreement are met... By programming contract conditions and terms into the blockchain, contracts are executed by the system itself and not middlemen, which translates into time- and cost-saving business transaction efficiencies.

It will be interesting to see how this technology transforms the food supply chain and what information we consumers may have one day simply by scanning a bar code at the grocery store.

The New GMO Labeling Law

Last week, the USDA finally released its proposed rule outlining the ways in which it may implement the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard (NBFDS) (i.e., the a mandatory labeling law for GMOs) that was passed by the US Congress and signed into law back in the summer of 2016.  At the point, this is still a proposed rule: public comments are still being accepted until July 3, 2018.  

As I wrote at the time of its passage, the mandatory labeling bill was not particularly popular with the "anti" or "pro" GMO crowds.  I won't rehash all the issues involved or re-cover all the arguments for and against mandatory labeling (as an aside, I am amazed at how often I still see people citing my result on consumer preferences for DNA labels; I suppose that's a least one mark of success when people unknowingly cite your own research results to you as something you need to know!).  Here, I want to point out a few things that were news (at least to me) in the proposed rule.

  • One of the controversial facets of the original bill was that it allowed for disclosure of genetically engineered ingredients via a QR code (this is an issue we have researched - e.g., see here).  In addition to the QR code or a text disclosure, it appears companies might be able to also use one of several different types of labels (I am not aware of any publicly available research on consumer perception of these labels).  Here are some of the examples proposed:
newgmolabel.JPG
  • It also appears that a food may only have to be labeled if it actually contains genetically engineered (or shall i now say "bioengineered") ingredients that contain recombinant DNA.  Why does this matter?
    • Sugar and oil don't contain DNA.  Tests for recominant DNA are likely to come back negative even if applied to oil from derived from bioengineered corn or soy or if applied to sugar from bioengineered sugar beets.  As such, foods using oil or sugar derived from GE crops  may not ultimately be subject to the mandatory disclosure.
    • Other biotechnologies, such as gene editing, don't utilize recombinant DNA, and as such may not ultimately fall under this mandatory labeling law.
  • What will be the tolerances or thresholds that would trigger mandatory labeling?  The proposed rule didn't say for sure but offered several options:
    • A) disclosure is required if more than 5% of any ingredient (by weight) is bioengineered; 
    • B) disclosure is required if more than 0.9% of any ingredient (by weight) is bioengineered; 
    • C) disclosure is required if more than 5% of the entire product (by weight) is bioengineered.
    • It should be noted that these different thresholds are likely to imply VERY different costs of compliance; a 0.9% threshold is likely to be more than 5x more costly than a 5% threshold, and individual ingredient thresholds will be much more costly than total product thresholds.  
  • There are many exceptions, for examples for small manufacturer, for certain enzymes,  and for animal products derived from animals fed bioengineered feed.