Is Organic Food Healthier or Safer?

A new study fails to find scientific support for claims organic food is healthier or safer than conventional alternatives and everyone acts as if this is a surprise. It shouldn’t be. Scientific research has fairly consistently failed to validate the claimed superiority of organic food, as I’ve noted in prior posts over the past ten years (see, e.g., herehere, and here). Organic foods do not consistently show higher nutrient levels than conventional foods, nor are there even clear environmental advantages. Organic farming uses less energy and fewer chemicals, but it also tends to be more expensive and requires more land — meaning that a widescale shift to organic production would increase food costs and require putting more acres under plow, with consequent negative effects on species habitat.

For this latest study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, Stanford researchers conducted a meta-analysis of over 200 studies looking at the differences between organic and conventional foods, and concluded “the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods.” Organic foods tended to have lower pesticide residues and were less likely to have antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but the researchers concluded the differences were not significant enough to have any meaningful health impact. If organic food truly is healthier — and it may be — the existing scientific literature cannot (yet?) support such claims, particularly as applied to organic foods across the board. There may be specific foods, however, for which organic production may make a difference (or for which organic production methods tend to correlate with other practices that produce positive results).

The bottom line is eat organic foods if you like. Just don’t believe there’s any scientific basis for claiming you will be healthier as a result. As the paper’s senior author, Dena Bravata, explains: “There isn’t much difference between organic and conventional foods, if you’re an adult and making a decision based solely on your health.”

For more on the study, here are reports from the NYTAP, and NPR.

Cross-posted from The Volokh Conspiracy.


How Not to Label Biotech Foods

In November, Californians will vote on Proposition 37, a ballot initiative to impose a mandatory labeling requirement on all foods produced with or from genetically modified organisms (GMOs). For reasons I discuss in this New Atlantis article, this requirement is unnecessary, unwise and potentially unconstitutional.

The effort has been endorsed by numerous progressive organizations and the California Democratic Party. Of note, those who usually police the misuse or politicization of science have been strangely quiet about the misleading and inaccurate scientific claims made by Prop. 37 proponents. Although the proposition warns of “adverse health consequences” from genetic engineering of foods, there is not a single documented case of adverse health consequences due to the use of GMOs. Yet about traditional crop-breeding techniques, we can say no such thing. It’s no wonder that the National Academy of Sciences has issued numerous reports concluding that the use of modern genetic modification techniques, in themselves, have no bearing on the relative safety of a food product. What was done to a specific GMO matters more than whether specific modification techniques were used.

It is even misleading to single out crops and other organisms modified by modern genetic modification techniques as “genetically engineered.” Many common crops are “genetically engineered” in that they are the result of direct human modification. Corn, for example, does not exist naturally. It was “engineered” by humans, albeit using less precise breeding methods centuries ago.

The organizers of the effort claim consumers have a “right to know” whether their foods contain GMOs. But nothing stops consumers from obtaining such information. Organic producers and others who wish to cater to those who dislike GMOs are free to label their products accordingly (and, in my view, should be able to do so without some of the excessive disclaimers urged by the FDA). Absent evidence of a potential health risk, there is no reason for the government to mandate GMO labels. Such labels are not necessary to protect consumers against misleading claims, and a proclaimed “right to know” does not constitute a substantial governmental interest.

Some consumers may want to know whether products contain GMOs, just as others may wish to know whether a product was made with union labor, a company’s executives donated to particular political candidates, or its products were blessed by shaman priestesses. Yet it must take more to justify compelling speech in the form of product labels. Were it otherwise, there is no end to what could be the subject of mandatory labeling requirements, and there would be no meaningful constitutional protection of compelled commercial speech.

Most existing labeling requirements can be justified on the grounds that they protect uninformed consumers from potential adverse impacts. Ingredient labels, for example, protect those with allergies or specific dietary needs. GMO labels, on the other hand, do no such thing. Rather they stigmatize products, suggesting there is something significant, or even potentially wrong, with a product that was produced in this way, even if there is no scientific basis for making such a claim. Some consumers may have moral or other objections to GMO products, and that is their right. Such consumers are free to seek out producers who will make products in accord with their preferences. But GMO opponents should not have the right to force others to modify product labels, at their own expense, just to satisfy one group’s set of subjective value preferences.

Does this mean there will be no GMO labels? Not at all. There is no requirement that producers identify whether products are “organic” or “kosher,” and yet such labels proliferate. Where such information is likely to influence consumer behavior, producers have ample incentives to provide the information consumers want. That is, those producers whose products are GMO-free have every incentive to disclose, and perhaps even advertise, this fact. Such disclosure is sufficient to let those consumers who oppose GMOs shop accordingly without imposing the cost of such preferences on others.

Cross-posted from The Volokh Conspiracy.


Saving Patagonian Grasslands with Market Incentives

Meet Carlos Fernandez, PERC Board Member and the Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia Grasslands Manager. The following is an excerpt from our interview with Carlos in Bariloche, Patagonia:

I am the Patagonia Grasslands Argentina Project Manager for the Nature Conservancy and a PERC Board Member. I had my first encounter with PERC in 2005 when I met Don Leal at a workshop in the Galapagos Islands. Don and I started talking about our passion for fly fishing, both in Patagonia and in Montana. I began receiving PERC Reports and sure enough in July 2005 I attend PERC’s Enviropreneur Institute. It was here that I started to think more seriously about how important markets, contracts, and property rights are if we really want to improve environmental quality.

I moved to Patagonia from Washington D.C. in 2008 to launch TNC’s grasslands program. The purpose of this program is to conserve grasslands on a large scale. Given the fact that here in Patagonia about 75 percent of the land is in private hands, our team is doing a lot of work with private land owners aiming to halt or reverse the desertification of grassland ecosystems. We are working with ranchers, businesses, policy makers, universities, and think tanks. TNC and our partners have a pretty big goal, which is to try to bring sustainable conservation to between 30 and 40 million acres in the next 10 to 15 years.

In 2010, I was lucky enough to be invited to become one of PERC’s Board Members — the first board member representing the enviropreneurs and the first international board member, both of which make me very proud. The Patagonia grasslands program is just one venture where free market environmentalism is working on the ground. PERC’s 2012 Enviropreneur Institute will kick off this weekend. Stay tuned for more innovative ideas from the field.


Lessons From the Old West: The 150th Anniversary of the Homestead Act

On May 20, 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, an effort by the U.S. government to make 160 acres available to anyone who would move to unclaimed territory, build a cabin, farm the land, and live there for five years. Eventually 270 million acres were privatized by the process, ushering in the great era of “free land.” Now, 150 years later, we have the opportunity to look at homesteading as it actually worked.

Throughout the nineteenth century the federal government was committed to disposing of the vast acreage that it owned. The privatization process was important for the growth of the market economy. But the homesteading process was a wasteful way of creating private rights, and the land sales that preceded homesteading were a much less wasteful method.

There were several problems with the original Homestead Act and its subsequent alterations. The original provision of 160 acres was insufficient for agriculture in the arid west, and even when it was expanded to 320 acres in 1909 and 640 acres in 1916 it still did not provide enough acreage to support a family in most of the places where people settled. In fact, only 40 percent of those who started the homestead process were able stick it out and finalize their claims.

An even more important lesson is that it is very difficult for the government to give away almost anything for free. In the case of homesteading, much of the land available was beyond the “profitable frontier,” the point at which the lack of a market for agricultural products made settlement unprofitable. But settlers knew the land was going to be valuable at some point in the future so they raced into the West, making their claims as early as they possibly could in order to have secure property rights when the returns from the land turned positive.

People bid for the land not with money but with wasted resources, the time and effort they put into “proving up” their claims in anticipation of future profits. Many families suffered years of deprivation trying to eke out a living until they could make their claim profitable or, once they had established property rights, buying out someone else in order to obtain an operation large enough to survive.

Think of what would happen if your institution announced that it was running a budget surplus and that on June 1st $1000 would be given to the first 20 people who lined up outside the CFO’s office. People would calculate how much time they could spend standing in line in order to get $1000 and, in the limit, $20,000 would leave your organization’s coffers. But almost no benefit would be bestowed on the recipients. People would be quite willing to spend $900 of their time in order to get $1000. Some would spend $999.

The other problem with the homesteading process was that it was so costly and difficult to use that much of the western United States remained as public lands. Today, more than half of the land in the West is under federal ownership. These lands have been subject to environmental and financial mismanagement, as documented by PERC’s Holly Fretwell.

Thus the Homestead Acts had two unfortunate results: 1) the process was an unduly costly way to dispose of federal lands and 2) because of the unworkability of homesteading much of the land was never privatized.


Lessons From the Old West: Don’t Ban It, Brand It

Last Saturday was roundup and branding day at my ranch in the Madison River Valley, about 20 miles west of Bozeman. Neighbors came to help and I put the P J (my registered brand) on the left side of my calves. As I carefully placed the irons on each calf (yes, they are hot, and yes, there is short term pain but it seems to subside quickly) I was reminded of why branding came to work so well in the West.

In the old West a statewide registration of brands developed rapidly. Often a brand registration system was one of the first pieces of legislation a territory would pass (for more details, see Anderson and Hill’s The Not So Wild, Wild West). Those registrations continue today. You can go to the Montana Brand Registry and find that if a cow has a P on the left rib and a J on the left hip, that cow belongs to the P J Ranch. Or, a PJ on the left shoulder of a horse establishes my clear claim to that horse. I can issue you a bill of sale if you buy one of my horses or cows, and that serves a proof of a legitimate transfer of rights.

This system works well for the people in white hats, my neighbors who want to know who a stray belongs to, and against those in black hats, the rustlers who might want to steal my livestock. The state maintains the registration and enforces ownership claims. And I can use the existing court system to enforce my property rights.

Branding cattle and horses carries important lessons for environmental problems, namely that we should move towards greater branding of transitory resources, particularly air and water. This would help both the white hats, people who behave responsibly, and constrain the black hats, the villains that dump their waste on other people’s property. PERC has outlined how this can be done with marine fisherieswater markets, and other resources, but, unfortunately, environmental regulations have focused more on command and control than on lowering the costs of measuring and monitoring pollution. If only a fraction of the money that is spent on formulating, enforcing, and complying with environmental regulations was devoted to developing branding technology we would be much better off.

Atrazine is a common chemical used to control broad leaf weeds. Its widespread application in the Midwest has caused concern over its presence in drinking water. Should atrazine be banned, as it has been in most of Europe? Used correctly, atrazine is a cheap way of lowering the cost of food production. Instead of banning it, why not brand it? One could require every user to of atrazine to have, at the time of purchase, a particular tracer placed in his or her container of pesticide. A registration of users would be maintained by the state. Then if levels of atrazine in drinking water exceed a specified level, those harmed (and proof of harm is an important part of common law remedies) could take those responsible to court.

Of course the use of tracers must be coupled with a common-sense understanding that “the dose makes the poison.” We now have the ability to measure extremely minute amounts of potentially harmful chemicals in our air and water. The fact that atrazine may be measured in ground water doesn’t necessarily mean harm has been done. If one of my cows sticks her head through the fence and eats a mouthful of grass, I may owe my neighbor a couple of pennies. But my neighbor shouldn’t be able to shut down my entire ranching operation.

Notice that branding doesn’t remove the state from the scene, but instead focuses its coercive power on the definition and enforcement of property rights, which penalizes those who act irresponsibly and rewards those who don’t infringe on the property rights of others. Having my cattle branded reduces the transaction costs of running a responsible ranching operation. Branding pesticides and herbicides would have the same positive effect on environmental quality.


Silent Spring at 50: Reexamining Rachel Carson’s Classic

After 50 years, Silent Spring is rarely read, but it is routinely cited as a canonical work in environmentalism. Rachel Carson is hailed as a near saint in the environmental movement. There is no doubt the book played a major role helping to spur the environmental movement in the 1960s.

A careful reading of Silent Spring, however, will leave one dismayed at the relentless negative view Rachel Carson had of a time of unprecedented prosperity and improved health standards. We joined a group of authors from various disciplines who looked at different aspects of the book in historical context. That book, Silent Spring at 50, will be published in September. PERC’s latest publication, “Silent Spring at 50: Reflections on an Environmental Classic,” gives a sample of the full work.

Among the issues discussed in the book are the following:

1. Pesticides often benefit both human well-being and the environment. When discussing the effects of pesticides, Carson was entirely negative, failing to consider how these products greatly expand agricultural output, thereby allowing less land to be dedicated to cultivation, as well as having saved millions from starvation in the decade before her book was published. Her claims, such as that one might die from exposure to one molecule of a pesticide, are presented as if scientific fact. Carson ignored the reductions in habitat loss, increased no-till farming, reduced erosion and agricultural runoff that can be attributed to increased use of pesticides.

2. Bird populations were not decreasing.  Silent Spring is most famous for what its title evokes—a spring with no birds, as they have all died due to pesticides. Yet Carson ignored well-known Audubon Society data that indicated increasing, not declining, bird populations in some locations she identified (see brown thrasher chart below). Could she have been unaware of the data? Not likely, since she was a long-time active member of Audubon.

3. There was no cancer epidemic. Carson asserted that one person in four in the United States would die of cancer, and that cancer was becoming epidemic in children, despite public health data to the contrary. American life expectancy had risen more than 20 years in the 20th century when Carson was writing, but she only discussed impending doom. It is true that more Americans were dying of cancer when her book was published than had in previous decades, but that was because Americans no longer died of other diseases. They were lucky enough, as we are now, to have lived long enough to die of cancer and other diseases that mostly afflict the old. Despite the furor in those days of the impending Surgeon General report on tobacco, Carson ignored the role of smoking in cancer. She never mentioned the widely-available evidence about tobacco, preferring to blame man-made chemicals for cancer.

Like her successors who consistently forecast doom for the planet and its inhabitants, Silent Spring is alarmist and suffers from technophobia. It resolutely refused to recognize the billions of people, us among them, whose lives have been so greatly improved by the blessings of modern technology.


Trading Sheep for Grass and Fish in Patagonia

The big brown trout I was fishing for yesterday on the Limay River in Patagonia was nowhere to be found but I did manage to come across an old hang out of Butch Cassidy.

Being from Montana, where the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang pulled off their last job—a holdup of a Union Pacific train—before fleeing to South America, I was happy with this historical catch.

Legend has it that Butch became friends with Jarred Jones who ventured down to Argentina from Texas in 1887 to make his fortune. Jones didn’t find gold but he did manage to open a general store at the mouth of the Limay. The old store, which is now a friendly restaurant, still holds the shops books, old photos, and a frontier atmosphere of a century ago.

Jones earned enough money at the store to purchase two big ranches, which he fenced off with barbed wire—the first to be seen around these parts. Today, barbed wire is strung across much of the 98 million hectares of the Patagonian Steppe to enclose vast quantities of sheep.

Unfortunately, a flock of sheep can gobble up great expanses of native grasses, and in southern Argentina, they’re clearing some serious vegetation. In addition to vegetation loss, overgrazing equates to lost habitat for other animals, and damages waterways with runoff and silt from erosion, which affects the fish, which affects tourism.

Paradoxically, sheep—the slayers of grasslands—could become the saviors of the same landscapes and in turn protect fish and other species. It turns out that because the plants of the grasslands co-evolved with herbivores, such as guanacos, a little munching is good (and necessary) for the flora. It is also true that companies that have environmental components to their business plans and seek to create goods from natural products, including merino wool, would like to see grasslands flourish for the long term. And tourists like me who want to fish and recreate in Patagonia would be willing to pay a price premium for this outcome.

Enter The Nature Conservancy, Patagonia, Inc. and Ovis XXI. Armed with scientific knowledge and market tools, this trilogy is working to conserve more than 15 million acres of land in Patagonia by 2016. Ovis XXI works directly with the woolgrowers. These consultants know the industry, and how to raise sheep without destroying grasslands. The Nature Conservancy brings its science-based knowledge and environmental credibility to help build the sustainable grazing standard through planning and subsequent monitoring of conservation outcomes. And Patagonia Inc. brings the market perspective—buying the wool, networking with others in the supply chain, creating the final products, and using its brand strength to help publicize Patagonian wool.

The majority of the land targeted by the Patagonian Grasslands Conservation Project is privately owned, and remains in large and undivided properties of intact native grasslands. Because most landowners face ongoing political and economic challenges that affect their ability to stay in business, an incentive is needed to gain commitment from landowners to manage resources sustainably. In this case, the carrot comes in the form of a payment to ranchers for grazing less sheep and or for using more modern and environmentally friendly grazing practices.

In November 2011, the first shipment of sustainable wool (29 tons) left Patagonia for Asia to be turned into socks for Patagonia, Inc. So far this scheme has worked to place two million acres under sustainable grazing agreements. Time will tell if the environmental protection purchased by conservationists from sheep ranchers will protect grasslands and associated waterways in the future, but signs look promising. Stay tuned…


The 10,000 Mile Diet

Publishers Weekly recommends The Locavore’s Dilemma: In Praise of the 10,000 Mile Diet, co-authored by former PERC fellows Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu, as a book to watch for in 2012.

Check out Shimizu’s piece in  PERC Reports where she outlines three myths about eating local.

  • Myth 1: Eating locally produced food reduces our environmental impact.
  • Myth 2: Local food is inherently safer.
  • Myth 3: Local food promotes economic growth and social justice.

“In short, the best way to reduce the carbon footprint of agricultural production is to produce food where it can be done most efficiently and to engage in international trade. Selecting food based on its affordability, availability, and quality is a better way to help the planet than focusing on food miles.”


Valentin Abe is spawning fish farmers in Haiti, lack of formal property rights be damned

by Tate Watkins

“Everything here in Haiti,” says Dr. Valentin Abe, “takes time.” Which is a comment as insightful as it is tautological.

Abe (pronounced AH-bay), originally from Côte d’Ivoire, first came to Haiti in 1997 on a six month contract to assess potential aquaculture sites. He’d recently earned a PhD in aquaculture from Auburn University, and before he knew it the contract spiraled into two years. He’s been working with fish farmers in Haiti ever since.

In 2005, he started Caribbean Harvest, a program that turns terra farmers into aqua farmers using startup aquaculture kits and fingerlings from Abe’s hatchery in Croix-des-Bouquets, in the outskirts of the capital. Potential fish farmers rely mainly on donations to provide startup costs, but the idea is that once a farmer has a kit—two cages, 2,400 fingerlings for each cage, and feed—his operation will sustain itself once the first harvest goes to market. The 150 or so farmers Abe works with have had varying degrees of success so far.

Haiti’s lack of formal property rights—the Hernando de Soto-backed international property rights index doesn’t even bother to include the country—has been cited ad infinitum, especially during the reconstruction tumult since the earthquake two years ago. But Abe and his partner farmers have had surprisingly few property rights-related problems when it comes to the waters that hold their fish.

“In the lakes and reservoirs,” he says, “[farmers] do the monitoring, provide security for the cages themselves. They do all the work.”

The Haitian constitution provides that “water resources are the domain of the state; the right to property does not extend to any springs, rivers, or water courses.” But in practice, informal customary law reigns, and farmers provide their own enforcement.

Land, however, is a different story.

“We’re trying to locate land and go build a processing plant,” says Abe. “The owner of the land, we know that he’s the owner of the land, but he doesn’t have the proper documentation because land has been handed down from generations, from father to son. So they’ve never felt the need to do the paperwork on the land, and we cannot build infrastructure on land that doesn’t have titles.”

Abe plans to build the fish processing plant near Lake Azuéi, Haiti’s largest lake and the site of many of Caribbean Harvest’s farmers. Eventually, he also wants to build fish ponds, a more efficient way to farm. But he faces the same hurdles when it comes to securing proper title for land on which he wants to build ponds. He guesses that it will take six months at best just for all parties to acquire the proper paperwork.

For now, he waits.

Tate Watkins is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes about economic development, foreign aid, and immigration, among other things. Currently in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Visit his website here. Photo via Caribbean Harvest.


What Ever Happened With Colony Collapse Disorder?

There has been plenty of bad news about bees lately. In 2006, beekeepers reported the mysterious disappearance of abnormal numbers of honeybees from their hives over the winter. The affliction, now known as Colony Collapse Disorder, has gripped the attention of the media—and perhaps for good reason. Honeybees are responsible not only for the honey in your cupboard, but also the pollination of many of the crops produced in North America.

If you were to rely on media reports alone, you might be inclined to believe that honeybees and honey are now in short supply. Based on the recent documentaries about Colony Collapse Disorder, you might believe that crops are at risk of going unpollinated and that we are heading towards a different “silent spring”—one in which the familiar springtime buzzing of the bee is no more.

Yet, somehow, the honey is in the cupboard and farmers across the country are still able to supply food to stock our shelves, all with little or no economic impact from CCD. How can this be?

As two prominent agricultural economists, Walter Thurman and Randal Rucker, discuss in a new PERC Policy Series, the market response of beekeepers provided a solution to the problem. Despite early predictions that CCD would cause billions of dollars of direct loss in crop production, beekeepers reacted so swiftly that virtually no changes were detected by consumers. While overcoming the difficulties of CCD has been no easy matter, beekeepers have proven themselves adept at navigating such changing market conditions.

“The state of the honey bee population – numbers, vitality, and economic output – are the products of not just the impact of disease but also the economic decisions made by beekeepers and farmers,” writes Rucker and Thurman.

You can read the latest PERC Policy Series here.


Fined for Failing to Do the Impossible

Back in 2007, Congress created a biofuels mandate under which oil companies are required to use a minimum amount of cellulosic ethanol each year.  The mandate was supposed to encourage the development of a domestic cellulosic ethanol industry.  This has not happened.  Several years after the mandate was imposed, there is still no commercial cellulosic ethanol production.  This gets the oil companies off the hook, right?  Nope.  As the New York Times reports, companies are still paying fines, totaling nearly $7 million, for failing to meet a blending quota for a substance that does not exist.  Were that not bad enough, this year the cellulosic ethanol quota will increase, as will the fines for failing to meet it.

Who would defend mandating the use of a substance that, for all practical purposes, does not exist?  Not the renewable fuel industry.  As the NYT reports, they acknowledge that commercial production of cellulosic ethanol remains years away.

“From a taxpayer/consumer standpoint, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense that we would require blenders to pay fines or fees or whatever for stuff that literally isn’t available,” said Dennis V. McGinn, a retired vice admiral who serves on the American Council on Renewable Energy.

The EPA, on the other hand, defends the mandate:

Cathy Milbourn, an E.P.A. spokeswoman, said that her agency still believed that the 8.65-million-gallon quota for cellulosic ethanol for 2012 was “reasonably attainable.” By setting a quota, she added, “we avoid a situation where real cellulosic biofuel production exceeds the mandated volume,” which would weaken demand.

AEI’s Ken Green has trouble making sense of the EPA’s rationalization:

So what’s most important about biofuel quotas is that they prevent us from over-producing a product that we can’t produce so we don’t weaken demand for the product that the government mandates we use.

As Green notes, Congress might as well have mandated oil companies blend gasoline with rainbows and unicorn sweat.

Originally posted at The Volokh Conspiracy.


Feeding More From Less

Halloween marked a new population milestone with the birth of the seven billionth person — an idea that is scary for some but sanguine for others. Worried about the finite resources available to a growing population, there is fear among some that we are headed toward famine and starvation in a world where population exceeds the earth’s carrying capacity.

A similar concern was demonstrated by Thomas Malthus 200 years ago. Population grows exponentially, Malthus explained, while food production grows at the slower arithmetic rate. Everything else the same, starvation would be indisputable.

Everything else is not the same. Crop yield is not constant, it has increased (see chart). The United States provides a good example of how population and food production have grown in a region with a strong rule of law. While corn yield has doubled nearly every ten years over the past half century, it took the population 36 years to double. At current rates of growth, it will be the next century before population doubles again. The growth in yield for other crops, such as wheat and rice, has also exceeded population growth rates (data here). In the end we are growing more food on less land, feeding ourselves and helping to feed the world.

Adapted from Environmental Trends.

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