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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.

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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.

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The Health Costs of Plastic Grocery Bag Bans

Many jurisdictions have implemented bans or taxes on plastic grocery bags based on environmental concerns. In 2007, San Francisco enacted a county-wide ban that included large grocery stores and drugstores. Los Angeles, Palo Alto, and other cities in California have followed suit.

In research carried out at PERC this summer, Jonathan Klick, a PERC Lone Mountain Fellow, argues that reusable grocery bags contain potentially harmful bacteria, especially coliform bacteria such as E. coli. Klick finds that, in the wake of San Francisco’s ban, deaths and ER visits related to these bacteria spiked as soon as the ban went into effect. For more on this ongoing research, watch our interview with Klick above.

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The D.C. Circuit’s Greenhouse Gas Decision

Today’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in Coalition for Responsible Regulation v. EPA is quite significant for environmental law. The court turned away the state and industry challenges to the EPA’s decision to begin regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. The only element of the decision that is at all surprising is the court’s dismissal of the challenges to the EPA’s “tailoring rule” due to a lack of standing.

On the merits, the court rejected challenges to the EPA’s determination that the emission of greenhouse gases causes or contributes to air pollution that which may be reasonably anticipated to endanger public health or welfare (the “endangerment finding”) and rejected claims that the EPA’s new standards for GHG emissions from mobile sources were arbitrary and capricious. This was to be expected. As I’ve noted before, judicial review of these sorts of decisions is highly deferential, and the EPA did not have to do much to support its decision. Even if the industry challengers had been able to convince the court that climate change is not that big of a deal, this would not have been enough to overturn the endangerment finding, provided the EPA gave a sufficient explanation of its conclusions — which it did.

The more interesting parts of the opinion concern whether the petitioners could challenge the EPA’s decision to regulate stationary source GHG emissions generally, and the EPA’s adoption of the tailoring rule in particular. On the former question, the court concluded that industry petitioners could challenge a decades-old EPA determination that the regulation of a pollutant from mobile sources under Section 202 of the Act triggers stationary source regulations. This was because there were some plaintiffs who had never-before been subject to stationary source regulation under the Clean Air Act because it was not until carbon dioxide was treated as a pollutant that these plantiffs emitted enough of a regulated substance to fall within the Act’s controls.

This small victory on ripeness was but a prelude to a loss on a larger question: Whether large emitters of greenhouse gases could challenge the EPA’s decision to forego regulation of smaller sources. No, the court concluded, because the industry petitioners did not satisfy the requirements for Article III standing to challenge the EPA’s failure to regulate someone else. However great the injury some industry groups may suffer from GHG regulation, the court reasoned, forcing the EPA to regulate additional sources would provide no meaningful redress. It does not matter that the EPA’s tailoring rule flatly contradicts the plain text of the Clean Air Act and represents a dramatic assertion of agency discretion over a detailed, legislatively crafted scheme. If there’s no standing, the suit cannot proceed.

This decision will be the last stop for most, if not all, of the industry challenges to the GHG rules. En banc and cert petitions may get filed, but I can’t see either the full D.C. Circuit or the Supreme Court having much interest in the endangerment finding or the EPA’s mobile source rules. If any claim has a chance to go on, it would be the standing argument. If there’s an issue in this case that could catch the Supreme Court’s attention, this would be it. Among other things, it could giver the Supreme Court the opportunity to address how recent standing decisions affect standing claims based upon alleged competitive harm (i.e. the harm suffered by company A due to the government’s favorable treatment of company B). Still, I would not bet on it. In all likelihood those who oppose GHG regulation under the Clean Air Act will have to direct their attention to Congress. They’re done in the courts.

Cross-posted at the Volokh Conspiracy.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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Whoo Decides How Much Is Enough?

From the New York Times in September:

Looking around the stand, Laurie Wayburn, co-founder of the Pacific Forest Trust, which manages this 2,200-acre forest plot for the Fred M. van Eck Forest Foundation, sees a variety of things: thick, straight trees that will generate millions of dollars for the foundation; a healthy forest that filters drinking water and stores carbon dioxide; and a maturing, complex habitat for a variety of animals, including the endangered northern spotted owl.

The adage that northern spotted owls compete with forest jobs should be left to rest. There is value in old-growth forests, but to argue that preserving land is the only way to safeguard the owl is myopic. Forests are dynamic and so are species. Interestingly, science is too.

Science is the knowledge and inquiry of the natural world. Science demonstrates what is and what could be under varying conditions. Science does not, however, measure relative values.

Science cannot tell us whether timber jobs or acreage set aside for spotted owls is better. That is value based. Nonetheless, the Endangered Species Act makes it clear that species on the brink take precedence over other land uses.

In the early 1990s it was heartily argued that the northern spotted owl was competing with timber jobs. Indeed, it was determined that the primary threat to the northern spotted owl was decreased old growth as a result of timber harvest. A couple of decades later the forests have changed, the management has changed, the threat to the owl has changed, but policy argues for more of the same: preservation.

What does science tell us about the forest policy to protect the northern spotted owl?

  • Owls like mature, old-growth forests. But they also like managed forests.
  • In 1990 it was presumed that decreased old growth acreage in the Pacific Northwest was the primal threat to the northern spotted owl. In 2011 it was determined that the barred owl, a competing species that displaces the spotted owl, is the greatest threat.
  • Under the 1994 Pacific Northwest Forest Plan, 24 million acres of federal land was designated as northern spotted owl habitat. Seven million of those acres prohibit timber harvest. Harvest in the Pacific Northwest has declined by more than 80 percent as a result. Timber consumption has not similarly declined, so timber is cut elsewhere to meet demand.
  • Forests are dynamic and have changed between 1994 and 2003. About three percent of the habitat set aside for owls was lost to wildfire and insect infestation. Set aside forests are aging and becoming more vulnerable to fire and insect infestation over time. Newly matured national forest acreage suitable for owl habitat increased by about eight percent.

The critical habitat revisions proposed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2011 aims to set aside more land for the owl, increase active management, and remove the barred owl.

Science cannot provide the policy solution to saving the northern spotted owl. It is inherently preference based.

Originally posted at Environmental Trends.

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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.

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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.

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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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A Prize for Ocean Cleanup

Last month, the X-Prize Foundation announced the winners of the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup Challenge.  The challenge was created to spur the development of more effective oil spill cleanup methods.  Specifically, the challenge offered $1.4 million in prizes for the development of removing oil from the ocean’s surface.  The aim was to double the industry’s best oil recovery rate in controlled conditions.  The winning team, Elastec/American Marine, demonstrated an oil recovery rate more than three times the industry’s previous best and was awarded the top prize of $1 million.

This is another example of how technology inducement prizes can spur the development of valuable technologies, and further evidence that such prizes are far more cost-effective than ex ante R&D grants or government investments in speculative ventures like Solyndra.  The latter may be more politically popular, but prizes would be a better use of taxpayer dollars.  As I’ve argued at length, if we’re serious about problems like global climate change, we should invest more in prizes and less in conventional approaches to government-sponsored R&D.

(Thanks to Roger Meiners for the pointer.)

Originally posted at The Volokh Conspiracy.