Tuesday, July 12, 2016

July 2016 update on the #flyingless initiative

The ‪#‎flyingless‬ campaign has been enjoying a flurry of activity since the last update.

1. See Joe Nevins' new interview, posted today on the flyingless.org website, with legal innovator Professor Mary Christina Wood. She contributed to the idea that nature is a "public trust," with dramatic potential implications for addressing climate change. She also is a #flyingless supporter: "Universities will have to re-think their flying practices in a very serious way."

2. Several people connected with our campaign were involved with the remarkable nearly carbon-free conference on Climate Change and the Humanities. Ken Hiltner was the lead organizer and inspiration. Presenters included Peter Singer, Joe Nevins, Peter Kalmus, and myself. On the final day, in addition to the main event in California, we had a fine group of about 12 participants on the Tufts University campus linked by videoconference. Ken Hiltner has created a White Paper / Practical Guide with lessons about how to organize such a conference, and there already is a future conference planned "The World in 2050: Creating/Imagining Just Climate Futures."

3. Please continue to share the flyingless.org website. Important links are available from the "Menu" button at top right of the page. There now are 375 academic signatories for the petition! Twitter: @flyingless.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Exercise, weight loss, and the food environment

A clear and effective video from Vox explains why exercise is not directly a cure for overweight. The video's message -- rightly -- is that we should pay close attention to food intake and the quality of the food environment.

The video does note that physical activity has strong direct effects on health. Nonetheless, I would have emphasized the benefits of physical activity even more strongly than the video does.

My first reason for giving physical activity yet more credit is a bit geeky. Much of the research literature uses regression models where a weight measure is the outcome variable and physical activity or exercise is the main explanatory variable. To make sure the analysis really reflects the "effect" of exercise, the studies include additional control variables such as food intake and general health. Yet, when we step up our physical activity, we may experience improvements in health, mood, and feelings of self-efficacy. Including explanatory variables for food intake and health status may risk "over-controlling" for other factors. We may eat healthier when our mood is good. We may avoid periods of poor health and inactivity that lead to weight gain. Perhaps stepping up our physical activity deserves some of the credit for improvements in weight that are being picked up by the control variables.

My second reason for giving physical activity yet more credit is more superficial. For some people who seek to lose weight, the ultimate goal is to look better. I have mixed feelings about whether this is good psychology, but it does seem to be common. Stepping up physical activity may affect posture, muscle tone, and confidence, making people look better in ways that the scale may not register.

But the video certainly is right that researchers in recent years have become more careful about not over-promising physical activity as a complete weight loss program on its own.

 

Friday, June 10, 2016

Tufts Research Day 2016: Global food security

The Tufts Research Day is an annual event highlighting inter-disciplinary work on a cross-cutting topic. The 2016 event, on April 25, was titled Research Day on Global Food Security: Crisis and Opportunity. The format was a series of short accessible "lightning talks." My session on metrics and data needs included Tufts faculty members: Colin Orians (biology), Jennifer Coates (nutrition science and policy), and Christine Wanke (public health).

My talk focused on the diverse measurement tools for and policy uses of domestic food insecurity statistics. The conclusion is that there is no fundamental economic or physical barrier preventing us from having much lower rates of food insecurity and hunger in the United States.


Tuesday, May 03, 2016

A most innovative conference on Climate Change: Views from the Humanities

Today is the opening of a remarkable and nearly carbon-free conference organized by Ken Hiltner and colleagues at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The title is Climate Change: Views from the Humanities.

From today until May 31, all of the talks will be available at the conference website. Then, there will be closing events by videoconference on May 31. You may sign up for free to participate in the online question and answer threads.

The keynote talks include noted ethicist Peter Singer, literature professor E. Ann Kaplan, bestselling science fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, and English professor Ashley Dawson. Singer's thesis is fierce: "What the rich nations are doing is indefensible."

The breakout session titled "Flying and Focusing on the Everyday" includes climate scientist Peter Kalmus, geographer Joe Nevins, and myself. Peter's talk is a heartfelt, sincere reflection on the personal aspects of being a climate scientist in our surreal times, drawing heavily on a small convenience sample of his colleagues. Joe's offbeat and irreverent talk considers whether non-flying conferences such as this one are "self-referential self-righteous ascetic bullshit," and his rebuttal to this accusation is 100% convincing. I'll embed my own talk below.

Joe and I come from different disciplines, but have become friends in the past year while founding an international campaign to encourage constructive progress by universities and professional associations to change our culture of flying. Our website is flyingless.org, and our Twitter handle is @flyingless. There are links on the website to a general petition, a list of more than 360 academic supporters, and a Frequently Asked Questions page. If you are an academic who wants to support a well-considered and sensible initiative to encourage universities and professional associations to make an essential cultural change -- while maintaining the good that we seek to do through our work -- then please email us at academicflyingpetition@gmail.com.

I have not been so inspired by a conference for many years. There is something liberating and joyous and rebellious in hitting "pause" on the usual dissonant soundtrack of our jet-setting academic lives, and instead actually starting to live the professional practice that we would live in a sane world that takes climate change seriously.


Saturday, April 30, 2016

Checkoff program supporters seek to shield checkoff boards from freedom-of-information scrutiny

Here is a small example of Washington at its worst.

The Capital Press reports this week that several agriculture commodity organizations have successfully lobbied members of Congress to include a provision in the House agricultural appropriations bill that would protect the federal government's "checkoff" commodity promotion boards from public records disclosure requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Through these programs, the federal government uses its taxation powers to enforce the collection of more than $500 million each year in mandatory assessments on commodity producers, to be spent on campaigns such as "Got Milk" and "Pork. Be Inspired."

Because these semi-public programs are established by Congress and the commodity boards are appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture, they have always been subject to freedom-of-information rules. It stands to reason: farmers and the public deserve to know what's really going on with these well-funded USDA-sponsored programs.

As a reminder, or for new readers, here is the story of how this U.S. Food Policy blog used FOIA to get information about the dubious $60 million sale of the "Other White Meat" slogan from the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) to the National Pork Board (NPB). We concluded that this sale -- for a slogan that now is nearly worthless and has been replaced by "Be Inspired" -- really was just a way for the checkoff program to funnel money to the NPPC.

Our investigation is exactly the type of public interest research the new bill is designed to prevent. The House appropriations bill language reads as follows:
“The funding used to operate and carry out the activities of the various research and promotion programs is provided by producers and industry stakeholders, and employees on the boards are not federal employees. Therefore, the committee urges USDA to recognize that such boards are not subject to the provisions of 5 U.S.C. Section 552 (the Freedom of Information Act).”
Let people know what you think about this.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Jayson Lusk's new book: Unnaturally Delicious


Noted agricultural economist Jayson Lusk's new book is Unnaturally Delicious (St. Martin's Press, 2016), a love letter to food and agricultural technology.

I can see the potential appeal of the object of Lusk's praise in his many examples of new technologies that help solve serious food system dilemmas -- for example, faster microbial detection to allow food manufacturers to respond to hazards, electronic sensors for precise crop nitrogen requirements to allow farmers to avoid over-application of fertilizer, and so forth.

In other cases, it feels like Lusk is singing the beauty of an airbrushed model on a magazine cover, when a more natural look would have sufficed. I do not see the point of personalized food from a 3-D printer ("the new killer app"), robots that can cook Mexican food (so we might not "even need a home kitchen in the future"), or meat grown directly from stem cells for boutique novelties ("If stem cells from cows can grow a hamburger, why not take stem cells from a rhino and create rhinoburger? Or mix a few stem cells from a giraffe or rabbit to create a truly unique delicacy?"). What appeal can the multi-colored confection on the book's cover possibly have, in a world that actually contains sweet natural pink grapefruit?

Much more than his previous book, Food Police, Lusk's new book pays attention to important environmental concerns. Still, in every case, the costs of environmental problems are portrayed as fully internalized. Sure, Lusk says, waste from manufacturing plants could be a problem in principle, but he gives us an image of 19th century processed meat baron Gustavus Swift inspecting the drainage pipe from his factory to prevent byproducts from pouring into the river, highly motivated to protect the value of any bits of economically valuable fat that might thereby be wasted. Sure, Lusk says, there is in principle the environmental problem of hypoxic zones in the Gulf of Mexico, "and some experts believe that agricultural runoff is largely to blame," but farmers are highly motivated to prevent over-application of fertilizer because of the internalized cost.

This gives us a fantasy world in which new technology spares us from the need for regulation or any type of shared response to environmental problems. As I read, I wondered if it would be too unkind to say that Lusk treats new technology and environmental sustainability as equivalent by definition. But, in the last words of Chapter 8, Lusk spared me the dilemma, by making the book's thesis explicit: "As I see it, sustainability and using agricultural technology are one and the same."

I love agricultural technology, and often argue that productivity gains and increased efficiency are not some capitalist scam, but are profoundly environmental virtues. But I would never say that sustainability and agricultural technology are one and the same. For my profession, food and agricultural economics, it is better to jointly address the environmental good and bad from new technology, and to jointly consider (a) market economics, (b) other new technologies, and (c) public policy as the remedies for environmental challenges.


Thursday, March 17, 2016

Debating the role of government and markets in food policy

Politico's Agenda today has a special issue on food policy.

It prominently highlights the great work of my Friedman School colleagues Miriam Nelson and Christina Economos:
Miriam Nelson got the call while she was rock climbing in Canada: It was the White House assistant chef, of all people, summoning her to a closed-door meeting with the new first lady of the United States. It was 2009, Nelson was one of the nation’s top experts on nutrition and exercise, a Tufts University professor at the time, and she wasn’t the only one: a half-dozen more got the same surprise invitation....

With Democrats holding control of Congress, Nelson and the others realized, the East Wing was formulating a big policy push that would use all available levers of the federal government to improve how Americans eat. They wanted a new law to make school lunches healthier; they saw ways to deploy federal stimulus dollars on new cooking equipment in public school cafeterias and to use government financing to get grocery stores into poor communities where fresh food wasn’t readily available. They wanted to overhaul the federal nutrition label so it confronted shoppers more directly with calorie counts. Even the more symbolic side of American food policy was coming under the microscope: A reboot of the decades-old “food pyramid” that told families how to balance a meal.

“You really got the sense that this is something that she was likely to take on,” recalled Nelson, who was asked for advice on nutrition and exercise programs that worked. “It was very exciting.”
I also enjoyed Danny Vinik's interesting poll of food policy experts. It seems revealing that most of the respondents would have supported stronger language in the Dietary Guidelines encouraging Americans to consume less meat (after all, that was the view of the more independent scientific Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee), limits on healthy food marketing to kids, and state or local initiatives to tax soda. Separately, the majority also supported greater efforts to reduce hunger. But, the majority did not support mandatory GMO labeling. I was included in the sample, and, in each case, I voted with the majority.

A brief digression on survey sampling: The poll is not a scientific survey of observations randomly sampled from a larger population of food policy experts in general. Instead, it is a tabulation of responses from a particular sample of researchers and writers on food policy topics. As such, it seems important to let readers know who was sampled -- which is exactly what Vinik does in a list at the bottom of the article. That seems to me a completely legitimate reporting approach. Also, it is fun to try to guess which of my colleagues gave which answers.