Saturday, December 26, 2009

Hope, global warming, and new year's resolutions

Here is some good news if you are crafting a personal resolution about global warming or the environment as part of your New Year's Day tradition this week.

Reducing your energy use is easier than you think.

You can lower your fossil fuel use by a surprisingly large fraction, without trying to live like No Impact Man. We totally love No Impact Man in every venue -- blog, movie, book, anything. But, Colin Beavan and his family adopt some environmental practices that most Americans would be reluctant to attempt, while doing other things that look more difficult than they are. In my own family's experience, the trick to reducing energy use by a large fraction without much hardship is to focus on a few big things, such as (1) car use, (2) air travel, and (3) home energy use.

This approach is different from the usual conservation tips you hear about choosing the right green toilet paper or practicing 101 little things you can do to save the environment. We pursue many little efforts, too, especially to reduce the energy impact of our food choices, but with a relaxed and permissive spirit. Food plays a special role in our life, and environmental disciplines are easier to keep if food and cooking stay fun and enjoyable.

The main thing we learned is that major reductions in energy use can be achieved with little or no reduction in basic quality of life.

Car use

In 2006 and 2007, my children, wife, and I began to use our car less. It turned out to be more fun than we expected. At every turn, where we expected to find hardship, we found instead a way of getting around that we enjoyed better than driving.

Air travel

As our New Year's resolution for 2009, we decided to try to reduce our air travel. We had come to see that my own travel as a university teacher and researcher was swamping the impact of our family car use efforts. Psychologically, I had always blamed my work travel on the demands of the job, allocating responsibility to somebody else's moral account rather than my own.

The air travel resolution worked far better than expected. I didn't take a single work trip by air, but my work didn't suffer. I kept in touch with professional colleagues as well as ever on multiple business trips by train to DC and New York, and I drove once to Ithaca for a week as a guest scholar at Cornell, visiting a dozen colleagues with expertise in diverse areas of U.S. food policy on a single trip. My family took a single vacation by air to visit relatives in Florida, choosing to spend a longer time than usual, camping in the Florida Keys, visiting Key West, and having more fun than we would have had otherwise.

Home energy

Our third effort in recent years has been to reduce our home energy consumption. We began to hang up about half of our laundry, saving on our gas clothes dryer. We lowered our night-time temperature a bit, as many people do. We installed a programmable thermostat, so the house warmed up in the morning before we had to rise. We relied on our old gas furnace until it wore out in 2008, when we replaced it with one that had an energy star rating. We added some insulation to our walls.

Then, something more surprising happened. We talked to our kids about whether they were cold at night (they weren't). We agreed that we would experiment with lowering the thermostat at night about one degree a week, until we found ourselves chilly under our blankets, and then we would stop there. Far from being environmental zealots, our whole point was not to be uncomfortable. The thing is, we never did get cold. We have finally stopped at 53 degrees Fahrenheit as our night-time temperature, not because we are cold at night, but because our friends and relatives were close to deciding that we were insane. Fear of being perceived as environmental nutcases is all that keeps us from saving more energy still. Our comfort is just fine.

Saving money

A great paradox is that most people think environmentalism is something that only the privileged can afford.

The truth is that our efforts save us so much money that we feel, psychologically, as if we are living more richly than ever. That is something to consider in these times of financial crisis.

We save money on our automobile, and even get a discount from our insurance company for low mileage. We spend less money on air fare and more money on the fun parts of our vacations. Here is a chart of our home gas use by fiscal year (running from October of the previous year through September of the current year). From 2004 to 2009 our gas use fell by 57%.

Go ahead and brainstorm what you would do with the savings if your home energy bill were cut by half or more.


I follow the news from Copenhagen this month with the distress of somebody listening to a conversation where everybody is speaking a foreign language (and I don't mean Danish).

The rich countries dragged their feet about making the type of bold commitments that scientists believe could really halt climate change. The poor countries heard the clear message that acquiring riches of their own will require nearly unlimited energy consumption. Some analysts hoped for new technologies that will make commitments unnecessary.

And all of them seem to exaggerate the hardship -- in real terms of welfare, happiness, and comfort -- that bold conservation would bring. If our diplomats ever find the courage to commit to real reductions in energy use, we will still live plenty richly.

(Feel free to post comments, including your resolutions, or your own experience of personal conservation efforts that seem big but are actually psychologically easy.)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Help us understand the new study that shows GMOs are toxic

Tom Philpott and Tom Laskawy are reporting on a new study by French researchers, which re-analyzes some Monsanto data and concludes that GMO varieties may be toxic in rats.

Philpott explains the history.
The researchers analyzed data from tests done on rats by Monsanto and another biotech firm, Covance Laboratories, submitted to European government in 2000 and 2001. The firms conducted the tests to prove that their products were safe to eat; scrutinizing the same data, the researchers arrived at a different conclusion.

The three products in question are still quite relevant: one strain of Roundup Ready corn, engineered to withstand Monsanto’s flagship herbicide; and two strands of Bt corn, engineered to contain the insect-killing gene from the BT bacteria. Roundup Ready and Bt products are ubiquitous in the U.S. seed supply, often “stacked” into the same seed.
Laskawy says the earlier Monsanto study fudged the analysis.
Firstly, let's be clear -- industry scientists got bad results, fudged the analysis and then figured no one would notice. Well, it took almost a decade, but these enterprising French scientists did notice.
To see if this is true, I read the new study. The abstract is clear enough, and it does indeed say the GMO varieties were toxic to rats:
Our analysis clearly reveals for the 3 GMOs new side effects linked with GM maize consumption, which were sex- and often dose-dependent. Effects were mostly associated with the kidney and liver, the dietary detoxifying organs, although different between the 3 GMOs. Other effects were also noticed in the heart, adrenal glands, spleen and haematopoietic system. We conclude that these data highlight signs of hepatorenal toxicity, possibly due to the new pesticides specific to each GM corn.
But, I wanted to read the actual empirical results that back this claim. There are dozens of results reported in the study, and I could not understand many of them.

Here is my request for help: Can you point to some particular table entries that support the claim in the abstract?

If you have a particular result to suggest, we can read it closely together, with one dose of open-mindedness and one dose of skepticism. Then, we can decide whether Laskawy is right that the Monsanto researchers have committed a scientific crime.

You might look for such a result in Table 1 and Table 2, which report selected parameters showing the difference between GMO-fed rats and conventional-fed rats. From the abstract, the important parameters might relate to liver or kidney outcomes. All I need is for somebody to pick and explain one or two of those parameters. Personally, I couldn't understand these tables because they seemed to lack clear information about the mean values for the GMO-fed and conventional-fed rats, the column headings were confusing to me, and the accompanying discussion did not include clear interpretation sentences.

Alternatively, you might look for such a result in Tables F or G of the appendix. Here, too, my understanding is confused, because I could not tell if these are raw results, or statistically-adjusted results based on Tables 1 and 2.

Philpott and Laskawy and the French researchers make a striking claim about the dangers of GMO crops. I'd like to understand the empirical evidence that supports this claim.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

US dairy industry's "sustainability plan"

This week the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy announced a joint agreement to support a U.S. dairy industry goal to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 25% over 20 years. Unfortunately, the dairy industry's idea of sustainability through mitigation inhibits the real process changes needed to combat climate change and the creation of a truly sustainable food system.

The real way to combat climate change in dairy is by reducing dairy consumption (and therefore, production) and by producing dairy from cows raised on pasture, two things the industry is far from considering.

The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy (ICUSD) was created in 2008 to foster industry-wide pre-competitive collaboration and innovation in strategies designed to increase sales of milk and milk products. One of the founding organizations of the ICUSD is Dairy Management Inc™, which manages the national dairy check-off program.

From an industry perspective, the "sustainability" focus is on CO2 emissions, largely in response to anticipated government regulation. Further, the approach is how to extract value and utilize opportunities to leverage demand. Much of the results from lifecycle analysis (LCA) conducted by land grant universities, show the largest reduction potential in the production phase of the dairy value-chain. Consequently, their strategy for sustainability is targeting nutrition management of cows (changing ratio of corn and protein feed) and the utilization of methane digesters to mitigate methane from manure lagoons.

Research presented on the Measurement of GHG Emissions from Dairy Farms at the Climate Change Research Conference by Dr. Frank Mitloehner, Air Quality CE Specialist Animal Science at UC Davis, had some interesting findings:
  • The main dairy GHG source is cows, rather than waste.
  • The CO2 emissions from cow respiration cannot be mitigated without reducing herd size.
  • The leading methane contributor is enteric fermentation from cows eating corn instead of their natural fodder, grass.
  • The leading nitrous oxide contributor is land application of manure and fertilizer for growing feed (corn).
  • Nitrous oxide has almost 15 times more the global warming potential as methane.
That scientific perspective, emphasizing smaller herd sizes and the value of grass, is overlooked in much industry communication. Industry communication instead boasts of past efficiency gains and promotes increased milk consumption for good nutrition.

The most cited piece of literature by industry dairy sustainability initiatives is from Dr. Jude Capper currently at Washington State University. “The Environmental Impact of Dairy Production: 1944 compared with 2007” published in The Journal of Animal Science found that the carbon footprint per billion kg of milk produced in 2007 was 37% of the equivalent milk production in 1944. It concludes:

"Contrary to the negative image often associated with “factory farms”, fulfilling the U.S. population’s requirement for dairy products while improving environmental stewardship can only be achieved by using modern agricultural techniques. The immediate challenge for the dairy industry is to actively communicate…the considerable potential for environmental mitigation yet to be gained through use of modern dairy production systems."

Jill Richardson at La Vida Locavore recently criticized Capper's research in her post "Junk Science Study Says Factory Farming is Better" for including Roger Cady, former Sustainability Lead Monsanto and now works for Elanco (the former and current owners of rBGH), on the team of researchers. Cady was criticized by Tom Phillpot at Grist for conflict of interest in research extolling the environmental benefits of rBGH.

Capper’s twitter name is “Lactolobbyist” and she describes herself as a “dairy scientist passionately spreading the word about reducing environmental impact through improved productive efficiency and use of biotechnology.”

The other most cited resource in the milk industry's sustainability literature is the USDA's 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommends consumption of 3 cups per day of fat-free or low-fat milk or equivalent milk products. According to Open Secrets, the dairy industry spent $3.3 million on federal lobbying in 2006, with Dean Foods, the National Milk Producers Federation and the Dairy Foods Association topping the list of spenders. The Dietary Guideline Advisory committee in 2005 was heavily criticized for its ties to dairy.

Ironically, the ICUSD primer reveals two important pillars of sustainable agriculture: the importance of place and scale:
“Today, in many states where climate is conducive, roughly 50% of producers use pastures to meet some fraction of their herds’ dietary needs. Of these producers roughly half practice continuous grazing which, compared to intensive grazing, is a less efficient method of providing forage and of sequestering carbon.”
They note: “generally this includes dairies in the Midwest, Southeast, and New England regions. although the amount of a herd’s dietary needs that can be met by pasturage varies by climate, management practices, and site-specific constraints.”

But, this discussion of pasturing and Midwestern production overlooks the dairy industry's real home base -- industrial production in California and other places with water shortages. According to the University of Minnesota Extension, California ranks #1 in the U.S. in total dairy cows (1.7 million cows on 2,030 dairies) and #1 in total milk production (21% of U.S. milk supply). The average herd size is 850 milking cows, with 46 percent of all dairies over 500 head.

These cows are not raised on pasture. They are raised on dairy freestall and drylot housing (concrete) in Tulare County in the San Joaquin Valley with 1,071,956 of their closest friends. Tulare County and five counties in the central valley account for 49% of the total milk production in California. Tulare County alone accounts for 25% of California’s total milk production and has an average herd size of 1,300 head.

And they drink a lot of water (in the desert) - 20-50 gallons a day and create a lot of waste - approximately 120 pounds, or 14.475 gallons of manure a day per cow.

Even with mitigation with methane digesters, the industry is off the mark towards sustainability. A real commitment comes from decreasing consumption of dairy and producing milk in the way it was intended, through cows on pasture. Seems like nature's own supply and demand curve. Until we have the dairy industry's commitment to these tenets, I am not convinced that sustainability in dairy is possible.

From the ICUSD site:
"Ideally the dairy industry will chart our own course in sustainability." -Jed Davis, Cabot Creamery

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Joel Berg: Good Food, Good Jobs

In a new report from the Progressive Policy Institute, Joel Berg can be tough on writers who are naive about food policy.

For example, Berg quotes Marlene Kennedy, who suggested in the Albany Times-Union in 2008 that SNAP (food stamp) participants take up gardening:
Rather than working hard to increase participation in food and nutrition assistance programs, why not try to reduce the need for such aid? Instead of spreading the word about food stamps to the urban poor, why not give them a way to grow their own food?
Berg responds with a tart call to realism:
The idea that people should work in a community garden instead of getting food stamps is simply preposterous. SNAP is a vital safety-net program that makes a real difference in the lives of millions of Americans, providing mass sustenance in a way community gardens still have yet to achieve.... Saying that seasonal gardens can take the place of a year-round government safety net is ridiculous and counterproductive.
On the other hand, Berg can also be rough on writers who are too narrowly realistic.

For example, many community food programs start small, but Berg disagrees with those who sneer at the small initial scale of such programs.
[J]ust as I rebuke food security theorists for glossing over the class-insensitive aspects of the movement, I must also chide my colleagues in traditional hunger organizations for too frequently looking down their noses at the community food security movement just because most of the projects are still small-scale. If anti-hunger advocates agree that such projects are helpful but believe their scale is too small to make a meaningful difference, the most logical response should be to work together to develop public policies to help them expand.
So, using Berg's perspective, in which it is possible to be too naive, too realistic, or just right, I invite comments on the balance struck in several of the proposals in Berg's report.

A. A new $1 billion tax credit.
The president and Congress should authorize $1 billion in new, special tax credits for food-related businesses, contingent on their paying living-wage salaries to their employees, locating or staying in areas of particularly high unemployment, or providing affordable food to low-income Americans.
B. The bully pulpit.
The president should use his “bully pulpit” to encourage private investments in food-related social innovation projects.
C. A food access index.
USDA should develop a “food access index,” a new measure that takes into account both the availability and affordability of nutritious foods, and use this measure as another tool to judge the success of all the efforts it funds.
D. $50 million in community food grants.
The president and Congress should increase the funding for the USDA Community Food Grant Program to $50 million, from its current $5 million level.
Berg directs the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and is author of All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America?

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

A food policy debate

The Economist debate this week addresses the proposition:
This house believes that governments should play a stronger role in guiding food and nutrition choices.
Kelly Brownell of Yale University is for the motion:
Three major food issues face the world. Local, national, and global governing authorities must take bold and innovative action to avoid catastrophic health consequences, political upheaval, and political and financial instability around the globe.
Melanie Leech of the Food and Drink Federation is opposed:
The food and drink industry shares society's concerns about the health of the nation, particularly rising obesity levels, and it is committed to playing a positive role in responding to this vital debate.

Food stamp participation by race and ethnicity

The New York Times recently posted a terrific web utility for mapping SNAP (food stamp) participation across the counties of the United States.

The federal government's Food and Nutrition Service publishes only state-level SNAP data on the web, not county level. When one maps state-level data, the visual result is too blocky to communicate much information. So, the clever and hard-working New York Times data folks contacted states directly for county-level information.

As a result, one gets a clear image of the landscape of American poverty from county-level data. At a glance, one sees the layout of high rates of SNAP participation across Appalachia, the Mississippi delta and the deep south, the Texas borderlands, and remote rural parts of the West.

Mostly, the outstanding features of the map above reflect the economic landscape rather than state boundaries (although I wonder what to make of the Missouri / Arkansas border, which may reflect either data quality issues or policy differences across states).

An especially interesting feature of the New York Times utility is the ability to map changes in SNAP participation from 2007 to 2009:

Here, the outstanding features are not the overall level of poverty, but instead: (a) the impact of the current financial crisis, including terrible rates of foreclosure in places like Atlanta and Florida, and (b) state boundaries seem more pronounced. For example, notice the Wisconsin border, and the Ohio / Indiana border. Does this mean differences in state SNAP policies have contributed to differences in enrollment recently?

The New York Times utility also permits the user to break down the data by age (children versus adults) and by race and ethnicity. For some purposes, it would be even more interesting to look at the number of SNAP (food stamp) participants relative to all poor people, by race and ethnicity, rather than relative to all people. Such a map, which cannot be created using the New York Times utility, would be more useful if you are interested in discrimination issues in food stamp policy.

A few years ago, Chris Dicken at ERS and I created maps of that sort using California data in a working paper. For example, here is a map of white and black food stamp participants as a fraction of the corresponding poor population.

Similarly, here is the map showing Hispanic food stamp participants as a fraction of the corresponding poor population.

The New York Times mapping utility was produced by Matthew Bloch, Jason DeParle, Matthew Ericson and Robert Gebeloff. DeParle and Gebeloff wrote a related feature article on the SNAP program, which has experienced rapid growth recently. The newspaper also ran a lively debate about SNAP policy with leading bloggers and new media writers.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Gaining Ground Cookbook

The Gaining Ground community is excited about its new cookbook, which is already on its second printing run. My Friedman School colleague, Lisa Troy, president of the board for Gaining Ground, writes that the organization has been contacted for an entry to be included in the White House Cookbook for Children, featuring recipes using produce grown in the White House garden.

Gaining Ground is a not-for-profit 17-acre community farm in Concord, MA, which donates its produce to area food pantries and meal programs.