Monday, October 29, 2012

Choices Magazine: What happens when the well goes dry?

The special theme for the current issue of Choices Magazine is: "What happens when the well goes dry?  And other agricultural disasters."

The theme's overview, by Dave Shideler, puts the 2012 drought into context:
[T]he increasing probability of drought conditions across the U.S. due to increasing climate variability should cause decision makers to think beyond the immediate crisis.
Other contributors include K. Bradley Watkins, David P. Anderson, J. Mark Welch, John Robinson, Kurt M. Guidry, J. Ross Pruitt, Kurt A. Schwabe, and Jeffery D. Connor.  Choices Magazine is an outreach publication of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Conservation Crossroads from C-FARE

The Council on Food, Agricultural, and Resource Economics (C-FARE) in July released a nice accessible report series entitled Conservation Crossroads.  The reports review important conservation policies at a time when U.S. agricultural programs are in flux, so it is unclear whether new farm programs will have the same connections to conservation objectives that older programs had.  I serve on C-FARE's board of directors.  Through outreach publications and webinars, C-FARE seeks to share the excellent work of food and agricultural economists with a wider audience.

Top 10 Design Elements to Achieve More Efficient Conservation Programs
Prof. David Zilberman, University of California at Berkeley and Prof. Kathleen Segerson, University of Connecticut
Top 10 Design Elements to Achieve More Efficient Conservation Programs
This paper examines how conservation programs for agriculture provide significant social and environmental benefits. However, given budget constraints and pressures to increase production, Conservation programs must further evolve to maximize effectiveness at the lowest possible cost to the American taxpayer. This paper provides a "Top 10" list of improvements that could be made to Conservation programs in order to get the biggest bang for the buck, both for taxpayers and the environment.
[ Click to download PDF ]

Economic and Environmental Effects of Agricultural Insurance Programs
Prof. Daniel A. Sumner, University of California at Davis and Prof. Carl Zulauf, Ohio State University
Economic and Environmental Effects of Agricultural Insurance Programs
This paper observes that over the past decade crop insurance has evolved into the largest subsidy among U.S. farm programs. With the impending elimination of direct payments, crop and revenue insurance and the related "shallow loss programs" will be even more important, especially for program commodities. However, agricultural insurance programs stimulate production of the more subsidized crops and likely result in less diversification of crops, expanded planting on marginal land, and increased potential for adverse environmental effects of farming.
[ Click to download PDF ]

Examining the Relationship of Conservation Compliance & Farm Program Incentives
Prof. Otto Doering, Purdue University and Katherine Smith, American Farmland Trust
Examining the Relationship of Conservation Compliance & Farm Program Incentives
This paper reviews the historical context of the Conservation Compliance farm program, and its impact on both farmers and civil society. The paper discusses the incentive structure of the modern Conservation Compliance system and highlights the risks and dynamics associated with changing this structure.
[ Click to download PDF ]

Implications of a Reduced Conservation Reserve Program
Prof. JunJie Wu and Prof. Bruce Weber of Oregon State University
Implications of a Reduced Conservation Reserve Program
This paper provides an analysis of the economic and environmental impacts of a reduced Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). The current context of federal budget constraints coupled with historically high commodity prices has led to scrutiny of the program. However, the paper points out that there should be an equally robust discussion of the macro-economic relationships between strong conservation reserve programs and economic well-being. Furthermore, the authors examine the historical relationship between the CRP and the conditions of rural communities, recreation and the environment. [ Click to download PDF ]

State-level data on children's poverty and nutrition programs

The Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center this week released new resources about breakfast and lunch participation in Massachusetts schools.  A chart pack (.pdf) illustrates data describing the extent of take-up of nutrition benefits, and a summary graphic (.pdf) traces a wide variety of nutrition assistance programs from the federal funding sources to the state and local implementation level.

More generally, the Kids Count data center from the Annie E. Casey Foundation has a wide variety of state-level data resources for all states.  For example, here is an interactive map showing children's poverty levels by regions within Massachusetts (you can mouse over selected counties to see specific statistics).

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Two communication strategies for reducing sugary drinks

First, I like the plain matter-of-fact tone of the federal government's MyPlate graphic. It paints a pleasant portrait of a healthy meal, and then underlines several key messages for consumers by stating them in blunt English.  One of the key recommendations is to "drink water instead of sugary drinks."

A reasonable person may add that one should drink water instead of sugary drinks most of the time, but the mainstream message of the dietary guidelines reflects the best judgement of scientists in this field.

Balancing Calories
  • Enjoy your food, but eat less. 
  • Avoid oversized portions. 
Foods to Increase
  • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables. 
  • Make at least half your grains whole grains. 
  • Switch to fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk. 
Foods to Reduce
  • Compare sodium in foods like soup, bread, and frozen meals and choose the foods with lower numbers. 
  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks. 
Second, in a new video from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), public health marketers seek to both imitate and expose the emotive power of soda advertisements.  In the video, a family of polar bears endures the harsh effects of diabetes and learns that the soda advertisements offer only a false promise of happiness.  The video strays close to playing on guilt themes as motivation for healthy behaviors, but the polar bears are fundamentally sympathetic, and they take charge of their own lives in the nice ending. 

If you dislike the video's harsh imagery, I'd be interested to hear about it.  But I do think the beverage association spokesperson's rebuttal -- in a USA Today article -- rings false:
But ABA spokeswoman Karen Hanretty says, "CSPI is better at producing videos than they are doing math. People are drinking fewer calories from soda -- and have been for a decade -- so how can soda be to blame for rising obesity?" 
The basic message that it is better to limit sugary drinks is well-established and denying this with misleading trend statistics just makes the video look like the more serious party in this conversation.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Survey says more than three quarters intend to vote "yes" on California Prop 37 GE labeling proposal

According to a new poll (.pdf) conducted during September 20-27 in California, 76.8% of respondents would vote "yes" on Prop 37 -- calling for mandatory labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods.

This estimate is much higher than I would have expected.  The survey report, by Jayson L. Lusk and Brandon McFadden from Oklahoma State University, has several interesting features. (Lusk keeps a lively blog, where he discussed U.S. Food Policy's earlier post on Prop 37.)

First, among those intending to vote "yes," 71% said their motivation had to do with the right to know what is in their food, while 16% listed food safety concerns.  It is reassuring that comparatively few respondents listed food safety concerns.  In my opinion, food safety concerns are not the most sound reason for supporting biotech labeling.

Second, the survey included some sharp questions about whether people would still favor mandatory labeling even if it made food more expensive.  Sensibly, fewer than half of respondents would support mandatory labeling if it led to price increases of more than 12%.  That would be a very large price increase!  More than half of respondents would still support Prop 37 if there were smaller price increases.  To me, although the median price point seems high, this again suggests that the respondents perceived the essentials of the economic tradeoffs implied by the proposition.

To put the price increase issue in perspective, Dan Sumner and Julian Alston recently estimated (.pdf) that Prop 37 could lead to $1.2 billion in new costs on California food manufacturers for labeling, segregation, and monitoring.  (Sumner and Alston served as my hosts and mentors during a terrific sabbatical year at the University of California in 2010-2011, though nobody should assume they endorse or are to blame for any opinions offered in this blog!).  I suspect that Sumner and Alston's cost estimates imply a food price increase far smaller than 12%.

Here is one more very interesting thing about Sumner and Alston's paper.  They believe that mandatory labeling "would reduce choices by driving some food products containing GE ingredients from the market."  In this view, the label would influence manufacturing methods, and many food manufacturers would use a label that says "made without GE ingredients."  Their colleague at UC Davis, Colin Carter, believes that many food manufacturers would find it impossible to source non-GE ingredients and that most conventional (non-organic) food would be labeled "may contain GE ingredients."

Another important finding from Lusk and McFadden's report is that many consumers do not understand which foods contain GE products.  I think that if Prop 37 passes (a) GE-free foods will be labeled GE-free, (b) foods that contain GE ingredients will be labeled "may contain GE ingredients" and (c) consumers will be much better informed.

In my view, the strongest case against Prop 37 is subtle.  If consumers care about genetic engineering, then voluntary GE labeling should be widely promoted.  But, if government scientists are not persuaded that GE foods are dangerous, then one could argue that the government should not make GE labeling mandatory.

October Friedman Sprout: Organic issue

The Friedman Sprout (the Friedman School's graduate student newspaper) has just posted its October issue, with an organic food theme.
Welcome to our Organic Issue! Here at Friedman, organic and local foods are more synonymous with lunch than peanut butter and jelly.  But more and more it's not just nutrition students who care about where their food is from and how it's grown.  In fact, a study on organic food and health recently stirred up some national controversy.  We break down the research for you in this issue.  We also feature an alumni interview with Jody Biergiel, who certifies organic farmers and handlers as Director of Handler Certification for CCOF.  In addition, read on to find a delicious recipe featuring organic apples, a restaurant review of a local organic restaurant, and a spotlight feature of Friedman's own organic garden.
Check out our very own organic vegetable garden.