Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Questionable Economics of Desalination

As climate change destabilizes weather patterns, many foresee shifts in the availability of water. Floods like this year's horrific deluge in Thailand may become more common, while other places like Central Asia may lose access to what little water they currently have, perhaps leading to wars over water. If all this comes to pass, water pipelines may take their place next to oil pipelines- using the same corridors, just running the other way- if the technology behind desalination becomes economic. China is investing a large amount of money here just as they have done in solar panels. Right now it's far from being worth the cost, but if technology ratchets up a few times, who knows? China could have another Next Big Thing on their hands.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Yergin on the future of oil in the West

The "Go oil!" guy has an article in the Washington Post this morning about how deep sea oil in Brazil, oil in shale formations in the US, and the Canadian oil sands are increasing in prominence as providers for US oil. While increased dependence on more stable producers is a good thing for us, the less dependable sources produced in unstable and/ or highly autocratic regimes in the Middle East are still going to have plenty of customers as Asian demand picks up.

While his cavalier attitude toward CO2 emissions seems misplaced, he's pointing to a lot of very real recent developments. The market is indeed moving this way, and effective planning needs to accept these realities.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Guess what? Taxes are going up!

O'Malley and the legislature are looking to raise fees for transportation, from a 15-cent increase in gas taxes to higher charges for bus and rail passengers. Car registration fees would also go up.

If that's the cost of maintaining and improving our infrastructure, I don't see much of an alternative: better to pay now and not when there's a bridge collapse. We used to get a good-sized chunk of money from the Federal Government, but that's drying up and we have some serious needs that even this package may not address. The "Purple Line" in the DC area is on us here in Maryland, and that looks to be a few billion dollars, which is in fact far more than this new fee would raise.

Stuff is expensive!

Externalities of aquaculture

Aquaculture has been targeted as the "next big thing" for awhile, since it lets us produce a lot of protein without pillaging the oceans for wild fish. People need protein, and cheap sources like this are rare.

Of course, everything has its costs, and another one may be just becoming apparent. A virus that became common in Atlantic salmon aquaculture may have migrated to the Pacific. That would be bad.

I'm otherwise in favor of aquaculture, though: people need protein, and particularly if fish can fed on grains (see this previous post) then it could potentially be pretty important, particularly in places like southeast Asia which rely on fishing. As always, trying to recognize the costs and maximize the net benefits, and the costs just went up a bit.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"Organic" Means Less than you Think

A blogger for Scientific American has written this amply-footnoted article debunking much of the mythology that's grown up about organics. It's an eye-opener! The author claims that the point is not to be anti-organic, but just to clear up some widespread myths.

Myth #1: Organic farmers don't use pesticides. Most do, in fact, use pesticides: they just are only allowed to use "natural" pesticides, which may be just as nasty.

Myth #2: Organics are healthier. Conventional crops have more nitrogen while organic crops have more phosphorus and acidity, but nutrient content is identical.

Myth #3: Organics are better for the environment. I personally never believed the health claims, but I thought the environment was where the benefits were. The author grants that using fewer synthetic pesticides is a good thing, for sure. However, she argues 1) that by blasting plants with Bt and other "organic" pesticides, organic producers are still dumping nasty stuff into the environment; 2) that ignoring GMO's means we end up using more pesticides and other resources in the long run, and 3) organics are 20% less productive, yielding less per acre than conventional crops, so buying organics means voting to dedicated more land to agriculture instead of leaving it wild.

Myth #4: It's all or none. She notes that both organic and conventional farmers have positives, and that open-minded environmentalists will work toward improving both.

For a (non-specific) response, I went over to nutritionists Marion Nestle's web page, where she has a FAQ that addresses the issue. She says only that her personal investigations conclude that the USDA Organic label is a good thing to look for. "When you choose organics, you are voting with your fork for a planet with fewer pesticides, richer soil, and cleaner water supplies—all better in the long run." I think the author of the first piece would agree for the most part, but more information is definitely useful.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Green Conservatism

Here's an interesting article pointed to me by a friend: it's about the overlaps between environmentalism and conservatism. I like parts of it, but other parts are curious.

  • They rightly note that the market solution to pollution isn't to try to pick winners, a process that failed with Solyndra. However, the second half of that equation is that the "right" answer according to these criteria is to impose a carbon tax, since incentives matter and the goal of decreasing pollution is more important than the means we use to get there.
  • The EPA is over-funded? Hm. No doubt some portions of that bureaucracy could be streamlined, but this article says that their worst work has benefit to cost ratios of 10:1. (h/t Environmental Economics) Sounds like these two commentators need to have a powwow. I'm sure both agree that in the end what matters most is growth in the economy- nothing's better for the environment than a recession. What matters second most is the private sector's implementation of better technology, and that's usually encouraged via... taxes and/ or subsidies. Could there be a theme here?
  • I fully support the conservatives on the costs of water and tradable fishing shares. People should face the true costs of their actions and should benefit when they do the right thing, like cutting back on fishing.
  • On air quality, this conservative site supports cap and trade. I don't know why more people don't.
It's always seemed clear to me that someone "conservative" should be for "conservation." Am I wrong?

Fat Tax on Danish

Marion Nestle calls attention to the new fat tax promulgated in Denmark, which is designed to raise money but also to discourage consumption of unhealthy foods. Her analysis is by and large pretty good, with one exception. She says, "Leaving aside the usual criticisms, such as the impact on poorer people, I have a different reason for being troubled by tax interventions. They aim to change individual behaviour, but do little to change the behaviour of corporations that make and market unhealthful products, spending vast fortunes to make them available, desirable and socially acceptable."

Taxes, by raising prices, discourage consumption, it's true, but you know what? Consumption makes a difference for producers, too: if they aren't selling anything, profits go down. That's hitting corporations where it matters most.

Solar Panel Prices

Speaking of backstops: "In Hawaii, Italy, and other places with abundant sunshine and high electricity rates, it’s already cheaper for consumers to install rooftop solar panels than to buy power from their local utility. By 2015 panels will have reached that point of so-called grid parity in much of the U.S., Europe, and Japan, Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts. Over the past two years, BNEF says, solar thermal plants have trimmed the price of their power by 3 percent, to about 27¢ per kilowatt hour, while electricity from photovoltaic installations has plunged 41 percent, to 17¢." --from Business Week

***This is the first blog entry for quiz #4. You don't need it for quiz 3.***

Friday, October 21, 2011

Electric Slide

Many utilities in the U.S. have been operating as monopolies. Aspiring electricity providers have been barred, first by federal regulations, and then by certain states. There are only 15 states in the U.S. that provide customers with any form of choice when it comes to the provider. Texas is the largest electricity generating state in the country. In addition the state ranks number one in providing a choice when it comes to electricity. Half of all customers in Texas are eligible to switch electricity providers, and nearly 4 million, or 60%, have already done so. By allowing the customer to choose their provider the state has given rise to innovation and efficiency. In 2005 Texas achieved their goal of producing 2,000 MW (megawatts) of new renewable energy, four years ahead of their scheduled date, 2009. Continuing on the path of triumph Texas has raised the goal to 10,000 MW by 2025. Deregulation encouraged companies to invest in this new beneficial energy, and thus new companies such as Green Mountain Energy have emerged. Rates in Texas have trended downward, and are today at 11.28 cents/kWh, below the national average of 11.58 cents/kWh.
So with all of these benefits and savings why are the majority of U.S. utility markets regulated and monopolized? There are a few potential draw backs to a competitive market. Other than certain companies losing their power of monopoly the biggest factor is the direction that the market would go. As renewable energy becomes more reliable and efficient the cost will decrease. In the meantime it is still a very expensive energy to invest in. New companies that are rising in the renewable energy field require a large input of private capital. Government subsidies help to enable and encourage these companies to continue. If these subsidies were lost or decreased the market for renewable energy would take a large hit and slow the growth of the sector significantly. If this happens many companies in a free market would still strive to provide the cheapest energy source, and that resource would not be renewable in the case of a loss of government subsidies. Without the subsidies many companies take gracious financial offers from other countries such as China to relocate in an effort to attract more clean energy. If the budget is revised or changed and there is a loss of funds for subsidies not only will the private companies have wasted significant amounts of money, management time, and focus, the market could also take a fall back into non-renewable energy.
With that in mind does the U.S. stand to benefit from a competitive utility market with the current economy, or would that drive the country further into a reliance on coal and oil, and distrust of renewable energies.
--Caleb DeMario

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why Congestion Pricing is Always Unpopular

Nice exposition by Felix Salmon on traffic. Since people get used to paying tolls, car licensing fees, etc., the idea is that to get people to pay attention to a fee enough to change their behavior, it has to hurt just a little more than usual. So to make "congestion fees" actually work, leaving easily jammed places comparatively free of traffic, the fee needs to be constantly shifting, not just another cost of daily driving. Since it's basically designed to annoy, it annoys people, and has a tough time becoming law. Too bad, since they do work!

Economics of Cleaning the Chesapeake

A nice little summary of the issues associated with improving water quality in the Chesapeake is posted here. Below are some quotes about the problem; the article also presents several possible solutions. (If you're in Resources class, please read the whole article.)

"Two basic issues must be addressed if water quality goals are to be achieved. First, the regional nutrient budget is out of balance: more nutrients, primarily in the form of animal feed, are being brought into the watershed than can be assimilated, in the form of manure, by the crops grown. Second, not enough farmers are using the most effective—best—nutrient management practices. The persistence of these problems is not entirely due to a lack of resources. In the Bay, as elsewhere in the United States, water quality protection in agriculture has largely been pursued through voluntary strategies, supported by government financial and technical assistance. Only recently have large animal intensive enterprises been subjected to National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit requirements..."

"For a voluntary program to be efficient, it must enroll farmers who can provide abatement at least cost. Current USDA cost-share programs are not designed to do this."

Approaching Climate Change

This article by Elinor Ostrom, the 2009 winner of the Nobel Price in Economics argues that we need to confront climate change on many different levels, all at once. I'm really not versed in behavioral or political economics, but these areas are fascinating and make important contributions to policy issues like this one.

Perspectives on Soda Taxation

An interesting issue of Choices magazine came out on the subject of soda taxes. Choices is a very user-friendly publication of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association. An introduction to the special issue is located here. The first article, written by public health professionals, is cautiously supportive of an increased tax, though they note that taxing soda may encourage shifts to other types of high calorie beverages. The next, written by some health economists, looks to the parallel with tobacco taxes for inspiration. The third article, written by a public health specialist, notes that effects on obesity are likely to be small, again in part because of substitution effects. The fourth article takes aim at the substitution effects, arguing that they are not likely to cut effectiveness of the tax, which should still generate a lot of tax revenue and cut calories consumed. A fifth (by an agricultural economist) looks at the large role advertising plays in soda consumption, and the last is written by an industry advocate, arguing that the problem is one of personal choice and responsibility, and that it's wrong to use taxes to push people one direction or another.

Dumping Solar Panels

Some solar panel manufacturers in the US are suing China through the World Trade Organization, complaining that the price of solar panels being sold in the US by Chinese exporters is below the cost of production. It's illegal to sell goods for below the cost of production because that's a practice used to drive other companies out of business, after which companies can run up prices and make a huge profit as monopolists.

The tremendous drops in solar panel prices have been a wind at the back of those who would increase solar energy's share of the energy market, but they may prove to be short-lived. If this suit goes through, prices will surely rise, helping those companies who produce solar panels in this country but hurting consumers in the short run. In the long run, prices should still drop, but not as quickly. Sorry, solar panel installers, consumers, and solar energy advocates!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Living Buildings?

One potential technological solution to CO2 accumulation: coral-like "living paint" that could transform atmospheric carbon into solid matter to "heal" cracks in buildings. It's not yet economic, but it's fun to think about!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Climate Change: The Ultimate Impact

An article over at BBC News discusses the effects of climate change, including:
  • Higher rates of malnutrition, as agriculture struggles to cope with changing conditions
  • Higher rates of disease, as new geographic areas become accessible to bacteria and viruses
  • Higher likelihood of conflict, as dwindling water and other resources force people to look to new sources and/ or take from their neighbors
  • Energy prices should jump, as resource scarcity and associated conflict makes things worse in places like the Middle East, where tensions are already high
  • Most devastating of all, Starbucks warns that climate change is expected to threaten the earth's coffee supplies in 20-30 years time.
Now THERE'S a catastrophe waiting to happen.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Banning Water Bottles?

Not quite yet, but the O’Malley administration has made a big step forward in cutting back on the bottled liquid. They have decided to no longer supply bottled water to any state facility where tap water would be available. Maryland is now the 6th state to join the movement of lessening the supply of water bottles within the government. The move has been supported by environmentalists as well as economists and especially by the group Corporate Accountability International who argue that bottled water is wasteful and undermines support for municipal drinking-water systems. So far there is no really clear understanding of just how much money this will save for Maryland but DNR representative Richard Norling has stated that Maryland paid $200,000 to Deer Park in 2010. In buildings or sites where taps or water fountains are not available to people, bottled water will still be supplied as well in emergencies. It will be up to agency heads to decide whether or not bottled water will be available in vending machines. This is definitely a positive move for the environment and hopefully an equally good move for the economy. I guess we’ll have to see what this extra money will go towards.
--Emily Beckhardt

Baltimore County leak leaves Exxon with bill for $1 billion

In 2006 a gas leak in the community of Jacksonville, Baltimore County Maryland, resulted in 26,000 gallons of fuel entering the ground underneath one of Exxon Mobil’s local stations. The gas eventually ended up in the community’s water supply resulting in significant contamination. Jacksonville does not have a source of public water and extracts all of its water from underground wells. This gas leak lasted for a total of 37 days. As a result of this leak, Exxon Mobil was sued by more than 160 homeowners. Exxon was eventually ordered to pay more than $1 billion in punitive damages and $495 million in compensatory damages. This gas leak had a very big impact on residents and small business owners of Jacksonville. For weeks they were unsure whether or not the water was contaminated or if it was safe to once again drink. Residents and business owners both had to spend a great deal of money on other sources of water during this period. This gas leak not only damaged the environment but it really disrupted the community of Jacksonville in many ways. People were forced to find alternatives and do whatever was necessary in order to obtain the water they needed for their everyday activities and businesses’. There was also a stigma from neighboring areas about Jacksonville after this and people did not trust that the water was safe for a long time. Exxon’s punitive damages payment is the 21st largest in history. This verdict will hopefully remind other companies similar to Exxon to ensure the necessary safety precautions are in place to prevent a catastrophe similar to this from happening again. This gas leak clearly affected all different types of people and hopefully it will lead as an example of what can be prevented in the future by ensuring proper safety regulations.
--David Dierking

Australian Carbon Tax

Australia is getting ready to pass a national carbon tax that would start in July 2012 with a cap and trade program starting in 2015. Right now Australia is the biggest carbon emitter per capita in the world because 80% of its electricity is produced by coal. To start, polluters would be taxed about $23 per ton of carbon emitted. However, some of the highest carbon emitters like aluminum and steel manufacturers would receive free carbon permits. Industries like coal and steel would receive government subsidies to reduce their remissions and find cleaner technologies. A fund of $10 billion would be set up to encourage investment in renewable energies. Companies would be able to buy carbon permits from the Carbon Farming Initiative, which would give carbon permits to farmers that offset carbon emissions by doing things like planting trees, cutting methane emissions in livestock, and reducing fertilizer use.

I think that is unfair that some of the highest carbon emitting industries are receiving free carbon permits or being subsidized by the government. There is therefore less incentive for them to develop cleaner technologies because they are not paying the true cost of their carbon emissions. However with Australia relying so heavily on coal for power, the government has to start somewhere. I believe that they are off to a good start and because of initiatives like the Carbon Farming Initiative the government may be able to reduce the subsidies they provide to industry in the future.
--Lauren Davidson

European Airlines Taxes

In an article found in the New York Times it was reported that an advisor for the European Court of Justice published an opinion that supported the proposed law to charge the airlines for their green house gas emissions. It was proposed that the airlines that fly in and out of Europe should be held responsible for their emissions and therefore charged for them. This would cause the true cost of air travel to be realized in that the airlines would be held responsible for the pollution that they are putting into the atmosphere which can be considered an externality. Airlines say that this would infringe on the sovereignty of the nations that they are based in and would go against the so called freedom of the high seas. However the law is not set in stone yet and would provide some room for negotiations such as only charging flights that leave Europe or not charging the airlines for the emissions that they produce outside of European Union air space. The article says that this would cause a price increase for trans-Atlantic one way airfare of only $2.70 to $16.15; however the airlines say that the price increase would be much higher than that.
I feel that this is a good way to make the airlines responsible for the emissions that they produce. However I think that a much bigger tax is going to be required before it would be advantageous for the airlines to make investments in a cleaner energy source. Such a small price increase would not deter enough people from trans-Atlantic flight for the airlines to lose enough profit and thereby force them to look into alternate forms of power. But if this system were enacted worldwide it might produce enough lost profit that the airlines would be pushed to develop a system for fueling their planes that had much less environmental impact and thus lower the external costs of operating and as a result the price of an airline ticket.
--Matt Timmons

Romney's environment/ business balance

Mitt Romney, a GOP candidate for the Presidential Election of 2012, is under fire (class only link) for his wishy-washy environmental stance. After hiring Douglas Foy, a Democratic environmental activist, Romney seems to promote good environmental choices. However, as the 2012 election draws nearer and Romney is under more pressure from rival candidates, he seems to change his tune. Mr. Foy was hired to supervise environmental initiatives under Governor Mitt Romney. "He said that Mr. Romney's environmental record fits 'the Republican tradition in Massachusetts'' of 'fiscal conservatism and good governance, doing more with less'." His opponents, however seem to disagree. During his term as governor of Massachusetts, Romney made strides against CO2 emissions by making Massachusetts the first state to set CO2 emissions limits on power plants. According to the article, "Mr. Foy said that as he was negotiating a cap-and-trade regime with other states, Mr. Romney made it clear he believed in human-caused global warming and wanted a policy response. At the time, many conservatives were open to a cap-and-trade system, seeing it as a market-driven solution to limiting emissions." It seems however, that the governor was unsure of how the carbon-trading system would impact the local economy. Instead of pushing for radical environmental regulation, Romney pushed negotiators to build business-oriented provisions -- "such as triggers to cut off trading if the price of energy rose to certain levels." It seems Romney was not happy with this still, because after instructing Mr. Foy to negotiate an agreement to promote business, "Romney ultimately backed out, saying the deal lacked a "safety valve'' to cap plant payments if they exceeded emission limits."
--Ashley Anthony

Disappearing Beaches

This article talks about how climate change is increasing water levels as well as the severity of storms. This may seem bad enough without taking the economic facet into account. Rising water levels in the Pacific Ocean are not only threatening the natural ecosystem of the Californian coastline but are also threatening the fiscal wellbeing of the coastal community. A study released by San Francisco State University warns that as stronger coastal storms and beach erosion batter the coast of California, communities of people and natural species will be displaced. As the beaches get destroyed, so does the local economy. If the Pacific Ocean rises the projected 55 inches by 2100, Venice Beach will lose around $440 million in tourism and tax revenue. This sea level rise would also cause $52 million in flood damage to Venice Beach area homes along with $39 million in habitat loss. Malibu beaches would lose $500 million in tourism, $28.5 million in damaged homes, and $102 million in habitat loss. The study estimates that sea levels will rise 4 to 5 feet and cause $100 billion in damages by 2100. My first thought when I hear that coastlines will be swallowed up by rising sea levels is for the natural environment. Coastal habitats contain great biodiversity and losing this type of environment would be very detrimental. I did not even realize the blow that the economy would take when sea levels rise. There would be fewer jobs available in California due to the fact that any job along the coast or involving the beach would be out of the picture. I would assume that many people would then become jobless and try to look for a job further inland. Right now 80% of Californians live in coastal communities and rely on beaches to support the local economy so it will be interesting to see how they can adjust to shrinking land and income.
--Annie Sekerak

Too Much Parking in New York City

In downtown Brooklyn, surrounded by mass transit, a forty two story luxury building houses 256 parking spaces, taking up two stories. This may not seem like a lot of spaces for the 40 stories worth of residents, but only half of the spaces are being used. The problem is that the building’s residents have chosen this location because it is close to mass transit. If the majority of residents do not drive a car, why did developers create so many parking spaces? The reason is zoning regulations, and very out of date regulations at that. Zoning regulations set in 1951, in Brooklyn and surrounding areas state that for every ten rental units of public housing there should be four parking spots (with some variation). Because of this rule several buildings have parking garages where half of the spaces are empty. Not many New Yorkers have cars in mass transit areas and those who do take advantage of free street parking. With so many people parking on the street they are circling looking for a spot and creating a lot of emissions. This does not see eye to eye with the Mayor’s hopes of a sustainable city.

Even developers know the demand for parking is very low in garages so they choose to build the minimum number of spaces that the rules require. The Clean Air Act set a cap on the number of spots per building; too bad this doesn’t change anything since the maximum number of spots were never built. The Mayor has tried to change these mandates before but City Hall said that “people are emotional about parking," so no changes were made. There has been recent talk about reforms. One option is to allow residential garages in Manhattan to rent spaces out to the public and another option is to reduce the number of required spots in mass transit areas. Even with these changes, it is hard to compete with free street parking.

In my opinion these zoning regulations should have been changed years ago. The number of spaces required for public housing needs to be reduced, especially in transit areas. People who have a car are going to continue to drive and continue to park on the street. This may change if spaces can be rented out, but only in areas of great interest and for a low enough cost. Even so, there needs to be a drastic change to not only zoning regulations but street parking before there is any significant move towards a sustainable city.

--Sam Bowman

New EPA regulations on powerplants

The EPA is attempting to finalize a plan designed to reduce emissions of mercury and acid gases from power plants fired by coal and oil. The plan, called "maximum achievable control technology," was set to be completed by November 16th of this year. These improved regulations and standards would cause a loss of somewhere between 30,000 and 70,000 megawatts of electricity made by coal fired power plants. Outdated and ill maintained plants could be shut down due to these new rules. Opponents of the plan say these rules will kill jobs and cost companies billions of dollars at the worst possible time. The EPA fired back saying the plan will save more in health costs and hospital visits than it will cost in utilities. Twenty five states are asking a federal court to delay this measure at least a year. This is due to both a poor economy and to the loss of jobs and energy they anticipate. The EPA also said that these regulations will create jobs for those to inspect plants and enforce these rules.
While I agree with the EPA’s attempted effort to reduce the emission of these materials into the atmosphere, I also see the state’s argument. This is a down economy and people may not be able to afford increased energy costs. I am also not sure if this plan will create as many jobs as the EPA anticipates, however, jobs could be created in both the inspection field and new energy sources. If states find a new and improved way to produce electricity, it will have to be maintained, built and inspected as well. I believe the measures taken by the EPA are a good idea, just not at this time.

--Nick Freese

Transportation Infrastructure Investment Needed

While it's not easy to envision the kind of work that needs to be done, like repairing and improving subway track and water pipes, a great deal of work is necessary for our infrastructure to keep functioning. An article in today's Post gives some figures about how much is necessary: "Last year, a report by 80 experts led by former transportation secretaries Norman Y. Mineta and Samuel K. Skinner called for an annual investment of $262 billion." That's about 5-6 times the current level of funding, and nothing close to what anyone is projecting, whether Democrats or Republicans control Congress over the next few years. Advocates note that the more we put these costs off, the more we pay in the long run. Just sayin'.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Earlier this year I had a post on the importance of Europe's grid to the viability of alternative energy sources there. Now there's an article on Ezra Klein's blog about the same subject in the U.S., and the folks over there conclude that it might not matter so much: maybe decentralized technology like solar will win out over large plants needed for technologies like wind. While I understand the temptation to write off problems like this, I don't think it's that safe to assume that solar alone will get us there. Wind power also has associated challenges, but I'm not ready to put all my eggs in the solar basket yet.

Rewarding Hybrids

If hybrids provide benefits to society, it's appropriate to reward people for choosing hybrids. In addition to some tax benefits, for a long time Californians owning hybrids also had access to the car pool lane even if they weren't carpooling. That changed recently, and hybrids were pushed out onto the rest of the road. The resulting increase in the number of cars on the (rest of the) road has slowed traffic down by about 10 mph during rush hour.

So what's the optimal policy? It turns out that having people going slow on the rest of the road also slows down the folks in the carpool lane- you don't want to be driving 65 when someone going 20 moves into your lane to avoid a suddenly stopping vehicle. These researchers argue that more people need to be let into the carpool lane for the lane to continue to be as effective as possible. Optimization- it's what economists do!

Shrimp Harvest Plummets

The vagaries of ecology make it hard to pinpoint one single cause, but after the BP oil spill last summer, this year's shrimp crop in the Gulf of Mexico has been extremely bad. Other issues, such as the drought in the US and spring flooding transported by the Mississippi River to the Gulf, make identifying the culprit tricky. And guess what? BP says that the harvest this year is "within the historical range of variability." In other words, stuff happens. It sure does!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Killer cantaloupe

In the past few weeks there have been 15 deaths (link to Google News)and 72 illnesses caused by the listeria virus that has been found in cantaloupes that are grown in the Jensen’s Farm in Colorado. The listeria virus can be spread by water or soil contamination. Animals can carry the virus unharmed with no symptoms, but when their feces are used as manure or contaminate the local groundwater it can harm the local farms’ crops. Colorado is the fifth largest producer of cantaloupe and reportedly 2010’s harvest was worth $8 million. Fortunately for the farmers at least, the outbreak has occurred at the end of their season; but it has stigmatized the “Colorado Cantaloupe.” Local farmers in Colorado are still selling some cantaloupe mostly because their local buyers know them and know what farms have the bad cantaloupe. As for the rest of Americans that love the sweet melon, well, they are less fortunate. The Jensen farm did not label their cantaloupe to separate them from the rest; instead they labeled them “Rocky Farm cantaloupe” making them even harder to distinguish the good from the bad. There is also a problem clearly identifying what states were sold tainted cantaloupe. The Jensen Farm has released a list of states that they sold directly to, but there are also distributers that have sold them to other states. Now most people will just refuse to eat them at all, fearing that they could get sick or even die.

I think that this is a huge externality of animal farming. It is a shame that we house these animals in such a way that it causes someone’s whole way of life to collapse. Plus it’s actually causing people bodily harm and killing people in some cases. Why would anyone want that to happen to them or to their family if it could be prevented. Listeria is only caused by a bacterium called monocytogene. The problem with these bacteria is that they can grow in almost any environment; but if better care was taken of these domesticated animals then no one would have had to die. I know that this is not an extremely common virus; but with the potential for them to be carriers, I would think that someone would at least try to test their livestock at some point in their life. What if the cattle that just donated manure to the Jensen’s Farm, had been sent to the butcher or if it was a sow and was milked? There could be an even bigger epidemic!

--Amanda Meade

Update: USA Today describes the results of an FDA investigation into possible causes of the outbreak, which has now claimed at least 25 lives and caused at least 125 illnesses.

Culture of Junk Food

Rather long but intriguing piece about the problems with food culture in the US. Some quotes:

"The real challenge is not 'I’m too busy to cook.' In 2010 the average American, regardless of weekly earnings, watched no less than an hour and a half of television per day. The time is there." I'm not sure I buy that logic 100%: that's an average, not even a median, and no doubt some people are watching a lot while others watch very little.

"[T]here are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States; in recent decades the adjusted for inflation price of fresh produce has increased by 40 percent while the price of soda and processed food has decreased by as much as 30 percent; and nearly inconceivable resources go into encouraging consumption in restaurants: fast-food companies spent $4.2 billion on marketing in 2009. "

A long string of links starting with this article finally led me to this article on how Federal subsidies compare to what that same government recommends we eat. Pretty damning!

Smaller Fish are Better

If we want to maximize the amount of fish produced per unit of feed, smaller fish are better. Also, of course the types of fish make a big difference: some, like trout and catfish, are more sustainably farmed. Finally, a lot of meat goes to waste because it's not in the large, easy to serve fillets. Smaller pieces are found in the collar, belly, and tail, but it's not as easy to extract and serve. As the first article points out, the key is that much of aquaculture relies on feeding wild fish to farmed fish, which is of course ultimately unsustainable. Recently some aquaculture has succeeding while feeding pellets of corn and soy to tilapia, which seems a step in the right direction.