Thursday, December 28, 2017

Avoiding GMOs is immoral

So claims this article from the Washington Post, noting that GMOs are so much more efficient in producing crops given resources (i.e. greatest production from lowest resource cost) that avoiding them under the guise of protecting health or the environment is completely wrong-headed. While the first is true- there has never been any solid work linking GMOs to health harms- the environmental issues are a little more complex. For example, Roundup Ready soybeans may be cheap to produce, but they also lead to increased application of herbicides. That may be better than the alternative, but it's not an open-and-shut case.

Anyway, take a look at the brief Post article. It's a strongly made case.

Friday, December 8, 2017


A lot of Economics boils down to prices. If prices were perfect, reflecting all the costs associated with a given product, then all it would take is rational consumers (admittedly not as easy as once thought) to get society to the "right" AKA socially optimal level of consumption. The problem for today is that prices aren't as perfect as we'd like: they really ought to include the costs of associated pollution, and they don't, as you may have learned in your microeconomics or environmental Econ class. That's not a big deal if that additional cost is small, but in today's news:

Cost of pollution is higher than we think

There are particular applications to food. We want an agricultural production system that produces food with costs as low as possible, including all costs. So, agriculture that creates pollution should have that cost factored in. Also, governmental subsidies hide some of the costs, but as noted by this author, maybe not as much as we think when it comes to some products. Prices are unfortunately hard to get right!

Oh, another one! Cool. Check this out: if we could change the prices of 7 foods by just 10%, we could save 23,000 lives per year in the USA. Prices MATTER!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


How can we maximize the efficiency of agriculture? We want to produce as much food as possible using as little as possible of our other resources (and minimizing harm done via pollution). One resource it's important to make the most of is land, and that's why this graph is so compelling. (hat tip to

I was a little surprised to see maize on the list at all: Jared Diamond's fascinating book Guns Germs & Steel tells, among many other things, about how corn's low protein content slowed the development of civilization in the Americas as contrasted with the Middle East. The crops produced today, at least, don't seem that different: there's a little more protein in wheat (10% vs 13%). Interesting to know!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Pollution's toll on our waterways

While it's no news to Marylanders, for whom the state of the Chesapeake can be a bit of an obsession, more and more parts of the country are starting to wake up to the damages of agricultural runoff. This article focuses on algae, which makes it seem like a simple problem of too much slime, but the consequences are severe. More dramatic is the term "dead zones," a direct result of algae sucking the dissolved oxygen out of water and creating an area in which aquatic life cannot persist. Almost as bad are the problems created when algae blocking out the sunlight prevents subaquatic vegetation from getting the resource they need to thrive. With no SAV, an important ecosystem is gone, leaving crabs and juvenile fish no place to hide.

If you aren't aware of the damage that fertilizer can do, please take a quick look!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Responding to climate change in the best way possible

Economists are interested in finding the optimal solution: how to maximize social welfare.

In the case of climate change, what that boils down to is limiting activities that wastefully emit carbon. If burning coal will save someone's life, I'm for burning coal, even if it leads to worsened climate change. And to be honest if burning coal will help build a car that will save me a lot of time, I'm probably for that too.

One way to get to that optimal point is to put a price on carbon emissions: a price that would then be included in life-saving treatments or the price of that time-saving vehicle. So how do we find the right price? If we set it right we will block the "wasteful" uses, but allow the important uses. See Prof. Max Auffhammer's short video for more on prices and on the social price of carbon. Hint: what's the answer to life, the universe, and everything?

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Fruit, pesticides, and fertility

Study out yesterday showing that pesticides on fruits are linked to decreased fertility in women. While I'm guessing that the risks don't outweigh the benefits of eating fruit in general, people hoping to become pregnant may want to be careful... of yet one more thing.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Air Pollution Externalities

All of London is suffering from low air quality. The damage to children is particularly acute. Yes, the problem is hard to solve because both the cause and the damage are diffuse, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't act!

***Update: I was going to make this a separate post, but it's too similar to this one! 1 in 6 deaths in 2015 is linked to pollution, and most of them to air pollution. That's crazy! That's three times more than AIDS, TB, and malaria combined.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Tolls and traffic

Nice example of the impacts of tolls in British Columbia, where the removal of a toll increased traffic by 24%. The elasticity homework problems almost write themselves!

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Land conservation

A land conservation game? It must show the tradeoffs between limiting development and preserving land? Hopefully I'll remember to try to get it before I teach Resources again!

Monday, August 21, 2017

GMOs, farming, and suicide

Activist Vandana Shiva, a Ph.D. with a strong voice that has risen to the defense of India and Indian farmers in particular for decades, has long blamed GMOs for increases in farmer suicides. For example, on her page she writes, "300,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide, trapped in vicious cycles of debt and crop failures, 84% of these suicides are attributed directly to Monsanto’s Bt cotton."

While GMOs have problems, mostly associated with the extent to which they support modern industrial monocropping-based agriculture, this doesn't seem to be a fair criticism. Keith Kloor takes the position down quite thoroughly here, starting from the numbers themselves and looking into their basis. Another study, recently published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Global Health (and summarized here, since the original paper is behind a pay wall) finds no evidence to support the claim.

Farmers around the world can be at higher risk for suicide, in part because of "the nature of their work, which can be isolating, financially precarious, and physically demanding." The world needs farmers! Perhaps the key is to provide more support for their mental health rather than attacking some of the technologies they use.

Externalities of automobiles

Nice summary by UC Berkeley's Max Aufhammer...

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Update on food waste

This past semester I again had a group of students choose to look at the issue of food waste. This article is an update on the topic.

Yet another article by Marc Bellemare appeared a few days later in the Wall Street Journal, based on a paper he published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics. One point he makes is that some loss is inevitable, and that working hard to stop all waste is effort that might go to a more productive use.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Environmental footprints

After Obama was elected, businesses thought that environmental regulations were coming. Pepsi/ Tropicana researched the carbon footprint of orange juice, finding that fertilizers were the biggest part of the impact. Now, eight years later, I see the second footprint analysis, finding again that for a food product (in this case bread) the impact of fertilizer comprises 40% of the impact. That far outweighs transportation, packaging, and all other individual part of the story.

A few questions: first, why are these analyses still so rare? The more recent one was done by academic researchers, highlighting the answer to my question: government doesn't require them. I guess it's like the gun lobby banning research on guns- if you don't hear about it, it must not be a real issue. Second, how about that fertilizer? That's really a problem: it's come up big in two studies. I wonder what % of food's carbon footprint is attributable to fertilizer? As Lamar Odom used to say, "Not small!"

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Heartland vs. Trump

One way Mexico may try to indicate their displeasure with our current administration is to buy fewer products from the US. One large US export, corn, goes predominantly to that country, and though it's not as easy as they would like to find another supplier that can produce as much as we can here in the US, a significant cut in their imports could adversely affect the price of US corn, and hurt farmers' pocketbooks. Since these farmers are living on a fairly thin margin, with costs up and revenue down over the past few years, a drop in prices could really hit agriculture where it hurts. Otherwise, the prognosis is for corn prices to stay about the same in the short run, at least.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Update on offshore wind

For years I've been telling my Resource Econ class that offshore wind just isn't economic. I hadn't been able to find any cost estimates since the EIA posted these in 2011:

With Offshore looking like it costs three times the price of onshore wind, it didn't seem to make much sense. However, the tech seems to have improved over the past five years. (Go engineers!) This NYT article says that costs on one project were as low as 78 Euros/MWh or about $83. Wow! That's quite an improvement. If those costs are sustainable, i.e. not just building costs but maintenance costs and all, that could be huge. Some good news in bleak times for clean energy....

Monday, January 23, 2017

Environmental regulations and jobs

This Atlantic article sums up some recent research on the relationship between environmental regulations and jobs. Although they soft-pedal it, their summary concludes that job losses are indeed associated with environmental regulations, though they also note that such claims are often inflated.

However, we must also consider some countervailing factors. First, it's often true that one person's loss is another's gain. Over the last 5-10 years, the coal industry has done a major faceplant as the fracking industry has increased operations. That means fewer jobs in West Virginia but more jobs in Pennsylvania, for example, and not everyone who lives in West Virginia is able to retool their skill set and easily move several hundred miles away to take one of the new jobs. So, there are winners and losers from this market change. Who do you think will make more noise: the losers or the winners? 

It's important to note that this change didn't happen as a result of regulations: as technology improved, it just got cheaper to frack than to mine, so the change happened sort of organically. Regulations can have similar effects, though, for example if they require coal to meet certain emissions standards.

Lastly, and most importantly, the other winners from environmental regulations- who often don't even realize they're winning, and therefore are even less likely to speak out- are the people living downwind. When comparatively clean-burning natural gas is used to generate energy instead of coal, less CO2 is emitted and less particulate matter as well, meaning that people living near and far will be healthier. Unfortunately, in most cases politicians don't benefit from these health improvements, so that makes them less valuable to policymakers.

In other words, it's not as simple as they'd have you believe!

Market forces and energy

Thanks to @BorensteinS for linking to this Bloomberg article. Wyoming wants to raise the cost of wind energy via taxes, just to promote coal and natural gas. This can of course do some damage, but it shows how market forces are arrayed against those legacy energy sources. Not surprising, but yet again sadly ironic how the pro-market ideology goes out the window when it's convenient. Populism run amok.