Category Archives: Farming/agriculture policy

Policy by Prediction

Science is supposed to be the domain of testable (and thus falsifiable) claims the evidence for which is a body of empirical studies that have stood the scrutiny of reproducibility. With the advent of computers that method of science seems to be growing increasingly passé. Why, we don’t need to bother actually doing the grunt work of experimentation, we can just sit back, press a button and let a computer model tell us the results. Of course the fault lies not in our machines but in ourselves (with apologies to the Bard). Computers are but tools that make some of that grunt work easier. But computer models are not so infallible that their output should solely be relied upon. They are imperfect not due to some failing of the technology but rather because they can only do what we tell them, and we humans are far from perfect or omniscient.

The flaw in computer models is two-fold: assumptions and unknowns. Assumptions are made about the contributions of certain factors and those assumptions are often wrong or even if close to being right can still introduces tremendous variability in outcomes from small differences in input. Unknown unknowns are an even greater contributor to the phenomenon known as “garbage in – garbage out” of modeling. We can’t account for the contribution of something we don’t even know exists.

Models are supposed to be part of an iterative process where you do the actual experiment, compare the results to your model’s output and then modify your model. To test the model you then change some of the variables and see how well it holds up in comparison to “real world” results. But, as soon as a new variable is introduced or a new unknown comes into play, then the model’s usefulness must be called into question.

Now by this point you might think I’m going to delve into an indictment of the climate models poor record of prediction but actually I’d actually like to talk about nuts. Or rather how we should all expect the price of nuts along with a host of other crops (pistachios, almonds, soybeans, tobacco, peanuts, cotton, lettuce, alfalfa, tomatoes, watermelon and bell peppers) to increase in price in the coming years due to the EPA banning a pesticide known as flubendiamide.  EPA determined that flubendiamide could break down in the environment and potentially cause harm to a few aquatic species. Ok, sounds like some dangerous stuff, fair enough. But, it turns out this alleged harm is not based on empirical studies but is rather based on computer models that attempt to predict toxicology – “predictive toxicology” they call it. BayerCropScience, the manufacturer of flubendiamide, went on record stating that such models “exaggerate environmental risk.”  Well imagine that, a computer model overstates the likelihood of a deleterious outcome in order to justify governmental intrusion into the market. Although science cannot be manipulated to service political interests, models surely can – click, click, here comes the desired result.

This ultimately is the true danger of such models. It is one thing if scientists want to put all their faith in such models, the worst that can happen is that eventually someone is made to look the fool when actual empirical studies prove them wrong. However it is far more dangerous if the cart is pushing the public policy horse by having bureaucrats and our supposed intellectual superiors run our lives and then justify their actions by pointing at selectively funded model-based “research” that can be tweaked to magically provide an outcome that conforms with the policy prescriptions desired. All that is needed to shut down debate is to claim “it’s science” and that it is “settled.”

Farming Fascism

The inherently self-contradictory justification for the state is that it reserves to itself the right to engage in those actions that its very existence is predicated on proscribing. The state is a paradoxical philosopher’s stone; believed by the masses to create only good, it in fact transmutes all that it touches into its polar opposite. Evil, when implemented by the state, is declared as good (war, taxation, kidnapping, torture) while virtue, when implemented by the state, becomes harmful (charity, regulation, education). These virtuous activities become but mere shadows of what they could be absent monopolistic state intervention.

In Georgia we have our own special brand of state distorted virtue: the Vidalia® onion cartel. The state government has decided that these beautiful, delicious, sweet onions grown in and around Vidalia, Georgia are too valuable to the economic health of the People’s Republic of Georgia to allow the people who actually grow them to control how they are marketed and sold. And so came forth the Vidalia Onion Act of 1986. Yes, our legislators pass laws about onions. It was only a few weeks ago that the state of Georgia fined a farmer who had the impudence to ship his crop of Vidalia® onions to market prior to the April 21 date set forth by the state agriculture commissioner.  Unseasonably warm weather has moved up and extended the growing season (thank you global warming!) Apparently Mother Nature forgot to read O.C.G.A 40-7-8.17 and thus produced ripe onion in open defiance of the law. Sadly, the state of Georgia is not alone in these sort of legal strictures on farming. Florida has its oranges, Idaho its potatoes and California its wines, raisins and avocados. Wait, avocados? Yes, California stipulates all avocados grown in the state must contain at least 8% fat. Or else.

Now there is certainly nothing wrong with farmers coming together and mutually agreeing on a set of standards for their produce if they feel that setting such quality standards will bring about mutual benefits. However, just because some farmers wish to do so does not mean that all farmers should be forced to do so. But when the state steps in, that is exactly what happens. Only the state has the monopoly power of the guns to force compliance. Once again, if your business model is predicated on the use of guns in order to achieve success then there is something wrong with your business model. Regrettably, the appeal of ready access to the legal deployment of weapons to further ones ends is the siren song of protectionism. That sweet sound calls to us until we collide against the rock-hewn walls of the cage we willingly built. Too much metaphor? Ok, people champion competition when they are buying but oppose competition when selling. So while that tidbit of self-defeating equilibrium sinks in, consider this: the most common method of limiting competition is turning to the state and requesting aid beneath its great wing of protectionist measures. Once state protections are in place then new entrants to the market are excluded. This reduces supply and so raises prices; great for the sellers, not so great for the buyers. The appeal of bully-based price protection for sellers is why nearly every law on the books has some sort of protectionist origin (licensing, certification, regulation, registration, etc). The fear of failure and the desire to put your competitors out of business is too much for most to resist. It is not until you yourself become the competitor do you see the error of your ways (or if you’re a hypocrite you refuse to see the error and simply demand even more special exceptions, i.e. protection from your own protectionism).

If we hand over all of our rights to someone with a gun (the state) we should not be surprised when they refuse to hand them back – even when we ask nicely. When the putatively legal owners are no longer calling the shots and must bend to the will of the de facto owner (the state) or suffer the consequences then there is only one word that by definition describes this situation: fascism.

Obamacare Kills the Family Farm

Obamacare is poised to put the family farm out of business. Although not directly applicable to the food industry, it has spawned sibling legislation whose ends are aligned with the Obamacare mandate of lowering health care costs for the nation – by any means necessary. Toward that end the “Food Safety and Modernization Act” was passed in 2011 which has now spawned a new round of FDA rulemaking known as proposed rule “Current Good Manufacturing Practice and Hazard Analysis and Risk-Based Preventive Controls for Human Food.” The primary stated goal of this proposed rule (according to the FDA) is to “reduc(e) the public health burden of foodborne illness associated with contaminated produce.”  A worthwhile goal, I’ll grant that. However setting aside for now the question of constitutionality of a federal agency laying down rules to govern activity that is wholly intrastate in nature, there are a number of problems with both the implementation, results and costs associated with this end goal.

Some of the more absurd components of this proposed rule include (a) WEEKLY testing of water “before it touches the surface of any fruit”, (b) where manure has been spread one must wait 9 MONTHS before harvesting, and (c) the maintenance of DAILY clipboards of records of every event that takes places on the farm related to food production. As with any regulation there is a cost involved. Irrespective of the industry it is always the large entity that has the advantage relative to its smaller competitors in terms of bearing the additional costs of new regulation. Therefore it should come as no surprise that this proposed rule would have the effect of putting many small farmers out of business (there are exemptions for “small” farmers, however these merely delay the timeframe of implementation). But don’t take my word for it, you can read the comments of such farmers themselves at the FDA’s comment site.

Now at this point the progressive may be protesting, “But, but, this rule will save lives and if some small farms must be sacrificed to achieve that goal then as long as the greater good is being served this is an unfortunate side-effect.” Although seeing as how most progressive types are proponents of buying locally grown produce (itself not a bad concept) I imagine their heads will explode when they realize this “greater good” will have the net effect of putting so many small farmers out of business it will all but kill the “buy local produce” industry.

Even by FDA’s own best estimates this rule would potentially reduce the incidence of food borne illness by 2-5% (i.e. save no more than 67 lives per year or about $14 million per life). And while I would gladly spend $14 million to save the life of a loved one, I don’t have $14 million nor do I (or anyone) have the right to use government to fleece my neighbors pockets for that $14 million on the off chance it might save a life I care deeply about.

The emotional response of “we can’t put a value on a human life” runs afoul of the economic law of diminishing returns. Whenever a brand new type of regulation was introduced (pollution, car safety, etc) we witnessed massive improvements – because nothing existed before that (not that such regulation was necessary however, seeing as how these types of regulations were merely a response to prior government induced market distortions). As a hypothetical example, seeing that $1 billion in regulatory costs reduces deaths from 1 million to 1 thousand legislators naturally will assume even tighter regulations costing another $1 billion will do the trick – but it doesn’t work like that. Those new regulations reduce deaths to only 900, another billion to 850 and so on. The low hanging fruit was picked with the initial round of regulation; the minuscule amount of fruit at the top takes exponentially more effort to pick.

Ok, fine, you may say, a human life should not have a dollar value attached – we should spend and spend to stop all deaths. Although publicly we may profess such sentiments, our actions speak very differently. If our safety were paramount to the exclusion of all monetary and non-monetary costs then we would either choose to drive at 1 mph at all times or spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to drive a military grade armored tank. But we don’t do that because safety is a luxury and we can only afford luxuries to the extent we have produced above more than the bare essentials. This, by the way, is why human conditions were so much less safe years ago and are so in third world countries today – not due to any lack of government oversight but rather due to lower productivity, which puts luxuries (such as safety) out of reach. So although we are bound by our productive capacity when determining how much we personally want to spend on safety, government knows no such bounds. Whether it might cost $100 billion or $100 trillion to potentially save one life is of no concern to those that bear none of the costs.