Thursday, October 20, 2016

Some in Massachusetts are concerned with animal welfare and yet not voting for Ballot Measure #3

In a commentary for WBUR this week, my faculty colleagues Will Masters and Jennifer Hashley write about Massachusetts Ballot Measure #3, which would ban the sale in Massachusetts of eggs, pork, and veal from confined production methods.

This debate is commonly described as a tension between animal welfare goals and protecting poor people from higher prices. Masters and Hashley actually speak favorably about the animal welfare goals, and even say that in principle more humane production practices could be accomplished at reasonable cost (assuming the right supports), but they say in practice the Massachusetts initiative generates too much concern about higher prices right now.

They write:
The more we understand Ballot Question 3, the more vexing the choice appears. From our long experience with U.S. agriculture and food policy, we know that America’s diverse and resilient farms could potentially deliver improved animal welfare without harming access to low-cost, convenient and nutritious eggs. But we also know that this won’t happen automatically. If government remains on the sidelines, a yes vote on Question 3 would bring unacceptable price rises.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Baylen Linnekin: "Biting the Hands That Feed Us"

In Biting the Hands that Feed Us (Island Press, 2016), food lawyer Baylen Linnekin offers a libertarian appeal for reduced food regulations.

Like many such books, Linnekin reviews a long littany of well-meaning business people whose enterprises were thwarted by silly rules and regulations that fail to serve a sound public purpose: small "salumi" makers (sort of like salami) who are told to use preservatives in their cured meats; artisinal cheese makers who are told not to use wooden boards for aging cheese; fishermen who must discard "bycatch" to comply with harvest rules; and local farmers who are prevented from selling off-size tomatoes or who suffer under the fixed costs of compliance with the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

A couple features favorably distinguish this book from others in the same vein. Linnekin's appreciation for small and artisinal producers is heartfelt, in contrast with others who might use complaints about regulation implicitly to breeze over shortcomings in the current conventional industrialized food system. Linnekin's main thesis is that rules too often harm sustainable production strategies. As one might hope, Linnekin takes a completely consistent and highly critical libertarian view of "Ag Gag" laws, which risk preventing private individuals from honestly reporting how food really is produced. I could not help being pleased with Linnekin's coverage of checkoff programs, including a citation to some coverage from this blog.

In the end, though, I think Linnekin understates the genuine public interest motivation for many rules and regulations. With any proposed food safety policy, there is risk of both Type I error (prohibiting an economic action that would not in fact have caused an illness) and Type II error (failing to prevent an illness that we should have prevented). I see the struggle to get this balance right as fundamental to U.S. food safety policy. The fact that Linnekin can recount examples of regulations that failed to correctly judge a particular producer falls far short of persuading a reader of his broader point.

In his final chapter, though without using these terms, Linnekin wrestles with precisely this challenge of getting the balance of Type I and Type II correct. As I would paraphrase the argument, he feels one can distinguish the right regulatory policies by: (a) promoting sustainability, (b) enforcing standards for food safety outcomes, not food safety processes, (c) avoiding any favor for large producers over small producers, and (d) ending farm subsidies. I don't think this four-part screen is sufficient to strike the right balance. For example, deciding when to regulate outcomes and when to regulate processes is complicated. In many cases, it is far more straightforward to regulate the temperature at which food must be held than to regulate microbial counts on the product.

Overall, though I liked the book, I doubt Linnekin is right to call so broadly for regulatory retrenchment. We have endured decades now of strong attacks in the U.S. Congress on regulatory agencies, using sharp anti-government rhetoric, including many of the same libertarian themes that Linnekin highlights. Even if Linnekin does devote one chapter to regulations he does support -- which not every such author would do -- this does not suffice to give the book as a whole a full balance.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

In 2015, 12.7% of U.S. households were food insecure, and 4.2% of respondents reported hunger

According to the annual USDA report, released moments ago, 12.7% of U.S. households were food insecure in 2015, an improvement from 14.0% the previous year.

Households were classified as food secure or food insecure, based on their responses to a set of questions about food-related hardship.

In 2008, the last year of the George W. Bush administration, the rate of household food insecurity was 14.6%. In 2012, the most recent presidential election year before the current year, the rate of household food insecurity was 14.5%.

Although it is sometimes said that USDA no longer measures "hunger," this is not really true. One of the clearest statistics in USDA's report each year is the simple question (buried deep in the statistical appendix) about whether the household respondent had been "hungry" at some point in the previous year due to not having enough resources for food. Just 4.2% reported hunger in 2015, down from 4.8% the previous year.

Even with the recent improvement, the United States has fallen terribly far short of national goals for improving food security. There is no fundamental economic or physical barrier preventing our country from achieving lower rates of food insecurity and hunger.

Graph by the author. Data source: USDA (2016).

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Berkeley "soda tax" reduced sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and increased water consumption

In the American Journal of Public Health this month, Jennifer Falbe and colleagues found that the penny-per-ounce Berkeley soda tax succeeded in reducing sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) consumption.

The study asked respondents about soda intake, in Berkeley and in comparison cities of northern California (Oakland and San Francisco, which did not have a new tax), before and after the new Berkeley tax was implemented in March 2015. The findings were remarkable. SSB consumption fell 21% in Berkeley and rose 4% in the comparison cities during the same period.

The SSBs include caloric soda, of course, but also some kinds of other sweetened drinks. However, for various reasons (including sound nutrition reasons plus perhaps political reasons), the tax did not affect milk drinks or 100% fruit juice. Therefore, it is important to understand what other beverages people substituted for soda. The study does not answer all my questions on this point, but it did find that water consumption increased in Berkeley at the same time that SSB consumption fell. Water consumption increased 63% in Berkeley, significantly more than the increase in the comparison cities during the same period. This was reassuring.

A good way to standardize estimates of tax effects is to report an "elasticity" -- the percentage change in consumption for each 1% change in price. A typical elasticity estimate for soda is about -1.2, meaning that the price increase in Berkeley (about 8%) would have been expected to generate a consumption decline of about 10%. The authors took care to confirm that the estimated consumption decline of 21% was significantly different from zero, which is the standard statistical way of making sure the estimates were not a random statistical fluke, but they cannot really be sure the true impact is exactly 21% rather than 10%. They sensibly discussed the possibility that "early reaction to the tax ... could rebound and settle closer to a 10% reduction in consumption."

Even if the impact were a 10% reduction, this study has important public health implications, providing I think the strongest evidence so far that a tax would reduce SSB consumption.

I encourage my colleagues in agricultural and applied economics to read this study. There is a long tradition in my profession of doubting the potential impact of such taxes. In the Washington Post in 2015, Tamar Haspel quoted University of Minnesota applied economist Marc Bellemare saying the results at that time were "not robust." Haspel also quoted my Friedman School colleague and friend Sean Cash saying that product formulation, rather than taxes, are the way to go: "If we could achieve a 5 percent reduction by reformulation, that would swamp what we can achieve with consumer-level intervention.” The TuftsNOW site quoted Sean casting further doubt on taxes: "All studies suggest that for food in general, we’re not particularly responsive to price." Oklahoma State University economist Jayson Lusk, who also is president of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA), has blogged several times about soda taxes, agreeing with most of the Tamar Haspel column  in the Washington Post, and concluding stridently: "I'm sorry, but if my choice is between nothing and a policy that is paternalistic, regressive, will create economic distortions and deadweight loss, and is unlikely to have any significant effects on public health, I choose nothing" (emphasis added).

In the Salt this week, NPR reporter Dan Charles quotes Berkeley researcher Kristine Madsen on whether the new estimates of SSB reduction are large enough to matter for public health. "Madsen says a 20 percent reduction in consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages would be enough to reduce rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes in years to come. 'This would have a huge public health impact if it were sustained,' she says." I think most experts in public health nutrition would agree with Madsen's assessment.

This week, Jayson's blog post on the Berkeley study raises some measurement issues, but recognizes that these issues are unlikely to overturn the main result. He writes, "All that said, I'm more than willing to accept the finding that the Berkeley city soda tax caused soda consumption to fall. The much more difficult question is: are Berkeley residents better off?" This is a question that surely will be discussed heavily in the next couple years as more municipalities experiment with such policies.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Are checkoff programs good for nutrition? (#AAEA2016)

Harry Kaiser (Cornell University) and I have enjoyed putting together a lively session later today, discussing the question: Are checkoff programs good for nutrition?

In a friendly debate, Harry will argue "yea" and I will argue "nay" (though in fact we agree on many aspects of these programs). John Crespi from Iowa State will be independent discussant, and Kristin Kiesel of UC Davis will moderate.

The session takes place in the Berkeley room 2:45pm today, Aug 2, at the conference site for the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA) here in Boston.

Harry was one of my professors in graduate school at Cornell in the 1990s, and he is a leading economist in the evaluation of generic advertising effects on food consumption. This recent infographic from the beef checkoff program highlights his work (click for full size).

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Food policy in Brazil emphasizes enjoyment of meals and criticizes overprocessed foods

The Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) and the Nation have an in-depth article by Bridget Huber this week on national food policy in Brazil, led by Carlos Monteiro and colleagues. Dietary guidelines in Brazil bluntly criticize highly processed foods while simultaneously communicating a healthy enjoyment of food more generally.
Monteiro came to believe that nutritionists’ traditional focus on food groups and nutrients like fat, sugar, and protein had become obsolete. The more meaningful distinction, he started to argue, is in how the food is made. Monteiro is most concerned with the “ultraprocessed products”—those that are manufactured largely from industrial ingredients like palm oil, corn syrup, and artificial flavorings and typically replace foods that are eaten fresh or cooked. Even by traditional nutritionists’ criteria, these sorts of products are considered unhealthy—they tend to be high in fat, sugar, and salt. But Monteiro argues that ultraprocessed foods have other things in common: They encourage overeating, both because they are engineered by food scientists to induce cravings and because manufacturers spend lavishly on marketing.
This blog has previously discussed the way Brazilian dietary guidelines combine nutrition and sustainability issues, in a manner that is not done in the United States. I helped colleagues at George Washington University organize a conference on sustainability issues in dietary guidance in 2014, at which Monteiro was a speaker, and the Brazilian experience has influenced my sense of what might be possible in the United States.

Regarding enjoyment of healthy meals, Huber writes:
Pleasure is an essential part of the new guide, which frames cooking as a time to enjoy with family and friends, not a burden. And instead of sterile prescriptions for the number of grams of fat and fiber to eat each day, the guide focuses on meals. Sample meals were created by looking at the food habits of Brazilians who eat the lowest amount of ultraprocessed foods. One dinner option is a vegetable soup followed by a bowl of acai pulp with cassava flour, as one might eat in the Amazon region. Another plate, more typical of São Paulo, is spaghetti, chicken, and salad. If these seem like ordinary meals, that would be the point, one of the researchers said: They wanted to counteract the idea that a “healthy” diet is one full of unfamiliar and even unpleasant foods.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

July 2016 update on the #flyingless initiative

The ‪#‎flyingless‬ campaign has been enjoying a flurry of activity since the last update.

1. See Joe Nevins' new interview, posted today on the website, with legal innovator Professor Mary Christina Wood. She contributed to the idea that nature is a "public trust," with dramatic potential implications for addressing climate change. She also is a #flyingless supporter: "Universities will have to re-think their flying practices in a very serious way."

2. Several people connected with our campaign were involved with the remarkable nearly carbon-free conference on Climate Change and the Humanities. Ken Hiltner was the lead organizer and inspiration. Presenters included Peter Singer, Joe Nevins, Peter Kalmus, and myself. On the final day, in addition to the main event in California, we had a fine group of about 12 participants on the Tufts University campus linked by videoconference. Ken Hiltner has created a White Paper / Practical Guide with lessons about how to organize such a conference, and there already is a future conference planned "The World in 2050: Creating/Imagining Just Climate Futures."

3. Please continue to share the website. Important links are available from the "Menu" button at top right of the page. There now are 375 academic signatories for the petition! Twitter: @flyingless.