Archives for agriculture



A Soybean in the Supreme Court: Bowman v. Monsanto

The idea of patenting a living organism is strange to some people, if not frightening. Nonetheless, these kinds of patents have existed for decades. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court held argument in Bowman v. Monsanto, a case that will test just how far these patents reach. 

Vernon Hugh Bowman is a 75-year-old Indiana soybean farmer. Like pretty much every soybean farmer in America, Bowman is a regular purchaser of “Roundup-Ready” soybean seed from Monsanto. Farmers who plant the variety are able to kill weeds, but not soybeans, by spraying their fields with Roundup. Today, over 90% of the soybean crop in the U.S. uses Monsanto’s patented variety.

One special feature of a living thing is that it can grow and reproduce. And so farmers who buy Roundup-Ready soybean seed sign a contract with Monsanto promising that they will not replant any of the soybeans that they harvest. Monsanto wants farmers to buy a fresh batch of seed every time they plant a soybean crop — and not grow their own. Read More »



The Opportunity Cost of Water

With the continuing drought in South Texas, the issue of how to allocate scarce water resources has flared up again. Rice farmers south of Austin want water from the Colorado River for their crops; yet the two storage lakes on the river, which provide most of the Austin area’s drinking water, are less than half full.  As one rice farmer told the the Austin American-Statesman: “Water availability should be based on sound hydrology and not on political pressure.” It should be based on neither—it should be based on economics—what is the opportunity cost of the water?  In particular, one might ask why the U.S. is growing rice at all.  It is hard to believe we have a comparative advantage in rice-growing and that it shouldn’t all be imported.  That’s especially true about rice grown in dry South Texas. We grow rice because of entrenched interests that obtained water rights many years ago.  The rice farmers get heavily subsidized water precisely because of the political pressure this man deplores—and they now want to compound the effects of bad policy.



Why “Peak Farmland” Is Good News

First there was “peak oil“; now there’s “peak farmland.” But it’s not what you think. Reuters reports that a group of scientists from the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University just released a report detailing their findings:

The amount of land needed to grow crops worldwide is at a peak and an area more than twice the size of France can return to nature by 2060 due to rising yields and slower population growth, a group of experts said on Monday.

The report, conflicting with U.N. studies that say more cropland will be needed in coming decades to avert hunger and price spikes as the world population rises beyond 7 billion, said humanity had reached what it called “Peak Farmland.”

“Happily, the cause is not exhaustion of arable land, as many had feared, but rather moderation of population and tastes and ingenuity of farmers,” says Jesse Ausubel, the study’s lead author.

(HT: Free Exchange) Read More »



In Defense of the Christmas Tree Tax that Isn’t a Tax at All

Millions of Christmas trees will be hauled away this week — some will enjoy a useful life after death and many others will end up in the dumps. But record numbers of Christmas trees will also be boxed up and stored in closets till next year. And that has many Christmas tree growers feeling in the dumps, ever more so after anti-tax crusaders trashed a plan to rescue their declining industry by labeling it “Obama’s Christmas Tree Tax.”

The $0.15 fee on the sale of fresh Christmas trees hardly seems like the stuff of political scandal. But announced in November—just days before many Americans would make the trip to tree farms in search of the perfect tree—and branded by conservatives as an assault on Christmas and a sign of government overreach, the story quickly gained traction, with the Drudge Report driving nearly a million visitors to the Heritage Foundation, which broke the story. Before long, mainstream news outlets were reporting that the administration had caved to conservative backlash and decided to delay the “Christmas tree tax” indefinitely. Read More »



The Folly of Prediction, Cont’d.

Our “Folly of Prediction” podcast included an interview with Joe Prusacki, who directs the statistics division at the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. This means he helps make crop forecasts (read a primer here). As hard as the USDA works, the fact is that predicting the future of even something as basic as crop yield can be maddeningly difficult. The Wall Street Journal has the latest in an article headlined “Erroneous Forecasts Roil Corn Market“:

Government reports about the U.S. corn crop have become increasingly unreliable of late, contributing to wild swings in corn prices, a Wall Street Journal analysis shows.

Over the past two years, the Department of Agriculture’s monthly forecasts of how much farmers will harvest have been off the mark to a greater degree than any other two consecutive years in the last 15, according to a Journal analysis of government data. This year’s early-season forecasts also appear to have been way off. The next monthly report is due on Friday.

Read More »



Smart Stuff From the Comments

From a reader named Paul Kilmartin, in response to Steve Sexton’s post “The Inefficiency of Local Food”:

Well, if we’re going to think like economists, then lets talk about how we got here. The food distribution network cannot thrive as it does now without the massive public works program called the Interstate Highway system, which subsidizes distant food movement. Large, “efficient” agribusiness is as much a result of farm subsidies leading to consolidation, and the percentage of crop land dedicated to corn is a function of ethanol policy. Furthermore, FDA policies prohibit or discourage the farming and production of items people want, such as hemp and unpasteurized milk.

On top of that, misinformation of the USDA has driven the public to choose grains over protein and fat, driving the obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates higher, which shifts resources to those with government-granted monopoly rights to market pharmaceuticals to treat those diseases.

So, in the absence of all these price distortions, would local food be at such a disadvantage? I contend not. So those liberals who want more local food should dismantle the nanny state and public works programs that made pseudo food so much more profitable.

Who cares to argue with Paul?



The Inefficiency of Local Food

Two members of Congress earlier this month introduced legislation advancing a food reform movement promising to help resolve the great environmental and nutritional problems of the early 21st century. The intent is to remake the agricultural landscape to look more like it did decades ago. But unless the most basic laws of economics cease to hold, the smallholder farming future envisioned by the local farming movement could jeopardize natural habitat and climate change mitigation efforts, while also endangering a tenuous and temporary victory in the battle against human hunger.

The “Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act” sponsored by Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Representative Chellie Pingree of Maine, throws about $200 million to local farm programs. That’s a rounding error in the $3.7 trillion federal budget. But the bill follows on a federal rule that gives preference to local farms in contract bidding for school lunches. It also builds on high-profile advocacy by Michelle Obama, who has become a leader of the food reform movement, joining the likes of Michael Pollan, the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and famed-chef Alice Waters. The bill’s introduction came as the world population hit 7 billion, a milestone that provides a stark reminder of the challenge agriculture faces to feed a world population expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050. Read More »



This Week in Corn Predictions: The USDA Got it Right (Almost)

We’ve been having some fun recently at the expense of people who like to predict things. In our hour-long Freakonomics Radio episode “The Folly of Prediction” — which will be available as a podcast in the fall — we showed that humans are lousy at predicting just about anything: the weather, the stock market, elections. In fact, even most experts are only nominally better than a coin flip at determining a future outcome. And yet there remains a huge demand for professional predictors and forecasters.

Earlier this week, Stephen Dubner and Kai Ryssdal chatted about this on the Freakonomics Radio segment on Marketplace. The question remains: “should bad predictions be punished?

As mentioned in the segment, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s August crop yield report came out today. The result? Not bad actually. The corn yield forecast was revised downward by just 1.3% from its estimate last month. That’s a considerable improvement over last year’s big miss, when the August corn yield report had to be revised downward by almost 7%. Read More »