by Tyler Cowen
on April 13, 2012 at 10:31 am
1. Would you cheat for charity?
2. Buy your baboon a book truck.
3. Can organic farming be scaled?
4. Barnes&Noble is the big loser from the antitrust settlement.
#1 poses a fascinating question and is somewhat related to the discussion between Cowen and Singer about morality vs utility — if, as Peter Singer claims, we have an ethical obligation to help the poor, then one could argue that cheating (if the proceeds of one’s cheating goes to the poor) is not morally wrong — I shall call this the Robin Hood rule — but if you are Kantian, cheating is always wrong, regardless of one’s intentions or reasons for cheating in the first place
You can extend that beyond cheating and go to extortion. For an honest Kantian (I don’t think Kant was one), taxes are immoral. For someone like Singer with his mix of preference utilitarianism and his particular cardinalization of utility… taxes are not only not-immoral, but if there was no tax redistributing authority… it would be your /duty/ to coerce your neighbors and take the money for yourself if you were poor enough.
Actually wait, that doesn’t sound right. Can someone point out where what I said is incorrect?
1. Maybe the grad students slipped in loaded dice…for charity.
Charity == Whatever you think is good. Therefore, charity is the only thing that anyone ever cheats for.
And don’t tell me that charity means helping others. I doubt you think giving Rush Limbaugh $100 represents charity. You are far more likely to think that stealing $100 from him for yourself is charity.
“And don’t tell me that charity means helping others.”
Sure, as long as you won’t tell me that stimulus means spending money. 😉
“Charity == Whatever you think is good.”
Charity is voluntary giving to people in need. As RL would say, “Words mean things.”
#3 is based on the false assumption that eating meat is bad for one’s health and the 10 acres/cow figure seems made up. There is also no mention of how row crop agriculture destroys entire ecosystems, depletes topsoil (a very valuable resource), and is highly dependent on fossil fuels and market interventions for its existence at this point. McWilliams is making a veiled health/ethical argument, not an environmental one.
Row crops destroy ecosystems…. just like any other form of agriculture. It does not matter if an acre that used to be wetlands then gets planted with corn, peppers or pear trees. From that perspective, higher yields help preserve the environment: If I need 200 bushels of corn, doing it in a single acre beats having to take over two with maize that has half the yield.
Now, if the topsoil is eroded so much nothing can grow there ever again, we have gone too far, but obtaining the highest sustainable yields is in everyone’s best interest, no matter what is planted.
Agrobusiness research tech could be used with organic farming too. Less just saving seeds, and more scientific breeding.
Ok…so are you equivocating the environmental damage of growing row crops versus raising livestock in a non-industrial manner? Arguably, raising livestock more closely resembles the “natural” environment prior to the advent of large scale farming about 50 years ago. In the absence of animal agriculture and the industrial processes that allow us to convert fossil fuels to nitrogen rich fertilizers, we wouldn’t have any topsoil to grow on in the first place.
It’s primarily in the farmer’s interest to maximize yields, really, and a glance at the Western world’s Ag policy shows that. It’s why we export and dump lots of cheap cereal grains on the developing world, sometimes calling it “food aid”, who then find it difficult to develop their own agricultural sector and feed themselves.
It would be interesting to know how much of the government subsidies have gone to stripping bare stocks such as top soil rather than researching how to build them up as Salatin and his supporters claim they are doing.
One of the USDA’s stated goals is to increase agricultural production and otherwise help American farmers. Agricultural research by the USDA is almost all funded by formula, rather than competitively (unlike NIH, HHS, and EPA for example) and done in-house or at land grant universities. That says it all right there, I think.
“Agricultural research by the USDA is almost all funded by formula, rather than competitively (unlike NIH, HHS, and EPA for example) and done in-house or at land grant universities. That says it all right there, I think.”
American agricultural production is world class while it’s health care system and environmental policies are something of a joke. So what exactly does it say?
It might make us wonder if our food is making us sick?
Would be organic meat eaters could cut way back on meat just eat the squirrels from the back yard.
That’s what one of my great uncles used to do – problem was the squirrels got wise and didn’t come close to the house very often! (Squirrel dumplings weren’t bad, lots more flavor than chicken)
Odd caption for #3. Speaking as an (amateur) chemist and plastics engineer, plastics are organic.
The editorial was prompted by the FDA efforts to reduce use of antibiotics which for reasons not understood help make farm animals get fat faster, so given we don’t understand how that happens, no one can say for sure that antibiotics fed to animals don’t make for faster fattening of the humans who eat them. But he goes off on an attack on the million year food cycle.
But no where does the author mention quality.
Tyler likes to eat well, so I ask Tyler to personally express his preferences for beef. Grass fed or factory produced?
Is the introduction of factory beef, and no one can argue that the US beef factory model is one of the major accomplishments of Nixon’s ag central planner, Earl Butz, really an advance in food? If government subsidized Yugo factory auto production sufficiently to make Yugo the number one auto with no improvement in quality, would the fact they cut the cost of autos in America be a good thing? Hey, the Yugo would create lots of increased demand for auto health care, and increased oil production, and increased human health care, but the price would be cheap, so the lack of quality and the side effects should be ignored. Only price and volume matters??
I grew up in the 50s and 60s in the Midwest and almost from day one of school we were taught crop rotation and mixed crop production as the biggest accomplishment of American farmers, contrasted with the slash and burn methodology that propelled the westward expansion in search of fertile land after the land in the South and East/Midwest was depleted.
It has been more than half a century, but I remember the basics of the lesson; beans to build nitrogen for the corn, corn to deplete the soil and provide high energy silage supplement for the winter, alfalfa or sorghum to rebuild the soil and provide silage and grazing, wheat for market and to provide grazing. And cows were always a product of the farm, even after Wisconsin dairy exports exploited refrigeration to capture the national milk market, because farmers wanted great tasting beef. Add in the other crops like sweet corn, tomatoes, lima beans, chicken, eggs, pork, and that covered the production of the often large Hoosier farm family enterprises in the 60s.
As a PK, church suppers with the older couple groups were a delight – all the fruits of the farm, the time to fix them, and the tradition of large family gatherings.
In the past year I’ve bought little beef, but most was local grass fed, and the quality improvement is worth the extra dollar for the ground beef I buy for burgers and meat loaf. And while I reduced my meat from when I live in Indiana in part for health – in the 1960s – I ate as few veggies as I could – today I eat lots and lots of veggies, and meat in about the portions of the 19th century, and what I want are better veggies and better meat.
Tomatoes are now something I refuse to buy out of season because the industrial table tomato is so horrid – canned tomatoes are the same today as in the 60s: harvested ripe, processed and canned within 24 hours, and in the 60s grown on a family farm and canned in the family cannery, but the profit came from the first two weeks of fresh garden tomatoes in the spring.
Is cheap poor quality industrial food worth the price you pay for it?
But then, many Americans have no choice but poor quality food even if they want to pay more
(A news report on high tower winter gardening in NH this week says the (Obama?) Federal government program subsidizing the first high tower for a farm is over subscribed and the number of new farmers producing local greens in winter has exploded, but they can’t meet the demand at winter farmer markets, which are also popping up all over. If only we can get NH State to support a USDA inspector, we will be able to buy beef grown in NH and slaughtered in NH . I find it odd that those who shout about “taking the country back” are opposed to the efforts by the Obama administration to help NH go back to its old traditions, traditions that NH markets to tourists and wealthy immigrants (from other States): rural natural country living)
So, the problem is Salatin feeds his chickens purchased feed? This is one guy on one farm. What if he solves that issue? It seems like an energy balance with a margin of a few thousand pounds of feed. What if we substitute Tilapia with their energy advantages compared to land animals? Are we suddenly right there?
What if we grind up economists into finely textured beef and feed them to the animals? All of the world’s problems are centered around the rise of the economists mental model infecting the brains of indigenous cultures. Human beings in India didn’t start classifying themselves until the autistic white modern man subjected them to census data. This New York Times article is fodder for a million dissertations I could write on why economists are the enemy of man.
The measure of energy is not a human issue, and economics is fundamentaly anti-human. Henry Miller would be burned, stoned, and roadside bombed in the modern world.
What really pisses me off about the NYT article is that it represents the height of self-centered, smug, intellectualism at it’s worst. It represents everything that is worng with the modern world. If I had the platform to write articles as a representative of NYT, I would wrote about the inspiration found in the book Cradle to Cradle which at its heart, blames the fall of man on the field of economics.
Yes, that is right, the quantitative devaluation of human existence embodied in economics is embodied on everyone that was Douglas Adam’s ship that crash landed here on Earth. They put the economists on that ship and that world is a better place for having sent them into the void from which they embrace.
Note: I am a performance artist in a scientific ivory tower.
Otherwise you wouldn’t be buying it.
#1. What proportion of data of this sort comes from university students? So many times I read study findings that, while often plausible, don’t jive with my 50 years of life experiences. (I’m an academic cardiologist at a public hospital who trains students, residents, and fellows.) Then I look at the subjects enrolled and I realize that, yeah, I can see undergrads and grad students acting/believing/reporting in the manners described; but not actual adult human beings.
The economic, sociological, etc fields seem to me to be full of “facts” regarding “people” that really only apply to inexperienced (generally closeted and insulated) college kids.
Believe me, rk, this limitation is well-understood in psychology. The field tries its best with the resources it has available, but you always need to view findings with this in mind. Usually, if something looks interesting enough, an enterprising grad student in another country will look to replicate, or look for cross-cultural differences in the findings.
“Psychology Secrets: Most Psychology Studies Are College Student Biased”
“A Weird Way of Thinking Has Prevailed Worldwide”
Thank you for the info and the links.
I am a farmer and I raise beef. We run thousands of head per year and supply many different market niches such as grass fed, natural, and plain old commodity cattle (grain fed). For our business we go where the opportunity is at the time. However, my own freezer is full of grass fed beef as that is what my family prefers.
Fact: we could not feed the world today with strictly organic production. The yields are just too low. I have nothing against organic farming, and have used some techniques developed by organic farmers to improve my own operation. However, organic Ag could not exist at much scale without conventional agriculture to provide the manure, blood meal, fish meal, etc that they need to maintain soil fertility.
This is my question. Current industrial production has been evolving over 100 years. Where would organic food production be if allowed to improve for 100 years?
It might be nearly as good without threatening potential catastrophes like bee colony collapse. That is pure speculation but so, it seems to me, is the assumption that it wouldn’t be as productive and more robust with fewer negative externalities.
That said, I care about health and brains (not so much the vagaries of “the environment”), the things we’ll be needing to make either of them work and to help maintain the planet.
If you (or an unethical version of you) sold some grain-fed as grass-fed would the buyers notice? Curious about how grass-fed is validated.
“Where would organic food production be if allowed to improve for 100 years”
Modern agriculture IS improved organic food production from 100 years ago. In 100 years, a new crop of Luddites will condemn whatever advances have been made in the interim.
“If you (or an unethical version of you) sold some grain-fed as grass-fed would the buyers notice?”
I can’t answer for him, but it is possible. It just tastes different. If you compare 100% grass fed (no grain supplement, which most grass-fed beef does get) to 100% feedlot, grass fed is much “gamey-er”. Somewhat similar to a beefy flavored deer. Now, if it is grassfed with a grain supplement, this is much less noticeable. It is also breed specific. Some breeds are noticably less gamey tasting on grass only.
Interestingly enough, genetic engineering holds the only hope for using organic practices to feed the world. If they engineer corn (or other crops) to become a nitrogen fixer (and I think it will happen in my lifetime) organic practices become practical on a large scale. But of course, organic proponents opposition to genetic engineering will require them to condemn it. Should be interesting.
For sure organic production will continue to evolve and improve. However, I think the main issues are structural constraints with the main one being nitrogen fertilization. The main sources of nitrogen for organic farmers are animal wastes and legumes. I think that currently animal wastes are being applied to about 10% of US crop land. The efficiency of manures and composts could be improved some with better management but it would come nowhere near supplying the N needs of modern farming. Legumes have the potential to produce significant amounts of N but the availability of it in a plant useable form is hard to predict. Also, to maximize N production from legumes requires using part of the growing season to grow the legume so it can be plowed down before the main crop. This shortens the time available for the main crop. Currently, organic farmers are able to provide N to their crops by supplementing the above N sources with seabird guano and hydrolyzed fish fertilizer which are quite limited resources. I would also propose that only the very best soils are suitable for organics as less productive soils have lower organic matter content and are too fragile to be sustainably plowed and cultivated. Conventional no till management is a great fit for these soils.
I believe that we could gravitate toward a system that is a hybrid of conventional and organic agriculture where pesticides are minimized but still available when the “locusts” attack. Great strides are being made in biological control of many pests and diseases. However, a world without synthetic N fertilizer would be a much less populous world than the one we live in today.
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