Thursday, January 12, 2012

Pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge

Last month, a friend pointed me to an article entitled, "In Physics, Telling Cranks from Experts Ain't Easy". It's true. Here is my response:

Anyone who advances the frontiers of human knowledge must, almost by definition, be "heretical" to some extent (according to the common wisdom of the day). But that does not imply that all (or most, or even any) wild theories are therefore correct. Most are just imaginary; many are plausible but wrong; some may have more than a grain of truth; finding the very few that change our understanding of some important aspect of our world is a very important, and extremely difficult, task. I am not aware of any reliable means to accomplish it.

So we rely on proxies, any of which may fail: Does this person have relevant credentials (education, professional experience, peer reviewed publications, endorsements, etc.)? Has this person distinguished him/herself in this or a related field previously? Does this person stand to financially profit by this assertion (patents, getting paid by companies/special interest groups, etc.)? Is the person mentally stable?

For those that get through these (arbitrary, perhaps useful) filters, read the details of the hypothesis closely. Is it coherent? Does it make sense? Is it self-consistent? Are its promised results readily observed?

If so, test them in more detail. If that passes, replicate. Eventually, adopt it into the generally accepted view of the world.

Then repeat with new outlandish hypotheses.

The problem is that it takes time and energy to validate claims; which ones do you look at? If none, we'll never progress - new advances require challenging existing assumptions. If all, we'll never progress - the number of cranks out there exceeds the number of qualified professionals (and the effort required to come up with a potentially revolutionary theory is usually less than the effort required to [in]validate it).

It's a perennial problem.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Organic farming: good practice or good marketing?

I remember reading a MAD Magazine cartoon when I was a child. A couple were deciding where to get fish and chips for lunch. The woman reads one option: "Fish and chips. $3.25." In the next panel, she reads the other possibility: "Specially selected prime fillet of halibut, lightly encrusted with homemade bread crumbs and deep fried to perfection in beer batter. $3.50." "What's the difference?" asks the man. "A lot of adjectives and twenty-five cents," is her reply.

I have long harboured a suspicion that foods labelled organic (especially in large supermarket chains) are little more than greenwashing - a way to get concerned wealthy customers to pay (much) more for meat and produce. At a minimum, coining the term "organic" to describe a particular method of farming is a brilliant marketing coup. It implies that any foods that do not follow its rules are inorganic. It's not just a North American phenomenon; in Germany, such foods are labelled "Bio" (with the convenient implication that other edibles are somehow non-biological).

But even if "organic" truly means a different farming technique, what are the benefits?

It is important to keep healthy eating habits distinct from the discussion about which method of food production is healthier. There is no question that snacking on celery or an orange is healthier than munching on potato chips or a chocolate bar. But are organic apples better for you than conventional apples? The answer is not at all clear to me.

Many proponents of organic produce claim that it is safer than conventional products. In 2008, 22 Canadians died from conventional meat products contaminated with listeria. But buying organic does not protect one from the rare case of deadly infectious agents in our food supply. In 2006, organic carrot juice was contaminated with botulism in Canada and the United States, and spinach contaminated with E. Coli was traced back to an organic food supplier in California.

I find the claim that organic meat is healthier than conventionally raised livestock to be plausible. It makes intuitive sense to me that a chicken, pig or cow eating its customary diet (e.g., cows grazing on grass instead of being fed grains) that is allowed free movement throughout its life (instead of being confined to the smallest possible cage from birth to slaughter) will be a healthier animal overall and that this would be reflected in some way in its nutritional value when eaten by humans.

Somewhat to my surprise, the best scientific analysis I could find on this question, conducted by the UK Food Standards Agency in July 2009, states, "There is currently no independent authoritative statement on differences in the putative health effects of organic and conventional produced foodstuffs." Furthermore, there appears to be no discernible difference in  nutritional content: "There is currently no independent authoritative statement on the nature and importance of differences in content of nutrients and other nutritionally relevant substances (nutrients and other substances) in organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs." However, the authors clearly state that their conclusion is based on the best available reliable data, which is, at present, scarce. The study did not include external factors in its analysis, such as comparative environmental impacts or the potential effects of residual pesticides (herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides) on conventionally grown foods.

For the moment, I am neutral on the effect of pesticides on human health. I assume that, overall, any risks of eating small quantities of residual pesticides on properly rinsed fruits and vegetables are roughly balanced by the benefit of not ingesting potentially harmful insect parts and fungal spores.

For me, the broader impacts food production are more compelling to consider. Our animal husbandry practices are almost perfectly designed to generate, sooner or later, an infectious agent unaffected by all available antibiotics. A September 2011 joint letter from the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, Infectious Diseases Society of America, and others indicates that as far back as 1970 the Food and Drug Administration warned "that antibiotic use in food‐producing animals, especially in subtherapeutic amounts, was associated with the development of drug‐resistant bacteria". Yet today, "FDA data showed that 80 percent of antibacterial drugs were sold for use in food animals in the United States". Is the very real possibility of an untreatable pathogen evolving from our farming policies worth cheaper meat?

Similarly, are higher crop yields today worth a potentially disastrous infestation of pesticide resistant insects? This isn't merely a low-probability, distant, abstract risk. It's happening today: "Rootworms in four northeast Iowa fields have evolved to resist the natural pesticide made by Monsanto's [genetically modified] corn plant." Combine this fact with our increasing tendency to plant vast monocultures (when was the last time you saw any corn at your supermarket other than peaches and cream?), and we have created an environment in which it is only a matter of time before a locust (or weed or fungus) that specializes in devouring one of our favourite foods will evolve to be unaffected by any of the techniques in widespread use intended to curb their impact.

One of the recurring themes during my business studies was that the single most important business concept is economies of scale. It is the fundamental source of competitive advantage for any major enterprise. But something I read on a friend's blog last year disputes this precept and I have found it compelling: for many industries (including farming), cost advantage comes not from economies of scale, but by maximizing economies of externalities: "We have made efficiency our highest priority, and have allowed it to trump kindness, adequate nutrition, meaningful work, clean air and water, peace, and beauty. It is the foundation of our system, and it leads logically to exactly the crises we are in. We do not have economies of scale; we passed those long ago, probably around the time that our fields became so big that the bees couldn’t fly to the middle of them. What we have instead are economies of externalization. Things are not affordable (for us) because they are cheap to produce in such massive quantities. They are affordable because somebody else is picking up the tab. Whether it is the farmer who takes all the risk and barely squeaks out a profit from 500 dairy cows, or the dead zone off the coast from the river runoff, and the fishers who can no longer fish there, the urban peasant who moved to a slum for a better life because their land was sold off to grow cash crops, or the species of orchid that went extinct when that towering giant in the rainforest was cut: the costs are there. We just aren’t paying them."

This is the tragedy of the commons writ large. Much of the the cost savings (narrowly defined as what customers pay for meat and produce at the till) in food production in recent decades come from becoming more and more effective at externalizing the effects our farming practices. As 16th century Swiss scientist Paracelsus noted, "The dose makes the poison." Excrement in low quantities is fertilizer. Runoff from farms (loose topsoil, excess pesticides, unabsorbed fertilizer, animal excrement) at the scale of our industrial agriculture leads to massive contamination of land and water ecosystems. Farms (along with heavy industry) are responsible for huge waterways such as China's Yellow River becoming unsuitable for any human use - drinking, bathing, fishing, or watering crops.

It's not just polluted water - there are a number of other problems that make our current practices unsustainable. While focusing on biomass (plant or animal) yields per hectare, we have tacitly ignored the fact that we are degrading our environmental capital:
  • Groundwater reserves are being depleted much faster than they are naturally replenished (leading to ever-deeper wells being bored);
  • The amount of energy and water required for each unit of farmed biomass has increased (through increased and often overuse of fertilizers and irrigation systems);
  • Topsoil is being eroded (in Iowa, there is only half of the topsoil that existed 100 years ago, leading to "serious problems for farming, surface water, plant and animal life, and residents");
  • Rivers, seas, and ever-increasing areas of our oceans are proving uninhabitable to most marine life (the Gulf of Mexico has a dead zone of over 6,000 square miles, primarily as a result of "runoff of fertilizers, soil erosion, animal wastes, and sewage");
  • Massive centralization of food production has led to enormous transportation costs (both financial and environmental) being built into our global food production systems. In addition to the above problems, linking our food and transportation industries so intimately inherently makes food prices more volatile. Every gyration in the price of oil due to political events in the Middle East are reflected in spiking and crashing market rates for staple foods. 
This is a complex problem. I am not sure that the methods of "organic" horticulture are able to feed a hungry planet of seven billion (and growing) people. But continuing on our current path invites multiple disasters: antibiotic resistant pathogens; pesticide resistant insects, weeds, or fungi; depleted groundwater reserves; topsoil erosion; polluted land and waterways; massive dead zones in river deltas and oceans; and likely others.

Farmland is finite, so good yields are essential. Promoting policies that will substantially increase the cost of staples will result in large numbers of the world's poor going hungry. We must find a way to feed today's population without compromising our ability do so in a few decades.