Posts filed under ‘Food and Agriculture’

Fast Food and Obesity

| Peter Klein |

A new Australian public-service ad compares fast food to heroin: “You wouldn’t inject your children with junk. So why are you feeding it to them?” (See the ad, along with Katherine Mangu-Ward’s funny meditations on the theme.) But does fast food really contribute to health problems, particularly obesity?

Not much, according to Richard Dunn’s study, “The Effect of Fast-Food Availability on Obesity: An Analysis by Gender, Race, and Residential Location,” in the July 2010 issue of the American Journal of Agricultural Economics (it’s peer reviewed, and not funded by corporations!). Previous research finds links between the number and density of fast-food restaurants and health problems, but has difficulty identifying cause and effect (fast food could make people overweight, but fast food restaurants could be put in areas where people are overweight anyway). Dunn uses the number of interstate exits as an instrument for restaurant location to tease out the causal relations, and finds little overall effect of fast food on obesity — none at all in rural areas, a bit in medium-density areas, and only among women and minorities.

30 September 2010 at 5:00 pm 10 comments

Incentives Matter, Soviet Edition

| Dick Langlois |

As economists like Benito Arruñada and Eric Hilt have shown, fishing and whaling have always used an incentive system in which crew members are paid a share of the profits of the voyage. Recall that Ishmael in Moby Dick contracted for a 300th lay, a 300thpart of the clear nett proceeds of the voyage, whatever that might eventually amount to.” This provides relatively high-powered incentives, in that it is a reward based on results, though it works only when team members can monitor each other easily and when the market for workers is competitive. (This contrasts with the reward system in, say, professional sports, where one is rewarded on the basis of one’s own performance rather than on that of the team. But that may be changing.)

I was surprised to discover that even Soviet factory ships used a similar system, as described in the Martin Cruz Smith novel Polar Star — a work of fiction but clearly well researched and probably accurate. “The Polar Star’s pay was shared on a coefficient from 2.55 shares for the captain to 0.8 share for a secondclass seaman. Then there was a polar coefficient of 1.5 for fishing in Arctic seas, a 10 percent bonus for one year’s service, a 10 percent bonus for meeting the ship’s quota, and a bonus as high as 40 percent for overfulfilling the plan. The quota was everything. It could be raised or lowered after the ship left dock, but was usually raised because the fleet manager drew his bonus from saving on seamen’s wages. Transit time to the fishing grounds was set at so many days, and the whole crew lost money when the captain ran into a storm, which was why Soviet ships sometimes went full steam ahead through fog and heavy seas.”

Presumably, however, the share was not of profit but of some fixed amount. The incentive came from the quota bonuses, which, as the novel details, were subject to political manipulation. Interesting nonetheless that the system used incentives of the broadly traditional kind, and that it explicitly rewarded workers differently for different skill level and status.

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14 July 2010 at 3:12 pm 3 comments

Westhoff’s The Economics of Food

| Peter Klein |

Congratulations to my colleague Pat Westhoff for his new book, The Economics of Food: How Feeding and Fueling the Planet Affects Food Prices (Financial Times Press, 2010). A highly readable account of food markets and food and agricultural policy. Includes some wise words about forecasting:

One thing FAPRI has learned over the years is that people who make and use market projections need a good sense of perspective — and humor. In a rapidly changing world, even the best projections have a very short shelf life. The economic models used to develop the projections necessarily rely on a long series of assumptions, and at least some of these assumptions always prove to be incorrect when viewed with 20-20 hindsight. . . .

For all these reasons, this book uses market projections by FAPRI and other institutions simply to illustrate important points, rather than to predict what will actually happen. If there is one lesson readers should take away from this book, it is that analysts who say they know exactly who food prices will evolve in the future are misleading their audience or fooling themselves.

Update (20 April 2010): While stranded in Germany waiting for a flight home, Pat wrote an item for Freakonomics.

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8 April 2010 at 9:12 am Leave a comment

Agribusiness Economics and Management

| Peter Klein |

Congratulations to my colleague Mike Cook for his review paper on “Agribusiness Economics and Management” (with Rob King, Mike Boehlje, and Steve Sonka) in the new issue of the American Journal of Agricultural Economics. It’s a special issue commemorating the centennial of the American Agricultural Economics Association. Lots of good stuff here on the history and development of management theory and pedagogy, the evolution of the food sector, and the effects of the institutional environment on firm structure. Here’s the abstract:

Agribusiness scholarship emphasizes an integrated view of the food system that extends from research and input supply through production, processing, and distribution to retail outlets and the consumer. This article traces development of agribusiness scholarship over the past century by describing nine significant areas of contribution by our profession: (1) economics of cooperative marketing and management, (2) design and development of credit market institutions, (3) organizational design, (4) market structure and performance analysis, (5) supply chain management and design, (6) optimization of operational efficiency, (7) development of data and analysis for financial management, (8) strategic management, and (9) agribusiness education.

21 March 2010 at 10:11 pm Leave a comment


| Dick Langlois |

I attended an interesting lecture on Thursday, part of the University’s Edwin Way Teale lecture series on the environment. Normally these lectures do not tend, shall we say, to take perspectives that O&M readers would find congenial. But this lecture, by Robert Glennon of the University of Arizona Law School, was interesting along a number of dimensions. The talk was based on his book Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It. Here is the abstract:

From manufactured snow for tourists in Atlanta to trillions of gallons of water flushed down the toilet each year, Dr. Robert Glennon reveals the heady extravagances and everyday inefficiencies that are sucking the nation dry. The looming catastrophe remains hidden as the government diverts supplies from one area to another to keep water flowing from the tap. But sooner rather than later, the shell game has to end. And when it does, shortages will threaten not only the environment, but every aspect of American life. America must make hard choices — and Glennon’s answers are fittingly provocative. He proposes market-based solutions that value water as both a commodity and a fundamental human right.

The talk was interesting not only in that I learned a few things about the screwed-up water system in the U. S. (the broad contours of which I was vaguely familiar with) but also in that it presented an interesting case study in rhetoric. Glennon spent most of the talk revving up the environmentalist crowd, with lots of show and tell about the effects of bad water policy and a tour through various command-and-control policies that environmentalists might think of to fix the situation. (He even paused to make fun of Ann Coulter’s claim that the flush toilet is man’s greatest invention.) But Glennon’s bottom line, revealed at the very end, is that the only thing that will fix the problem is properly assigning property rights and trading those rights on markets. This was the conclusion I was expecting, not only because of the abstract but also because Glennon has an NBER Working Paper with Gary Libecap. Maybe this is the way to go in selling market-based solutions.

8 March 2010 at 11:46 am 4 comments

I, Taco

| Peter Klein |

Some California design students tracked the ingredients in their favorite local taco and came up with this cool image.

Of course, it’s supposed to show us the horror of all those food miles, but what I see is the miracle of the market.

3 March 2010 at 2:15 pm 5 comments

Today’s Food and Ag Links

| Peter Klein |

  • Via LRC, Jim Rogers and Marc Faber are bullish on commodities and agribusiness. “Rogers says that it will be farmers not bankers driving Ferraris in the coming decades. Faber likens investing in agriculture to investing in oil in 2001 or 2002.” Rogers is good on macro, BTW.
  • The Illinois Department of Agriculture — bless its heart! — has swooped in to protect high-end Chicago restaurant diners from the evils of unregulated designer sausages. Notes Thom Lambert: “The charcuteries’ sophisticated patrons realize they’re dealing with unlicensed meat-preparing facilities, but they know the sausage makers, are aware of the high-quality products they use and the care they take in making their products, and are willing to purchase the products despite the absence of a commercial license.” No, no, reputation effects cannot, I repeat, cannot, substitute for one-size-fits-all, top-down, government regulation! People might start thinking for themselves, you know.
  • Christine Harbin writes on libertarian food paternalism. “If America were serious about reducing the caloric intake of its citizens, then officials would eliminate the subsidies that it pays to corn producers rather than instituting sin taxes.”
  • Here’s an updated food chain, with zombies.

22 December 2009 at 1:07 pm 2 comments

The First Secretary of Agriculture

| Peter Klein | has posted Frank Chodorov’s 1952 classic, “Joseph, Secretary of Agriculture”:

The dream plan worked wonders — for Pharaoh and his secretary of agriculture. . . . On the other hand, it is told how a delegation of Egyptians came to Joseph and declared: “Thou hast saved our lives: let us find favor in the sight of my lord, and we will be Pharaoh’s servants.” Showing that the proletariat had come to terms with collectivism (since that was the only way to get by in this world) and were content with whatever security the secretary would provide.

Joseph, however, had to make some concession to private property, perhaps to encourage more taxable production; he restored to some of the Egyptians the land he had taken from them in their adversity, on a rental basis. The rent? One-fifth of all the annual output. By this well-timed act of policy, informs historian Flavius Josephus, “Joseph established his own authority in Egypt and increased the standing revenue of all its succeeding monarchs.”

Though the succeeding monarchs and the succeeding commissars did well under the plan introduced by Joseph, it seems (according to later historians) that it put upon the proletarians a moral blight, so that when conquerors from other lands came to Egypt they met with little resistance; those who had nothing to lose had nothing to fight for, so that even the monarchs had to beg the invaders for administrative jobs. And lots of dust fell on the civilization of Pharaoh.

Chodorov goes on to describe the obvious analogy to twentieth-century agriculture policy. Of course, without farm programs, how would we have food?

6 October 2009 at 3:42 pm Leave a comment

Not Even the Slightest Soupçon of Correlation

| Dick Langlois |

Another interesting article from the Journal of Wine Economics:

The lead article is again by Robert T. Hodgson, who analyzes the reliability of Gold medals awarded at 13 California Wine Fairs. “An analysis of over 4000 wines entered in 13 U.S. wine competitions shows little concordance among the venues in awarding Gold medals. Of the 2,440 wines entered in more than three competitions, 47 percent received Gold medals, but 84 percent of these same wines also received no award in another competition. Thus, many wines that are viewed as extraordinarily good at some competitions are viewed as below average at others. An analysis of the number of Gold medals received in multiple competitions indicates that the probability of winning a Gold medal at one competition is stochastically independent of the probability of receiving a Gold at another competition, indicating that winning a Gold medal is greatly influenced by chance alone.” The full article can be accessed free of charge at Abstract Full Text (PDF).

3 September 2009 at 9:30 am 2 comments

The Industrious Revolution

| Peter Klein |

Hans-Joachim Voth calls Jan de Vries’s new book on household behavior during the early modern period “staggeringly erudite, insightful, stimulating, and on all the main points, convincing.” The book, The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present (Cambridge,  2008) builds on de Vries’s earlier concept of an Industrious Revolution, the two centuries before the Industrial Revolution in which consumers increased their production of marketable goods, largely at the expense of leisure time. “The industrious revolution was a household-level change with important demand-side features that preceded the Industrial Revolution, a supply-side phenomenon” (De Vries, 1994). Adds Voth:

The sheer amount of hard work that went into every aspect of these chapters is hard to convey. Surveying the rise of consumer items through the prism of probate inventories shows the author confidently mastering the abundant historical literature in four or five languages. De Vries’ reconstruction of Europeans’ increasing consumption of “colonial luxuries” — sugar, tea, and coffee — alone is going to be useful for all scholars working in the area.

This book may be of interest not only to economic and business historians, but also to management scholars in marketing and consumer behavior.

28 May 2009 at 12:34 pm Leave a comment

Plowing Under Rural Sociology

| Peter Klein |

From Randy Westgren:

The aggie world, and to a lesser extent, the sociology world, is reacting to a decision by Washington State University to dissolve its Department of Community and Rural Sociology. There is a great deal of rancor developing about this type of budget-cutting strategy, as opposed to making everyone suffer equally. If one looks closely at the budget documents made public by WSU, the ag school is getting a smaller cut (5% teaching + 8% research) than many colleges, including the B-school (13%, 12 vacant positions). The budget plan can be found here. It looks like the Dean’s decision, rather than the CEO’s (The Dean is an agricultural economist).

I was stunned to see a comment to a piece written in Inside Higher Education on this battle from an engineering prof — well, not actually stunned, more like chagrined.

“As for the rural sociology department, while I can sympathize with their plight in Pullman I do not see the loss as intellectually serious. As a member of an engineering faculty at a major university for more than 25 years, I’ve known quite a few sociologists. Most of them publish little stories that are not much sounder empirically, and usually less interesting substantively, that a good fiction writer. With very few exceptions, sociologists I know and have known are mathophobes! The few who have some ability in math use it on their omnibus snapshots of human populations taken at widely spaced intervals and then try to figure out from those “data” what happened and why. Ridiculous! Continuous observation is probably not possible, but you need closely spaced observations that focus on the specific processes that are the point of your investigation! If you have continuous-time observations, you need calculus in order to analyze your data. If you have closely spaced discrete-time observations, you need something more than shotgun regressions to analyze your data. Most of what sociologists publish is a waste of time and money.”

Obviously, this scholar has not followed the closely reasoned defense of fuzzy, ill-defined concepts at

Teppo and Brayden, if you are watching, ask Dave Whetten about his take on the Chancellor of SUNY Albany who undertook a similar department-cutting strategy during the New York State budget difficulties of the late 1970s.

20 May 2009 at 8:13 am 3 comments

There Isn’t Much Spam In It

| Dick Langlois |

A new working paper from the Association of Wine Economists is called “Can People Distinguish Pâté from Dog Food?” Here’s the abstract.

Considering the similarity of its ingredients, canned dog food could be a suitable and inexpensive substitute for pâté or processed blended meat products such as Spam or liverwurst. However, the social stigma associated with the human consumption of pet food makes an unbiased comparison challenging. To prevent bias, Newman’s Own dog food was prepared with a food processor to have the texture and appearance of a liver mousse. In a double-blind test, subjects were presented with five unlabeled blended meat products, one of which was the prepared dog food. After ranking the samples on the basis of taste, subjects were challenged to identify which of the five was dog food. Although 72% of subjects ranked the dog food as the worst of the five samples in terms of taste (Newell and MacFarlane multiple comparison, P<0.05), subjects were not better than random at correctly identifying the dog food.

Perhaps the group should broaden its name to the Association of Wine and Hors d’Oeuvre Economists.

1 May 2009 at 11:10 am 3 comments

Another Regulation Not Worth Its Salt

| Mike Sykuta |

Thanks to Randy Westgren for calling attention to an April 7 article in the New York Times concerning a new regulatory initiative in the Big Apple. It seems Mayor Bloomberg has decreed that salt consumption should be cut in half and has pledged the coercive power of New York City’s food industry regulatory system to launch a “nationwide initiative” to pressure the food industry to change its salty ways.

Apparently Mayor Bloomberg has identified salt consumption as a major public health crisis. Never mind that scientific research fails to demonstrate a causal relationship between salt consumption and actual health outcomes. Never mind that the human body requires some level of salt and there is no research demonstrating the potential health consequences of restricting persons’ salt intake to the level the Mayor prescribes. And don’t even think about the idea of personal responsibility and liberty in choosing what to eat and whether (and how much) salt to consume.

“if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by people.” Perhaps a better approach would be to throw out such ill-founded regulations and trample them under foot.

7 April 2009 at 9:42 pm Leave a comment

Cooking by the Numbers

| Peter Klein |

Management by the numbers is out; will cooking by the numbers be next? The WSJ reports:

[A]s people look for quicker and easier ways to make everyday meals, some are moving away from the rigidity of recipes and advocating improvisational cooking, where measurements are approximations and ingredients are interchangeable.

It’s common to distinguish between two personalities in the kitchen: the deliberate, systematic, careful personality, which tends to excel in baking, and the wilder, risk-taking, adjust-on-the-fly personality, which does better with other types of cooking. But the use of careful and precise measurements has been a staple of most kinds of home cooking for a hundred years:

The rise of recipes that use precise measurements is widely credited to Fannie Farmer, a student, and later, director of the Boston Cooking School, who published “The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook” in 1896. Until Ms. Farmer’s manual, cookbooks were written in prose, calling for a pinch of this or a handful of that.

“The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook,” which survives today as “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook,” featured nearly 2,000 recipes that gave detailed instructions using a standardized system of measurement (teaspoon, cup, etc.). Ms. Farmer also included scientific explanations with her recipes, and wrote essays on housekeeping and cleaning. The rising middle-class and subsequent growth in the number of women looking to homemaking as a profession turned Ms. Farmer’s book into a hit — it has sold more than 4 million copies to date. (more…)

2 April 2009 at 12:03 am 3 comments

The Farmer’s Cow

| Dick Langlois |

This morning I read a story in the Hartford Courant about the state legislature’s proposals to save the small local dairy farmer. The naïveté and economic illiteracy of the article filled me with a sudden (and, for me, unusual) urge to post a comment on the newspaper’s website. Here is what I wrote.

This article is awash in errors of commission and omission.

First: it is misleading to the point of mendacity to say that the federal government “tells farmers what prices to set.” The government effectively specifies the price floor — it mandates that farmers set a price no lower than the floor, but it permits farmers to raise the price if they like. What is forcing prices down to the floor is supply and demand.

Second: the plight of the farmers is entirely the fault of the byzantine federal farm-price system, which creates a myriad bad incentives. For a short description with further references, see:

Third: it is wrong to imply that the beneficiaries of the current supply and demand situation are the supermarkets. Retailing milk is a highly competitive industry — milk is often a price loss-leader for convenience stores. The real point is that the milk price support system, and the proposals being considered by the State legislature, will raise the prices consumers pay for milk. This is what economists call a “regressive” transfer. Since poor people spend a larger fraction of their incomes on milk than do affluent people, raising milk prices to keep farmers afloat transfers income from the poorer people in Connecticut to a group whose income is above the state average.

Finally: if you have a Romantic desire to save small or local farmers, you are free to pay extra to buy their milk. Marketing associations like The Farmer’s Cow explicitly brand their milk as local. If it pleases you to do so, spend your own money on local farmers; don’t force poor Connecticut consumers and taxpayers to do it for you.

12 March 2009 at 10:13 am 3 comments

Tribal Ritual Among the Ag-Econ

| Peter Klein |

Henry Bahn and George McDowell’s spin-off of the Leijonhufvud classic. I wonder how many other sub- and sister disciplines have their own versions? Sample:

Almost all tribe members adhere to a fundamental belief system and set of basic tenets called Neoclassic Econ. However, different groups in the tribe, sometimes formalized into castes called “fields,” are more or less strict in their adherence to different parts of these tribal teachings. . . .

One group, the Quant-jocques, thinks the tribe should ascribe to a special language and method of communication and analysis. Others, known as Institoots, think the Quant-jocques are introverts, inclined to want to know more and more about less and less, and thus miss important issues along the way. The Quant-jocques reply that the Institoots have more than their fair share of the “mists” about their work as Agg-econ-ni-mists. One of the revered elders of a related tribe decided to resolve some of the philosophical issues among tribe members about who they were and what they believed by pronouncing that the belief system is simply “what the tribe does.”

Like other academic disciplines, agricultural economics has its share of adjuncts, consultants, and other semi-professorial types:

There are also landless tribe members — some of those perhaps more disposed to vagrancy — scattered throughout the land doing what Ag-econs do. Indeed, one group in the tribe has members who live apart from the Depts and are therefore obliged to do honest work for a living. This group is known by its hard work and industry and are called “industry types” or, in an apparent slight, “nonacademics.” Yet another view of this group is that many of them are akin to wandering minstrels who dash in and out of the protected communities, donning the protective robes of the Depts when it serves them well, and when more is to be gained from singing their minstrel song for more than the honor of the Depts, they sing for the highest bidder.

Also lots of insider references on journals and annual meetings. A related discipline, rural sociology, is described in the classic “Village Idiot” Python sketch.

18 February 2009 at 10:13 am 2 comments

Food Miles

| Peter Klein |

My favorite economic geographer, Pierre Desrochers, has written (along with his better half, Hiroko Shimizu), a critique of the “food-miles” approach to measuring environmental impact.

As modern food production and distribution becomes ever more complex and globalized, a “buy local” food movement has arisen. This movement argues that locally produced food is not only fresher and better tasting, but it is also better for the environment: Because locally produced food does not travel far to reach your table, the production and transport of the food expend less energy overall. The local food movement has even coined a term, “food miles,” to denote the distance food has traveled from production to consumption and uses the food miles concept as a major way to determine the environmental impact of a food.

This Policy Primer examines the origins and validity of the food miles concept. The evidence presented suggests that food miles are, at best, a marketing fad that frequently and severely distorts the environmental impacts of agricultural production. At worst, food miles constitute a dangerous distraction from the very real and serious issues that affect energy consumption and the environmental impact of modern food production and the affordability of food.

See also these comments from Peter Gordon.

5 November 2008 at 12:46 am 1 comment

Westgren to Missouri

| Peter Klein |

I’m delighted to announce that Randy Westgren, organizational scholar, academic entrepreneur, bon vivant, and all-around great guy — and, most important, former O&M guest blogger — has been named McQuinn Professor of Entrepreneurial Leadership at the University of Missouri. I’ve greatly enjoyed interacting with Randy over the years from his perch in Urbana-Champaign and am looking forward to having him just down the hallway.

As McQuinn Professor Randy will also direct the McQuinn Center, which was launched in 2004 under the leadership of Bruce Bullock. The Center is creating an innovative and unusual program to research and teach the “functional” aspects of entrepreneurship, with particular emphasis on firm organization and strategy and applications to food, agriculture, biotechnology, natural resources, and rural development.

Please join me in congratulating Randy on his new post!

5 September 2008 at 8:03 am 1 comment

“El Pulpo”

| Peter Klein |

A few years ago I read, and enjoyed, Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer’s Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala. (Kinzer also has a nice book on the CIA’s role in Iran.) So when I saw Peter Chapman’s Bananas!: How The United Fruit Company Shaped the World in a local bookstore — yes, the bright-yellow cover caught my eye — I snapped it up. United Fruit — “El Pulpo” (the Octopus) to its detractors — is a fascinating company, the history of which should be required reading for students of international business. Bananas is a disappointment, unfortunately. I wasn’t expecting a scholarly treatment but, even by journalistic standards, the book is weak, substituting breathy clichés for facts and analysis. And Chapman’s unfamiliarity with even the most basic concepts of economics doesn’t help. (Spend your money on Bananas instead — my favorite Woody Allen movie.)

Today I learned of at least one scholarly treatment of United Fruit, focusing on its Colombian operations: Bananas and Business: The United Fruit Company in Colombia, 1899-2000 by Marcelo Bucheli (New York University Press, 2005). Alan Dye makes some interesting points about knowledge transfer in his review for EH.Net:

One important contribution is the story the book tells of how United Fruit eventually decided to abandon its initial policy of creating barriers to competition and accept fair dealing with rivals to its core business. Although its early history was one of raising barriers to competition and exploiting the weakness of unstable governments to establish its monospony position, he argues that in the long run the presence of this, or another multinational, was necessary for the development of a commercial banana industry in Colombia. United Fruit had pioneered techniques for how to commercialize a fragile and highly perishable product. Regardless of unethical practices when dealing with locals in the producing countries, the importation of the marketing techniques that such pioneers in the industry developed were of substantial value to local industry. (more…)

20 August 2008 at 12:00 pm 4 comments


| Peter Klein |

As the next phase of my Plan for World Domination I’ve taken office as Chair-Elect of the Institutional and Behavioral Economics Section (IBES) of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association. One of my duties is to organize the section’s sessions for next year’s AAEA annual meeting, 26-28 July 2009 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I welcome participation from the O&M crowd so please email me your suggestions for session topics, papers, special formats, themes, or other ideas. Milwaukee is a lovely and interesting town (just ask Alice), so make plans to join us!

7 August 2008 at 12:26 pm 1 comment

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