Day: April 4, 2023

Innovation in agriculture can actually drive climate protection

The challenge of food systems around the globe is to address the climate impact of agriculture. Farming accounts for about 11 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Arguably, we could just “stop farming” — as suggested by a recent viral video of an environmental protester on Twitter — but as long as we need to eat to get through the day, our policy solutions need to be more sophisticated than that.

As the federal government moves to divest from fossil fuels in transportation or help upgrade residential homes to improve energy efficiency, which contributions can agriculture realistically make?

House Democrats have expressed the desire to make the 2023 Farm Bill into a climate bill, focusing on the protection of forests, research funding in the effects of climate change, as well as conservation programs for wildlife and soil conservation. Those protections are vital, and many of them have bipartisan support in the farm bill, yet arguably the most effective way in which the U.S. reduces greenhouse gas emissions has been its improvement in efficiency.

Between 1947 and 2017, U.S. total factor productivity growth in agriculture tripled, even though farmers are using less land and personnel. There are a variety of reasons for this, including modern farming equipment, crop protection chemicals, as well as crop genetics. Take no-till farming: reducing tillage means farmers are releasing less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — a practice made possible by the commercialization of herbicides.

Recently, the USDA hosted the Agricultural Outlook Forum, and as someone who covers food and trade policies in Europe, the mere difference between the approach in Brussels and the one in Washington D.C is remarkable. While Europe is entrenched in a battle over whether genetic engineering in farming should be made legal after over two decades of debate, USDA puts biotechnology front and center in the fight against climate change. USDA’s Agricultural Innovation Agenda emphasizes how new technology enables sustainability and growth, contrary to the European perspective, which seeks to degrow the sector.

In Europe, the “Farm to Fork” strategy of the European Commission hangs in the balance. In 2020, the EU executive announced ambitious plans that would slash pesticides use, increase organic farming, as well as reduce fertilizers and farmland, but the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have caused concern. The strategy and its accompanying legislation keep facing harsh criticism from EU governments, members of the European Parliament, and farmer representatives. Last summer, Dutch farmers protested the government in The Hague for disregarding the needs of livestock farmers in the fight against nitrous oxide emissions. The Dutch government plans on buying farmers out of their profession to cut those emissions, making farmers seem as a problem as opposed to part of the solution. The European model of solving climate change by reducing production has come with an array of perverse effects: if the Netherlands reduces its livestock production capacity but not its demands, it will simply import meat or dairy products from neighboring EU members. Or take the example of Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, which buys neighboring farms to get access to more emissions permits. The unfortunate reality appears to be that Europe is focused on meeting targets on paper without a long-term vision of ensuring social and environmental sustainability at the same time.

The Farm to Fork strategy is stuck in the mud. Eastern European nations feel unjustly targeted in the pesticide reduction ambitions; meanwhile, Italy and France argue over a new mandatory nutrition label, which Rome believes discriminates against the Mediterranean diet. Even the EU’s own farm commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski has voiced criticism against parts of the European Green Deal. Late last year, Wojciechowski threatened to block Dutch farm subsidies to bring attention to the unfair rollout of green policies between East and West.

The different approaches between Europe and the United States have been an issue for a transatlantic trade agreement for many years. Current U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack probably knows this best. In 2021, he explained to the European Parliament in a virtual appearance that the differences in how Europe and the United States treat crop protection and genetic engineering are an obstacle to the two blocs’ trading. Vilsack saw the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) fail when he served as agriculture secretary under the Obama administration. Europe was unable to agree on the specifics of allowing American imports into its tightly regulated food market, and the subsequent four years under the Trump administration killed all hopes for talks being renewed. 

That said, the Biden White House also knows that the tide is turning in Europe. Leaders in Brussels increasingly regret having killed transatlantic trade through its internal disputes, and the EU’s executive is increasingly sympathetic to crop genetics, which caused so much of the trade dispute during TTIP negotiations.

Climate change doesn’t stop at borders, nor should the ambition to improve environmental sustainability. Transatlantic trade, sharing best practices and banking on new technologies are the keys to improving the safety, availability and affordability of food.

Originally published here

EPA Guidelines on PFAS Are Lacking

The Environmental Protection Agency in mid-March announced its first set of federal limits on the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in drinking water. Recent headlines show why the EPA is taking a clean drinking water approach to how PFAS is regulated in the United States.

That said, the EPA’s proposed limits, which are essentially near zero, no more than 4 parts per trillion for both perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), are a radical departure from the limits established by other health agencies and are at odds with the Food and Drug Administration’s assessment on PFAS exposure.

Take, for example, how the EPA’s new limits compare to New York state, the World Health Organization, or the Canadian government, none known for being reckless regarding health guidelines and precautions. New York’s guidelines for PFAS exposure and drinking water, at 10 parts per trillion, is 2.5 times higher than the EPA’s new limit. The World Health Organization’s proposed limit is 25 times higher than the EPA at 100 parts per trillion. At the same time, Canada’s guidelines are 50 times higher for PFOA and 150 times higher for PFOS.

The huge variations in exposure guidelines suggest there is much work to be done when it comes to what the appropriate thresholds are to ensure that drinking water is safe. And unfortunately, that confusion only worsens when you factor in how the FDA perceives PFAS exposure and its associated risks.

The FDA, the regulatory body responsible for ensuring that pharmaceuticals and medical devices work and that their health benefits outweigh their known risks, has continuously approved both drugs and devices containing PFAS.

Most don’t know that the medical community relies heavily on PFAS products. Take, for example, medical implants like vascular grafts, stent grafts, surgical meshes, catheter tubes/wire and heart patches. It is estimatedthat 8 percent to 10 percent of Americans have implantable medical devices, many of which rely on PFAS and are approved by the FDA. In fact, the implantable medical devices market, valued at $72.2 billion, is expected to grow significantly as the American population ages.

Drugs containing PFAS, again approved by the FDA, include but are not limited to tachyarrhythmias (flecainide), antidepressants (fluoextine), non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (celecoxib), antibiotics (levofloxacin), rheumatoid arthritis therapeutics (leflunomide), cholesterol-lowering agents (atorvastin) and COVID-19 antivirals such as Paxlovid.

For all those drugs and devices, the notoriously over-cautious FDA has clearly stated that whatever PFAS exposure exists with these products, they are safe to the point where the benefits far outweigh the risks. Simply put, the presence of PFAS for these drugs and devices passes a safety check and a cost-benefit analysis.

This leads to some serious questions regarding how the EPA arrived at its near-zero threshold and why its assessment is at odds with other government agencies, global health bodies and their colleagues at the FDA.

And that doesn’t even address the externalities of hard-line policies on PFAS. The EPA’s guidelines, alongside legislative efforts like the PFAS Action Act, could seriously jeopardize American capacity to produce lifesaving drugs and devices and seriously undercut the United States’ ability to domestically produce semiconductors. These chemicals are vital for the production of semiconductors, predominantly the use of coolant, and if the EPA and Congress continue down this path, consumers will be in a world of trouble.

We know this is a predictable outcome because this is precisely what happened in Europe, where officials in Belgium paused production at a chemical plant in response to the tightening of environmental regulations. Reporting by Business Korea highlighted that semiconductor producers had only 30 to 90 days of coolant inventory left before they would encounter serious production problems. 

For reference, the chip shortage of 2021 cost auto manufacturers $210 billion in lost revenue as cars sat in lots waiting for chips to be installed. Given that these chips are used in computers, smartphones, consumer electronics, appliances and medical equipment, an actual national shortage would be an economic disaster. If any conflict arises in Taiwan, a global producer of semiconductors, the U.S. economy would grind to a halt.

Rather than doing what appears to be guesswork on safe levels of PFAS exposure, the EPA should instead consult its colleagues domestically and abroad, come to a clear consensus on where and when risks may arise, and regulate from there, taking into account the costs and benefits of their policy suggestions.

Originally published here

FTC Blocking Microsoft-Activision Will Worsen Consumers’ Gaming

In many households, the word “PlayStation” has become synonymous with gaming in the same way that we now “Google” things or “call an Uber.”

The same with kiwis.

Did you know they are actually a trademark, and the fruit is actually called Chinese gooseberries?

When brand names overtake the initial descriptions of their product, it usually means that they have a majority share in the market.

Sony’s PlayStation is no exception: with a whopping 68% of the international console market, the Japanese company has had a stronghold for decades.

Microsoft is attempting to diversify the market with its Xbox console by acquiring video game publisher Activision, but the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has stopped it in its tracks.

This purchase would allow Microsoft to better compete with Sony while giving consumers more choice between devices, including console and PC, which is important since PC gaming plays a significant part in the gaming market.

The FTC claims that the acquisition would “enable Microsoft to suppress competitors to its Xbox gaming consoles and its rapidly growing subscription content and cloud-gaming business.” Its most principal concern is that it will make “Call of Duty”and other popular games Xbox exclusives.

We already know this isn’t true. Microsoft has already made a dealwith Nintendo and provided an offer to Sony to keep Call of Duty on their platforms.

Exclusive content is everywhere.

Streaming platforms have objectively become the kings of exclusivity, fencing in original content to gain subscribers.

Listening to Joe Rogan’s podcast can only be done on Spotify, while publishers often get paid by console companies like Sony to keep their products off other platforms.

Sometimes, exclusivity sells; sometimes it doesn’t.

When exclusivity becomes frustrating to consumers, they often abandon the products or services in question altogether.

The UK’s competition watchdog already determined that Microsoft-Activision falls within the latter camp. Stating that exclusivity would be loss-making for Microsoft, it wrote that, “The updated analysis now shows that it would not be commercially beneficial to Microsoft to make CoD exclusive to Xbox following the deal, but that Microsoft will instead still have the incentive to continue to make the game available on PlayStation.”

The deals Microsoft has made with other consoles prove it, yet the FTC still refuses to concede this point and back off its hold.

As an analyst at a consumer group dedicated to promoting and protecting competition, this concerns me for a number of reasons. It’s emblematic of regulators and policymakers’ overuse of antitrust law in this new digital age.

Whether it’s suggesting that Amazon.com should not be able to bundle service in its Prime subscription or that Apple shouldn’t be allowed to pre-install FaceTime on its phones, Washington’s use of a big stick to sideswipe competition hurts the marketplace in a number of ways.

It restricts innovation by reducing the options of products and services firms could offer, it allows the government to decide winners and losers in lieu of consumers, and it raises prices through reduced competition and compliance costs.

Free competition enables consumers to decide on the better product with their pocketbooks. As long as market entry rules are fair, regulatory barriers low, and an industry doesn’t benefit from unjust subsidization; the FTC has no reason to intervene.

Originally published here

No good justification for banning nips in Boston

Early in March, Boston city councilor Ricardo Arroyo filed a motion to ban the sale and distribution of  mini bottles of liquor, aka nips.  Arroyo wants Boston to follow the nip ban as adopted in Newton, Chelsea, Falmouth, Wareham and Mashpee.

When asked about the proposal, Arroyo said the small bottles often end up as litter and that by banning these bottles Boston will experience fewer alcohol-related incidents.

But Bostonians must ask themselves: is this a good justification for banning what is essentially a small version of an otherwise legal product? The answer is no. The nip ban is just another encroachment from the nanny state, this time aimed at adult consumers who prefer nips because they are convenient, ultimately punishing drinkers who want small serving sizes.

For public health, there is little evidence to suggest that prohibition of smaller-sized products works, certainly not from a harm reduction angle. If Boston does go down the road of banning nips, consumers will ultimately make one of two choices in response. The first is that they will buy these convenient bottles beyond Boston’s city limits. This is obviously irritating for consumers, and problematic for Boston retailers as this motion tilts the scales against them.

The alternative to buying nips elsewhere is, ironically, buying larger bottles of alcohol. It is hard to see how fewer alcohol-related incidents will arise from a policy that mandates consumers buy bottles of liquor 3 ounces or larger. Imagine trying to curb obesity by mandating that no meal can be less than 800 calories?

By stomping on convenience for consumers, Arroyo’s motion will actually end up nudging drinkers to larger bottles, and the possibility of more consumption and more alcohol-related incidents. This is a lose-lose scenario.

The second major critique of nips is disposal. Because they are small, too many drinkers dispose of them by simply throwing them out on the street. Of course, this is unacceptable. There are laws against littering, and they need to be enforced. But surely the city council can identify a problem that needs to be solved, without deferring to prohibitionist policies? Other options, such as the expansion of trash bins on city streets, or more by-law litter enforcement, should be exhausted before going down the route of a complete ban of a product consumers clearly love.

Those who support the ban highlight that because these bottles are small, they are virtually impossible to recycle. Municipal websites across the state explain that they often fall through the cracks of the sorting machines, and thus should be put in your trash bag as opposed to being recycled.

This is only true using dated machinery and recycling technology. Through chemical depolymerization, the repurposing of the bonds in plastics, virtually all plastic can be recycled. Take for example Alterra Energy in Ohio. Their advanced recycling plant takes in 40-50 tons of hard to recycle plastics (like nips) and transforms them back into the building blocks for new plastic production, extending the life cycle of these hard to recycle plastics indefinitely.

Is Councilor Arroyo trying to reinvent the wheel of prohibition? The prohibition of alcohol 100 years ago failed. The mindset of banning products that were deemed a nuisance caused more harm than good, which is why alcohol was then legalized. The prohibition of cannabis in Massachusetts failed, as well.

Eventually legislators learned that the consequences of criminalizing cannabis were far worse than the harms associated with cannabis use. Prohibition always promises results, but ends up creating a long list of negative second-order effects, many of which are worse than the initial issue of substance use.

Councillor Arroyo’s campaign to treat us all like children when it comes to the purchase of nips is going to have all the success of previous prohibitions. The nip ban motion should be thrown in the trash can, along with your empty nips.

Originally published here

New EU Regs Could Hurt US Farmers

The European Union is carving out the legislative framework for so-called Sustainable Food Systems (SFS). In essence, these new regulations would label and then seek to phase out what Europe considers to be the least sustainable food products.

This measure will hit European producers as much as American exports to the EU.

In a leaked document obtained by Politico Europe, the European Commission states that it intends to fight the perseverance of agricultural inputs (fertilizers and pesticides) and “unsustainable and unhealthy diets” through SFS. The minimum sustainability requirements by the EU would be based on the “do no significant harm principle” (DNSH), including “non-negotiable qualifiers” for both domestic production, exports, and imports.

The bottom line is that the European Union wants to create governing principles on what a healthy and environmentally-friendly diet looks like and makes no secret of the fact that it seeks to ban products that do not adhere to that principle.

The rules of the SFS would set a new precedent for world trade. The EU’s aspirations of slowly moving to an all-but-organic food model while giving out more farm subsidies than the United States do create further trade imbalances.

The U.S. already imports more food from Europe than the reverse, resulting in a trade deficit of $24 billion in 2021. The European Commission is not just thinking of phasing out food products from the United States it deems “unsustainable” but also those foodstuffs that were treated with crop protection tools that are commonplace in the world food market.

Consider this: Europe demands that American farmers do not export goods to Europe that were treated with neonicotinoid insecticides (known as neonics), despite the fact that France had to put a three-year pause on its ban because sugar beet farmers were facing extinction.

The European Commission also adds in its document that land use is a large contributor to biodiversity loss. While that is correct, it conveniently ignores and omits that the American food system is not only more efficient but that its efficiency is also biodiversity-friendly.

When you produce more food with less agricultural and energy inputs, you lower your carbon footprint and allow forestry and wildlife to recover. Europe’s plans to reduce farmland use, cut down on pesticides and fertilizers, as well as a significant subsidy boost for organic agriculture, makes it more dependent on agricultural imports — imports that it somehow also wants to pick and choose from.

The European Economic Area (which comprises the EU and its associated members) has 447 million consumers, representing a significant marketplace for American farmers. However, while America buys European produce and has made continuous attempts at a free trade deal, Europe has wanted to have its cake and eat it too.

Originally published here

To support Oklahoma businesses, Gov. Stitt must match his words with action

In his State of the State speech last month, Gov. Kevin Stitt praised the diversified economy of Oklahoma as an achievement and a goal for his administration. And while the governor strives to make Oklahoma the “most business-friendly state,” it’s not difficult to see how that reputation has wavered.

Oklahoma is ranked 42nd in Forbes’ recent list of best states to start a business and 25th in the State Business Tax Index by the Tax Foundation. But there is hope.

Several bills passed last year led to the influx of Bitcoin companies, such as the data mining firm Northern Data’s new headquarters in Pryor, demonstrating the potential for technology firms eager to find better business climates. 

If Oklahoma provided steady and consumer-friendly rules for the expansion of Bitcoin, cryptocurrency and decentralized finance — whether that is mining, commerce or easing of money transmitter laws — this would represent an entirely new dimension of economic diversity.

Added to that, the Mercatus Center recently ranked Oklahoma as the No. 1 state for drone commerce, thanks to a regulatory environment shaped by the state’s openness to aerospace and defense industries which employ over 120,000 Oklahomans.  

While the oil and gas sector still represents nearly 27% of the state’s GDP and employs just under 10% of Oklahoma’s workforce, the global energy crisis and harsher rules from the Biden administration have made it more difficult for the state’s independent energy sector to strive.

Companies like John Zink Hamworthy and Koch Fertilizer have invested hundreds of millions into nitrogen production, carbon capture and hydrogen refueling in the state, demonstrating a shifting landscape for energy players beyond drilling and refining and more into future climate solutions.

Ensuring Oklahoma’s thousands of energy producers can continue innovating to power our homes, farms and businesses should be a key priority of Gov. Stitt’s administration, all the while avoiding the costly regulations and higher taxes that other states have proposed.

Beyond energy production, there are several additional areas where Gov. Stitt could provide leadership and direction to provide more value for taxpayers, consumers and entrepreneurs.

As I wrote last year, that would include allowing more competition and innovation in the health care and dental space, giving patients the opportunity to contract directly with their providers at much cheaper rates. 

It also would mean requiring dental insurers to spend most of what they collect in premiums on patients and customers rather than administration, known as a medical loss ratio. The Affordable Care Act requires general health insurers to spend at least 85% of premiums on care, while that threshold doesn’t exist for dental insurers. Unlocking more funds for dental patients would help save families thousands of dollars a year and grant them more consumer and patient choice.

Considering Oklahoma’s top employers are retailers and commerce companies like Walmart, Amazon and Hobby Lobby, and the end of the pandemic means big box stores and shipping retailers are undergoing a revival, it also would be opportune to work with county and local governments to provide more zoning flexibility. 

This would expand these facilities closer to urban centers where most people live and provide yet more value and choice for consumers who shop there.

If Gov. Stitt wants to modernize Oklahoma’s economy, he must recognize that innovative solutions need rules and institutions that grant them flexibility and opportunity. It means giving consumers additional choice and entrepreneurs the room they need to succeed. 

With a consumer and taxpayer agenda, Oklahoma could soar to new heights and finally be a crown jewel of the south-central United States.

Originally published here

Scroll to top