Archive | January 2014

Farm Bill Analysis Link Dump

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Brad Plummer | Wonkblog | The Washington Post | The $956 billion farm bill, in one graph
Dan Glickman, Gary Hirshberg, Jim Moseley and Emmy Simmons | Roll Call | A Better Way Forward for Food and Agriculture
Erika Eichelberger | Mother Jones | Republicans Just Won the Food Stamp War
Richard Gonzales | The Salt | NPR | Small Cuts To Food Stamps Add Up To Big Pains For Many Recipients
Tom Philpott | Mother Jones | The New Farm Bill: Yet Again, Not Ready for Climate Change
Ferd Hoefner | Civil Eats | The New Farm Bill: The Good, The Bad, and the Wait-and-See
Marion Nestle | Food Politics | Yes, the farm bill is politically corrupt. Veto it!
The Washington Post Editorial Board | This farm bill deserves a veto
The New York Times Editorial Board | The Farm Bill Could Have Been Worse
Modern Farmer: 5 Winners and 5 Losers in the Farm Bill
EWG: Top Six Reasons EWG Opposes the Farm Bill

Daily Essentials | 31 January 2014

Yoni Freedman on PepsiCo and the Canadian Diabetes Association.

Wonderful interview with veteran and profitable organic farmer Tom Willey by Nathanael Johnson in Grist.

NYT: Obesity Is Found to Gain Its Hold in Earliest Years

Modern Farmer: 5 Winners and 5 Losers in the Farm Bill

EWG: Top Six Reasons EWG Opposes the Farm Bill

Picky Kids, Picky Eaters, Picking Your Battles, And Winning

David Ludwig gives parents a strategy for dealing with the young, picky eaters in their households.

One Stop Shopping to Understand What’s Happening With The Farm Bill

Marc Brazeau

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Here is an attempt to pin down what’s going on with the Farm Bill. The changes to SNAP are covered in this post.

For starters, it was a bi-partisan effort and is likely to pass. Jerry Hagstrom reports in Progressive Farmer:

WASHINGTON (DTN) — The chairmen of both the House and Senate Agriculture Committees predicted Tuesday the farm bill will pass both houses of Congress and President Barack Obama will sign it into law.

Meanwhile, endorsements for the bill, which was unveiled Monday evening, poured in from all sectors of agriculture, except the meat industry and some anti-hunger advocates.

“Even though it took us two-and-a-half to three years, we have a really amazing bill here,” House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who chaired the conference committee, said Tuesday during a joint telephone news conference with Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.

Considering the budget situation and “the political rancor we have had to deal with in Congress and across the country,” Lucas said, it is “not just a good farm bill, but almost a miracle.”

“This has been a joint effort, it has been bipartisan every step of the way,” Stabenow added, noting the bill not only saves money and reauthorizes existing programs, but provides disaster assistance for both livestock producers and fruit growers and increases agricultural research.

David Rogers spells out is a bit of detail on the programs that will be replacing direct payments.

The first program, known as Agriculture Risk Coverage, promises early — but temporary — assistance to growers facing a downward cycle of prices. Payments would be triggered once prices fall 14 percentage points below the prior five-year average. But the subsidy covers only a narrow 10-point band — from 86 percent to 76 percent of revenues — and will fade after several years if prices don’t improve.

Farmers whose ARC payments are based on countywide results will be paid on 85 percent of base acres. Those who choose a more individual version tailored to their own single farm — an approach popular in Western states like Montana — will be aided at a lower rate of 65 percent on base acres.

The second program, Price Loss Coverage, fits the more classic countercyclical model of fixed, government-set target prices — not a rolling five-year average. PLC payments would typically be triggered later in a market downturn but then promise the farmer a more permanent floor to cover production costs.

Payments here are on 85 percent of base acres and farmers who sign up for PLC will also have available to them a new lower-cost version of revenue insurance based on countywide losses. This so-called Supplemental Coverage Option is designed to parallel ARC in that it also will have a 14 percent deductible and is intended to cover only that band of losses down to where the farmer has more conventional buy-up crop insurance coverage.

A portion of the savings from the commodity title would be plowed back into new crop insurance programs, and more than ever this portion of the bill will become the backbone of the revised farm safety net.

Cotton will make a wholesale shift, getting out of most commodity programs and into a new stacked-income insurance plan tailored to its needs. SCO itself is counted in this title. And recognizing its importance, the bill also seeks to use crop insurance as a lever to promote sounder land use practices by farmers.

New conservation compliance provisions will be attached as a condition for getting the subsidized coverage. And a “sod saver” program in six Midwest states would greatly reduce the level of subsidies afforded farmers who choose to plow up native prairie lands.


    • Cost of the Agricultural Act of 2014: $956.4 billion.
    • According to the CBO, it’s expected to reduce federal spending by $16.6 billion over the next decade.
    • Payment limitations across programs: $125,000 per farmer, doubled for married couples. Pushed by Thad Cochran, R-Miss. “Stabenow said she endorsed that approach because it will allow farmers to make the most use of the programs that work best for them, rather than worry about payment limits on specific programs.”
    • The bill increases funding for commodity distribution programs that go to food banks.
    • Merges 23 conservation programs into 13 for a projected savings of $6 billion.
    • Cuts $8 billion from SNAP
    • Allows for studying industrial hemp in states the permit it.
    • Defines ‘farm raised fish’: “…any aquatic species that is propagated and reared in a controlled environment.”
    • Makes provision to increase purchase of kosher and halal foods by the USDA’s emergency food assistance program that serves food banks and shelters.

What didn’t make it:

  • A repeal of country-of-origin labeling for red meat
  • An amendment by Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, to forbid states from banning the sale of food products from other states due to objections over production methods, both Lucas and Stabenow said including either measure would have blown up the bill.
  • Repealed: Red Meat Safety Research Center

Who’s happy. Who’s sad.
Chris Clayton notes:

(National Cattlemen’s Beef Association) President Scott George said Tuesday his group was willing to bring down the bill over COOL even though the bill would provide aid to livestock producers who have experienced disasters.

Disaster aid, George said, is a “Band-Aid” compared with trade retaliation. But he added that if the bill is defeated, NCBA will continue to work for disaster aid.

NCBA was joined in opposition by Heritage Action, an arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, which came out Tuesday opposing the farm bill as well. Heritage criticized the inclusion of food programs in the legislation again, citing that 80% of the total spending in the bill is tied to nutrition programs.

Heritage also explains that while some bad subsidies and program were removed, lawmakers replaced them with even riskier taxpayer-funded programs. The inclusion of the Senate’s Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) program is of deep concern. An initial CBO score suggested the average cost of about $2.9 billion per year, but an analysis by the American Enterprise Institute found the program “could cost as much as $7 billion annually based on the 15-year historical average price.”

. . . Support even came from groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists

“The bill includes reforms that could sow the seeds for a sustainable food and agriculture system,” said Daniel Brito, senior Washington representative for UCS’s Food & Environment Program. “Programs that incentivize increasing access to healthy foods, developing regional food systems, and promoting sustainable agricultural practices are included and funded at higher levels. But these programs should be the core of this legislation instead of on the periphery.

. . . The American Farm Bureau Federation called on lawmakers to quickly pass the bill in a statement by AFBF President Bob Stallman. “The American Farm Bureau Federation urges House and Senate members to pass H.R. 2642, the 2014 Farm Bill. …

“… We are particularly pleased with provisions to provide risk management to fruit and vegetable farmers and to support livestock farmers during disasters.”

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson also urged lawmakers to quickly pass the legislation in a letter outlining NFU priorities in the final language.

“NFU is pleased with the conference report for a variety of reasons,” said Johnson. “The bill includes fixed reference prices to provide assistance to farmers only when truly necessary. It provides a strong crop insurance title and approximately $4 billion in livestock disaster assistance. The bill increases funding for the Farmers Market and Local Foods Promotion Program and related initiatives. We are also encouraged by the inclusion of robust mandatory funding levels for renewable energy programs. We’re also very happy that the bill preserves the ability of American family farmers and ranchers to distinguish their products in the marketplace through the existing Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) law.”

. . . National Association of Wheat Growers President Bing Von Bergen, a Montana farmer, said NAWG supports the conference committee bill “that strengthens crop insurance and allows growers the necessary safety net to keep a secure, affordable and healthy food supply. In addition, this bill provides funding for important programs in conservation, research and trade that help keep America’s wheat industry productive and competitive on a global scale.”

The National Cotton Council announced its support for the bill, praising lawmakers for providing cotton producers with transition Direct Payments for the next two years. While some criticized commodity payments and income restrictions as too loose, NCC Chairman Jimmy Dodson expressed concern about adjusted gross income language and the possibility that the Secretary of Agriculture could tighten rules on being actively engaged.

Mark Tercek, CEO of The Nature Conservancy and Martin Barbre, president of the National Corn Growers Association write in a joint editorial in The Hill:

The new farm bill has several important provisions to advance effective conservation, respecting the vital role that farmers, ranchers and forest owners play in conserving our nation’s soil, water and wildlife. For example, conservation groups and farm organizations came together to support linking conservation compliance with crop insurance to encourage farmers to preserve native grassland and other environmentally sensitive land.

This was done while cutting billions of dollars from the conservation and forestry titles of the bill overall. Even with those cuts, the bill increases budgets for large-impact investments, such as conservation easements and smart targeting through partnership programs.

Farmers, ranchers and other private landowners in America depend upon these farm bill programs to help them provide a safe and abundant food supply while at the same time protecting and restoring wetlands and grasslands, improving water quality, increasing flood control and providing wildlife habitat.

Bets on Farm Bill Victory: Lucas, Stabenow Predict Farm Bill Will Pass Congress, President
Jerry Hagstrom | Progressive Farmer | 28 January 2013

New farm bill readied for debate
David Rogers | Politico | 26 January 2014

More Commentary on the Farm Bill
Chris Clayton | Progressive Farmer | 28 January 2014

The Agricultural Act of 2014, aka the Farm Bill
Chris Clayton | Progressive Farmer | 27 January 2014

Hemp, farm-raised fish, food labels and food stamps: What’s in the farm bill?
Ed O’Keefe | The Fix | The Washington Post | 29 January 2014

Farm Bill gets it right on conservation
Mark R. Tercek and Martin Barbre | The Hill | 28 January 2014

Farm Bill Conferees Struggle with Dairy Compromise
Jerry Hagstrom | Progressive Farmer | 13 January 2014

Playing Chicken With the Farm Bill
Twilight Greenaway | Takeapart | 2 August 2014

Clerk of the House | 29 January 2014

How Would the New Farm Bill Affect SNAP?

Marc Brazeau

An overview of what’s going on with the ag part of the bill can be found here.

The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe on cuts to SNAP:

Negotiators found a way to cut about $8 billion in funding for the program over the next decade.

Most of the savings will come by tweaking federal “heat and eat” benefits that House and Senate aides say have been exploited in recent years by several states and the District of Columbia to boost how much money some people receive from SNAP.

The changes will require the states and D.C. to pay more in “heat and eat” money, a move that will reduce, but not eliminate, SNAP payments by about $90 monthly for about 850,000 households.

The Farm Bill also cuts SNAP funding by prohibiting the Agriculture Department from spending money on television, radio and billboard ads to promote the program and on programs designed to recruit new beneficiaries. And in response to years of documented evidence of misuse and abuse of the program, USDA will need to ensure that illegal immigrants, lottery winners, college students and the dead cannot receive food stamps and that people cannot collect benefits in multiple states.

About Heat and Eat:

Lawmakers may tweak the “heat-and-eat” arrangement so that households must receive $20 in heating assistance before automatically qualifying for more food stamp benefits, according to media reports. Now, the threshold is as low as $1.

Advocates for the poor said that under the proposal, 175,000 households in Pennsylvania would lose an average of $65 in food stamp benefits each month.

New Jersey also utilizes the “heat-and-eat” arrangement.

Bill Clark, president of the hunger relief organization Philabundance, said the “heat and eat” setup makes it easier for low-income families to get the public benefits they need.

“It was just a more administratively efficient way of finding people who really needed the help, so it’s possible that this isn’t going to save anybody anything,” he said. “In fact, it may cost administratively more.”

Proponents said the change would eliminate a loophole that states take advantage of at the expense of taxpayers.

Robert Greenstein of The Center of Budget and Policy Priorities is fairly supportive, in a “If there are going to be cuts, this is how you do it” kind of way.

. . . it stands in sharp contrast to the nearly $40 billion in SNAP cuts in the House-passed bill of September, which contained an array of draconian provisions and would have thrown 3.8 million people off SNAP in 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The conference agreement includes none of the draconian House provisions — and it removes virtually no low-income households from SNAP.

The SNAP cut that remains is a provision to tighten an element of the SNAP benefit calculation that some states have converted into what most people would view as a loophole. Specifically, some states are stretching the benefit formula in a way that enables them not only to simplify paperwork for many SNAP households, but also to boost SNAP benefits for some SNAP households by assuming those households pay several hundred dollars a month in utility costs that they do not actually incur. Congress did not intend for states to stretch the benefit rules this way, and longstanding SNAP supporters like myself find it difficult to defend. Moreover, a future Administration could close off this use of the rules administratively, without any congressional action.

Two-thirds of states do not use the current rules this way, and no SNAP beneficiaries in these states are expected to lose any benefits under this provision. Across the other one-third of states, CBO estimates that 88 to 89 percent of beneficiaries would remain untouched, while 11 to 12 percent would remain eligible for SNAP but face a benefit reduction because their state has used this practice to boost their benefits above what they would otherwise be.

Nationally, 4 percent of beneficiaries would face a benefit cut, CBO projects. Over the coming decade, total SNAP benefits would be 1.3 percent lower as a result. The 850,000 households that would lose benefits would, however, face a significant benefit reduction — costing them an average of $90 a month.

The final package also includes a number of other provisions designed to strengthen SNAP and to address features of the program that affect an infinitesimal number of households but can be used to stoke public hostility toward the program. For example, the agreement bars big lottery winners from receiving SNAP and clarifies that recipients may not deduct medical marijuana expenses to claim a larger SNAP benefit. The agreement also includes provisions designed to provide SNAP households with more access to healthy food outlets such as farmers’ markets, to ensure that retailers that participate in the program offer a healthy variety of foods for sale, and to tighten retailer compliance with SNAP rules. In addition, the proposed agreement would establish up to ten demonstration projects to test ways to provide more effective employment and training services for SNAP participants, which could provide useful information on how to better enable participants to secure and retain jobs.


Hemp, farm-raised fish, food labels and food stamps: What’s in the farm bill?
Ed O’Keefe | The Fix | The Washington Post | 29 January 2014

Commentary: Nutrition Title of Farm Bill Agreement Drops Draconian Cuts and Represents Reasonable Compromise
Robert Greenstein | The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities | 27 January 2014

Healthy incentives are farm bill bright spot
Oran Hesterman | Congress Blog | The Hill | 28 January 2014

Changing ‘heat and eat’ benefit threatens food aid in Pa., N.J.
Holly Otterbein | Newsworks | 13 January 2014

Contemporary Selective Breeding. Plant Edition.


In an effort to address the naivete and sentimentality that people have about agriculture, we continue our look at contemporary selective breeding. After looking at the state of the art of dairy cow breeding, I thought we’d take a look at some recent articles about the state of the art in non-GMO plant breeding.

In Scientific American, Ferris Jabr takes a long and careful look at a new breed of plant um, breeders. Clocking in at nearly 5000 words, it’s thorough and lively primer on the subject of selective breeding. You’ll be doing yourself a favor to read the whole thing.

The story starts with the arrival of some seeds from habaneros that mutated in such away that they produced little to no capsaicin. Michael Mazourek started crossing them with other plants to try to create a pepper that had a habenero’s subtle, smoky flavor without the brutal and distracting heat. By running the genome of the plant and isolating the alleles responsible for the traits he was seeking he was able to skip step of waiting for plants to produce fruit to test if they were expressing those traits.

Mazourek belongs to a new generation of plant breeders who combine traditional farming with rapid genetic analysis to create more flavorful, colorful, shapely and nutritious fruits and vegetables. These modern plant breeders are not genetic engineers; in most cases they do not directly manipulate plant DNA in the lab. Rather, they sequence the genomes of many different kinds of plants to build databases that link various versions of genes—known as alleles—to distinct traits. Then, they peek inside juvenile plants to examine the alleles that are already there before choosing which ones to grow in the field and how best to mate one plant with another. In some cases breeders can even analyze the genetic profiles of individual seeds and subsequently select which to sow and which to disregard, saving them a great deal of time and labor.

Plant breeders have, of course, always used the best tools available to them. But in the last 10 years or so they have been able to approach their work in completely new ways in part because genetic sequencing technology is becoming so fast and cheap. “There’s been a radical change in the tools we use,” says Jim Myers of Oregon State University, who has been a plant breeder for more than 20 years and recently created an eggplant-purple tomato. “What is most exciting to me, and what I never thought I would be doing, is going in and looking at candidate genes for traits. As the price of sequencing continues to drop, it will become more and more routine to do sequences for every individual population of plants you’re working with.”

. . . In part to circumvent the controversy surrounding GMOs, fruit and vegetable breeders at both universities and private companies have been turning to an alternative way of modifying the food we eat: a sophisticated approach known as marker-assisted breeding that marries traditional plant breeding with rapidly improving tools for isolating and examining alleles and other sequences of DNA that serve as “markers” for specific traits. Although these tools are not brand-new, they are becoming faster, cheaper and more useful all the time. “The impact of genomics on plant breeding is almost beyond my comprehension,” says Shelley Jansky, a potato breeder who works for both the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “To give an example: I had a grad student here five years ago who spent three years trying to identify DNA sequences associated with disease resistance. After hundreds of hours in the lab he ended up with 18 genetic markers. Now I have grad students who can get 8,000 markers for each of 200 individual plants within a matter of weeks. Progress has been exponential in last five years.”

. . . Mills can look for these markers in cantaloupe seeds before deciding which ones to plant thanks to a group of cooperative and largely autonomous robots, some of which are housed in Monsanto’s molecular breeding lab at its vegetable research and development headquarters in Woodland, Calif. First, a machine known as a seed chipper shaves off a small piece of a seed for DNA analysis, leaving the rest of the kernel unharmed and suitable for sowing in a greenhouse or field. Another robot extracts the DNA from that tiny bit of seed and adds the necessary molecules and enzymes to chemically glue fluorescent tags to the relevant genetic sequences, if they are there. Yet another machine amplifies the number of these glowing tags in order to measure the light they emit and determine whether a gene is present. Monsanto’s seed chippers can run 24 hours a day and the whole system can deliver results to breeders within two weeks.

This example from the article is striking in that it shows Monsanto actively helping out local (east coast) vegetable farmers.

Fresh broccoli consumed the same day it was harvested is completely different from typical supermarket fare, Bjorkman says—it’s tender, with a mellow vegetative flavor, a hint of honeysuckle and no sharp aftertaste. Trucking broccoli from California to other parts of the country requires storing the vegetable on ice in the dark for days. With no light, photosynthesis halts, which means that cells stop making sugars. Rapidly dropping temperatures rupture cell walls, irrevocably weakening the plant’s structure and diminishing its firmness. When the broccoli is thawed, various enzymes and molecules that escaped their cells bump into one another and trigger a sequence of chemical reactions, some of which degrade both nutritional and flavorful compounds. Giving farmers in the east broccoli they can grow and sell locally solves all these problems. In a separate effort to boost the nutritional value of broccoli, Monsanto released Beneforte broccoli, which has been bred to contain extra high levels of glucoraphanin, a compound that some evidence indicates may fight bacteria and cancer. You can find the florets at some Whole Foods and States Bros.

It’s telling that there seem to be no safety concerns for the random mutation not previously existing in nature in those habaneros that Michael Mazourek was sent. It’s a novel gene that hasn’t been field tested for environmental concerns, it hasn’t undergone composition analysis, or testing for allergens. If breeders using genetic engineering to move one single gene to express a well understood protein into a crop all those things and a decade of testing would be necessary. Go figure.

A recent piece by Nova was about genetic engineering, but again, I thought the most interesting part was it’s portrayal of how specific and directed contemporary breeding is.

De Jong produced the plants in the same old, laborious way that his father did before him. He collected pollen from a plant that produces potatoes that fry as potato chips should and then sprinkled the pollen on the flower of a potato plant that resists viruses. If the resulting potatoes bear their parents’ finest features—and none of the bad ones—De Jong will bury them in the ground next year and test their mettle against a common potato virus. If they survive—and are good for frying and eating—he and his team will repeat this for 13 years to ensure that problematic genes did not creep in during the initial cross.

Each year, the chance of failure is high. Potatoes that resist viruses, for example, often have genes that make them taste bitter. Others turn an unappetizing shade of brown when fried. If anything like that happens, De Jong will have to start from scratch. Tedious as it is, he loves the work. Kicking up dirt in the furrows that cascade along the hillsides of upstate New York, he says, “I’m never stressed in the potato fields.”

De Jong has some serious cred in the agriculture world. Not only was his father a potato breeder, he’s also descended from a long line of farmers. The potato farmers he works with appreciate this deeply, along with his commitment to the age-old craft of producing new potato varieties through selective breeding. They even advocated on his behalf during his hiring and when he was up for tenure at Cornell, a school with a long history of agriculture research. “All of our farmers like Walter,” says Melanie Wickham, the executive secretary of the Empire State Growers organization in Stanley, New York. Often, he’s in the fields in a big hat, she says. Other times “you’ll see him in the grocery store, looking over the potatoes.”

De Jong has been working with farmers long enough to know that our food supply is never more than a step ahead of devastating insect infestations and disease. Selective breeders like De Jong work hard to develop resistant crops, but farmers still have to turn to chemical pesticides, some of which are toxic to human health and the environment. De Jong enjoys dabbing pollen from plant-to-plant the old-fashioned way, but he knows that selective breeding can only do so much.

So while De Jong still devotes most of his time to honing his craft, he has recently begun to experiment in an entirely different way, with genetic engineering. To him, genetic engineering represents a far more exact way to produce new varieties, rather than simply scrambling the potato genome’s 39,000 genes the way traditional breeding does. By inserting a specific fungus-defeating gene into a tasty potato, for example, De Jong knows he could offer farmers a product that requires fewer pesticides.

“We want to make food production truly sustainable,” De Jong says, “and right now I cannot pretend that it is.”

. . . I first encountered De Jong on April 4, when he sat on a panel about GMOs in New York City hosted by the advocacy groups GMO Free NY and the Wagner Food Policy Alliance. The modest awkwardness that endears him to farmers didn’t charm the audience. As De Jong explained how scientists create GMOs, they began to murmur, lost amidst De Jong’s scientific jargon and meandering delivery.

De Jong did, however, liven up during a discussion in which Jean Halloran, a member of the panel from the Consumer’s Union, suggested that farmers in the developing world could ditch pesticides, not use GMOs, and increase yields. “We favor a knowledge-based approach rather than a chemical-based approach to increasing production,” Halloran had said.

De Jong did not find this solution realistic and asked, “Do you want to be the African farmer who has to apply insecticide every week—really nasty stuff—without protective equipment?” The question hung in the air for a second, and the panelist beside him repeated the no-chemical mantra.

Weeks later, De Jong tells me the panel opened his eyes. He was shocked at how people who don’t live near farms feel entitled to advise farmers, especially on environmental matters. “There is a romantic notion of environmentalism, and then there is actual environmentalism,” De Jong says. “Farmers are very conscious of the environment. They want to hand off their operation to their kids and their kids’ kids, so they maintain the land the best they can while doing what they need to do in order to sell their harvest,” he says. “My guess is that the majority of people who are anti-GM live in cities and have no idea what stewardship of the land entails.”

“I find it so tragic that, by and large, crop biotechnologists and farmers want to reduce their pesticide use, and yet the method we think is most sustainable and environmentally friendly has been dismissed out of hand.” He pauses as he recalls the event and says, “There is no scientific justification for it—it is just as if there is a high priest who decided, ‘Thou shalt not be GMO.’ ”

DeJong is very clear about the traits his potatoes are going to end up with. He’s going to get to where wants to go. What he doesn’t understand is why he shouldn’t just skip to the good part.

P.S. Wired has an interesting piece on the vegetables that Monsanto has developed using these techniques. I’ve been using those BellaFina peppers for some time with out realizing they were a Monsanto product. They are great. Cheap and convenient. I used one pepper at a time, mostly in my morning eggs.

Creating Tastier and Healthier Fruits and Veggies with a Modern Alternative to GMOs
Ferris Jabr | Scientific American | 24 January 2014

GMOs May Feed the World Using Fewer Pesticides
Amy Maxmen | PBS | 24 July 2013

Monsanto Is Going Organic in a Quest for the Perfect Veggie
Ben Paynter | Wired | 21 January 2014

A Trans Fat Ban and Marijuana Legalization: What Gives?


Jason Lusk points to William Bennett and Christopher Beach recent Politico piece on supposed liberal hypocracy regarding regulating some harmful things, but decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana.

The very same year, for example, that Colorado legalized marijuana, the Colorado Senate passed (without a single Republican vote) a ban on trans fats in schools. Are we to believe eating a glazed donut is more harmful than smoking a joint? California has already banned trans fats in restaurants statewide, but now is on the brink of legalizing marijuana statewide come November. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg supported New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s effort to decriminalize marijuana in New York State, while at the same time supporting a ban on extra-large sodas. A 32-ounce Mountain Dew is bad for you, but pot isn’t?

The logic is dumbfounding. For many years, health-conscious liberals have waged a deafening, public war against cigarettes. Smoking bans in public places like restaurants and bars have been enacted in states all over the country. Recently, New York City, New Jersey and several other cities and states have extended those bans to include the newest tobacco fad—e-cigarettes. Yet, when it comes to smoking marijuana? Crickets.

What explains this obvious paradox?

Well the most obvious thing is that there is no paradox. The is a big difference between regulating and outlawing. Decriminalizing or legalizing moves marijuana from the realm of outlawed to the realm of regulation. Let’s take some of Bennett and Beach’s examples before turning to Lusk, who provides a more challenging case to liberals.

They start off by trying to corner President Obama:

In his recent New Yorker interview, President Obama remarked, “I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life.” But then he added, “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.” Of the legalization in Colorado and Washington—never mind the unresolved conflict between state and federal law—he said, “it’s important for it to go forward.”

Got that? The same president who signed into law a tough federal anti-cigarette smoking bill in 2009 now supports marijuana legalization.

But what did that “tough federal anti-cigarette smoking bill” do? It primarily did two things. It gave the FDA authority to regulate the marketing of tobacco towards children and the ability to limit the amounts of addictive nicotine and of harmful chemical additives. Legalization of marijuana in Colorado means that the use of marijuana by adults will not result in a pointless and expensive prison sentence. It does not mean that marijuana smokers can smoke in restaurants but cigarette smokers can’t. It doesn’t mean that 14 years can buy marijuana but not cigarettes. It moves marijuana from the simple black and white world of prohibition to the complicated grey and gray world of legal but regulated.

Moving on.

The very same year, for example, that Colorado legalized marijuana, the Colorado Senate passed (without a single Republican vote) a ban on trans fats in schools. Are we to believe eating a glazed donut is more harmful than smoking a joint?

Let’s restate that a little more clearly.

“The same year that Colorado legalized and regulated the use of marijuana by adults and regulated the sale of marijuana by licensed businesses, it set a higher standard for nutrition in their school lunch programs by banning trans fats from meals for children paid for by tax payer dollars.”

See what just happened. Colorado law increased freedom for adults and stopped using tax payer money to purchase unhealthy food for children. Children are not in a position to make informed choices about their diet. Taxpayers have no obligation to pay for unhealthy food. Yes, banning trans fats from the school lunch program was a paternalistic decision. The school lunch program is supposed to be paternalistic, that’s the whole frickin’ point.


Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg supported New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s effort to decriminalize marijuana in New York State, while at the same time supporting a ban on extra-large sodas. A 32-ounce Mountain Dew is bad for you, but pot isn’t?

That failed to mention that under Colorado law you can only buy an ounce of marijuana at a time. (Are there no editors, these days?)

So much for Bennett and Beach’s case. Let’s turn to Lusk who I think has more interesting and difficult questions for liberals to answer.

He sticks with the question of liberal support for an across the board ban on trans fats with general liberal support for decriminalizing marijuana. One substance is banned the other is unbanned, what gives? This is much cleaner and more difficult to address than the apples to oranges examples that Bennett and Beach blunder through.

Lusk sees ideology and psychology as explaining the seeming inconsistency of the two liberal positions.

One way to think about these sorts of issues is to turn to ideology scales. A common view is that people’s ideologies can be explained by where they fall on two dimensions related to views about economic freedom and personal freedom and willingness to use government force in these two areas. In this framework, a “liberal” wants personal freedom (abortion, gay rights, etc.) but wants to restrict economic freedom (by, e.g., setting minimum wages). Conversely, a “conservative” wants to restrict personal freedom (outlaw abortion and prohibit gay rights) but wants economic freedom (e.g., no minimum wage). I think one has to augment this model to provide an account of what’s going on in this case.

Here we have two health-related issues: smoking marijuana and eating transfats. What would possibly rationalize supporting the legalization of one and the prohibition of the other? I think it has to with people’s heuristic thinking about whether companies are good or bad and whether government is good or bad – or stated differently whether businesses or government is more likely to be corrupt. I think many on the left see transfats as bad because they’re sold by big-bad food companies who will kill us just to make a buck, whereas marijuana (at least at present) doesn’t have ties to big business. Thus, it is interpreted as a personal freedom issue by many on the left. Conservatives, by contrast, are probably less likely to want to ban transfats because it is seen as an intrusion of “bad” government into the economics sphere. Conservative’s support for marijuana prohibition likely comes about from their willingness to use government force to regulate personal/social issues.

Interestingly, Bennett and Beach attempt to resolve their paradox in the Politico piece by seemingly arguing both transfats and marijuana should be banned. The other seemingly logically consistent stance is to suggest both should be legal, which is the position of many libertarians.

I suppose the economist could logically support one and oppose the other based on the results of a cost-benefit analysis or considerations of the extent of externalities, etc. Stated differently, a consistent utilitarian (or the economist who will use cost-benefit analysis as the final word on whether a policy is “good”) could very well end up supporting one of these issues and opposing another.

Lusk is a libertarian and makes the case against a cost benefit approach because that still uses a paternalistic approach that dismisses and degrades the individuals ability to know what is best for them and make choices appropriately.

Most liberals would find this difficult to counter because they are paternalistic and they are trying to make the case that government should intervene when people “can’t” make their own best decisions. Good thing I’m not a liberal.

It’s actually not all that hard to counter.
It true that psychologically those left of center tend to value the rights of individuals and the rights of corporations differently. However, there are also a well grounded, coherent philosophical reasons in the Enlightenment/JS Mill liberal tradition for valuing the rights and prerogatives of individual citizens and chartered legal fictions differently. That is not the thrust of my disagreement with Lusk.

Marijuana is a recreational drug. Trans fats an ingredient used in processed foods. It doesn’t take a PhD in philosophy to recognize that consumers have different expectations of recreational drugs and food. We also have different relationships to products and ingredients. It’s not all hypocritical to approach recreational drugs with a different regulatory framework than the regulatory framework for food. It’s also very different to prohibit an ingredient than a product. Note above, that Obama’s “tough federal anti-cigarette smoking bill” does not ban cigarettes. It limits harmful and addictive ingredients. It sets a standard for what sort of cigarette is appropriate to sell to consumers. Banning trans fats is not a ban on cakes and cookies. It sets a standard for what sort of cakes and cookies are acceptable to sell to consumers.

This sort of vetting and setting standards for products actually increases the freedom and agency of individuals. I’ve been obsessively studying nutrition and food politics for 6 years and I have trouble sorting fact from fiction and weighing my choices. This is an area of interest to me. We all make many consumer decision in areas that are not of particular interest to us. I don’t particularly want to spend my time becoming a one man, walking, talking Consumer Reports. I like it when I get in an elevator and see a recent inspection card. I really don’t feel like researching the best elevator construction companies in Portland or figuring out in which buildings I need to take the stairs to the sixth floor. I don’t want to spend time researching the consequences of every single consumer decision I make. We have a reasonable expectation that the food we eat more or less contributes to our health and energy needs without undue concern that it’s causing chronic illness. Most of us understand that eating to much cake and cookies will make us fat, maybe lead to diabetes. Those are reasonable things for adults to understand. It’s another thing entirely for every single citizen to understand the chronic effects of a polysyllabic lipid buried deep in the ingredient list on the back of a box of cornbread. It’s just not a good use of our time.

Recreational drugs are a different matter. If I buy a new car, I expect the government to have my back. If I buy a used dirt bike, I know that I’m on my own.

Look truth be told, I would have gladly settled for a front of the box label. I also would have supported removing trans fats from the parts of the food supply paid for with taxpayers dollars, school lunches, WIC, SNAP, military meals, public university cafeterias, etc. But I’m not going to shed any tears over the blunt instrument of an outright federal ban either.

Corey Robin said something not long ago about the wonky attempt to get all the incentives in Obamacare right:

The dream is that we’d all have our gazillion individual accounts—one for retirement, one for sickness, one for unemployment, one for the kids, and so on, each connected to our employment, so that we understand that everything good in life depends upon our boss (and not the government)—and every day we’d check in to see how they’re doing, what needs attending to, what can be better invested elsewhere. It’s as if, in the neoliberal dream, we’re all retirees in Boca, with nothing better to do than to check in with our broker, except of course that we’re not. Indeed, if Republicans (and some Democrats) had their way, we’d never retire at all.

In real (or at least our preferred) life, we do have other, better things to do. We have books to read, children to raise, friends to meet, loved ones to care for, amusements to enjoy, drinks to drink, walks to take, webs to surf, couches to lie on, games to play, movies to see, protests to make, movements to build, marches to march, and more. Most days, we don’t have time to do any of that. We’re working way too many hours for too little pay, and in the remaining few hours (minutes) we have, after the kids are asleep, the dishes are washed, and the laundry is done, we have to haggle with insurance companies about doctor’s bills, deal with school officials needing forms signed, and more.

That seems about right to me. What about my right not to have to do a full literature review on the long term health effects of trans fats in order to make informed decisions about what I eat? Isn’t that more valuable than Quaker’s right to make granola bars on the cheap? It is to me.

Want to legalize dope but outlaw transfats?
Jason Lusk | | 24 January 2014

What Are They Smoking?
Bill Bennett and Christopher Beach | Politico | 22 January 2014

Socialism: Converting Hysterical Misery Into Ordinary Unhappiness For A Hundred Years
Corey Robin | | 10 December 2013