Thursday, 16 November 2017

Feed the World with Cellular Agriculture

Is anyone else getting serious pleasure from the media blitz over cellular agriculture? Meat and dairy products without the animals is the basic pitch. Food-like products, containing protein, are being grown in labs and will soon be released to markets they will rapidly dominate, apparently.

I'm a big supporter of this plan, which might sound odd coming from a New Zealand dairy farming economist. Here's my reasoning.

Start with the markets. Cellular protein is potentially attractive to two groups.

  • Vegans or near-vegans who loathe the animal farming industry but love the taste of dairy & meat and don't mind eating gmos; and
  • People who buy on price and can't afford to worry about the provenance of their food. 
It is not yet clear how this stuff is going to be pitched to the market, but presumably the suppliers will try to capture both of these groups. I find it hard to understand the first group and suspect it is neither large or enduring. The second group is much larger. If it were tapped, prices for cellular protein would fall and the vegans would be stoked.

In this low-price scenario, cellular protein would compete with the output of mainstream animal farming in NZ and elsewhere. I hope & trust that Fonterra & others are worrying about this, modelling the production costs of faux animal protein (fap), investor expectations of those costs and market acceptance of the products. 

Let's help them out a bit. Assume that fap is a commodity freight train coming at us. It's a low cost high volume for our product. How should we respond? There are two main options for NZ farmers. Fight them, or join them:

  • go up-market, focusing on a more wealthy market segment, who care enough about food quality that they'll pay extra to avoid the fap; or
  • sell animals and start farming plants as inputs into the fap factories to support the cellular agriculture industry.

I really like that cellular agriculture is forcing this choice on us.

My own interests are not affected much by where the country goes on this choice. There is already a big disconnect between what we supply (soil biology & zero pesticides) and what Fonterra pay us for (milk solids). Market disruption from a low-price artificial gmo protein doesn't look like a negative to me.

On the contrary, cellular agriculture undercuts William Rolleston* and his fellow travellers who have been spending up large on lawyers & lobbyists to promote outdoor gmos in New Zealand. This gives me great pleasure. My economic research in connection with draft local government plans in Hawkes Bay, Auckland and Northland found that there were net local benefits from banning outdoor cultivation of gmos.

Among the counter-arguments was that New Zealand farmers have a moral obligation to feed the world, and that gmos are needed to do so. This 'feed the world' argument is common but it seems useless now. Indoor gmo promoters are gazumping those promoting outdoor gmo cultivation by producing heaps of cheap food for the world, apparently.

The promises of cellular agriculture are no less reliable than the promises of those seeking outdoor cultivation of gmos in NZ. Both camps are prone to exaggeration and the optimism of those invested in new ventures. Both camps assume consumers will be happy to eat their food. It's pretty difficult to see any difference except the outdoor people need to expose our ecosystems to contamination risk.

Contamination risk is my primary concern, so I'm delighted that we can now feed the world without it.

Now, for dessert, have a look at this photo I shamelessly stole from twitter and have a listen to this.

Last year's FedsPres is addressing the Rural Business Network on genetic tech in NZ agriculture. Ashburton is thriving as an agricultural service centre so the apparent turnout suggests a lack of enthusiasm.

Maybe everyone stayed away because they knew he'd be pimping the outdoor gmo technology again. I am reliably informed that cellular gmo agriculture didn't get a mention.

* Recognising the inevitable, I used to refer to William as Sir William. I am suspending this usage in the hope that the new govt will abolish these stupid titles (again). I hope it doesn't need to be reinstated. 

Friday, 3 November 2017

Pesticide-Free Maize 2017

Intermittent reinforcement is a powerful psychological effect. As we head into our third season of growing maize without pesticide, I'm hoping for the stunning results we got in our first season and trying to forget the disappointments of last year, when we got slammed by the weather and the weeds. Somehow I forgot to blog about that. It wasn't a complete disaster (we're feeding out the silage now) but it was pretty bad: We comforted ourselves that everyone around here had a bad maize season.

But I still have a vivid memory of sitting in the silage chopper harvesting tall healthy maize from our first attempt, and hearing the surprise in the contractor's voice about the size of our crop which he knew damn well had flouted almost all industry recommendations, and the nice big pile of silage we had at the end. So yeah, we're doing it again.

The basic plan hasn't changed: feed the maize plants well but don't poison predators/competitors. We buy bare hybrid seed, untreated with any insecticide or fungicide. Before sowing we innoculate the seed with our own blend of beneficial fungi (mycorrhizae and trichoderma). This year we're including the wonderful aztobacter. The picture shows a bag of untreated maize seed tipped into a wool fadge with a dollop of each innoculant on top. We roll it around in the fadge to coat the seed, and then tip it into the drill for sowing.

Preparing the Ground
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The most difficult and crucial part of this process is getting the maize away to a good start before it gets swamped by competing plants. It's all good when the maize beats the weeds to canopy closure, at which point the maize blocks light to everything else, but a disaster otherwise.

In previous years we've got the contractors in to disc the maize paddocks and then power-harrow (rotary hoe) them. We're keen on and have tried to use false seedbeds but the logistics beat us both times: we just don't have time in spring to wait for dormant seeds to sprout. Since we have no discs or power-harrow, we're also dependent on contractors for the timing of cultivation. Received wisdom also dictates that maize be "precision planted" so contractors again.

Herbicide helps manage these logisitics: just spray out the paddock. If there was much grass when you sprayed, put some animals in there to eat it before you the disc, power-harrow etc. I'm serious: NZ farmers do send cattle into paddocks that have been killed with Roundup.

Fortunately though, animals are also a herbicide substitute. This year we break-fenced young stock on the maize paddocks, pushing them a bit hard, aiming for very little grass cover, plenty of trampling, but not quite raw earth/mud. It worked very well for one paddock and most of the second but then the contractor was discing in the neighbourhood so we got all three paddocks disced, rather than wait who-knows-how-long for the next chance.

We are trying less cultivation this year, because it really messes with soil biology, slicing up the worms, destroying those wonderful hyphal networks and releasing CO2. Maize seed is large and robust: it is a kernel of corn. It should be able to grow from a shallow seed bed. So we're skipping the power-harrow stage. After discing, we crumbled up the top 2-5cm a bit with our own gear and then drilled the maize seed directly into that.

Sowing the Seeds
As mentioned above, the normal system involves "precision planting". We bought this service the last two years but are trying an alternative this year. Based on the last two years, we reckon that:

  • "precision planting" involves nothing more than setting the row width at 750mm and then dropping seed to achieve a target of seeds/ha; and
  • in practice, the spacing of plants in those 750mm rows is random - it hits the target sowing rate on average but plants are not evenly spaced in the rows.

Our contractor, who also supplies the planting service, doesn't care about row width because his chopper has a rotary head: it'll eat anything. So row width isn't a concern for harvesting, but canopy closure is the #1 issue for succeeding without herbidice.

I won't bore you with the arithmetic, but it's easy to show that random planting at the same per hectare rate would give much more uncontested space to each maize seed, which should also mean less maize-maize competition and faster canopy closure. We happen to have a great seed drill perfectly capable of random planting at a specified rate.

So that's what I did last night: drilled the seed randomly in 2 paddocks and made a start on the third before retiring due to an over-heating tractor and and under-fed driver. Since then we've had 30mm or rain.

After the storm, the next jobs are to get the drilling finished, roll the paddocks, and then get the fert on! 

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Hope for a generation

Backing track for this post

As the man said, elections have consequences. We all vote in hope for a generation of people that can run the country well while also advancing policies we like. Now that a reforming government is getting to work, here are a few of my hopes.

Stop Persecuting the Poor
Walking among us are many who begrudge welfare payments except to the old, who get the lions share. They wish WINZ was even more aggressive towards the bludgers, which is why Metiria's message was so unacceptable. My hope is that government spending on fraud detection/deterrance gets aligned with expected payoff. If we only cared about the money, so that shitting on the unfortunate and calling it something noble wasn't desired for its own sake, we'd spend less public money persecuting the poor and more chasing tax dodgers.

Evaluate Education Experiments
A new school curriculum(pdf) for New Zealand was finalised in 2007 following a long period of consultation and deliberation. Without actually ditching that curriculum, the National-led government elected in 2008 subverted it by diverting attention to national standards and charter schools. The best you could say is that these were experiments, but why don't we know how they turned out? It seems that an evaluation of charter schools was contracted some time ago but strangely enough the report was timed for release after the election.

Labour's education manifesto says "Taxpayer funding for education should be directed towards learning and teaching, not creating profit-making opportunities for private businesses". That's the correct priority: learning and teaching are paramount and only fools would want to turn the whole thing over to private business. Labour also advocates "Repealing the legislation allowing for Charter Schools", which sounds like bad news for Catherine Isaacs at least. 

My hope is that education in NZ continues to innovate, but with less dogma in what is tried and more evaluation.

Take Environmental Issues Seriously
Climate change poses a global collective action problem. There are only selfish reasons to not join the fight and having worked pretty hard for the privilege of kaitiakitanga over some nice farmland, I'm not looking for a hand-out from the taxpayer now. When my mokopuna ask me about climate change, I'd rather not be making excuses.

As you know, the NZ taxpayer is picking up the tab for agricultural emissions (other than fossil fuel use) so we are being subsidised. Even though my costs will increase, I welcome the new government's plan to include agriculture in the ETS. I hope & trust that soil carbon sequestration will be part of the plan, to create an incentive for others to join the regenerative agriculture movement.

Also, it's embarrassing and wrong that we still turn a blind eye to the pesticide problem. Bee-killing neonics are advertised as standard seed treatments, glyphosate is sprayed everywhere and the EPA just doesn't give a fuck. I hope this generation will bring some order to the EPA.

Promote Competition
Last but not least, I hope we might finally get some action on s36 of the Commerce Act. This is the only part of NZ's competition law that constrains firms with substantial market power from abusing that power.

Due to a long history of liberal merger controls we have lots of firms with substantial market power. Fine, we did that for reasons and are not about to undo it by forcibly breaking them up. Much less fine: s36 doesn't work, so these powerful firms have no real constraint on the use of their market power.

It's not just me who says it doesn't work. The chair of the Commerce Commission is on record as clearly indicating the same thing five years ago. Since then, the competition regulator has effectively been on strike because it considers the law unworkable. The public announcement of this position five years ago effectively gave carte blance to the top-end-of-town. No-one is keeping track of the consequences but the costs of having no law and everyone knowing must be enormous.

If this wasn't so arcane & geeky it'd be a front-page scandal. I hope we get it fixed, pronto.

Synthetic Protein & Pastoral Farming

Unless you've been living under a rock, you'll have noticed that wealthy investors are pouring money into R&D projects to grow meat and milk in laboratories using genetically engineered yeasts. The financial dream is that these labs will morph into factories and the wealthy investors will get wealthier. 

Good luck to them. Perhaps these technologies can indeed "feed the world" (as if that line is anything more than marketing spin). If we're going to have GMOs, then lets keep them indoors rather than allow them to interact and propogate in our biota/plant/animal ecosystems. To my eyes, this is yet another argument against outdoor GMO release in NZ: now we obviously don't need it to "feed the world": grow your protein in the lab.  

Less clear to me is the reasoning behind arguments like this and this which are basically berating NZ's pastoral farmers for the fact that synthetic protein is being pursued. Yeah, we know, and we also know we can't stop it.

Missing from all this vapour-ware, is any analysis of costs, pricing and demand which depends on pricing. The talk is of devastation to our markets, which implies that these are these going to be mass-market commodities. If that turns out to be the case then New Zealand's largely grass-feed and gmo-free products will continue to have a niche market, though we'll obviously need to push on with further environmental and management enhancements to secure that niche.

More generally, production decisions change with demand. If these synthetic protein dreams start gaining market share you'll see a response from farmers. Until then, pimp the synthetic products by all means, but don't berate us farmers for not responding to vapour-ware.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

HSNO Regulation Economics

Rod Oram has highlighted two facts about New Zealand's EPA
  1. It is using a new method called "net benefit" to evaluating hazardous substances and new organisms; and
  2. There is no written description of the new method.
Gleaned from an interview with EPA Chief Scientist Jacqueline Rowarth, Oram tells us that the net benefit method entails...
weighing up the financial, health and environmental costs of a substance against its economic benefits. For example, Rowarth says, Roundup, and other forms are glyphosate, are highly beneficial to farmers because they reduce weeds and significantly increase crop yields.“It’s a very difficult calculation,” she says. However much economics goes into the analysis, “ultimately there is a final point that becomes subjective” about wider societal values.
Exactly how does that work? I asked her. “We’re trying to formalise that because more people are challenging decisions. 
Does the EPA have a guide to this methodology? “I’ve been exploring this in press articles…and a document is being prepared internally on this.”
So basically they're making it up as they go along. Instead of sticking with the precautionary principle, the EPA seems to weighing up things without measuring them first.

Worse, there appears to be no international guidance on how to do this. On the contrary, according to Rowarth...
The EPA is a world leader for its work on “net benefit” analysis.... “Our scientists are being invited abroad” to give presentations on the methodology,
To me, this sounds like another round of the "light-handed regulation" New Zealand used for privatised monopolies in the 1990s. Pushed by extremist economists, this ill-fated idea was also hailed as world leading. Not one country followed though, so we weren't so much leading the world as heading off down a blind alley. Eventually, New Zealand endured a very painful re-calibration of regulatory expectations, though not before the privateers locked-in $2-3bn of un-earned capital gains in the electricity distribution sector alone.

As part of the re-calibration, the Commerce Commission as regulator was instructed by Parliament to develop "input methodologies" setting out in detail how regulation was going to be applied, to consult on these methods and for its decisions to be subject to a specially-enabled High Court review. All of this effort was designed to avoid regulating "on the fly" as the EPA now apparently does.

So the omens are not good. But what are the economic arguments against the EPA's novel method? There are two: it is conceptually wrong; and it is fraught with severe practical challenges.

The Concept
Back in the late 90s I visited a colleague who was an economics professor at Stanford and learned that a common description of a hopeless student there was "not clear on the concept".  In this EPA matter, the concept is the precautionary principle which goes like this:
if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing severe harm to the public domain (affecting general health or the environment globally), the action should not be taken in the absence of scientific near-certainty about its safety
Notice that the level of risk is not specified and could have a low, even a very low probability. What matters is that "severe harm" might ensue. Examples of potential severe harm in the HSNO context include widespread disruption of human endocrine systems, depression and other forms of mental illness, and unintended consequences from the outdoor release of GMOs. These all count as "severe harm". Under the precautionary principle the onus would be on those seeking approval to prove "scientific near certainty".

One economic rationale for this approach is that disasters are best avoided if possible. Disaster insurance might possibly help, but ask the good people of Christchurch if they feel properly compensated. Or try to buy insurance against the expected mega-quake from the Hikurangi Subduction Zone

In the HSNO context though, the potential disasters are not natural in the sense of being beyond human influence. Far from it, any disasters will be the result of decisions made by humans at the EPA to approve the release of hazardous substances and/or new organisms. We can't insure against these disasters, so the EPA should not expose us to them.

The effect of the precautionary approach is to place an onus of proof on those wanting approval for a HSNO and to set a high bar (near certainty) for that proof. This is fully consistent with the real options literature, which requires that the timing of irreversible decisions made under uncertain conditions be delayed until the upside benefits are well in excess of the potential costs.

By contrast, the net benefit approach is based on expected values. If the EPA's probability-weighted assessment is that benefits exceed costs, then it will release the HSNO.

Here's a way to think of the difference between these approaches. Imagine you were in charge of Christchurch back in the day, and you had to decide whether to allow houses to be built on liquifaction-prone land. The precautionary principle would direct you to avoid exposing people to disaster, so you'd decline the request, markets would adjust and houses would be built somewhere else.

The property developers who bought swampy land cheap and now want to build houses will be advocating the net benefit approach. They'll have plausible-sounding economists and power-points for Africa, and they'll be regaling you with all the massive benefits of seeing things their way. If you ask about the risk of disaster, they'll assign it a tiny probability so that an expected (probability-weighted) value analysis aligns with their request, while gently suggesting that perhaps you shouldn't be such an old worry wart. 

So, yes, there is a huge difference and no, the net benefit approach does not properly accommodate disaster risk. That's why we use the precautionary approach.

Incidentally, the precautionary principle is baked into the HSNO Act. The purpose of the Act (s4) is to
protect the environment, and the health and safety of people and communities, by preventing or managing the adverse effects of hazardous substances and new organisms
To me, if you 'protect' a thing or person you would ensure they were not exposed to even a small risk of disaster. Parents of young children are usually clear on this concept. 

Section 7 of the HSNO Act is titled "precautionary approach" and requires that
All persons exercising functions, powers, and duties under this Act ... shall take into account the need for caution in managing adverse effects where there is scientific and technical uncertainty about those effects.
Finally, Schedule 1AA of the Act is the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants which is explicitly based on the precautionary principle.

Practicalities of Net Benefit Approach
You'll have gleaned by now that I think the EPA is barking up a blind alley, probably the one where Jacqueline Rowarth buries all the strawmen she keeps murdering in the popular press. For the record though, I should just finish with a few questions for the EPA in the event that it proceeds down this track. I'll focus on glyphosate for now....

1. How do you measure annual and cumulative exposure to glyphosate for New Zealanders?
2. What probability do you assign to a New Zealander contracting cancer from exposure to glyphosate?
3. How did you estimate that probability?
4. In your model, what is the cost of a New Zealander contracting cancer?

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Strike Three: Rowarth has to walk

We all make mistakes and some people are psychologically incapable of admitting or apologising for them. This personality trait is probably detrimental to a scientist's career, but need not be fatal if the mistakes are few, minor and uncorrelated.

None of these defenses is available to Jacqueline Rowarth, who is still the Chief Scientist at NZ's Environmental Protection Agency despite committing three significant and correlated errors in less than a year, in the opinion of other scientists.

Strike One
Rowarth's appointment was reported on 10 August 2016 and she took up her role at the end of October 2016. Even before getting her feet under the desk, on 3 October 2016, she claimed that the Waikato River was one of the five cleanest rivers in the world. The Freshwater Scientists' Society schooled her publicly, noting her reliance on poor quality data that was also out-of-date. The Society's president Marc Schallenberg also commented on a later statement from Rowarth:
Ms Rowarth's later comments in an letter to NZ Farmer that E Coli in the river would pass the European Union's swimability test were also wrong, he said. He said she used median values and not maximum values to assess the data.
To my knowledge, these embarrassing errors have never been acknowledged or corrected by Rowarth. For it's part, the EPA chose to focus on timing details, saying:
"it would be comment on statements she made while employed in a previous role".
Strike Two
On 20 April 2017, Rowarth and Doug Edmeades participated in a radio discussion about whether freshwater scientist Mike Joy is an extremist. Edmeades had previously supported Rowarth's false statements about the quality of the Waikato River. This discussion prompted the NZ Association of Scientists to write to its members with a "reminder of the rules" concerning public debates between scientists. Association President Craig Stevens was quoted as follows:
"In this particular area we're talking about freshwater and land use. "It's an issue that's incredibly important for New Zealand from a number of perspectives. "We were concerned that some of this was proceeding in the media in a way that was not helpful for getting the facts across."
Again, Rowarth declined to comment.

Strike Three
One of the roles of the EPA is to regulate pesticides. It is well known that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has decided that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic. Note that this is raw glyphosate, not the stronger formulations sold to farmers in New Zealand.

The EPA recognises IARC as “one of the two respected sources for information on carcinogenicity” but decided to not to accept its determination on glyphosate, commissioning an alternative review of the same evidence from a single NZ scientist, Wayne Temple, who as luck would have it came to the opposite view, that "glyphosate is unlikely to be genotoxic or carcinogenic to humans".

Rowarth has been working hard to support the EPA's position but running into serious scientific criticism including this strong piece from sciblogs, which itself leans on background work by former Green MP Steffan Browning and independent researcher Jodie Bruning. Now the issue has finally hit the mainstream media with this Rod Oram report, noting among other howlers that the Ministry for the Environment is reviewing the whole EPA, quoting Sir Peter Gluckman as saying "We don’t fully understand what they [the EPA] do" , and that Rowarth is not aware her employing agency is under review.*

I will have more to say soon about the EPA's "net benefit" approach to pesticide regulation, on which Rowarth is relying in the glyphosate matter.

Meantime, these three episodes make it painfully clear that Rowath is a national embarrassment to a country that markets itself as 100% Pure, where most citizens genuinely care about our environment and many are actively striving to live up to the slogan. She has to go.

*Update 8/10/17: It seems that Peter Gluckman's comments about a review were mis-interpreted: MfE is constantly responsible for monitoring the EPA but no special review is underway.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

DairyNZ Director Elections

DairyNZ is a statutory monopoly, empowered by Parliament to levy all dairy farmers and spend the cash on "industry good" work, including research. The directors of DairyNZ are responsible to levy-payers. We trust them to direct the management of DairyNZ in spending the funds we provide. So the election of new directors, closing at noon on 24 October 2017, really matters if you care about the scientific direction of this industry.

In 2015, DairyNZ offered an online Q&A facility where we could post questions for director candidates to answer, out in the open where everyone could see. For frankly flaky reasons, that facility is no longer enabled, though it still sits there behind the DairyNZ website.

I used the online facility in 2015 to ask candidates about their views on funding research into biological farming, written up here. Responses ranged from supportive (2 candidates) through demanding proof the research would have a positive outcome (3) and buck-passing to other agencies (4), all the way to the bottom where 1 guy flatly denied there is anything new to learn.

That last guy, the denialist, was not just elected but made chairman of the board of DairyNZ. Michael Spaans was also a Fonterra director, but in January 2017 he "stepped down from the boards of Fonterra and DairyNZ, citing ill-health". He seems to have got better though, enough to be back in the driving seat at DairyNZ anyway.

Against that background I emailed the six director candidates for this election, pointing them to this post about some very cool nitrogen-fixing bacteria and posing the same questions used in 2015:
Despite the critical role of soil in pasture-based dairying, DairyNZ has no research efforts looking at how to harness/farm the biological life in soils. If elected, would you advocate for such research? Why or why not?
Four of the six candidates responded, the omissions were Cole Groves and Jim van der Poel.

Ian Brown went for the "prove it" camp, saying that he would
need to see a case put forward to understand the benefits that may accrue to dairy farmers and the industry as a whole
What Ian is really saying here is "bring me a company that expects to make cash out of this idea". As if that's the only test of potentially valuable industry good research. It doesn't occur to Ian that there could be different ways of doing things that are (a) much better for farmers but (b) won't increase profits for any existing suppliers to dairy farmers.

Colin Glass didn't address the questions but he did send me a long email that sounded like his stump speech.

Grant Coombes did much better. He'd read the background material, endorsed a couple of the key points and committed to advocating for "a larger % spend on all R&D including soil science". That's not what I was hoping for as an outcome to be honest. I have no opinion on whether budgets should be shifted from outreach etc to R&D: what I'm asking for some investment into the biological aspects of soil science.

The stand-out winner was Mark Slee, who I later discovered already has a record of achievement in sustainable dairying. Despite this background Mark said "Biological farming is not an area I have explored but I’m keeping an open [mind] on all possibilities moving forward". Nor was this just lip service: Mark also said he is attending the field day at Brian Clearwater's farm near Peel Forest on 12th October to get "better informed about biological farming practices". Then he did some more digging and emailed the next day with some slide packs about the Backtrack farm where there is a matched trial underway, supported by DairyNZ, that apparently has a biological focus.

Mark gets my vote and I hope he'll get one of yours too. He's not an advocate for biological farming, far from it. But he's open-minded enough to seriously consider it, which is all you can ask for in a research director.

I'll admit that as a practitioner I'm nervous about how Mark will react to the field day at Brian's place. A lot of what we do is a direct challenge to standard agronomy, which is why the vast bulk of scientific agronomy doesn't even consider these methods. That makes them under-investigated, not inferior or fatally flawed, as you might gather from reading certain pundits in the rural press. 

Science works on falsification. Unless and until DairyNZ can prove there is no value in trying to foster soil biological life, it should be actively investigating the potential benefits.