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February 2010 Archive for Economic Sense

RSS By: Matt Bogard, AgWeb.com

Matt's primary interest is in the biotech industry and ag policy.

Get Schooled up on the Politics of Food

Feb 21, 2010
By Matt Bogard

Below is a link and an excerpt from a story (from UVa Today) about a new class being offered at the University of Virginia.

Chew On It: New J-Term Class Delves Into 'The Politics of Food'


After just a few days in the class, several students had already altered their eating habits. Third-year Rashawnda James gave up eating chicken after watching "Food, Inc." and seeing how factory farms cram chickens into cages so tiny that they can never spread their wings. One line from the film, "We're not breeding chicken; we're breeding food," conveyed the objectification and inhumane treatment of animals endemic to factory farming, James said.

Pape noted that he personally buys organic milk. When a student asked why, he noted that he didn't want to serve any additional hormones to his 12-year-old daughter.Freedman noted that he also purchased organic milk for his family, and had a hard time explaining, even to himself, exactly why he made that choice. "I think it's a little superstitious. I think a lot of my food choices are tied not to reason, and not necessarily even to preference or taste, but to practice and tradition and habit."


From the description in this story, it appears that a large portion of the class is focused on politically motivated films and books, with an agenda critical of modern agriculture and most family farms. Perhaps there should be a co-requisite or a companion course that also looks at the science and environmental impacts of food choices. Perhaps it could convince Mr. Freedman to give up on his superstitious practices.

Just presenting some basic facts might help Mr. Freedman deal with his superstitions. Somatotropin receptors in human cells cannot recognize bST. (the hormone he is most likely concerned with). Residue levels of hormones in food have been demonstrated to be safe,and are well below any level that would have a known effect in humans. Similarly with regard to concerns about antibiotics, given no conclusive scientific link between the use of antibiotics in livestock and clinically important antibiotic-resistant infections in humans, more effort should be placed on judicious use in humans as well as livestock. But that does not provide any argument for going antibiotic free or banning sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock.

Facts relating to the environmental impacts of these lagely personal and political choices wouldn't hurt either. For example, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions per pound of beef or per gallon of milk produced are much less for cattle that utilize modern pharmaceutical technologies.   

More information:

USDA

rBST -Cornell University Dept of Animal Science

Antimicrobial Resistance: Implications for the Food System
Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety
Volume 5 Issue 3, Pages 71 - 137
 

The Stats on Animal Abuse

Feb 10, 2010
By Matt Bogard
In a recent article, animal rights activists (Mercy for Animals-MFA) went undercover and made some observations about animal abuse on dairy farms. See-
Governor Paterson, Shut This Dairy Down

The author of the above article states:

"But the grisly footage that every farm randomly chosen for investigation--MFA has investigated 11--seems to yield, indicates the violence is not isolated, not coincidental, but agribusiness-as-usual."

This is exactly why economists and scientists employ statistical methods. Anyone can make outrageous claims, but are these claims really consistent with evidence?  If we take a sample from a population, the fact that the sample was 'random' doesn't necessarily make our conclusions about the population it came from valid. Random sampling might be necessary, but it's not sufficeint. 

Before we can say anything about the population, we need to know 'how rare is this sample? Was it observed just by chance or does it represent what’s really going on in the population? According to the USDA, in 2006 there were 75,000 dairy operations in the U.S. According to the activists claims, they 'randomly' sampled 11 dairies and found abuse on all of them. That represents just .0146% of all dairies.
 If we wanted to use sample data to estimate the proportion of dairy farms that were abusing animals, if we wanted to be 90% confident and be within a margin of error of .05, then basic statistics dictates that the sample size required to estimate this proportion would have to be about 271 farms!
I'm sure the article that I'm referring to above was never intended to be scientific, but the author should have chosen their words more carefully. What they have is allegedly a 'random' observation and nothing more. They have no 'empirical' evidence to infer from their 'random' samples that these abuses are 'agribusiness-as-usual' for the whole population of dairy farmers. While MFA may have evidence sufficient for taking action against these individual dairies, the standard should be set much higher in order to support a larger role for government in animal agriculture, which seems to be the goal of many activist organizations.


References:

Profits, Costs, and the Changing Structure of Dairy Farming / ERR-47
Economic Research Service/USDA Link

"Governor Patterson Shut Down This Dairy", Jan 27,2010. OpEdNews.com
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