Eat the Ugly

Some people are always looking for a villain. There is Judas, Al Capone, Kim Jong-un, Monsanto and Walmart. For you, environmentally-aware, socially-conscious and fact-skeptic consumers, reconsider your hatred towards Walmart.

Last week, Walmart, America’s largest grocer became the first retailer to sell blemished apples from Washington state, under the brand “I’m Perfect”, as part of their larger pilot effort of selling ugly fruit and vegetables.

Ugly fruits and vegetables are the daily bread on the farm. However, this so-called cosmetically imperfect produce often ends up in landfills, just because of how it looks.

Global food waste is a big issue for environmental, humanitarian, cultural, economic, and public health reasons. It is so important that during the 2015 Climate Change Conference in Paris, the Obama administration and the UN pledged to cut avoidable food waste by half by 2030. By some accounts, around 4 billion tons of food are produced for human consumption around the world annually. Between 30 and 50 percent of that is wasted. Waste happens everywhere along the production chain and, interestingly, it is equally pervasive among developed and developing countries.

In developing countries, food waste can be mostly attributed to poorly developed infrastructure impeding the adequate storage of food or imposing delays to its arrival to the market place. An unnecessarily large amount of food, sometimes up to 40 percent of perishable produce, doesn’t make it to the market and ends up rotting in the fields, trucks or warehouses.

In contrast, food waste in industrialized economies and affluent communities around the world is mostly explained by consumer behavior and practices in both the retail sector and the hospitality industry.

Although one of the biggest sources of waste in industrialized economies is household waste, not all food waste is food that gets thrown away. Some of the food gets wasted before it even reaches the household. The fact that consumer preferences vary drastically with external factors like the weather also explain why much of fresh produce goes bad in the supermarket’s shelves. However, a larger reason is related to aesthetics.

In the US, losses vary from crop to crop, but it appears that up to 20 percent of harvested crops are rejected by retailers because they are not aesthetically appealing to the public. In other words, grocery stores and supermarkets know their customers won’t purchase produce that doesn’t have the “right” shape, color or size that cosmetic standards impose. Some estimate that about 60 million tons of produce worth about $160 billion are wasted by retailers and consumers every year. In general, Americans don’t eat ugly produce. That’s called discrimination based on looks—and really, it is unjustified.

Many of us in modern urbanized societies have grown up largely detached from agriculture and are largely unaware of what a real vegetable looks like when it’s just out of the ground. “Ugly” fruits and vegetables look a bit weird to you and me because we know nothing about agricultural production. But the truth is that they are perfectly edible, tasty and nutritious — as someone in a different context put it, every inch of them is perfect from the bottom to the top.

Food waste is a big deal, globally. It is not just about wasting food, it’s about wasting money, fueling a culture of mindless consumption, imposing psychological and sometimes moral distress on those concerned with global equality, and causing irreversible damage to the environment.

There are multiple layers to this onion, and multiple approaches to improve the situation. That a store of the size and outreach of Walmart has taken the initiative to bet against the public perception of beauty brings hope for those willing to jump on the bandwagon of tackling the problem of global food waste. Only you know your favorite villain, but this time, I think Walmart should get a pass.

 

 

Advertisements

Food Luddites of the world, unite!

 

Democrats and Republicans in this country can’t agree on anything. Except one thing: GMO labeling.

On July 14, just before going on their summer recess, the US House of Representatives passed a controversial bill on biotech labeling. The bill requires that most foods containing genetically engineered ingredients to be identified as such.

The really funny thing about this bill is that it shows how representative democracy in America is not representative at all. You would think that public perceptions over an issue are generally homogenous when both Democrat and Republican views are aligned. Well, not in the case of genetic engineering.

GE is such a powerful technology that it should be of no surprise to find it is a polemical topic. Results from a recent poll indicate that around 37 percent of the public thinks GMOs are generally safe. People are clearly uneasy about genetically modified foods and are therefore demanding access to more and more transparent information about composition of their food choices.

“With great power comes great responsibility”

Critics of biotechnology argue it can spawn new classes of accidents and abuses. Some protesters oppose biotechnology thinking they are attacking Monsanto and other large corporations with morally questionable marketing practices. Others oppose GE on the grounds of uncertainty regarding the long-term risks and threats that GMOs pose on human health and the environment. They argue that the general consensus among the scientific community that GMOs are safe to eat doesn’t mean that it is impossible to engineer a plant that would be bad for human heath — and this plant could be the result of an accident but also from a deliberate terrorist act.

Precautionary positions are sometimes efficient economic guidelines — think about environmental policy on nuclear waste disposal, for example. But even if the fears of food Luddites are justified, can the global society afford to take their position?

Swelling populations and income growth around the world are fueling unprecedented increases in the global demand for food. To meet the world’s appetites, food production will have to increase drastically over the next four decades, and as pressures from climate change make food production progressively more challenging, biotechnology will become a key factor in helping meet these needs.

GE promises to revolutionize agriculture, and it is already offering many economic, health and even environmental benefits to both consumers and producers of agricultural commodities around the world. Some of the successes of crop biotechnology include increased yields, reduced reliance on pesticides, improved nutritional value of crops, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Clearly, it is a complicated issue and that’s why it deserves careful and intelligent discussion. The passing of this bipartisan bill makes it look as if Democrats and Republicans can be quick to agree on something complicated and extremely important. However, for those of you interested in evaluating the wisdom of American political leaders based on the potential impacts that the recent GMO-labeling bill can have on local and global food supply, think of the following: although the bill mandates disclosure, it also allows companies to avoid the on-package labeling that consumers typically support. Instead, companies can label their products through scannable smartphone codes.[1] In addition, the bill does not mandate that companies explain what type of GE technology was used, on what traits, or why. In other words, there won’t be an easily recognizable symbol stigmatizing a particular food product for containing GE ingredients. There also won’t be a whole lot of information for concerned consumers to attain.

It seems to me that the practical consequences of this bill are minimal at best. Meaning that Democrats and Republicans agree on something, something that doesn’t matter.

References:

Historic GMO labeling compromise clears Congress: http://www.agri-pulse.com/Historic-GMO-labeling-compromise-clears-Congress-07142016.asp

How Square Watermelons Get Their Shape, and Other G.M.O. Misconceptions: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/07/12/science/gmo-misconceptions.html

 

[1] Ironically for the food Luddites who support the passing of this bill, to keep technology at bay, you will need… well, technology — anybody betting against the Unabomber’s predictions?

 

Toxic tokes

Let’s talk openly and matter-of-factly about pot: are pesticide residues on marijuana a health concern?

The truth is that we don’t know because there is virtually no research on the topic, and whether there are direct health risks posed by pesticides used in marijuana production will remain uncertain for as long as marijuana remains federally illegal. So, if you can’t bite into a fruit because of the allergic reactions that pesticides cause you or if you are looking for another argument for the legalization of your herbs, this column is for you.

Most people agree that pesticides have contributed to great gains in agricultural production and human nutrition. But while they can improve crop yield and quality of food, they also pose health risks to people — not to mention the risks they pose on the environment. And if anyone is to be aware of this fact, it should be North Carolinians who are third in the country in the number of pesticide-related illness and deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection, North Carolina is the third state with the most pesticide-related illness and deaths with an average annual 34.55 per 100K illness and deaths between 2000 and 2010.)

When it comes to legal guidance over marijuana production and consumption methods, the absence of clarity on what’s legal and what’s not is particularly problematic. The simple confusion over the legality of pesticide use, has cost marijuana farmers across the country hundreds of thousands of dollars.

For example, earlier this summer, officials in Washington State ordered statewide halt to sales of 15 marijuana products after lab results showed these had residues of undisclosed pesticides. Also, last year, nine companies in Colorado were ordered to quarantine their plants because the Denver Department of Environmental Health found residues of Eagle 20, Mallet and Avid in their marijuana products. Were the farmers at fault? Many would argue that they weren’t.

The standard procedure for farmers caught using prohibited pesticides is that the contaminated crops are seized and destroyed. However, currently, there is no pesticide in the market that says “approved for marijuana”. That means that any grower in the country that uses some form of pesticide is at risk of losing her crop. By some estimates, 95% of cultivators nationwide do use some form of pesticide. That’s a lot of weed to burn just because somebody wanted to keep bugs away from their flowers.

But assuming the farmers were at fault, is it even worth it to burn all that hash in the name of toxicity prevention? How toxic is this stuff anyway?

In general, how toxic a pesticide is depends both on its residue levels and how it is ingested. At least for the case of edible marijuana products you can count on your liver to provide some protection, but for the case of smoked marijuana, the story is very different.

A 2013 study found that up to 69.5 percent of pesticide residues can remain in smoked marijuana. However, filtering smoke through cotton can reduce the level of pesticide residues to 1-11 percent. To give you a reference point, the analogous statistic for tobacco is 1.5-15.5 percent.

Some interests groups claim that quality cannabis can be grown with organic methods. In their view, cannabis growers could lead the way in developing a truly all-natural agricultural industry. However, not using pesticides poses financial costs on producers and other types of health risks on consumers.

In the case of producers take for example a small-scale marijuana farmer with 150 plants in Colorado. If some mildew infestation forced him to destroy a crop that would have yielded 70 pounds of cannabis, at the 2015 rate for retail marijuana, he would have easily lost $230,000. Maybe I’m just too poor, but if I were him, I think I’d spray my plants with a little Eagle 20 — particularly since there are no laws and no science saying that I shouldn’t.

Regarding the case of health risks to consumers, consider that molds and bacteria can contaminate cannabis plants too, and being exposed to those pathogens can be harmful to marijuana consumers. This would be a particularly serious concern for users of medical marijuana since their immune systems are already vulnerable.

The case has been exposed. Is it legal or safe to use pesticides on marijuana? Is it fair and financially sound to prevent pesticide use in marijuana production? I can’t answer that for you. But until pot is not legal at the federal level, I would recommend you adding a filter next time you roll.

References:

“Cannabis growers look for clarity on pesticide use” (July 7, 2016): http://www.agri-pulse.com/DownloadLogin.asp?Name=Cannabis-growers-look-for-clarity-on-pesticide-use-07062016.asp

“State finds undisclosed pesticides in pot growing products” (June 30, 2016): http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/article86991142.html

“Pesticide use can pose health risks; how is it in your state? (Jun 10, 2016): http://www.newsobserver.com/living/health-fitness/article82969827.html

“The wild west of marijuana pesticides”. ( Aug 31, 2015): http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/08/pot-marijuana-pesticide-legalization/401771/

“Marijuana Legalization 2015: EPA  Issues guidance on marijuana pesticides amid industry uncertainty”. (June 9, 2015): http://www.ibtimes.com/marijuana-legalization-2015-epa-issues-guidance-marijuana-pesticides-amid-industry-1959030

“Confusion over pesticide rules presents conundrum for Colorado cannabis growers”. (April 23, 2015): https://mjbizdaily.com/confusion-pesticides-presents-conundrum-colorado-cannabis-growers/

“Pesticide Use in Marijuana Production: Safety Issues and Sustainable Options As states legalize cannabis, toxics in cultivation intersect with health and the environment, and ecological practices” (2014-2015): http://www.beyondpesticides.org/assets/media/documents/watchdog/documents/PesticideUseCannabisProduction.pdf

eaten_up_

Drink till you dry

Let’s face it, summer is not that pleasant any more. Daily temperatures are averaging 90 degrees and humidity is reaching daily highs of 80 and 90%. I often see the cross-fitters working out in the Miller fields and every time I conclude they are clearly crazy. There’s no way a sane mind in an average body can stand these strenuous conditions. It is simply too hot and humid outdoors for you to be out there—having “fun”.

In my mind, the only honest way anybody could be possibly enjoying themselves in this (disgusting) North Carolinian weather is if you are laying in the shade, with a fan blowing on your face, while you are drinking a very cold beer. Now we are talking sanity.

If you are American, you are likely thinking like me—and there’s no shame on that.As a consumer you may think you got all what takes to choose your beer: taste buds and a thirsty throat. Think again. There is more to beer than fun and the consequences of your drinking sessions go beyond many frequent visits to the toilet. Beer production puts heavy pressure on dwindling resources. Perhaps a short exposure to some of the less amusing details in the production process of a particular pale lager will make you reconsider your beer choices. Like it or not, as a consumer, you’ll have to play police too.

Against common belief, Americans are actually pretty decent beer drinkers by global standards. Of course, you can’t say that to a Czech or an Austrian, where beer consumption per capita per year averages 142 and 104 liters (that’s like 400 and292 beer cans in a year, for the average person—not just college students.) But the reality is that U.S. is at the top of beer consumption in the New World (the American continent). In the U.S. beer accounts for about 85% of the volume of alcoholic beverages sold each year.

In the US, the average person drinks 76 liters of beer per year, more or less 214 beer cans in the year, meaning that Americans drink a little bit more beer than they do milk and coffee—but about half as much as carbonated soft drinks. If you break that down by season, most of it is drank in the summer times—surprise, surprise. In fact, in the 15 weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day, beer and malt beverage sales tend to surpass the 10-billion dollar mark—making it one of the largest selling categories of all food and beverage channels.

(Not surprisingly, beer consumption, and alcohol consumption in general, is much lower in the Southeastern, more religious, states. But even though North Carolinians are not impressive beer drinkers for U.S. standards, they are not Utahans either—in fact, they resemble pretty well the drinking habits of the average American.)

The top beer brands tend to be Bud Light, Budweiser and Coors Light. But if you have a taste for foreign alcohol, you will most likely be drinking Corona Extra — the number 1 imported beer in the US and one of the top-selling beers worldwide.

Corona Extra is a pale lager, produced by the Belgian-owned Cervercería Modelo and the US-firm Constellation Brands (CB). The Corona Extra that’s sold in the US is produced by CB in Mexico.

Constellation Brands runs a brewery in Nava, near the border between Mexico and Texas. The brewery is huge, and it is growing. By 2017, the facility will have installed capacity to produce 20 million bottles of beer per day—that’s a lot of beer. To produce that much beer, CB needs a lot of water—yes, it may have slipped your mind, but most of what you drink (80-95%) in beer is actually water.

Northern Mexico is extraordinarily dry. It doesn’t have a lot of rain, therefore, water scarcity is a binding concern. What is ironic is that local governments representing various municipalities near the CB brewery don’t have legal access to the necessary 100 liters of water per second to give local households to drink or use in their homes — but there is enough water for an American firm to produce the beer that will satisfy America’s thirst for imported alcohol.

When CB purchased the brewery in 2013, the Coahuila government gave them legal permits to use land and the water sources liberally. According to the mayor of a nearby municipality, CB draws 1,200 litters of water per second from local wells.

These kind of special concessions made for foreign entities, like CB, are driving towns in the state of Coahuila dry and compromising the livelihood of locals. And even though the state government is responsible for the protection of current water crisis, nobody seems looking into the legality behind this crisis — mainly because there is a lot of money on the table. Yes, when revenues from foreign direct investment are at stake, politicians are willing to overlook certain injustices. As it was suggested earlier, you, the consumer, are going to have to play police too.

So, how does this touch you and what can you do about it? Well, it is a difficult question. I can’t say there is a silver bullet to tackle what is ultimately a failed system plagued with corruption and incentives to cheat the vulnerable and poor at the expense of the wealthier and the powerful. But if I were you, in what remains of the summer I’d think a little bit about the environment of Northern Mexico, about Northern Mexicans, about U.S. firms with privileged contracts, about Mexican officials with privileged salaries… and drink a Heineken instead.

References:

Wikipedia: List of countries by beer consumption, Beer in the United States

Beer Info: List of states by beer consumption http://www.beerinfo.com/index.php/pages/beerstateconsumption.html

The Beer Institutewww.BeerInstitute.org.

The Guardian: “Americans’ taste for Mexican beer sucking up water supply, mayor says” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/30/americans-beer-corona-mexico-water-crisis?utm_source=fark&utm_medium=website&utm_content=link

Saving the American eel

Eels are a very mysterious animal. And even though they can be found virtually everywhere in the globe, in fresh and salt water ecosystems alike, very little is known about them.

I find eels fascinating because they are totally bizarre. They challenge all the paradigms of normality in the biological world—at least as perceived by a humble economist as myself.

This post is a distillation of the weird things I learned about ecology while participating on an economics project looking at ways to protect the declining population of American eels in the Southeast of the U.S.

The American eel is a rare fish—so rare that it even belongs to a rare taxonomy: the catadromus fish. These kind of fish are migrate from fresh water to spawn in the sea—exactly the opposite of salmon. As you would expect from a rare fish, Eels (American and European at least) are born in, of course, in a rather rare place: near the Bermuda Triangle. That’s right, they are born in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, in what is called the Sargasso Sea.

Immediately after they are born, eels begin to travel—drifting with ocean currents—to the coasts and estuaries of the American continent (recent records report they have been found from the coastlines of Venezuela to those of Greenland and Iceland). Once infant eels (also known as elvers) reach the coastlines, they either stay in the estuaries to become adult males or continue their migration into streams, rivers and lakes where they feed and mature into female eels.

Female eels live in fresh waters for approximately 10 to 25 years. Adult eels typically have a yellow color. However, once they reach sexual maturity, they begin a complicated metamorphosis process to become ready for a long trip back to the Sargasso Sea. To prepare for their migration back to the Sargasso Sea, eels undergo a bizarre host of physiological changes: they acquire a silver color, their eyes enlarge, their skin thickens, their digestive tract degenerates—as they won’t be feeding at all during their journey, their kidneys turn into some sort of air cavities that will allow them to float in the Ocean ad take advantage of Oceanic currents, their pectoral fins adapt to the oceanic environment, and they undergo a multitude of hormonal changes to increase the supply of energy and stamina for the long haul. Long story short, they are no longer well suited for riverine conditions, and being totally uncomfortable as they are, they are terribly anxious to find their way to the Ocean.eels cycle

The trip back to the Sargasso Sea can be as long as 6,000 kilometers for some eels, and it may take years to complete. Once they’ve reached the spawning grounds, each female eel will lay up to 4 million eggs. After such an inconceivable feat of endurance and speed, she, of course, dies—therefore completing her life cycle.

The important points to take away for the remainder of this story are the following:

  1. Once they are sexually mature, female eels change their bodies to such degree that they are absolutely uncomfortable in freshwater ecosystems. They want to reach the Ocean as fast as possible.
  2. Given that the migration to Sargasso can be thousands of kilometers long, it is imperative for eels to conserve as much energy as possible during their migration.

Eels are efficient swimmers. With their hydrodynamic shape and their sturdy completion not only do they exploit the power of water currents but if necessary they can crawl their way through land—eels can survive out of water for ours by exuding a mucus coat over themselves when they jump out. Yet, even with an advantageous physic, anything that reduces their ability to swim efficiently is sure to damage their chances of reaching the Sargasso Sea.

Dams are one such obstacle.

Oh Dam!

 Eel populations across the world have been in sharp decline over the last few decades and multiple efforts have been put forward to recover their populations. To the point that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been petitioned to list it as a threatened or endangered species under the ESA.

As I described above, the eel’s complex life cycle implies that its reproductive success depends heavily on being able to easily travel downstream during their spawning migration. Dams in run-of-river hydroelectric power plants are one of the many threats obstructing eel passage; depending on the timing, hydrology, and operating characteristics of a given facility, dams can represent a significant risk to eels through migratory delay and turbine mortality—I want to emphasize here, what turbine mortality means. It means that eels get tangled in the turbines while passing through the dam: the hydropower plants become a sushi factory, essentially. (These facilities are especially problematic for eels and not for other fish because of their long shape.)

eels dam

Sushi aside, in an effort to reduce turbine-related mortality of adult American Eels during their downstream migration to the Atlantic Ocean, hydropower dam operation in the Shenandoah River System is regulated following Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC) relicensing conditions. For the majority of the facilities that I am aware are regulated, the current policy prescribes a shutdown of turbines from September 15 to December 15 during the hours between dusk and dawn (when the Eels are believed to be moving).

September 15 to December 15. Dawn to dusk. These seem rather arbitrary and aesthetically appealing parameters, don’t they? In fact, the details of the policy are rather authoritative and based on highly uncertain scientific knowledge suggesting that this schedule of operation is a reliable way to minimize eel mortality.

However, the migration of eels from rivers to the spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea is one of the greatest mysteries in marine biology, and recent tracking studies have shown that downstream migration is not limited to the fall season and may be influenced by non-seasonal ecological cues, such as water flow, in addition to seasonal environmental factors like water temperature and, mysteriously enough, the phase of the moon (Eyler, 2014).

Recent studies show that substantial eel mortality outside of the regulated time period. Since protective policies do not necessarily prevent mortality, they should be revisited to accurately reflect the actual patterns of eel migration. Better yet, why not to just shut them down all year long and this way reduce eel mortality to zero? Furthermore, it is widely known that the damming and development of rivers can permanently impact the visual landscape, interrupt natural river flow and harm aquatic resources and local ecosystems. Complete closure of these power plants seems like a great idea, or… does it?

Back to the economics

It has been established above, that there are benefits from shutting down the turbines at run-of-river hydroelectric power plants: reduced eel mortality. However, there are also costs. And if you have read my posts, you know I am all about taking both, benefits and costs into account. Not only have I been trained in this discipline as an economist, at the personal level, I just love playing devil’s advocate.

So, what are the costs?

Well, the shutting down of the turbines implies no water will pass through them and no energy will be generated. That no electricity is generated is a direct cost to the utilities company but it is also an indirect cost to society. Let me elaborate on this.

Hydroelectric power is an attractive alternative for energy generation; it is a flexible source of electricity, it has relatively low operational and maintenance costs, and after construction is completed, a hydropower project produces no direct waste and has lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions than fossil-fuel-powered energy plants. Today, hydroelectric power is the most widely used form of renewable energy. Recent estimates suggest it accounts for 16% of global electricity generation and is expected to increase at an annual rate of 3% for the next 25 years (Worldwatch Institute, 2013).

Within the hydropower industry, small and micro-hydropower (plants with an installed capacity of up to 10 MW and 100 KW, respectively) has been postulated as an effective tool to meet renewable energy targets and provide energy to remote, rural communities.[1] Small-scale, well-sited, run-of-river hydropower projects can be developed with minimal environmental impacts and are therefore likely to become increasingly important instruments in the development, energy and environmental debate.[2]

So…. In summary, hydroelectric power plants are in essence a source of green energy. Shutting them down is costly to society as it would encourage utility companies to shift towards more polluting sources of power to make up for their foregone revenues.

But, we already saw that letting the turbines run all year long is literally leading the American eel to extinction. So what to do? Should the current policy be revisited to reduce eel mortality to zero? Perhaps not.

The virtuous middle

It is important to acknowledge both benefits and costs of any action in order to accurately understand what is being sacrificed by taking one decision over the alternatives. It seems clear that to preserve the natural integrity of biological systems in the Shenandoah River, hydroelectric generation regimes should incorporate a consideration for reducing eel mortality based on actual migration patterns.

However, direct restrictions on hydropower operations that are imposed to mitigate environmental impacts and favor consumers of ecosystem services can also inflict additional costs to hydropower producers.

In general, the imposition of environmental constraints reduces the value of a river to power producer by increasing operation and licensing (or relicensing) costs.[3] An increase in costs may be sufficient to encourage a shift towards dirtier sources of power and to discourage private investment in costly environmentally friendly technologies. Thus, it is possible that well-intended environmental constraints may actually have an overall negative impact on the environment via reduced air quality from increased use of dirtier sources of power and unrealized prevention of further environmental damages.

It is evident from this short discussion that to adequately design policies that ameliorate environmental impacts of hydropower generation, policy-makers must take into consideration the direct benefits to natural habitats and users of ecosystem services as well as the costs to producers that result from tightening operation and relicensing requirements and the indirect social costs that result from responses of producer behavior to new environmental regulations.

So… both conservation and hydropower objectives are important. Yet, what is really interesting, is that these values do not necessarily constitute opposing interests. In fact, reducing eel mortality would not only be beneficial for eel populations and ecosystem dynamics (eels are top predators in riverine ecosystems), in fact, protecting eel populations would actually be in the best interest of the hydropower plant operators. Why?

Simple. Money. If the American eel population declines to a threshold point where the US Fish and Wildlife Service enlists it as an endangered species, then, energy generation in any river transited by the American eel will become prohibitly costly—just by virtue of all the legal requirements that are tied to the Endangered Species Act.

So… it seems that there are interests by environmental agencies (together with conservationist groups and the general public concerned with the health of riverine ecosystems) and hydropower generating utilities to protect American eel from turbine mortality and potentially deadly migratory delays.

The next step seems to be to collaborate in a study that addresses the issue of directly linking scientific information with ongoing decisions in a way that explicitly accounts for the inherent trade-off between ecosystem conservation and energy generation. That’s the project I worked in. Stay tuned for its publication.

[1] Although well-sited, small-scale, run-of river hydropower development projects can be designed to have minimal environmental impact, their popularity is in part based on the fact that they are exempt from costly regulations that apply to larger projects.

[2] There are two main types of hydropower plants (ignoring pumped storage facilities): Run-of-river (ROR) and peaking plants. ROR plants typically have limited water storage capability and electricity generation are therefore proportional to natural stream flow and varies little during the day. Peaking plants, on the other hand, often have significant water storage capacity and are designed to maximize flow through the turbines by rapidly change water releases during periods of high demand.

[3] For example, in a study of the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River, Harpman (1999) found a reduction of 8.8% in the short-run economic value of the hydroelectricity generated at the dam after the imposition of new flow regulations in 1996.

REFERENCES

  • Welsh, S. A., D. R. Smith, and S. Eyler. 2014. Migration of silver-phase and yellow-phase American eels in relation to hydroelectric dams on the Shenandoah River.  Progress Report to NAES Corporation, PE Hydro Generation, LLC.
  • “American Eel: American Eel Stock Determined to be Depleted.” ASMFC Fisheries Focus, Vol. 21, Issue 3, April/May 2012. http://www.asmfc.org/species/american-eel
  • Wolf-Dieter N. Busch & David P. Braun. “A Case for Accelerated Reestablishment of American Eel in the Lake Ontario and Champlain Watersheds.” Fisheries 39.7(2014): 298-304

 

Kill and let live

This is a paradoxical story of how killing endangered animals can actually advance conservation efforts… spoilers alert, it’s got to do with defined, defensible and divestible, property rights.

For an even worse spoiler check this podcast: http://www.radiolab.org/story/wild-things/

There are plenty of examples, both current and historical, in which well-intended schemes backfire. It is often the case where governments or whatever regulatory agent offer incentives that trigger responses that result exactly in the undesired outcome.

For instance, it is said that in colonial India a powerful British lord had had enough of snakes and decided to control the cobra population in Delhi. To do this, he offered cash reward for every cobra skin brought to him. The aftermath of the bounty system was not less but more cobras in Delhi. It turns out, that in response to this cash incentive, Indians started to breed, raise, and slaughter snakes—in essence, they established a new industry: cobra farming. When the system was dismantled, the cobra farmers closed their shops and did the logical thing: release the snakes they still had in the farm.

We can also find a colorful example of backfiring schemes in the autobiography of Mark Twain, where he describes a reward system implemented by his wife, Mrs. Clemens, to get rid of troublesome summer flies in their property. As Twain describes, their servant, George, found this scheme to be the perfect opportunity for easy profit. Assuming Mrs. Clemens’s objective was to accumulate flies, for some aesthetic or scientific reason, he was quick to hire helpers and establish a “Fly Fund” that would bring him dead flies from surrounding areas—not just the Clemens’ property. The end result was a large bounty payment for George and more or less the same amount of flies in the Clemens’ property.

In describing Mrs. Clemens’ frustrated efforts, Twain writes “Governments of the world have tried it, and wept over it, and discarded it, every half-century since man was created.” And yet, the story is repeated over and over and over. More recent examples of this situation include pest control initiatives in Vietnam, South Africa, and, closer to home, in Fort Benning, Georgia, where populations of feral pigs have been exploding and causing all sorts of environmental and economic damage  at the military base. You can guess what the outcomes of these initiative have been.

Luckily, we can learn from our mistakes. In recognizing that the failure of many incentive programs lies in the regulator’s inability to foresee people’s willingness and ability to alter their behavior in order to acquire some of the new wealth made possible by the very establishment of the incentive program, Mark Twain pinpoints a remarkable opportunity for improving conservation efforts. He concludes his reflection on the whole “Fly Fund” fiasco by asserting, “Any Government could have told her that the best way to increase wolves in America, rabbits in Australia, and snakes in India is to pay a bounty on their scalps. Then, every patriot goes to raising them.”

Well, what are some examples of that?

In 2014, Corey Knowlton, a hunter from Texas, bought a $350,000 hunting permit to hunt and kill a black rhino in Namibia. The practice of selling permits for trophy is actually widespread in some African countries—both South Africa and Namibia are legally allowed by the Convention on International Trade in endangered Species to sell five permits for the hunting of adult males black rhinos each year.

Today, black rhinos are critically endangered. There are fewer than 2,500 left in pockets in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya, Namibia, and Tanzania. Illegal poaching is a major concern for rhino protection. The rising demand for rhino horn—which is thought to have medicinal powers in Asian countries—has driven the price of rhino horn powder over the roof, and a complex illegal industry is finding the way to smuggle the product to Asia.

The natural question to ask is, why are countries like South Africa and Namibia promoting the hunting and killing of black rhinos if they are in fact in danger of extinction? It seems as if promoting the hunting and killing of the rhino is contradictory with the goal of conserving it.

Well, if you ask mainstream environmentalists and conservationist, they will almost certainly agree with this view. However, if you ask hunters, they will tell you that permitted hunting is effective conservation; they will tell you that it is their licensed killing of the animal what is saving endangered species. In fact, and perhaps counterintuitively, hunters and anglers have a long history of land stewardship, and here is the rationale.

Hunters hunt for sport. You would think this is solely why they are willing to pay whatever money in licenses and hunting fees. Well, think a bit more. What do you think happens with the revenues that states and countries collect from hunting licenses and fees? Generally, these fees are tied to conservation funds used to further conservation programs that will guarantee the survival of game species.

If there are no animals left, then there would be no more hunting and no more fun. If you think about it, hunters, more than any self-declared conservationist, have a direct interest in securing the survival and maintenance of game species. This is also why they are willing to pay sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars for a permit to hunt an endangered species; because through the issuing of permits, license and hunting fees is that states and countries finance conservation efforts and guarantee there will be game next season.[1] In the case of black rhino hunting in Namibia, the $350,000 payed to kill a male black rhino of post-reproductive age are used to fund ongoing monitoring, protection, and rehabilitation efforts.

Property Rights and Common Pool Resources—some economic theory on the tragedy of the common

The importance of property rights for environmental conservation is not a new idea. The idea that well defined and secure property rights are key in the prevention of the depletion of common-pool ecological resources has been recognized at least since the 70’s right after Garrett Hardin put together his theory of “the tragedy of the commons”. In fact, it is the institution of property rights what enables conservationist societies to post private reserves to protect birds from hunters, what allows land trusts to protect precious places, and what facilitated the recovery and growth of bison populations in the Western U.S. among other accomplishments of ecological value.

In essence, issuing permits for trophy hunting permit is the equivalent of establishing a system of property rights over the animal in question. Only he who purchases the rights the permit entitles is allowed to hunt and kill the animal. If the regulation is well enforced, the result is limited use of the resource in question—in the case of ecological issues, the result is less hunting, less fishing, less pollution, etc. In addition, the agency that is allowed to profit from the selling of these hunting permits will likely find it even more lucrative to continue this profitable activity of issuing hunting permits into the future. To do so, the agency must guarantee the existence of animals over which a hunting permit can be issued. Finally, he who purchases the rights has all the incentives to protect his rights—that is, he is willing to support an enforcement and protection system that will guarantee his money was not spent in vain.

This is, in a very simplified manner, what goes on with the hunting permits. The mere issuing of permits is not enough to guarantee the survival of the species. But it is a key step in the creation of a coordinated system that protects and furthers the interests of both parties in the transaction: the agency that is collecting economic reward from guaranteeing the existence of the species in question and the hunter who righteously gained access to the animal.

We can’t deny there is some sort of magic in introducing market capitalism into ecological conservation. After all, it is a way to reconcile two seemingly opposing views and have them work towards a common objective.

 

Challenging Tradition

From African gorillas to Californian condors to Caribbean coral reefs, much of the world’s wildlife is under threat. Assessing the success of global conservation efforts is difficult. What criteria to use when evaluating effectives and efficiency of these projects? The story is further complicated when one accounts for the fact that many of these initiatives are funded by donors and are organized by non-profit organizations. The statistics are generally depressing but there are success stories from around the world.

Traditional approaches to species conservation have focused on saving individual animals or plants in specific locations. Typically, conservation efforts have focused on improving the conditions to meet the needs of a particular species, with little attempt to reconcile the needs of human communities that interact with the species or that are impacted by these efforts.

The inherent subjective valuation of nature and lack of data make it difficult to objectively measure the performance of traditional conservation approaches. However, there is one thing we can measure: money. Saving endangered species is startlingly costly. A 2012 study found that following traditional approaches it would cost $76 billion a year just to preserve threatened land animals.

Assuming that all these money is worth spending to prevent extinction and protect species, the obvious question to tackle is where the funding will come from. When philanthropy can’t keep up, maybe property rights and hunting permits may actually be the more sustainable alternative.

In this post, I have presented hunting permits and the establishment of solid economic institutions backed by serious political interests and powers as a desirable and practical approach to conservation. But in my discussion I have consciously ignored the philosophical aspect of the issue. It is true that issuing permits will improve the numbers, but how will it change society’s attitudes and perception towards nature?

Will society begin to classify nature in the same category as consumer goods? Will people think and value nature in the same manner as they think and value Ferraris? Is this approach the equivalent of prostituting ones children with the justification that the money received will be invested in their education?

What do we care about in the end? That is the real question. Do we want numbers? Do we want animals and plants? Or do we want a society that respects and cares for nature?

A tough question.

References:

“Think like a freak”, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (2005).

“Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography: The Chapters from the North American Review” (2010).

“Can trophy hunting actually help conservation?” http://conservationmagazine.org/2014/01/can-trophy-hunting-reconciled-conservation/

http://www.worldwildlife.org/species/black-rhino

“Sorry environmentalists, buffalo were saved from extinction by capitalism” http://dailysignal.com/2016/05/02/SORRY-ENVIRONMENTALISTS-BUFFALO-WERE-SAVED-FROM-EXTINCTION-BY-CAPITALISM/

 

[1] In the US, hunting and fishing licenses together with revenues from a tax that applies to all gun a ammo sales, regardless of whether they are hunting-related—is funding about 75% of state agencies responsible for wildlife management, which makes me wonder if this would be enough to change an environmentalist’s point of view regarding gun control laws.

Loco como una chiva

In Colombia we have an expression for people that have gone totally crazy: “crazy like a goat”. As Capricorn, I always identified very well with this form of labeling.

In this picture, courtesy of Ios Kotsogiannis from San Francisco, please appreciate a patriotic crazy with a goat: “Loco con una cabra”.

Happy Independence Day America. Be Free. For real. For once. For yourself. Be yourself. Be crazy. Be like a goat with a goat. Be the your own GOAT, at every moment. Like this dude.

Ya’ man!

95957902123009405-account_id=1