Medical ecologist and author Dickson Despommierdescribes the vertical farm as a utopian future where green skycrapers rise out of the "squalid urban blight" to produce high tech veggies. Imagine green beans on the ground floor and "peppers in the penthouse."
Critics of this approach wonder if sunlight will provide enough energy to grow plants on multiple levels--even if the building is highly transparent. There is also concern that revenues from vertical farms will not cover the costs of erecting a plastic skyscraper or the cost of the land it sits on.
PERC's enviropeneur Josh Hottenstein is tackling these concerns by turning shipping containers into grow boxes. Lettuce can now grow in the back of a semi-truck without sun, soil, or pesticides. If you think this is science fiction, check outhis article in PERC Reportsor watch him on TEDx:
G. Pascal Zachary has a fascinating piece in the latest PERC Reports on how entrepreneurs are creatively adapting to the lack of property rights in Africa:
In the lush highlands of eastern Uganda, mud is a valuable commodity— so long as it is “quality” mud, with certain characteristics coveted by residents who construct their homes out of the stuff.
The search for mud is simple. Go north toward the town of Sironko about ten miles from the provincial capital of Mbale, and then, a few hundred feet past a cellular phone tower, you turn off the paved road and wind down a potholed lane. There you join a procession of mud customers. They come in trucks, cars, and even on bicycles. Upon reaching the village, Bukhalo, drivers turn left onto a narrower path that takes them into the finest mud quarry for many miles.
About two dozen families control specific pieces of the quarry. Each hires its own diggers, sells its own mud, and sets prices independent of each other. No individuals possess formal, legal title to their portion of the mud quarry, but no one considers this strange. Claims on the mud lands stretch back to the years before Uganda’s independence in 1962, when the British managed these parts. Everyone knows that their ancestors bequeathed them the use of a particular patch of the mud quarry. No one has ever asked for proof of their ownership or even tallied the costs of forgoing title in favor of “customary law.”
You can read Zachary's whole piece, as well as the new edition of PERC Reports, at PERCReports.org.
Joseph Glidden transformed the American Plains. In 1874, Glidden patented the first practical design for barbed wire. The invention dramatically reduced the costs of separating cattle from crops and thus the costs of enforcing property rights to land. Farmers and historians have long been aware of the qualitative importance of barbed wire, but recent research by Richard Hornbeck (2010) makes clear the pivotal role of the invention in the late 19th century settlement of the American Plains.
Cattle wander, and without effective fencing they are so destructive to neighboring crops that cattle and crops cannot coexist. The early colonies adopted legal codes that required farmers to fence out others’ livestock. Without a “lawful fence” a farmer could expect no compensation for damages done by wandering livestock. New states entering the Union continued this legal tradition.
As a practical matter, if farmers wished to protect their crops, fencing was a necessary—and substantial—investment. In 1872, the value of the fencing capital stock in the United States was roughly equal to the value of all livestock. Equivalently, the value of the fencing stock was as great as the national debt or the value of all railroads in the United States. In fact, annual fencing repair costs exceeded the combined tax receipts of all levels of government.
Katharine Coman’s “Some Unsettled Problems of Irrigation,” published in March 1911 in the first issue of the American Economic Review, addressed issues of water supply, rights, and organization. These same issues have relevance today, in the face of growing concern about the availability of fresh water worldwide. The central point of this article is that appropriative water rights and irrigation districts that emerged in the American West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in response to aridity to facilitate agricultural water delivery, use, and trade raise the transaction costs today of water markets. These markets are vital for smooth reallocation of water to higher-valued uses elsewhere in the economy and for flexible response to greater hydrological uncertainty. This institutional path dependence illustrates how past arrangements to meet conditions of the time constrain contemporary economic opportunities. They cannot be easily significantly modified or replaced ex post.
Libecap's full article is available here. Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom's reflection is also online.
Arizona grassfed beef rancher and PERC Enviropreneur alum Paul Schwennesen has an essay in The Freeman today addressing Big Meat and the policies that perpetuate it:
...it is my view that the consolidation of the meat industry is really due to a couple of problems unrelated to corporate meat processors. In fact, Big Meat is simply the byproduct of two seemingly “good” government programs: agricultural subsidies and stringent processing regulations.
Paul Schwennesen recently appeared on Fox Business to discuss food safety. Paul offers more comments on the issue below.
We all want safe food. Question is, how do we get it? “There oughta be a law,” seems to be the generally conceived approach, as evidenced by recent passage of the now-famous food safety bill. A tidy and altogether comforting solution: simply slay the beast of dangerous food with the bludgeon of enlightened bureaucracy. But for the food advocates who support this kind of top-down solution, beware. The kind of government meddling that created cheap-at-any-cost is now about to do the same for “safe” food.
But isn’t food safety a pressing concern, a public health problem we can’t afford to fool around with? The problem is, the problem isn’t. Emotional rants that “thousands die every year!” do not help us grapple with the scope or magnitude of this alleged threat. Let’s try some perspective: according to the Centers for Disease Control, the estimated number of deaths caused by food borne illness numbers around five thousand a year. Sounds pretty bad, eh? Time to call in the Salmonella SWAT team? Before you do, consider that the same number of people die by intentionally strangling themselves each year. Or that the same number of people die from Alzheimer’s in California alone each year. Or that four times that number die each year accidentally falling off of things. Moreover, 70% of food borne illnesses result from poor food handling procedures during preparation. Unless you’re also on a crusade to flatten everything or cure Alzheimer’s, I’d think twice about ceding greater authority of our food system to centralized management.
True to form, Congress has blithely offered its professional problem-solving services to rid us of the menace of deadly food. And, true to form, it’s about to embark on another unarmed expedition into the tortuous territory of unintended consequences.
More regulations always have the effect of reducing the number of operators in that sector. It can be dramatic (as in the case of the payday loan industry), or it can be insidious (as in the case of the livestock industry). The food industry is no exception; it’s impossible to envision a wave of enthusiastic newcomers clamoring at the gates to enter the food business now that the FDA has been granted the most sweeping extension of powers in seventy years. Granted, some of the bad actors need to be pushed out of the industry (as in the Peanut Corp. of America, which apparently intentionally distributed salmonella-laced product). Call me a Pollyanna, but I don’t think the bad actors generally represent the food industry. The people who do represent a large part of the industry are the small, local, independent operators who have been squeaking by for decades. This kind of regulatory barrage is exactly the sort of thing to make them call it quits. BSE (mad cow) regulations pushed our predecessor to hang up his hat. The increasing silliness over E-coli testing pushed his predecessor over the brink years ago. Warranted or not, an increasingly difficult regulatory environment will always winnow out the small players, leaving the field more sparse than before.
Of course the demand for food hasn’t gone down, so how does the system accommodate a hungry public? Well, that’s where Cargill, Tyson, Monsanto and the rest of the Big Food set come in. They’re not evil (despite bumper-sticker claims to the contrary) they’re just picking up the slack left when the small guys get pushed out by Big Government. I know, I know, it’s easier to blame their success on high-priced lobbying and a cozy relationship with regulators. But consider this: government regulators can only be manipulated by the lobbying and cozying when their hands are firmly on the wheel of that particular industry.
The unintended consequence in this legislative bid to create safer food is to push more and more production into fewer and fewer hands. As we all know, the more top-heavy a thing gets, the more prone it is to toppling (pick your metaphor: pyramids, the Eiffel tower, icebergs, Michael Dukakis...). As Tom Philpott writes, “the real systematic risk of the food system [is] the exponential expansion of hazard that comes from concentrating huge amounts of production in relatively small spaces.”
So, is there any solution? If we agree that even one death from food borne illness is too many (and it is), then how can we aim to squeeze out that lingering menace without artificially exacerbating the very problem we are trying to solve? How can we do to Lysteria what we did to malaria?
I may be waxing heretical, but might I suggest de-regulation? Contrary to myth, markets are in fact very good at giving us what we want, even if those things are intangibles like clean air or safe food.
Let me give you an example: As a producer of livestock and owner of a small (very small, according to the USDA) packing house, I know about the raft of bureaucratic “protections” between you and the beef I produce. There is little or no incentive for me to create a remarkably safer production system because my processes are effectively in the hands of our state inspector. The incentive among producers is to win the race toward the bottom, where you can most cheaply and easily meet the minimum standard. Imagine for a moment what the food world would look like if we made food safety a competitive advantage. What if I could demonstrate (through third-party quality assurance, a sophisticated testing regime, or something completely unthought-of of) that my beef was quantitatively safer than my competition? I suspect that the maligned self-interest of “money-grubbing capitalists” would be instantly harnessed toward the greater public good. I, for one, would probably behave considerably differently if I were continually striving for the next-higher grade on a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” instead of aiming simply for the “Inspected -- Passed” stamp.
We didn’t regulate malaria out of existence; we simply ensured that millions of empowered individual actors had the information to combat it (that, and some choice applications of DDT). Allowing food processors to compete for customers by marketing their very best possible food handling practices would have a similar effect.
Regulations are good for imposing minimums, but not at creating excellence. Since our food safety “problem” is clearly in the vanishing margins, excellence is what is needed. This can only really be attained when incentives are structured to push our producers (and consumers) to go the extra step to make food as safe as it can possibly be.
Many food advocates rightly criticize government meddling in the food sector in the late 1940s for attempting to create cheap food at tremendous ecological and sociological expense. Let us not condone the same mistake under the aegis of “safe food.”
Paul Schwennesen is a southern Arizona rancher and a PERC Enviropreneur alum. He can be reached at AgrarianLiberty.com. For more from the Schwennesens on this topic, see here, here, and here.
At the end of the 19th century, historians declared that the American frontier had closed. The Homestead Act had caused population density in the West to exceed two people per square mile—the metric the census used to gauge frontier status. Writing in 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner regretted the impact this would have on the character of the American individual. The frontier, he claimed, created freedom by “breaking the bonds of custom, offering new experiences, [and] calling out new institutions and activities.” According to Turner, with the closing of the frontier went the American propensity to forge new ideas, institutions, and solutions in the face of new environments.
Now, more than a hundred years later, the Great Plains are experiencing Manifest Destiny in reverse— people are leaving in droves. Rural counties have lost 20 percent of their population since 1980, continuing a steady downward trend that dates back to the 1930s. The young are leading the exodus, seeking better opportunities elsewhere, and the median age in some rural counties is pushing 60. This situation in the Great Plains is widely portrayed as dire. The Atlantic described a “slow death in the Great Plains,” and the New York Times spoke of “dying towns” and futures “mired in poverty.”
Without a doubt, the plains are undergoing a period of economic and demographic change—agriculture provides only half as much employment and income to the region as it did in 1969—but where some see the death of a traditional way of life, others see a landscape full of new opportunities. Land values are rising and nonlocals are buying up property for investment or recreational purposes. Entrepreneurs are creating new enterprises by capitalizing on ecotourism and the preservation of environmental amenities, thus transforming the region’s traditional agriculture-rangeland paradigm into a new nature-based economy.
Hidden in this dynamic process of change is an irony: population density outside of metropolitan areas in the Great Plains has fallen to 1.5 people per square mile—well below frontier density. The frontier that Turner saw as the engine for new institutions and innovations has returned. What’s emerging is a new type of region—one that is led by entrepreneurs discovering innovative ways of combining traditional land management with new opportunities on the frontier.
As John Stossel writes this week, the first Thanksgiving almost didn't happen. Communal property arrangements caused early Plymouth settlers to nearly starve. Food production was low and famine soon resulted. It wasn't until settlers began assigning property rights to parcels of land that Thanksgiving was possible. Corn was planted, harvests rose, and in 1623, the first Thanksgiving was held.
This week, Stossel will be dedicating an entire show to the subject of property rights. The show will discuss the role of property rights in Native American societies, in promoting prosperity in the developing world, and how they saved the American bison. PERC executive director Terry Anderson will appear, as well as PERC fellow Brian Yablonski. Be sure to tune in to STOSSEL on the Fox Business Network on Thursday at 9 PM EST. It will be rebroadcast at midnight on Thursday, Saturday at 9 PM and midnight, and Sunday at 9 PM (all times eastern).
As a small producer who sells beef locally, I am suspicious of the S. 510 Food Safety Modernization Act -- the government’s latest power grab to curtail economic freedom and competition in the food market. If this bill successfully becomes law, consumers will continue to see a decline in the diversity of foods that they can legally purchase because small producers will be smothered by onerous regulations and fees.
Those in support of this bill declare that they seek the safest food for all Americans, while the skeptic points out that industrial food producers are feeling the squeeze by farmers markets/Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares and hope to quash this threat through regulation. Direct, local food sales were a fringe of the overall food market just a few years ago, but sales are up, some even say 105% in the past decade – double the rate of growth of overall agricultural sales. So it’s reasonable to contend that the ‘industrialists’ are feeling the squeeze.
I believe that S. 510 is simply a turf battle for who gets your food dollars. While small agricultural producers competed with the industrialists through local networks and personal presence (in contrast to shiny wrapping and sterile stores), the industrialists have brought the game back to their turf in order to exploit their home field advantage of capital reserves, lobbyists, established government networks, and economies of scale that will be only slightly impacted by the new regulations of S. 510.
To ameliorate these concerns, a proposed Tester-Hagan amendment would exempt small producers (defined as those that make under a certain amount of money, and that earn at least 50 percent of their revenue from direct-to-consumer sales like farmers markets or CSAs) from some of the bill's requirements.
However, this amendment has come under attack by the ‘industry lobbyists’ who demand that all food should comply with the same regulations. I tend to agree with this line of thinking, though in a dissimilar manner. All food should be treated the same way; it should be unregulated. People should be free to make their food choices unimpeded by government regulations which are never a one-size-fits-all solution to perceived problems.
If people desire sterile food, then they can buy from industrial operations which will devise ways of "third party accreditation for safety and quality." But if people crave ugly tomatoes with out-of-this-world taste, raw milk, eggs directly from the chicken’s nest, and meat from their local butcher, then they ought to have the right to make these purchases with their monies.
Yes, I grant that food safety is important, and our nation’s food safety is second to none—but that is in spite of limiting the food choices that people have, not because of it. In my cursory reading of S. 510, I perceive the real aim of the government is to maintain its modus operandi – growth. The bill calls for:
Staff increases at FDA – 5,000 additional personnel focused solely on this bill’s mission by 2014.
A budget increase (again focused on this mission alone) to the tune of $825,000,000.
Overseas offices for the FDA – now they get the perks of the State Department employees.
Expanded authority by the federal government – to collect fees from producers.
Development of a national agriculture and food defense strategy – as any government employee knows, this means endless meetings, conferences, junkets, and potential for mission expansion.
New Food and Agriculture Coordinating Councils – more federal employees.
Grants to enhance food safety programs – how many small farmers do you know employ grant writers to ensure that they will win a grant?
The things in the bill which really raised my eyebrows were:
Nothing about what happens if/when foreign facilities fail their inspections.
The inability to re-audit foreign facilities within a 24-month period.
The mandatory recall authority only applies to U.S. producers.
The public has lost confidence in the food system precisely because of centralization and overregulation which have ensured that problems in one area reverberate throughout the nation. Remember the billion egg recall? That likely wouldn’t have happened if thousands of small producers sourced their eggs to local grocers rather than one huge producer.
Judith McGeary, founder and executive director of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, doesn’t get it. At Grist, she writes that under the Tester-Hagan amendment, “producers who fall within [the Tester-Hagan amendment] will remain subject to all existing federal food safety laws and state and local regulation.” The existing regulations are incredibly burdensome to small producers and conceding that they are effective gives them credit they do not deserve.
When will people wake up and smell the smoke from the burning homestead? If we don’t stand up to the overreaching of the federal government, all of our family-owned ranches and farms, small abattoirs, and processing facilities will be lost because they cannot compete with the large corporations who have economies of scale to "comply" with government regulations and fees.
In the wide spectrum of public debate on S. 510, Michael Edwards’ recent piece was most poignant. He documented the dictatorships in China (1958-62) and Russia into the Ukraine (1920-39) which brought all food production under centralized control, thereby empowering the state and eliminating an independent sector of the populace. Not to mention, starving millions (45 million, Mao; 6 million, USSR) to death in the process.
Now I don’t claim that millions will starve as a result of S. 510, or that nefarious elements of the government are at work. But I do agree that excessive regulations are coordinated between private companies (their lobbyists) and government to curb a threat to their market share.
Thomas Jefferson, the original agricultural libertarian said, “If people let government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny.” Let us hope that we don’t fall into this abyss.
From NPR's Planet Money comes this puzzling question: why are U.S. taxpayers subsidizing Brazilian cotton growers? The answer lies in a contentious trade war that pits the U.S. — which pays out between $1.5 and $4 billion a year to U.S. cotton farmers — against the World Trade Organization, who says U.S. cotton subsidies are against global trade rules.
What happened when Brazil recently retaliated with taxes on U.S. imports illuminates the extent to which agricultural subsidies are embedded in American politics.
The American negotiators sat down in Brazil and immediately declared it impossible to get rid of the cotton subsidies right away. But the two sides came to an agreement.
The U.S. would pay Brazilian cotton farmers $147 million a year, and Brazil would drop the threat of retaliation.
To review: The United States was found to be illegally subsidizing U.S. cotton farmers. We are still subsidizing U.S. cotton farmers. Now we're paying Brazilian cotton farmers, too.
"Maybe it's a bribe," Camargo [former Brazilian trade secretary] says. "For Brazilian farmers, it's a lot of money."
For U.S. taxpayers, it's also a lot of money. In effect, they are now subsidizing cotton farmers in both America and Brazil. For more, listen to the full story here.
Founded 30 years ago in Bozeman, Montana, PERC—the Property and Environment Research Center—is the nation’s oldest and largest institute dedicated to improving environmental quality through property rights and markets.
The goal of PERC’s programs is to fully realize the vision of establishing “PERC University,” where scholars, students, policy makers, and others convene to expand the applications of free market environmentalism.
PERC's fellowships share a common goal of exposing new scholars, students, journalists, and policy makers to free market environmentalism, as well as enable scholars already familiar with FME to explore new applications.