Friday, 29 November 2013

Self censorship & the corruption of science

By coincidence I've read two similarly disturbing things about the suppression of scientific information this week.

The first is from NZ and was first published in 1978 by the Timaru Herald under the title Rape of our Heritage but can still be purchased under its new title. Written by Canterbury farmer Brown Trotter, it tells of his successful experiments at using trace minerals to improve production and the health of his soil, plants and animals, and most spectacularly: himself. Trotter writes vividly of the scepticism and hostility he faced from the scientific establishment in NZ when he started this work in 1945, and reprints a few letters from an ally by the name of Fergus Hickey, who was doing research for a Waikato-based firm. A passage from a letter Hickey wrote in 1949 is worth recording (try not to vomit at the sexist parlance of the times).
The Dept of Scientific Research (DSIR), which has some 'top line' men on its staff, has a much more open mind, but the men do not care to express themselves too publicly for fear of putting the Department of Agriculture men 'off side'. Privately, I have had some very interesting views put to me.
For instance, at Grasslands, Palmerston North, the experimental pasture station of the DSIR, they have everything that money can buy in the way of improved strains of grasses and clovers, also fertilisers, yet they have told me that they would not think of running their dairy herd without supplementary minerals.
On one occasion I asked one of their leading men why it was, if they knew that supplementary mineral treatment was necessary, they did not make a statement to that effect in contradiction of Dr Cunningham, and thus help to lead 'the poor bewildered farmers out of the wilderness'. They told me that it was more than their lives were worth to come out in opposition to the Dept of Agriculture. 
Way back then, agricultural science was being corrupted by social norms that effectively prevented the truth from being heard. Self-censorship was considered a prudent and career-preserving strategy.

Scroll forward to today and we see something quite similar happening. Last year, peer-reviewed research by a French team was published in Food and Chemical Toxicology. It reported on the longest ever study (2 years) of the effects of feeding rats on Roundup-ready maize, one of the flagship GMO products, which it found to induce tumors.

So obviously there had to be something wrong with the study, because we all know for certain that this stuff is perfectly safe. Sure enough, a firestorm erupted including allegations of fraud. What to do? Well the editor quite properly "examined all aspects of the peer review process and requested permission... to review the raw data". Fair call, but the outcome seems much less fair. Last week, the editor wrote to the authors with an ultimatum to voluntarily retract or have the paper retracted by the journal. The whole letter(pdf)  is worth reading but this is the key section.
The Editor-in-Chief wishes to acknowledge the co-operation of the corresponding author in this matter, and commends him for his commitment to the scientific process.
Unequivocally, the Editor-in-Chief found no evidence of fraud or intentional misrepresentation of the data. However, there is a legitimate cause for concern regarding both the number of animals in each study group and the particular strain selected. The low number of animals had been identified as a cause for concern during the initial review process, but the peer review decision ultimately weighted that the work still had merit despite this limitation. A more in-depth look at the raw data revealed that no definitive conclusions can be reached with this small sample size regarding the role of either NK603 or glyphosate in regards to overall mortality or tumor incidence. Given the known high incidence of tumors in the Sprague-Dawley rat, normal variability cannot be excluded as the cause of the higher mortality and incidence observed in the untreated groups.
Ultimately, the results presented (while not incorrect) are inconclusive, and therefore do not reach the threshold of publication for Food and Chemical Toxicology.
GMWatch says this is "illicit, unscientific and unethical". It suggests that the editor's letter is inconsistent with the ethical guidelines that this journal (and many others) have agreed for retractions. Obviously, the "high incidence of tumors" point is irrelevant in the presence of a control group (that's the whole point of control groups), and if you're worried about the number of rats used, well have a look at what Monsanto presents as evidence in NZ. GMWatch also raises questions about the role this dude may have had in the whole process, and I note that for some reason his name is missing from the list of editorial board members on the Editor's letterhead, though he's definitely on the board.

Both of these stories point to the same basic problem, which is that powerful groups in society have a very keen interest in suppressing inconvenient science. That should not be even slightly surprising, though it is very disappointing when scientists cave in to pressure from vested interests.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Good riddance to the copper tax

Celebration is in order this evening following the announcement today by every party in Parliament except National that they will not support legislation to increase the price of copper broadband services.

We are often forced to just put up with bad policy, but in this case an effective coalition was formed, resourced and managed. It has prevailed for three main reasons:

  • the counter-argument was very sound - this was a very bad idea from the start, so right was on our side;
  • resources were available - while all consumers would have been harmed, there were also fairly significant businesses that were affected; and
  • the campaign was very well managed - even if you're right, its easy to stuff up the execution.
I think there are lessons here for would-be future campaigners, and I hope someone goes to the trouble of documenting the campaign process in more detail - it'd make a great subject for a masters thesis. I certainly learned a lot myself about the role of public relations / communications in public discourse, and it was a pleasure working with such a great bunch of people.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Electricity competition - still a way to go

The great irony of New Zealand's wholesale electricity market is that, while we are all intensely proud of it, no-one wants to be exposed to its spot prices. That's why the vast bulk of electricity is generated and sold by vertically integrated firms: the gentailers.

None of these firms wants to split itself, because there is no ready market for the contracts that'd be needed by separated retailers and generators. Market forces are not about to change this structure anytime soon.

A vertical separation would almost certainly be more competitive though, if only because barriers to entry will fall, because its easier to enter one market than two. The lack of independent competition is most obvious at the retail level, where the very idea died in 2001 in response to the spectacular financial hemorrhage that killed On Energy when it ran out of contracted supply.

Mandating a vertical split has always been in the too-hard basket, but reforms that have a separating effect have been considered on-and-off since 2002. The Ministerial review of 2009 (pdf) also pursued the theme, using that typically Kiwi approach: delegate the solution to the industry. The relevant decisions were as follows.
All major generators (with over 500 MW of capacity) to put in place by 1 June 2010 an electricity hedge market with the following characteristics:
– standardised, tradable contracts
– a clearing house to act as a counter-party for all trades
– low barriers to participation and low transaction costs
– market makers (offering buy and sell prices with a maximum spread) to provide liquidity. 
An assessment to be made by 1 June 2011 of satisfactory market liquidity, defined as 3,000 GWh of ‘unmatched open interest’ (contracts without matching offsetting contracts).
Nice idea, but it didn't work, and was never going to according to EnergyLink whose June 2011 report to the EA says that interest has grown steadily until it now sits at about 600 GWh. However, this is well short of the Government‟s 3,000 GWh target, and it is clear that this was never going to be achieved through organic growth.
The EA has since been chasing the gentailers along, trying to get them to make this work and staying upbeat about the project. But the latest report admitted that they're still short of the target
...record trading volumes, and sustained levels of UOI approaching 3,000GWh. Forward prices also continue to respond to market developments in a manner that appears mostly rational.
Mostly rational? That's a bit scary. And two years after the nominated date they're still "approaching" the liquidity target.

So anyway, lets review...

  1. More retail competition would be very good.  
  2. We've never seriously considered a vertical split to make that happen.
  3. Another option is for the incumbent generators to set up and supply a market for hedges.
  4. We've been asking them nicely to do that, for a few years.
  5. Its not going so well.

None of this is at all surprising. The gentailers don't want or need a hedge market: its only function is to help other firms to eat their lunch. The big question for me is over how long the EA will be content to stand on the sidelines cheering.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Weird cows & lucky birds

My home office looks out onto our front yard which we sometimes use for cow grazing. A few weeks ago the cows spent a day there in a fairly small area of very long grass. This is what it looked like afterwards.

If you look closely, you can see a relatively green patch right in the centre of the photo. Its longer grass because the cows didn't eat it. Neither did any of them stand there. I know that because when I went to investigate it turned out to be a pukeko nest with 4 eggs, all intact.

How did this happen? Every other part of the available area had been chewed down and walked over. I'd noticed the mother bird flapping around among the cows, so for a fair bit of the day (perhaps all of it) she had been scared away from the nest. And there are some nice tasty looking plants around those eggs.

We have two theories. Maybe the pukekos pissed around the nest and that deterred the cows. But why didn't they stand on it? Possibly just luck I suppose. The only other explanation we could think of is that somehow the cows recognised it as a nest and deliberately avoided it, which sounds too weird to be true.

Anyway, the even better news is that the eggs didn't die while the mother was off the nest. Two have hatched and I managed to get a snap of the younger one this morning.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

10 rats

What did our EPA know about the risks when it approve the spraying of grass with Roundup before feeding it to cows? That's what I wanted to know after I discovered what was going on.

So I used the truly wonderful FYI website to lodge an OIA request. Fonterra had already told me they'd run into a brick wall getting this information, and the nice man from Nufarm had also said that the scientific studies submitted to the EPA were "obviously" confidential for commercial reasons. So I tried to cover off that angle in my request, pointing out that there was nothing to lose commercially because Roundup Transorb is not generic glyphosate so purveyors of the scummy generic could not rely on Monsanto's expensive research.

The EPA noted that reasoning but did not respond to it. They with-held the studies because Monsanto had given them "in confidence" and Monsanto didn't want me to see them. Brilliant.

On the other hand, they did release the application form and it makes interesting reading by itself because it summarises evidence on six types of toxicity testing. Here is each toxicity and the test group used:

Acute oral            10 rats
Acute dermal        10 rats
Acute inhalation    rats (unstated number)
Skin irritation        rabbits (unstated number)
Eye irritation         rabbits (unstated number)
Sensitisation         20 guinea pigs

Those don't look like big samples to me. One rat died on the acute oral test, but that was acceptable. For the acute inhalation test, they used two concentrations. No rats died at the low concentration but 80% of them died at the high concentration, so the critical level was said to lie between these two dosages. Get the idea? Full details here.

Then, immediately following the little potted accounts of these tests is a Summary which begins
"Results from several investigations establish that the acute toxicity and irritation potential of (glyphosate IPA formulation) in humans is low" (emphasis added)
That's quite a leap of faith in my opinion. Put it alongside the fact that confidential research was also allowed to be submitted, and you might be forgiven for thinking that someone doesn't give a rat's arse about transparency or normal standards of scientific inquiry which require disclosure.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Another job for KiwiAssure?

What should we make of David Parker's soothing message to the insurance industry? Labour recently announced policy for a new state-owned insurance company (KiwiAssure) but now insurers are told that it'll be no real threat.

Parker had a semi-solid back-up story. The initiative was said to be aimed at bolstering the NZPost/KiwiBank group and helping to keep insurers on their toes, both of which sound like reasonable objectives.

A desire to get/keep the business community onside is the obvious reason for the messaging. This group has always had huge influence over governments (not just in NZ) because investment strikes are hard to stare down once the media join their advertisers in protest. Best to keep them sweet if possible.

As for the policy itself, I'd like to think that KiwiAssure would have an extra rationale: to learn about the industry. I say that because it is one of several critical financial sector industries that have diffuse and potentially weak oversight (payment systems is another).

As the franchise sector knows very well, a good way to keep tabs on an industry is to own one or two suppliers. That helps you understand normal practice, cost structures, margins etc. Armed with inside knowledge, franchisors can design contracts that are "better" from their perspective.

In the same way, a smart government/public service could potentially use information gleaned from KiwiAssure to design public policy towards insurance that is "better" for society. Somehow I doubt that this is part of the plan though!

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The slippery slope argument

The other day our neighbour asked if he could borrow a shovel. Despite the risks, we agreed. Now we're getting 5 or 6 people a day at the door every day wanting to use our shower, borrow the car for a week, camp in our yard etc. Its ruining our lives, but obviously we have to agree. We are the ones that knowingly headed down this slippery slope so we can hardly stop now. Who knows where it'll end? We should never have loaned the shovel.

It turns out that loaning stuff is just like doing drugs. Fortunately, we already knew that story. You start out thinking a cup of tea or coffee sounds pleasant. With sugar? Oh all right then. But once you start saying yes to such things, well logic takes over doesn't it? Next thing, you're accepting beer, then wine, whisky and pot and then, well how could you possibly say no to mainlining heroin? That's why we've never ever tolerated tea or coffee in the house.

My point of course [swings sledgehammer] is that the slippery slope is a logical fallacy. It simply does not hold water as a generic argument because it can be refuted by silly examples like the ones above. It works OK as a joke, but we shouldn't take it seriously in a debate.

Unless a plausible mechanism is clearly described by which doing A makes it more likely that B will also occur. But even then, all that's really happened is that another potential consequence now needs to be factored into the decision. So, yes, there is a risk that if I start drinking tea I'll end up all the way down at the bottom of the slope as a junkie. But if the subjective probability of that is quite low, I might just take the risk.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Silage time

Big excitement here today with contractors on site to make silage. The pit was just finished a few days ago. The pic shows it in progress - that's a tractor & trailer down there in the hole. With luck, it should be about half full by tomorrow evening, all rolled down to exclude the air, covered with a plastic sheet & weighed down with old car tyres.

Pit silage is the cheapest and most sustainable way to store grass between seasons. But this is our first
serious crack at it. Up till now we've been using baleage, which are those round plastic-wrapped bales you often see along rural roadsides. Baleage is easy to transport so it dominates the market for buying & selling such feed. But its expensive to make & buy, and then you have a huge pile of plastic to get rid of.

It feels a bit risky to be dumping a whole crop of nice long grass into a big hole in the ground, but we are working hard to "manage those risks" as the management consultants would say.

Monday, 11 November 2013

What to do with Chorus?

Is anyone else surprised by the Chorus nationalisation speculation? The first mention came on Tuesday when the PM refused to exclude it as an option for solving the tricky problem of how to give Chorus shareholders more money. A few days later the DomPost was complaining that Telecom should never have been privatised and perhaps we should nationalise Chorus.

Its easy to agree with the DomPost that the privatisation of Telecom was stupid because ideology dictated that there would be no regulation of the resulting profit-driven vertically integrated natural monopolist.  But I would take some convincing that a buy-back makes sense at this point. Three things make me prefer using effective regulation in this case.

  1. Governments often do badly on these big deals, whether buying or selling. There is no transparency, a huge amount of value on the table in one deal, and I just don't have much confidence that "we" would come out the other end feeling good about the price.   
  2. A nationalised Chorus would still be difficult to handle. The agency problems that regulation aims to tackle wouldn't go away. So we'd still need something like a regulator if we wanted to keep such a firm from running off the rails.
  3. We have a decent regulatory model already built. Now that Chorus is vertically split from the rest of Telecom, we could use the same style of building block regulation that has been developed (at great cost) for the energy networks over the last few years. 
So while I can certainly understand the DomPost's frustration, the idea of the government sitting down with Chorus to negotiate a buy-back scares the crap out of me.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Heroes of the week

Have we changed this week? It feels like it to me. Rape culture and corporate welfare both crossed over to become mainstream, out loud concerns. That might mean that a crucial step towards eliminating these scourges has been taken. There is still a long way to go of course, but its good to notice progress.

The issues themselves are not new. Shamefully, the police knew about the pack rapists for two years, but it took a TV3 news team to escalate the issue into the mainstream last Sunday. As for helping out Chorus's shareholders, well the copper tax has been in the offing since December 2012 when the PM, after being called by Chorus's chairperson, announced that there was a problem.

Wise and courageous decisions by a few people and organisations helped tip the balance this week. On both issues the mainstream media played a huge role and deserve congratulations. TV3 told us about the pack rapists and exposed the despicable attitude of the police. Both major print media organisations covered the copper tax very well and have seemed to get more staunch over the week, with the Herald publishing questions about Chorus' dividend policy yesterday and the DomPost considering nationalisation today. Journalists get a fair bit of stick, but this was definitely a week to be proud of ours.

Two individuals also played important roles in the pack rape issue. Giovanni Tiso took the time to track down all advertisers on Willie and JT's radio slot, after they showed their bigotry when talking with a friend of pack-rape victims. By the end of the week many of the largest firms had very wisely pulled their advertising. The market spoke, eloquently, and once the trend was clear Mediaworks voluntarily cancelled all advertising on the show for a week. That superb result is basically the work of one concerned man. Take a bow Giovanni.

The other notable individual play was by Matthew Hooton who has a regular Thursday slot on the Whackoff and Dickhead show. After their appalling conduct on Tuesday, he consulted the twitterati as to whether he should keep the appointment this week, then went on and confronted them directly about their misogyny, the way young men should behave, and their association with the infamous Clint Rickards. This kind of man-to-man confrontation is essential if we are to change our rape culture. Its a guy thing guys. We are the ones that need to stand up and fight. Matthew showed the way this week. Give that man a beer.

Compared with pack rape, a bit of corporate welfare could seem almost innocent, but they are both examples of how warped power structures undermine our society. Anyone who has been paying attention should by now know that, for unclear reasons, the government has been very keen to generate extra cash for Chorus by increasing the price of copper broadband services. A determined campaign exposed this evil plot, but the government said we were talking crap, though it later agreed to wait for the Commerce Commission's ruling before carrying on with their plan to over-ride them.

This week the Commerce Commission played the issue with a straight bat, setting a price at the top of the benchmark range but still a few dollars short of what the government had proposed. Well done ComCom. Just doing your job, I know, but there was a lot of political pressure to push the price up, and I for one am very grateful that you stayed true to your analytical principles.

Then the Minister announced an independent inquiry into Chorus's finances and indicated that she intended to hold its feet to the fire. The jury is still out of course. You could also reasonably ask why that didn't happen back in December last year before the PM set the copper tax in motion. But I still count this as a brave and important move by the Minister.

Maybe I'm just a hopeless optimist. It looks like archaic misogynists pushed their luck too far this week and everyone noticed so the world will be different now. And corporate welfare has also been exposed to the point where Chorus now looks much more likely to be held to its contracts. Just like everyone else.

That's how I saw it after a very auspicious week.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Price matching

There was a bewildered builder on the TV news last night, being interviewed about the government's very sensible plans for stimulating competition in construction materials. His counterargument was to cite the TV ads from merchants that proclaim they won't be beaten on price.

I think he was referring to Bunnings, which promises to beat by 15% any lower price on the same stocked item (Excludes trade quotes, stock liquidations and commercial quantities).

Bunnings compete with Mitre10 for the DIY market. Despite their strong retail presence, this sector is not where most construction materials are sold. But still, the role of these adverts is interesting.

In some locations, Bunnings and Mitre10 have huge stores very close to each other, so price comparison would be fairly easy (and not just for customers). But this is really not what either firm wants.

Ironically, the price beating adverts are probably designed, at least in part, to soften price competition. The signal they're sending to rivals is: "don't get aggressive on price, because if you do it'll be mutually assured destruction".

Obviously the ads also resonate with consumers, and help to expand the market etc. But they're certainly not a reliable signal of fierce price competition.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Stuff people want

Economists would probably agree that public decisions should be guided by open, contestable and rigorous analysis. Most would also sign up the view that we should weigh up the costs and benefits of decisions and act accordingly.
But what counts as a benefit? As a first cut, we might talk about an attempt to count everything that makes people happy. Cost-benefit analysis is normally based on the utilitarian view that we should try to add up and attach values to all of the things that people like or dislike about a potential change.

That works pretty well in market settings where we have a reasonable shot at estimating demand curves and supply costs. There is also a big literature on non-market valuation, which can be used for where there are no trading data - to estimate things like the value of open space or clean air, or the cost of road congestion.

But there are some big holes in the utilitarian approach. One is that it has pretty weak microfoundations because pleasure and pain are polymorphous. As MacIntrye put it
"the pleasure-of-drinking-Guinness is not the pleasure-of-swimming-at-Crane's-Beach and the drinking and swimming are not two different means of achieving the same end-state....consequently, appeal to the criterion of pleasure will not tell me whether to drink or swim"
Another is that it could deny basic rights that most people agree on, like the freedom to choose your life partner. There was an emotive campaign in New Zealand this year opposing gay marriage. On a strict utilitarian view, the distress suffered by those who hated the idea would count against permitting gay marriage. But if you consider that life-partner choice is a basic right, you'd classify the opponents as having what Sen (pdf) called "meddlesome preferences" and could argue that they should not get any weight at all.

I haven't yet had to deal with these issues in a cost-benefit analysis, but they're definitely out there, lying in wait for unsuspecting economists.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Sunlight is the best disinfectant

The Commerce Commission did its job well yesterday, determining a price for copper broadband services at the top of the range of its benchmarks. They picked the highest benchmark price
to minimise the risk to investment and to avoid the dynamic efficiency losses that could arise from incorrectly setting a price below the forward-looking cost for the UBA service
Fair enough.

I didn't expect Chorus or the government to like this decision, but the extreme nature of the response was a surprise, including these gems from Chorus
$1billion funding shortfall....
Without the proposed Government intervention, ... very negative consequences for Chorus’ funding ability.... simply will not be able to borrow the sums of money we need to make up to a $3 billion investment in UFB.
no guarantee this proposed reduction in wholesale prices would be passed through to consumers 
Chorus is ahead in its UFB build programme....but unless the Government intervenes, it is likely that the benefits for New Zealand will be significantly compromised,

So basically: "we're screwed unless the government helps us out. Oh and by the way, the price cuts won't be passed through to consumers".

Right on cue, the government picked up these talking points with the PM noting the funding shortfall, risk to the UFB rollout and the idea that price cuts won't be passed through. The ever helpful Minister added that the whole thing was a complete surprise "No analysts or companies saw that coming, no one priced it in."

Notice the role of uncertainty here. Chorus is said to be financially challenged and this might be due to the Commission's decision. The roll-out might stall. Some of the price cut might not be passed through. Investors might have been surprised.

This is not a factual basis for legislating over the top of an independent Commission, or for the government to take an equity stake in Chorus. On the basis of what we know so far, Chorus should just get on with raising new equity so they can finish the job. New equity was always going to be needed anyway, though the board has never admitted it.

Alternatively, if the government is seriously considering such extreme actions, the first step is surely an independent, transparent and factual analysis of Chorus' financial position and the reasons for it.

Without independent and transparent inquiry, this is just a big company that has deliberately loaded itself with debt, scored a big contract from the government, trousered a $929m interest-free loan, and is now returning to the well for more concessions.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

What's for dinner?

As I suspected, the reason Eric hates the idea of GMO labelling is that he doesn't respect the eating preferences of others.

In his made up example, a new and obvious sticker is placed on supermarket apples notifying the presence of a chemical that Eric believes harmless. Sales of the stickered apples are likely to fall because not everyone will be as clever as Eric. Many doofuses (doofi?) will take fright at the multi-syllabic chemical and not buy those apples.  The chemical really is harmless, so there would end up being "too few" sold. We wise policy analysts should obviously protect those doofi from themselves by not requiring disclosure of the chemical.

The situation for GMOs is very different though. Instead of one harmless chemical on an apple, we have thousands of potential applications of lots of different GM techniques. The number of potential side effects from consuming GMOs is unknown. There aren’t nearly enough genes to do all of the things we know are done within the human body, so its pretty obvious that interactions between genes matter  But there are only so many of this vast multiplicity of risks that can be tested, and any test has some probability of type I and II errors, not to mention the whole broken science system and lots of crap published problem.

Put it this way: if there was any peer-reviewed scientific literature establishing that GMO crops in general have no unintended negative impacts then I think we'd have heard about it by now. The vague generalisations and opinions Eric is quoting fall well short of actual scientific proof, which is pretty ironic given the "bad science" slur that kicked off this discussion.

Let's face it: there is risk involved in eating GMOs and it's value is subjective. I am apparently more risk averse than Eric, and there must be others like each of us.

Feed that back into Eric's apple example and what do you get? Well, the doofi are me and other relatively risk averse people, and suddenly we're on the receiving end of the paternalism. Eric wants to stop us knowing where the GMOs are. Because he thinks knows that we over-estimate the risk.

This all seems very strange. Eric is not usually a meddlesome guy, yet here he is arguing against allowing people access to information that they want and that doesn't seem costly to provide. As far as I can tell, his sole motivation is to stop other people acting in accordance with their own preferences over what they eat.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

GMO labelling & science

I had a fascinating discussion on Twitter recently with Eric Crampton who worries that those who oppose GMOs are helping to kill people (as do the anti-vaccination crowd), and considers that there is a scientific consensus in favour of GMOs, just as there is on vaccinations and climate change. These views seem connected to Eric's opposition to mandatory labelling of food containing GMOs.

Here is why I disagree, starting with the killing people stuff, which I presume is about starvation.

1. There is no shortage of food in the world and nor is there projected to be. Famines are not caused by a shortage of food, they are caused by screwed up power structures. Effective democratic governance is the solution, as famously argued by Sen and recently endorsed by Brookings.

2. Even if a shortage does emerge (and we've been waiting since 1798), it's far from clear that GMOs are needed to solve it. Recent cross-country work by Jack Heinemann and others found "no detectable yield advantage in GM-adopting countries".

3. There are other avenues for productivity gains but science funders are not interested. Reversing science's shameful avoidance of biological agriculture could yield big productivity gains, but it's a GPT which makes it hard to monetise. Private money largely controls the questions studied by scientists, which may help to explain why so much science is wrong.

4. Kiwis lose little if anything by waiting. We retain the option to adopt GMOs if that ever makes sense. Meantime, we can do GM experiments in the lab while still selling GM-free food into markets that want it, like Japan (pdf) and Norway. This meta analysis (pdf) suggests a value premium of 23% - 42% for non-GMO food.

5. Its hard to claim a pro-GMO scientific consensus when 230 scientists have disputed that one exists, just in the last 10 days. Also, unlike climate change or vaccinations where there is basically one issue, there are literally thousands of different GMO technologies and the risk/reward calculus differs for each. So how can you be uniformly pro-GMO?

What about the case for compulsory labelling? Well a proper analysis would be very interesting, but at this point it seems like a low-cost and high benefit idea to me. You could argue compulsory GMO labelling is not needed, but neither is nutritional labelling or a false advertising law. What matters most is the value consumers in total would derive, relative to the direct costs it imposes on producers.

In doing such analysis, one needs to set personal views aside and focus on the things to which other people attach value. If you personally think those who don't want to eat GMOs are deluded nutters at best, and potentially even accessories to the killing of poor people by starvation, then you might be inclined to discount their preferences when weighing up the costs and benefits of labelling rules. But that would be a subjective and indeed paternalistic approach. You'd be censured by the economists club, if we had one.