Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Tobacco Monopolist Auction

Competition is usually a good thing. It plays out in different ways depending on lots of factors but the general effects are that prices are suppressed and markets are expanded. Normally this is great, but there are exceptions. Sometimes societies prefer the opposite outcomes: higher prices and contracting markets.

That's one reason why tobacco is taxed heavily and why some advocate taxing sugary drinks. In the case of tobacco further effort is devoted to designing and enforcing other constraints, such as cabinets to hide the tobacco products in-store and plain packaging rules.

Here's another possibility: pass a law to create a statutory monopoly for tobacco products and then auction off the right to be the monopolist for a defined period of time (eg 5 - 10 years). I see it playing out like this.
  • Since only one firm is allowed to sell tobacco it will set monopoly prices which will burn off some demand by themselves.
  • Taxes can still be imposed on top of the monopoly prices, ideally Pigouvian taxes aimed at roughly pricing the externalities associated with smoking.
  • A large chunk of the monopoly profit will be captured by the state as tobacco companies compete to win the monopoly rights.
Comments welcome of course. I'm not aware of precedents for this approach. The most obvious objection is perhaps that it might breach international trading rules, but against this I'd note that all firms have the opportunity to be the monopolist. We'd still have competition, but it'd be competition for the market rather than in the market.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

The poor

The following view is quite popular over at the skeptics closed facebook group.
"...there is a massive human and financial cost to opposing GE technology. The privileged western white people who think no one should have the choice of GE food products is literally having a detrimental effect on people in developing nations. This anti-GE attitude is depriving at risk people of technology that can make a real difference. In my eyes you are part of the problem."
It's a very strong claim ("massive human and financial cost") that incorrectly suggests I oppose GE technology, that by doing so I'm having a detriment effect on people in developing nations, and that I'm therefore part of some undefined problem.

Despite a fair bit of prodding from me, no-one in the group has been so far willing to even outline a counterargument that they've considered and rejected before reaching this strong conclusion - pretty skeptical eh?

A good place to start is food security, on which topic the WHO defines three aspects 

  • Food availability: sufficient quantities of food available on a consistent basis.
  • Food access: having sufficient resources to obtain appropriate foods for a nutritious diet. 
  • Food use: appropriate use based on knowledge of basic nutrition and care, as well as adequate water and sanitation.
The WHO also tells us that "food security is a complex sustainable development issue, linked to health through malnutrition, but also to sustainable economic development, environment, and trade." So the WHO thinks that food security is not just about science, much less any particular scientific technology. I agree. The WHO goes on to say that "there is a great deal of debate around food security" and helpfully outlines some of the faultlines in this debate.

Another useful question is: what causes famine? The US trade-centric Borgen Project cites three causes: conflict, climate change and donor country politics. Oxfam points its finger at a "triple failure" of production, access and response. The role of politics also features in many analyses of particular famines such as those in Somalia, Ireland and China. If my pals in the skeptics even know of such analyses, they've found a way to set them aside and focus instead on people who (they think) oppose GE technology.

Even if we just look at food production the whole agricultural system is important, including the role of biodiversity and self sufficiency. Stringent intellectual property regimes for GE technologies have been criticised, as have restrictions on seed saving. Meanwhile, in first generation GE crops the over-use of glyphosate is creating resistant weeds and some farmers are turning away from them for economic reasons.

None of this is to suggest that developing countries should be denied "the choice of GM food products". My point is simply that it is very wrong indeed to accuse someone of harming people in developing countries simply because they're not cheering for GM loudly enough.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Cynics and Skeptics

I've been chatting with the NZ skeptics lately on their closed facebook group because Jessika invited me.
She was referring to my musings on why skeptics would invite a GMO pimp to speak at their conference, but this post is about a different question Jess has raised, namely whether I am actually a skeptic or a cynic. It's a good question and I love good questions so I've had a wee think about the difference.

A couple of readily available definitions of cynicism beg more questions than they answer. For example, cynical beliefs are "beliefs that people are generally selfish and dishonest" and "cynicism is an attitude or state of mind characterized by a general distrust of others' motives".

These definitions are quite troubling for a somewhat orthodox economist like myself who starts by assuming people are selfish, mainly pursuing their own wants/needs, but doesn't automatically pair "selfish" with "dishonest". One can be very selfish without being even slightly dishonest. Similarly with distrust of motives: if I assume (for the purpose of initial analysis) that everyone is basically selfish then how does distrust even arise as an issue?

To which non-economists presumably say "Duh, get yourself up the PPE foodchain, to the philosophers. They're the ones who know the difference between skeptics and cynics."

Indeed they do. Philosophers know for example that the Cynics originated in ancient Greece and claim a Socratic lineage (that's the original cynic over there on the left: Diogenes). Their primary interests are ethical, but cynics conceive of ethics as a way of living rather than a doctrine. The cynics reckoned they had the short cut to virtue and believed that
"...virtue is a life lived in accord with nature. Nature offers the clearest indication of how to live the good life, which is characterized by reason, self-sufficiency, and freedom."
Freedom comes in three forms for cynics, one of which, parrhÄ“sia, is a protest oriented form of free speech that actively challenges some social norms. That bit does actually sound like me, as does the nature-focus, so maybe Jess is right and I am a cynic after all.

This group is waaay more complicated. Philosophers recognise four types of skepticism. One holds that God exists but we can't divine her thinking. I'd call them credulous skeptics since they believe in an imaginary friend. I doubt there are many pastafarians in this group.

A second group is incredibly doubtful that we can ever know anything at all. The brain-in-vat (BIV) hypothesis is relevant here: how can you be sure you're not just a brain in a vat, being fed ideas that make you think you've had actual real world experiences? This branch of skepticism would be pretty handy for a merchant of doubt.

Third are the academics skeptics who basically assume the role of judging the extent of our knowledge. This form of skepticism admits there may be merit in weighing up the evidence and would probably admit that public opinion is relevant to the weights for social choices.

The last category is contemporary skepticism which is said to rely on
an entirely intuitive and pre-theoretical understanding of our epistemic concepts. In this sense it has the form of a paradox - a series of wholly plausible and intuitive claims that, collectively, lead to an intellectually devastating conclusion. ...
Recent discussion of skepticism also treats the problem as having this paradoxical form, though the epistemic focus of the discussion is now not so much the lack of grounds for belief which counter the skeptic's grounds against belief, or the lack of certainty, but rather the lack of knowledge. Contemporary discussions of skepticism have thus tended to make the radical epistemological claim that we fail to know (hardly) anything.
So basically, skeptics argue that we don't know much at all because of the limits of knowledge. Some of the stuff we think we know is unsubstantiated, so we're wrong to think we know it.

Cynics on the other hand reckon they understand and/or have sufficient grounds to suspect that certain features of existing power structures and/or the ideas that support them are bullshit. So a classic conversation between cynic and skeptic might go something like this.

Cynic: this looks/sounds like bullshit
Skeptic: don't be so hasty, it might not be bullshit for all we really know

Based on my interactions so far with skeptics I think these classical roles swap and change according to the topic to the point where it's not clear whether a single person is actually a cynic or a skeptic.

For example, when it comes to alternative medicine the NZ skeptics are very cynical. Their starting position is that "this is bullshit" unless it has been scientifically been proven to be not bullshit. My own experience with using olive leaf extract to relieve the symptoms of shingles and my brother's use of celery seed to break down kidney stones (to take just two examples) leads me to a much more skeptical position: don't be so hasty, it might not be bullshit.

On GMOs and the perpetual warfare approach to agriculture however, the roles are reversed. I am not anti-GMO and consider it likely that genetic engineering will turn up some really useful stuff. I nevertheless recognise the huge risks in open release of GMOs and therefore call bullshit on people who argue for weaker safety regulations and on people who pimp GMO technology with emotional appeals.

In doing so I'm being pretty skeptical, arguing we don't know much and recognising that open release of living breeding GMOs has very uncertain effects. Oddly enough, this particular skepticism seems quite rare in the NZ skeptics group.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Criminalising cartels

Last week the NZ government decided not to criminalise hard core cartels, against the international trend.

The responsible minister struggled to explain himself on the radio but fortunately for the cartels plenty of written commentary supported him. It came mainly from the big law firms, as Donal Curtin observed in a great post, but Oliver Hartwich and Paul Walker applauded from the sidelines. 

The cheer squad are all arguing the same thing: that criminalisation would deter pro-competitive conduct because business people would be uncertain about the rules, so they wouldn't compete hard for fear of breaching the rules, so the whole idea is self-defeating. Lew Evans relied entirely on the same line when I debated cartel criminalisation with him at a LEANZ event a few years ago. It is an exceptionally weak argument as explained below.

First though, since appeals to (dead economist) authority appear to carry some weight for these folk, now is a good time to hear from our old mate Adam Smith, also known as Mr Invisible Hand:
"People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices."
That was 1776 and I challenge anyone who currently hangs around with business people to deny they've ever heard such talk. Smart guy that Adam Smith.

Back to the main point though: the alleged uncertainty about the rules and the resulting chilling effect on competition itself.

Uncertainty and risk are different. Managing risk is usually fairly easy because markets sell insurance against risk. Sellers of insurance use statistical models to estimate the probability of events and set prices for insurance products using those probabilities.

Uncertainty is more like Rumsfeld's unknown unknowns. Continuing the insurance example, suppose you paid for property insurance in Christchurch for years and years before the earthquakes. You had a contract with an insurer and naturally assumed that it would be respected, but you got a nasty surprise because the world changed unexpectedly. That's uncertainty: pretty hard to deal with in advance.

Now let's stand in the shoes of our would-be cartelists for a minute so we can feel their uncertainty and their fear: jail time. Here's a potential boardroom conversation.

Alice: lets do this thing.
Brooke: isn't that a cartel? we could go to jail.
Cheryl: jail?! we don't want that. let's pull the plug now
Donna: but, but, but,... it could be very profitable, do we really want to just blow that off?
Elsie: hey, why don't we just apply for authorisation
All: whaaat?

Elsie is right. There is already a safety valve in New Zealand's competition law covering exactly this situation. Part 5 of the Commerce Act 1986 is all about how firms can get certainty about whether they're breaching competition law. In particular, section 58 establishes a regime whereby firms considering conduct that might breach laws against collusion between firms (s27) can proactively seek an authorisation or clearance on well understood grounds.

In my view the uncertainty argument is seriously wounded by the existence of a well-trodden path by which would-be cartelists can resolve their uncertainty, in advance.

Friday, 11 December 2015

The Greasy Cut Worm Mystery

We're growing maize for the first time this season, and have stumbled across a wee puzzle.

You may recall that biologically active soil is critical to us, and that we're pretty skeptical about the profitable industry that sells stuff to farmers and directs agriculture. So in buying maize seed we declined to spend $2600 to kill everything that could possibly threaten the maize crop. Instead we spent $520 on clover seed and hoped that nature would help us out.

To understand the greasy cutworm mystery though, we need to start at the beginning, which is buying the maize seed. First off, you don't just buy seed: you buy a whole package of inputs from the seed company and your local contractor. They work seamlessly together and help you see all the inputs.

Our vendors were surprised we'd consider direct drilling maize rather than full scale cultivation. Aversion to slicing up your soil structure and critters wasn't something they'd come across before.

Then we got to the poisons. Apparently there are three ways nature can screw over your maize crop: weeds, insects and microbiology. Most farmers buy add-on products that attack all three of these forms of life because that's all part of the perpetual war on nature being pimped by arms traders in the war.

Glyphosate is first up, to kill all the plants. Yeeaah, no chance we'll be using that, thanks. We've been getting great results here for five years renewing pastures without using any glyphosate. Plus there's all of that research on its terrible effects.

Next came the seed coating options with Poncho being the main focus. Uuum, no thanks, in fact we don't want any treatment at all please: just bare seed, ok?

That was back in May when we placed our order for 8ha of seed. Later, we decided that direct drilling wasn't a goer. Some of the paddocks we were using had been badly pugged and our fences weren't good enough to graze the others low enough. So we did cultivate, but without the glyphosate of course.

Then, as soon as we had a seedbed, we hit the paddocks with a slurry of lime, fish, humates, 10kg urea and 5kg of persian clover seed (pic left). The idea was to stimulate the biology, feed the soil directly, and sow a companion crop. We hope that the clover will dominate between the maize rows, grow high with the maize (adding volume to the silage) and pump nitrogen to it.

Sadly though, planting day was the hangover from the buzz of the clover slurry operation. Due to delays, the whole schedule was 2 weeks later than hoped and we were desperate to get it planted before imminent rain. We'd confirmed with the contractor to travel here, collected the seed from the local story and laid in enough of the critical fungal innoculants (trichoderma and mycorrhizae). I'd only innoculated a few bags of seed before I started wondering why it was pink, read the label and found that we'd been sent seed with the "standard fungicide". Rather than delay another week I carried on rolling the seed in fungi and wondering whether the "standard fungicide" would be a match for it. Pretty pissed off.

We complained vigorously of course. Turns out it's a systemic problem at Pioneer: when we say "bare seed" they hear "oh, just the standard fungicide please". That's why 'standard fungicide' is the last and greyest item on their website menu.

Anyway, the maize duly popped up and last week the local store manager called to say that she'd been touring the maize crops of the region and ours was unusual in not having (greasy) cutworm. The contractor said the same thing on Wednesday. Oh, and he's now also backing the clover to beat the weeds :)

So that's the mystery: how come we haven't got it and most others have?  Here are a few possible explanations that we've come up with (please suggest more in the comments):

  • luck;
  • cutworm avoiding high brix (healthy) plants; and 
  • Poncho killing off all the insects that are eating our greasy cutworm

We may be able to empirically test the first hypothesis (see below)

For option 2, we will test the brix later on. At this point the plants are too small to go ripping bits off them for testing brix. We'll also need brix from other crops for this test.

Regarding hypothesis three, imagine you are the farmer who has bought the Poncho and successfully annihilated all of the predators to the greasy cutworm, which then feasts on your maize. Do you feel lucky that the vendors can sell you something extra special to kill those little bastards or cheated that the Poncho didn't work?

By the way, Poncho is the brand name of a neonicotinoid and is therefore implicated in decimating the bee population.

That's all we know so far. Things I want to find out include

  • how many other crops in this region didn't use Poncho?
  • detailed breakdown of cutworm by use of Poncho in this region.

Fortunately the Pioneer rep is visiting next week. I'm sure she'll share this information with me.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Animal welfare

*A few thoughts on this topic ahead of Sunday's documentary about calves in NZ's dairy industry.

I despise the cruelty that I know is regularly inflicted on animals including human animals. The culprits need challenging and we should all do that, directly, as much as we dare. Cruel bastards need to be tracked down, exposed and stopped, whether they are cops, teachers, doctors, scientists, politicians or farmers.

The SAFE crew should therefore be congratulated for exposing evidence of cruelty to dairy calves. I'll look forward to hearing what DairyNZ and MPI have to say about the industry's systems for policing cruelty and expect that extra regulation might well result.

I reckon that the vast majority of dairy farmers in New Zealand would agree with me up to this point. Cow farmers generally like cows, just as teachers generally like students. Exceptions are those who should never have been in that role and those who've grown cruel over time.

In my dreams, the report would also prompt broader questions about the ethics of farming animals and indeed plants. There is a yawning chasm of space, devoid of knowledge much less understanding, between the smart and engaged early 20s that challenged me on this topic at a party recently and most of the dairy farmers I know.

* the pic is from our calving this year

Friday, 20 November 2015

Skeptics have a Conference

The NZ Skeptics annual conference is underway in ChCh and the headline international speaker is
the magnificently-named Dr Karl Haro von Mogel, a science communicator specialising in genetic engineering. This is him, putting the emotion back into science.

Pretty obviously, Dr Karl is not of a skeptical disposition when it comes to GE. He is convinced that GE 2.0 will be just awesome. He might well be right but GE 2.0 is many different things, not all of which have been invented yet. At least for skeptics, the jury is still out. So I'm guessing that Dr Karl is there because he's skeptical about people who are skeptical about GE.

Which just deepens the mystery for me. In fact I'm struggling to understand why skeptics have a conference at all. Are they all just sitting there rolling their eyes and silently mouthing "says who?" or "bull shit" during the speeches? And if not, why not?

I'm a big fan of public argument (as you may have gathered) and would love to hear two of the speakers at this conference (Kim Socha and Mike Joy) sometime. However I confess to being utterly confused by the concept of a skeptics conference

Why don't they host an argument instead? Pick a topic and invite all of the people espousing strong views about that topic. Design a format that exposes those views to rational scrutiny, and let attendees make up their own skeptical minds.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Section 36 principles

Most countries have laws aimed at firms with substantial market power, seeking to stop those firms
from "taking advantage" of their very strong market position in ways that restrict the process of competition. In New Zealand, that law is section 36 of the Commerce Act 1986.

The general view of competition experts in NZ is that section 36 is toothless. You can of course find supporters of the law: just call the competition experts advising firms with substantial market power. However the Commerce Commission has basically given up taking s36 cases, which leaves powerful firms unfettered and the rest of us with three options:

  • sack the ComCom & appoint new people with a stronger appetite for expensive but hopeless litigation;
  • change the law; or
  • do nothing.

We've been trying option 3 for a few years but I understand that MBIE is now preparing a discussion paper on the topic, so option 2 might soon be in play. So it's time to think about how to improve and we might as well start getting our thoughts in order now, before the discussion paper emerges.

Building on Andrew Gavil's excellent work from 2013, some principles might be a good start. I'll get the ball rolling...

1: Privilege.
Firms with substantial market power are in a privileged position in our society. NZ has small domestic markets and influential people have successfully argued for relaxed merger policy on the basis that it reduces unit costs, so we have lots of market power.

2: Perspective. The advantage taken belongs to the perpetrator, so analysis should focus on that firm's perspective, not some hypothetical firm.

These principles seem rock solid to me but both of them add teeth, making life harder for firms with substantial market power. What about the opposite problem of condemning efficient conduct? We still want the big firms to fight hard after all. Come in item 3...

3: Proportionality. This would be the fertile hunting ground for the monopolist's friends. They'd get creative seeking ways to rebut the presumption that firms with substantial market power tend to play dirty. There are some obvious lines available: if an elephant is competing with tigers, harm visited upon gnats that would be trampled by either group should not be protected. 

Basically I'm suggesting that we should be harder on conduct because we are softer on structure. In other respects it's just business as usual: case law will develop guidance for big firms to the extent they're willing to pay for it. 

Friday, 30 October 2015

Socialism sells

Legendary sevens coach Sir Gordon Tietjens spoke at a bank-sponsored do in Nelson last night and echoed many of the themes and values Steve Hansen has been discussing. The bank CEO endorsed them too, talking about their "partnership" with the NZ Rugby Union and how excited they are about the leverage opportunities.

The values at issue here are essentially socialist. They're all about the collective (team) and unity and trust and love for each other - the antithesis of the individual ruthless calculating homo-economicus concept that underpins so much public policy in New Zealand and beyond.

What the corporates have figured out is that they are also winning values. Although the NZ Rugby Union is now too embarrassed to use the word, the union concepts pushed by Hansen & Tietjens are a major cause of their success. And by pushing the message of unity, corporates hope to persuade us that they're jointly engaged in our own struggles.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Motorcycle accident costs

I like the basic design of New Zealand's accident insurance system which is administered by the ACC. Insurance monopolies have some clear economic advantages and the "no fault" concept avoids a lot of unproductive rent-seeking by lawyers.

That said, ACC does seem to have a blind spot when it comes to motorcycling, an activity that we all know is somewhat dangerous. Personal injury is more likely if you are riding a motorcycle than if you are driving a hummer, or indeed any vehicle with 4+ wheels and a steel cage.

I have no problem with the way ACC treats bike-only accidents. Bikers should pay levies that cover the full cost of those accidents.

Most of the accidents involving motorcycles (about 2/3 of them) are crashes with other vehicles though. So imagine/remember a motorcycle being cleaned out by a much stronger vehicle. Most of the resulting injury costs will be to fix up the biker and in the ACC's view bikers should pay for all of these costs.

Some obvious questions arise. What happened to the "no fault" concept? Is it my "fault" that I ride a motorcycle and am therefore vulnerable to the behaviour of idiots in cars? Why don't drivers of cars, trucks & buses have to share the cost of the damage they cause to motorcyclists?

And if you think bikers should be treated this way, imagine if the same idea was applied to other categories of vehicles. ACC levies would be lower, the larger the vehicle. You're more exposed in a Daihatsu Charade than a Ponsonby tractor, so you should either pay more in ACC levies or join the arms race.

Friday, 16 October 2015

GM Scientists need Adult Supervision

As you probably don't know, there is a softly softly top-down campaign underway to radically weaken New Zealand's system for regulating GMOs. Feds boss William Rolleston pushes it in almost every speech, Treasury boss Gabriel Maklouf is clearly on board and it seems that the new head of the EPA Allan Freeth is sympathetic.

Presumably these folk and their backers are seriously annoyed at local government moves to regulate GMOs under the Resource Management Act (RMA). Hastings District which includes the massively productive Heretaunga Plains has recently declared itself GMO free, agreeing with evidence presented by food producer group Pure Hawkes Bay. Now the Auckland Council is considering similar provisions(pdf) as the first of a group of councils from Auckland northwards.

I gave economic evidence at hearings in Hastings and Auckland (my three statements for Auckland are here, here and here). A few days after the Auckland hearing RadioNZ called asking for comment on a proposal for change from NZBio, the industry association for biotech investors.

Three things need noting about the NZBio plan.

  1. It is entirely verbal. There seems to be no written argument or proposal. The only thing clear from NZBio's website is that they're after "eased restrictions on GMOs". That is at least much more direct and honest than the coded whisperings of Treasury and the Feds, but where is the policy analysis?
  2. It really is radical. The international consensus on GMO regulation is contained in the Cartegena Protocol and it is process-based, meaning that GMOs are regulated because of the process (GM) that created them. NZBio propose shifting instead to trait-based regulation. For example, herbicide tolerant (HT) swedes are already approved in NZ and that is a trait, so herbicide tolerance engineered into GMOs will also be approved under NZBio's plan.
  3. It ignores the views of food exporters. Fonterra and Horticulture New Zealand are both on record as opposing field trials and outdoor release of GMOs in New Zealand. They do this because they are customer-facing and our customers don't like GMOs.
That last bit is fascinating isn't it? I can't figure out whether the local GM developers are not talking to the people who sell our primary produce internationally or they know their views but don't care.

Either way, my conclusion is that GM scientists/investors need adult supervision.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

The Trade Negotiation Game

Tim Groser announcing the TPP deal:
At the end of the day the trade negotiation game isn't that sophisticated. You negotiate as well as you can with whatever weapons you've got - political, logic, whatever - and when you sense the bus is going to take off you jump on board. It's as simple as that.
I hope this quote ends up on a game theory exam for some economics students this year with the question being: if you were negotiating against this guy, what probability would you assign to him walking away from any deal?

The easy answer is that in all future trade negotiations he will sign anything and will never walk away. So cheers for that Tim.

Things are slightly more tricky as regards this particular deal though, because he only announced this cunning plan after it was all over. But a rational negotiator would still be highly confident he'd sign anything, partly because he has never once publicly contemplated walking away, but also because as the closing stages arrived Tim's boss procured from Helen Clark a public endorsement of an almost identical negotiating position.

Conclusion: it was ever thus. Once you hook NZ into the room, we'll sign any old deal that pops out.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Agricultural science funding in NZ

Recent job cuts at AgResearch have focused attention on the money that kiwi taxpayers spend on scientific research and its allocation. 

The CRIs get about $400m of public money each year and AgResearch is the biggest of them. Here are its sources of revenue for the last two financial years for which records are available ($m).

This chart strongly suggests that private funders are calling the shots at AgResearch. That hypothesis is reinforced by statements from AgResearch that cite "customer demand" as the motivation for the sackings. I could ask questions about this all night, but let's just try a few. 

  1. Why can't these commercial customers fund their own research without taxpayers subsidising them to the tune of $60m/year?  
  2. How exactly are farmers expected to benefit from this research?
  3. Which (if any) AgResearch programmes are entirely motivated by a desire to explore farming systems that might reduce the earnings of input (fertiliser, seed, pesticides) suppliers? 

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

My picks for DairyNZ Directors

Regular readers will know my views on DairyNZ's agronomy work, which seems remarkably aligned with the interests of input suppliers selling fertiliser, seeds and all of that "crop protection" stuff. Still, that's the mainstream model so I guess you'd expect it to dominate the research agenda. What really annoys me is the exclusion of work on alternative methods, especially ours.

Kudos to DairyNZ though: they've provided a forum to ask questions of director candidates. this was our question:
Despite the critical role of soil in pasture-based dairying, DairyNZ has no research efforts looking at how to harness/farm the biological life in soils. If elected, would you advocate for such research? Why or why not?
The answers helped us to pick who we'll vote for. They can be divided into 4 groups.

Michael Spaans (a sitting director) says that "biological life in soils specifically has had limited funding as research and theory historically has indicated there is no compelling evidence there are significant gains to be made for farmers in this area."

Nice one Michael: you are the first to be eliminated and now we're really sorry we voted for you last time. By pretending that this topic has already been investigated and found wanting you get the anti-science award, which is to be squashed by a cartoon foot.

Ask Someone Else
Kevin Ferris says "biological life in soils research should be done, under the umbrella of soil science, if DairyNZ is not doing it then another research provider should be doing it."

Murray Jamieson reckons "the best outcome will be achieved by working in collaboration across the industry i.e. with organisations like AgResearch and Massey and Lincoln Universities".

Greg Maughan "would not advocate for it if elected unless there was a compelling argument that the space was not being taken up by others and that the benefit of spending levy money was beneficial to a large number of farmers. I don’t believe DairyNZ should duplicate work that is being done or could be done by others.

Kevin Old wants to ensure that "limited research resources are both targeted at the most essential areas and are not duplicated in other institutions such as universities and CRIs who are also working in these areas."

All these guys (yes, they're all guys) are trying to pass the buck. They're pretending to care while actually hoping this topic will go away.

Business Case Required
Ben Allomes (a sitting director) is looking for "the best value to the industry. All projects, regardless of what area, are assessed on their value to the industry before they are approved or declined."

Elaine Cook "would need to see a business case for this R&D that identifies all the direct benefits (not just financial) to the NZ dairy farmer and wider industry."

Grant Wills "would support management to weigh up the economic and environmental significance of research in this area just as is being done on all other projects."

It's true that research funding needs a business case, but that case will always be speculative and risky because the discovery of new facts is the aim of all scientific research. DairyNZ should be exploring whole new paradigms because they might be better, and they should keep exploring them until they're convinced they won't be better. This is how innovation happens. 

Steve Hines says "Yes I would. The commercialisation of science has created an environment that limits our researchers’ time to seeking funds rather than answers and breakthrough technologies. Soil science has suffered as a result; we must focus more on the foundation block that our dairy systems are built upon."

Michelle Wilson "would certainly be asking the question regarding what DairyNZ  intent is in regards to research of biological life in soils. I would be advocating for this research as I believe it is an essential part of our environmental stewardship. As dairy farmers we have a responsibility to maintain the land for future generations, without relevant research we are unable to make the best decisions in how we care for New Zealand soils."

Well done Steve & Michelle: you get our votes and hopefully many others.

Since there are 3 slots available, we'll also pick Elaine Cook as the best of the rest on the grounds that she explicitly recognises broad categories of benefit and is less defensive and deferential than the others in her category.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Liquid fertiliser

We've been foliar feeding our pastures for a few years but things have really gone up a notch this season and the results are quite stunning.

We still design, mix & spread our own brews using that awesome kiwi technology, the tow'n'fert...

...but the other parts of the system have changed radically thanks to our new manager who knows much more about this stuff than us.

First is the difference between a slurry and a foliar. The slurry goes onto fairly short grass at a high rate (250kg/ha) which means we cover about 4ha in one load. This is how we always did it previously and we are planning more slurries at maize planting time. But since late May we've been focusing on foliars.

The foliar goes onto quite long grass at a low rate (90-100kg/ha) so it's a pretty fine mist. We're hitting paddocks 10 days before grazing. Over those 10 days the products get absorbed into the leaves and the plant has time to share some of the bounty with the soil biology by exuding it through the roots. After all this sharing has happened, we graze it off leaving fairly long residuals (1700 - 1800 kg). The re-growth is astonishing.

The mixes themselves can include almost anything because the tow'nfert keeps everything in suspension while we travel out to the paddocks and while we're spraying. Since we're still transitioning to a fully biological system we usually have about 10kg of urea/ha in the brew, along with all the other goodies (humates, fish, lime flour and sometimes also molasses and/or milk). The last 10ha mix had 500 litres of water and 400kg of product.

I know this probably all sounds quite weird to most kiwi dairy farmers but the results are obvious in the paddock. Round 2 is at least a week away and it's looking pretty damn good.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Competition law & economics

Competition geeks may be interested in the ACCC's successful prosecution of Visa over dynamic currency conversion (DCC) in Australia. Visa was fined $18m plus costs today.

As the economics expert for the ACCC in this case, I'm pleased with the outcome even though I missed out on being cross-examined at trial due to pre-trial settlement of liability. I do like a good argument.

Two points are of potentially broader interest... 

First, the conduct that was admitted by Visa occurred in a very narrow market: the market for currency conversion on the Visa network. If you follow the normal economic method of defining markets, then this really is a market. Its existence was vigorously contested by Visa's economist but prevailed in the end. 

Second, the ACCC abandoned its s46 claim in return for Visa admitting it breached s47. In announcing the result, the ACCC noted 
"the significant legal hurdle and complexity presented by proceedings under section 46"
So while it's nice for the ACCC to get a competition case win, this doesn't vindicate Australia's s46, much less NZ's equivalent s36. Misuse of market power remains problematic in the antipodes.

Saturday, 1 August 2015


We're using a new system for calving this year: leaving the calves on their mothers. The normal approach is to remove new born calves to a shed, teach them to drink from a rubber teat and feed them milk. That's not nice for the cows or the calves and its a lot of work for us too.

Natural calf rearing is working out well so far (40 cows in milk). Most of the calves come up to the shed at milking time with their mums and hang out in the yard during milking, after which they all wander back to the paddock.

The calf shed hasn't been used so far - the calves have used the shelter belts in stormy weather.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Fonterra - what went wrong?

Fonterra has not performed well, either objectively or in comparison to expectations at the time it was formed. Higher value branded products were supposed to provide farmers with a natural hedge against the vagaries of commodity dairy prices but that just hasn't happened in almost 15 years of trying.

Why not? That's what Fonterra's farmer-shareholders need to know, because you can't fix something until you know what's broken. There are really only two potential explanations.

One is that Fonterra is/was capital constrained. Sure, we could drop US$100m on San Lu in 2005 and $500m on Darfield in 2012 and $750m on Beingmate in 2015. And yes it's true that we pulled in $500m from the IPO in 2012, but we need much more capital to deliver on the original dream/vision. If this is true, we need to hear it loud and clear from the management and board. And since they haven't told us it's true, I'm going to assume it's not.

The only other explanation is that we had enough money but spent it on the wrong stuff. Mistakes happen as all farmers know. But when they keep happening year after year (x15), something is seriously wrong. Brian Gaynor's recent analysis hints at the underlying problem by comparing Fonterra's consumer revenue with the number of staff earning more than $100k per annum.

All those extra thousands of well-paid people have not translated into higher value-added revenues. Again we have to ask: why not?

In my view it is quite likely that Fonterra has fallen victim to managerialism, an elitist doctrine that constrains shareholder power by ensuring that "managers, not owners, ... get the final say in corporate decisions". Three facts support this view.

  1. The flow of information between Fonterra and its owners is almost entirely one-way. Farmer-owners are told/sold stuff by managers but we are rarely, if ever, asked for our views on the company's direction, major decisions or methods of operation except where required by the constitution.
  2. TAF was designed to make capital management easier for managers and harder for farmer-owners. Time-smoothing flexibility over the share standard was always under Fonterra's control but managers preferred TAF and were able to push it through.
  3. The head count of highly paid staff has ballooned without a commensurate increase in value-added revenues.
The imminent staff cull is way overdue and when you look at the above chart, 500 jobs (averaging $114k each) doesn't seem a lot compared to the previous blowout in well paid staff.  But if you think the cull might undermine the managerialism hypothesis, you'll be interested to hear how the CEO described the role McKinsey played in it:
"...hard-nosed outside consultants who have given what Spierings dubs a private equity view of the company and supported management to make some tough calls."
Got that? We pay Mr Spierings quite a lot of money each year, but he still needs to pay lots of extra do$h to managerialist mates before he can sack members of his own (manager) class.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Monitoring Leviathan

Dairy farmers in New Zealand are coming to terms with a second year of poor milk prices. Those who are full members of Fonterra are accustomed to the idea that when milk prices increase, profits in the firms value-added (e.g. branded) products fall, because the input price or raw milk has increased, and vice-versa. However in this particular slump, there has been no real offset from higher value-added profits.

Some farmers are grumpy.

There are not many ways this grumpiness can be expressed. Fonterra is so big that it's impractical for Directors to interact personally with the 10,000 shareholding farmers. So the main channel is through the Shareholders Council (SHC) which represents the interests of farmers through councillors elected in 35 wards around the country.

This system makes a clear distinction between representation (which occurs through the SHC) and governance (the role of the Board). It should allow us to elect the best directors and keep an eye on their performance. It also creates a clear channel for grumpiness: call your local councillor and get him/her to represent your views further up the food chain.

The main job of the SHC is pretty clear on its webpage:
The Council’s key responsibilities include monitoring the performance of the Board on behalf of and representing the views of all Fonterra Shareholders as suppliers, owners and investors. (emphasis added)
Contrast that with the view of the new Chairman of the SHC, Duncan Coull, as part of (otherwise sensible) comments on the forthcoming Board elections.
Coull said he was uncomfortable with the council being described as a "watchdog" for the interests of Fonterra's 10,000-or so farmer-owners.
I really hope Duncan reconsiders this view, because it makes him sound in awe of the Board and management rather than someone dedicated to representing farmer interests by holding them to account.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Allow Unicorns Now

When will governments finally grow some backbone and stand up to the anti-unicorn brigade?

The lack of unicorns is a crime against humanity, depriving countless children of the pleasure of having these cute little pets.

Worse, this is a hidden scandal because the unicorn haters never actually declare themselves or form organisations that we can demonise. They just proceed as if they have some kind of god-given right to avoid supporting unicorn research and the development of these wonderful creatures.

Everyone knows that unicorns are perfectly safe. That pointy bit on the front defines the unicorn but there is no peer-reviewed science that proves unicorns are any more dangerous than regular ponies. So don't even start whinneying about safety.

Honestly, the way people just flagrantly ignore them, its as if unicorns don't even exist. But they do. We have the pictures, concept drawings and plenty of market demand. Once the government stops blocking our funding there will be breeding plans. Unicorns are not quite market ready; I'll grant you that. But so what? I'm pretty sure that Patrick Moore will be keen to front our anti-anti-unicorn campaign too, after which success will inevitably follow.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Golden Vapourware

About 10 years ago I did some analysis for a guy on the other side of the world who reckoned he'd cracked the carbon emissions problem. He wanted an estimate of the value of his technology and somehow I'd ended up in his path as an economist who could do such things.

Obviously I had no clue whether his thing worked or not because it was new technology, fresh out of the lab, and I'm just a humble economist. So I put a big caveat on the front of the report saying IF this works, its value is roughly this enormous number.

I never quite figured out whether he believed his own hype or not, but for a while after that I was fielding calls from potential investors, trying to hose down their expectations and drawing their attention to that great big IF statement, the significance of which they'd all somehow missed.

The experience made me think there's a pretty big market for vapourware that targets things we want to believe, like the idea that technology will save the planet in some way. The business model is to suck cash into R&D for a grand plan that sounds promising and might just work. Investors look forward to doing well by doing good and are willing to commit cold hard cash.

For all we know they might actually succeed. That's the thing about R&D: the outcomes are uncertain by definition. We're all lucky that brave souls dive into it because some of them do succeed and when they do the world can become a better place.

But. It's pretty annoying when those brave souls try to change the world before they've succeeded. And here I'm thinking particularly of that gosh darned golden rice. Somehow lots of people have got the idea that golden rice is ready to go. Such as this guy who reckons it's been ready since 2002, and of course this guy who famously decided not to drink the roundup after all.

Maybe they're really busy mounting emotional campaigns to blame anti-GMO folks for killing poor people, because they're obviously not reading the science updates from the actual scientists who are still working on developing the actual golden rice which doesn't actually work yet in the way they'd like to claim it works. Here's the link. It's an easy read but here's the key passage:
Golden Rice will only be made broadly available to farmers and consumers if it is: (a) successfully developed into rice varieties that retain the same yield, pest resistance, and grain quality—agronomic and eating traits acceptable to farmers and consumers—as current popular rice varieties; (b) deemed safe and approved by national regulators; and (c) shown to improve vitamin A status under community conditions.
Got that. It doesn't work yet.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Gabriel's Choice

Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf gave a widely reported speech at the Mystery Creek Fielddays about choice, on which topic the kiwi vernacular is closely aligned with standard economics: choice is definitely choice. More choice is better than less choice.

Anyway, Gabriel reckons we're being offered "false choices" and being "denied" choice and need to "reclaim" choice. He starts with three "false choices" and proceeds to bust the myth:

  • prosperity vs sustainability. This is a false choice because "the premium on ethical, sustainably produced, healthy goods continues to rise."
  • high technology vs New Zealand's primary industries. This is a false choice because of all the GPS guided farming stuff we do to improve on farm productivity.
  • protection vs use of natural resources. This is a false choice because the tourism industry relies on our outstanding natural beauty.
Next comes the punch line...
Instead of accepting these false ‘choices’ we have an opportunity to focus on ensuring our system gives us the freedom to make the choices we actually want. 
One example is in the space of bio-technology.
I am not going to get into the question of genetic modification specifically. What I will say is that when new technologies come along - both GM and non-GM – our current system denies us the choice over whether we want them. Meanwhile, our international competitors do have this option.
Got that? We're being denied choice. The regulatory system is so screwed up that we can't choose because we don't have the freedom to choose.  

Except that we do actually choose - that's what we pay the EPA for. Gabriel just doesn't like the choices they're making. 

I can see where he's coming from and I'm not anti-GM. Bio-tech sellers would love looser laws, so obviously we need to review them. Let's just make sure we're thinking clearly and fairly about this public choice. 

We should really start by looking at the actual proposal but it is still secret so we can't. We just know that the aim is to materially increase the number of new organisms we admit. Biotech investor William Rolleston is reportedly keen on the idea.

Kiwis know something about new organisms already. We have some good ones like kiwifruit, ryegrass and trout, and some duds like stoats, gorse and ragwort. 

None of the people spruiking those old new organisms knew how things would really turn out and that uncertainty is an essential feature of new organisms. Stoats, gorse and ragwort all seemed like a great idea once, a long time ago before the HSNO Act started denying us choices. 

Since we can't really know for sure in advance how any particular new organism is going to affect us, it's always something of a gamble: sometimes we win (kiwifruit) and sometimes we lose (stoats). 

Gabriel obviously wants much more gambling, presumably because he expects more kiwifruit than stoats in the future.

His argument is much more aggressive though, suggesting there won't be any more stoats if we allow a lot more new organisms, that this is another one of those "false choices" we need to "reclaim". We can have lots more new organisms and all that prosperous sustainability capturing the rising "premium on ethical, sustainably produced, healthy goods".

Latin scholars know that the root of the word "decide" means to cut off - something is always foregone and economists refer to that thing as the opportunity cost. Gabriel seems to argue there is no cost in this case, which is pretty difficult to believe. I think he should play his own part in "setting the conditions for a more informed debate" by:
  • showing us the plan for this radical change to the HSNO Act;
  • admitting that it will increase risk; and
  • estimating the potential cost of those extra risks.
It's all very well to point to the latest productivity dream like the mythical drought-resistant grass that we've had vapour-ware about for ten years and has never quite arrived. How exactly do we protect against commercial disasters like what has recently happened to the Canadian flax seed industry in Europe and US corn industry in China?

Friday, 19 June 2015

dairy resilience

I've been rude in the past about DairyNZ and I took some dragging along to Havelock the other night to one of their events. It was interesting though.

We started with a great overview of international markets from Nathan Penny. After that, we had John Roche's talks on resilience and transition cow diet, both of which were excellent.

The resilience part appealed to my inner economist, arguing for systems that use a moderate but flexible amount of bought-in feed, so you can flex from season to season, riding the markets. The farmer in me saw the cost of engaging with those external markets and was very happy that we are aiming for full self-supply of food. Markets can bite you.

John Roche was excellent on transition cow diet - Lynne and I learned a lot even though Rob (our new manager) knew all this already. We all came away impressed at how scientifically driven John was, and simultaneously distressed at how shitty DairyNZ's agronomy service can be.

There are two ways to think about dairy resilience. John Roche showed data suggesting that with today's technology riding the markets works ok. But his data also showed that we get worse at growing and using grass as we buy in more feed. So growing your own cow food could be a great alternative strategy, right?

Unfortunately, the agronomy department at DairyNZ is out to lunch, usually with product suppliers I reckon. Certainly they don't know anything at all about biological dairying. I've been doing the old legume - urea test on DairyNZ's website for a while and figured it'd be fun to add brix to the mix. Here are the results:
  • Urea           : more than 10 pages of hits
  • Legume       : 4 hits
  • Brix            : 1 hit at most
Does this look like the website of an open-minded farmer-funded research organisation? Not to me. Resilience comes from growing your own cow food in a sustainable way and farming the soil biology is as promising as any other future prospect.

Just don't expect any help from DairyNZ. If they're not lunching with the fert companies, they'll be off selling you herd homes.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Social Impact Bond predictions

Well that escalated quickly. Social Impact Bonds (SIBs) went from an interesting new idea less than 5 weeks ago to actual government policy today. This background paper (pdf) is worth a read. While obviously positive about the concept the backgrounder also points to some pretty serious contract design issues which make SIBs undesirable for R&D projects, for things that might be canned for political reasons, and also for the following two categories:
  • status quo programmes, where it is difficult to attribute outcomes to individual programmes; and
  • new and unproven services, where it may be difficult to obtain investor ‘buy in’.
The process starts with the government identifying a measurable social outcome it is willing to pay for. Then a complex deal is struck involving at least three parties: the government, investors, and service providers. The investors back the service providers financially and the government pays both of these groups if and when the measurable social outcome is achieved. This is said to be good because the investors take the financial risk.

Here are a few predictions.
  1. The investors will generally make profits. This will be partly because they'll do their due diligence and try hard to only back winners. But they'll be helped by political aversion to pushing investors under the bus when things turn bad, as is currently happening with the Charter Schools experiment.
  2. Cherry picking will be endemic. The easy way to make money in this business is to restrict the scope of your services to people that are more likely to succeed. The government officials running the bonds will need to be very vigilant.
  3. No-one will examine the counterfactual. The situations where SIBs might work are also exactly the situations where sharper contracts could be written with existing agencies, which would also have cost-effectiveness and risk reduction benefits.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

The not so magic bean

There are many failures on the road to successful innovation, so entrepreneurs need to know when to pull the plug on a project and when to push doggedly onward.

In the GM plant business, gaining regulatory approval clears a huge hurdle. In fact, you'd expect it to be the last hurdle, because it would be odd to incur the application costs until you were pretty confident you had a marketable product. So this week's news from Brazil is stunning.

Embrapa, a state-owned agricultural research company, is reported to have stopped commercial release of its new GM bean, despite having already gained approval from the regulator. Embrapa decided that

  • the benefits (virus resistance) were over-sold, and
  • the costs (toxicity etc) were not properly investigated.

I think Embrapa did the right thing here. You could argue (as GM Watch does in the above link) that it shouldn't have been working on this topic at all, that virus resistant plants are a mirage. Maybe they are; I don't know. Still, I think Embrapa deserves huge credit for not releasing their bean. With the regulator on side they could surely have sold it but decided to forego those revenues. Its difficult to imagine a profit-motivated GM developer behaving this way.

The whole regulatory apparatus needs total reform though. The GMWatch piece gives an insight into their process:
In a decision taken by fifteen members of CTNBio – including representatives from the defense, foreign affairs and other ministries – the transgenic bean was authorized for planting and consumption. Four dissenting votes, representing the ministries of health, environment, and NGOs, advocated further studies. 
This sounds like a political process disconnected from the realms of science, health and ecology. Bear in mind too that this decision was taken 3 years ago: all good for planting and consumption. Now, 3 years later after further work Embrapa kills off the whole project.

I'm starting to understand how Brazil got to be such a goldmine for GM companies.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Whack-a-mole bingo

As you know, there is a big kicking machine on hand to deal with raving lunatics who ask awkward questions about food safety.

That machine will need an overdrive gear after yesterday's finding by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (pdf) that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic.

This is starting to look like that never-ending whack-a-mole game: the moles keep popping up no matter how many you smack down. Which isn't surprising when you think about how hard it would be to prove anything safe.

But enough epistemology. In anticipation of the inevitable backlash, let's all play whack-a-mole bingo.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Meat processors are trying again...

The NZ meat processing industry is struggling to escape from a nasty but very stable situation. There is excess capacity but any firm shutting a plant pays all the costs and spills many benefits to its rivals. This has been the case for at least 20 years, over which period the shift towards dairying has reduced sheep & beef numbers further, making the situation worse.

Well-intentioned people try to fix this problem periodically. Federated Farmers (pdf) had a crack in January 2014, and yesterday we had the Meat Industry Excellence group report which is basically seeking a meat processing monopoly, at which point plants could be closed because the benefits would be internalised. MIE reckons this would save $450m per annum.

Right on cue, one of the biggest processors today argued that MIE's plant closure plan was too aggressive. These people obviously have trouble agreeing with each other, which is why competition seems a more likely long-term scenario than monopoly.

An alternative "solution" is for one of the big processors to innovate in ways that give it a real edge over the others. Last year I suggested that a focus on the final customer might provide some insights into how this could be achieved. With that idea in mind, here's a snip from the MIE paper

Is there a problem?
• Yes, most definitely.
What is that problem?
• Inadequate and inconsistent farm gate returns.
• Inadequate processor returns.
• Loss of land to other uses, particularly dairying.
• An industry that is shrinking in scale.
What is causing that problem?
• Over-capacity.
• In some cases, inefficient and old plant and technology.
• Over-investment in procurement relative to marketing.
• Insufficient investment in marketing.
Why aren’t these issues being addressed?
• Too many competing processing and marketing companies, a lack of processor profitability and too little commitment by farmers to specific processors.
What needs to happen to fix the problem?
• Consolidate processing to get scale.
• Determine what period would be appropriate for a moratorium preventing new capacity.
• Long term supplier contracts.
• Collectively, as an industry, determine reserve capacity for droughts.
• Collectively close plants.
• Consider ‘Chain Licencing’ as an enabler
This is almost entirely a supply side analysis. There is only one oblique reference to customers, which is that suppliers aren't spending enough on marketing.

While each processor probably feels obliged to participate in these apparently endless attempts to force unwilling parties to merge, I hope this is not at the cost of an increasingly strong customer focus.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Anti-science labels

Arguments are worth having it there's a chance that reason will prevail over ego. Once that prospect disappears it's time to quit, as I'm sure you'll agree...

Kevin Folta is a pivotal figure on the "pro" side of GMO arguments. Kevin recently reported on a student project to survey: "public opinion about genetic crop improvement.  What are the triggers that excite or scare the public about how crops are changed by breeding, mutagenesis or other genetic techniques?".

What a great topic. I'm not surprised Kevin thought it "brilliant" and helped the student with the project. I'm also thrilled that they scored over 450 responses from random demographics and that the data are "astounding". Insightful student, interesting topic, astounding data. What's not to like here?

Well, apparently Kevin forgot to ensure that the prior strength and direction of respondents' views on GMOs were properly recorded for the 450+ people surveyed. At least that's the only reason I can think of for what happened next, which was that Kevin decided to 
"add an interesting highly biased layer by applying the same survey instrument to traditionally "pro-GMO" audiences and those not as comfortable with ag biotechnology."
Can you see why this must be a second survey? It's going to two different groups that Kevin's going to pick, and also, he's already told us that the student's survey was a success (450+ responses, astounding data).

So then Kevin, knowing he's regarded as the enemy by people "highly biased" against his position, starts inviting those people to complete his survey. Or as he puts it...

We have used social media to do the recruiting. It has been easy to recruit "pro" participation.  
But anti-GMO sentiment is silent. Total crickets. 
What's the deal?  When I put any scientific anything online there are swarms of the anti-biotech that are happy to hammer on me. There is always someone wanting their two cents to shape a conversation.
Where are they now?  Why won't they help a student's efforts?  The survey is anonymous. 
 I posted on Facebook pages of anti-GMO organizations like GMO Inside, Occupy Monsanto, and Moms Across America.  I've included their handles in Twitter feeds and reached out personally to individuals like Nomi from Babes Against Biotech.
The plea to "help a student's efforts" looks emotive when compared with the apparent success of the original project, not to mention Kevin's role in supporting that work. 

Anyway, the thing that caught my eye was this interpretation of Kevin's post
That's a pretty strong label there: anti-science. The impression is that these people are luddites, irrationally opposed to the pure objectivity of the scientific method.

I'd expect a scientist to use the term in a disciplined way, which means excluding other explanations before reaching for this classification. In this case there is one other very obvious explanation, which is that Kevin's enemies don't want to help him because they are his enemies.

I totally get the frustration felt by Kevin and Alison. But anyone claiming another group is "anti-science" really needs a scientific reason for that claim.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

We're all environmentalists now

Environmental values were celebrated in Blenheim on Friday night at the Cawthron Marlborough Environment Awards, also sponsored by the Council, DOC, Foresters, Federated Farmers, Wine Marlborough, ASB, Cuddon's and Morgan's Road Nursery. 20-odd tables of 10 people showed up to hear about 25 entrants in 6 categories.

Dignitaries included local leaders from Iwi, Council and Parliament in the form of 2003 Supreme Award winner Steffan Browning. No sign of  new electorate MP Stuart Smith.

Dame Anne Salmond was superb as the guest speaker. She began by noting that Maori arrived by sea-voyaging canoe around 1300, were extremely innovative with terrific sea-going credentials. A relatively short time later, Captain Cook showed up at Totaranui and mutual respect allowed these two peoples to get on together. The area became a favourite resting place for the English who loved  the loud and varied morning birdsong. Shame we don't hear that much these days. So its wonderful to celebrate people who care enough to do something. 

A fellow dairy farmer sitting next to Lynne said "That was a really good speech. who is that woman? I've never heard of her." 

There was some very cool stuff on display, like volunteer teams killing wilding pines in the sounds, wetland reclamation, a wildlife sanctuary, conservation education schemes, community gardens, a farmers market and voluntary renovation of a remote DoC hut.

We loved the Supreme Award winner: NZ Drylands Forestry Initiative is researching the best coppicable Eucalypt for dryland conditions in New Zealand. The idea is to replace toxic treated pine posts in farming and viticulture, with ground durable posts that can be harvested without killing the tree or disturbing the soil. Brilliant. This focus on the right plant for the job reminded me of Mark Cristensen's wonderful work on apples (Monty's Surprise) and tomatoes (Moonglow) as reported at the raving loonies conference last month.

To be brutally honest some of the other entries looked odd. It doesn't really spin my wheels that some vineyards/wineries might install PV solar or make the adversity of a wetland into a marketing angle, while still spraying the life out of almost everything.

But it's interesting that these fairly big businesses can be arsed getting involved as entrants or sponsors. That indicates that anti-environmentalism is being driven underground, as happened to sexism and racism in the past. 

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Communication is a 2-way thing

Over the last couple of days I've done industry workshops in Wellington and Auckland on my cost-benefit analysis of a contentious topic. A change is proposed that looks beneficial overall but would definitely disturb the status quo. And although (or perhaps because) the general topic has been unresolved for a decade there is considerable resistance to fixing it (in this way, now).

In this setting, cost benefit analysis can be more than just an analytical tool; it also helps to frame the issues and allow people an opportunity to participate at a couple of different stages. We started (months ago) discussing a list of potential costs and benefits. Once that was thrashed that down to a final list I got to work on what could be quantified and now we're discussing that part.

Listening is crucial. I don't work in this industry every day, so without careful listening I'm going to miss important details, and without wide consultation I'm going to be easily gulled by things people think are important but actually are not.

If I'd gone into these workshops thinking I knew it all, I'd have been quite rightly crucified. As it was, we had (appropriately) robust discussions but they were civil. 

This was all reinforced nicely last night in the monthly #scicommnz (i.e. science communication) twitter chat through this gem from University of Auckland physicist, Shaun Hendy.
So true.