Archive for October, 2012

Well, Hurricane/Tropical Storm/Extratropical Cyclone Sandy is currently beating the hell out of the mid-Atlantic, and apparently generating rain from Rock Hill, SC (about 75 miles to my north) all the way to Montreal.  In Canada.  That is a band about 820 miles wide.  Earlier today, the heavy winds extended from Maine to South Carolina’s northern border.  Lower Manhattan appears to be underwater.  It is all pretty epic.

In all of the screaming and shouting, though, I have heard little about the possible dangers this storm could pose to our economy.  Or, for that matter, the global economy.  The damages from this storm are going to be spectacular – perhaps the most expensive single event ever, including the Boxing Day Tsunami.  I speculate this simply because the storm is hitting the enormously densely populated DC-to-Boston megapolis, which contains a heck of a lot of really expensive real estate (especially by global standards).  Far worse storms and events have hit populated areas on this planet, but I am not aware of anything of this magnitude coming ashore in an area this densely populated with high value real estate.  Assuming a good bit of this real estate is insured, the insurance industry – and more accurately the reinsurance industry – are looking down the barrel of a really, really bad day.  I have no idea who is exposed to what in this event, but I am sure a lot of folks are checking balance sheets to make sure they are not about to have an unable-to-cover-their-exposure kind of day.  There has been talk of this sort of problem in the reinsurance industry for a while, but the industry is pretty robust.  Last year it took a spectacular (and record) $105 billion in insured losses. I have no idea if Sandy alone will get us there, but it is a single event that could produce a very significant fraction of that total loss record. Those kinds of costs, all at once, are very daunting.

I’m also starting to worry about everyone who did not have flood insurance – which, I am betting, is a lot of people.  It costs extra, and many folks don’t have money to spare, so they may have skimped.  I doubt any state in Sandy’s path can afford to have entire chunks of productive neighborhoods in such high-value areas be treated in the manner some wards in New Orleans have experienced – i.e. abandonment, bulldozing, etc.  Which means somebody is going to have to step in and pay for reconstruction…which means public money, either in state or federal funds.

Finally, the NY Stock Exchange is down, possibly for days.  It is screwing up global trading by creating a gap in the trading day – basically, instead of largely continuous trading, there is now a sort of down time where prices close for a while, then pop open again when the next major market opens.  It is hard to know the trend in prices during those down periods, which is introducing a little extra uncertainty into markets at the moment.  I wonder what that uncertainty is going to cost?

Thanks Sandy. Nice job.

Vincent Calcagno has a fascinating piece up at the LSE impact blog, in which he looks at the review and publication histories of an absolute pile of articles.  There are whole set if interesting findings there that are well worth the read.  For example:

But, surprisingly, we found that about 75 per cent of all articles we declared to have been submitted to the publishing journal on first intention. Even assuming that, for some reason, authors were less likely to respond in the case of a resubmission, we still find that a majority of published articles are first-intent submissions. This suggests that authors are, overall, quite apt at targeting a proper journal and, conversely, that journals make sure they have a sufficient public: no journal was found to be entirely dependent on resubmissions from others.

However, the finding I found most interesting was this:

in a given journal and a given year, an article that had been resubmitted from another journal was on average more cited than a first-intent submission. Resubmissions were less likely to receive zero or one citation (about 15 per cent less, controlling for publication year and journal) and more likely to receive several (e.g. 10 and 50) citations, shifting the mean to higher values. This intriguing result suggests a “benefit of rejection”. The simplest explanation would be that the review process and the greater amount of time spent working on resubmitted manuscripts does improve them and makes them more cited, although other mechanisms could be invoked.

I wonder, though, if there is another factor that should be considered.  Peer review is inherently conservative – there is a lot of thought policing that goes on through this process (I’ve gone on about this before, here and here).  I wonder how many of the “resubmissions” were rejected not because of insufficient quality, but because they were doing interesting work that threatened one or more reviewers, leading to rejection.  This makes sense, as new and edgier work will eventually get cited more than middle-of-the-road replication of old results – at least, that has been my experience.  So perhaps Calgano has given us empirical evidence for the intellectual policing function of peer review.

I just witnessed a fascinating twitter exchange that beautifully summarizes the divide I am trying to bridge in my work and career.  Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva, the head of research at Oxfam GB, after seeing a post on GDP tweeted by Tim Harford (note: not written by Harford), tweeted the following:

To which Harford tweeted back:

This odd standoff between two intelligent, interesting thinkers is easily explained.  Bluntly, Harford’s point is academic, and from that perspective mostly true.  Contemporary academic thinking on development has more or less moved beyond this question.  However, to say that it “never has been” an important question ignores the history of development, where there is little question that in the 50s and 60s there was significant conflation of GDP and well-being.

But at the same time, Harford’s response is deeply naive, at least in the context of development policy and implementation.  The academic literature has little to do with the policy and practice of development (sadly).  After two years working for a donor, I can assure Tim and anyone else reading this that Ricardo’s point remains deeply relevant. There are plenty of people who are implicitly or explicitly basing policy decisions and program designs on precisely the assumption that GDP growth improves well-being. To dismiss this point is to miss the entire point of why we spend our time thinking about these issues – we can have all the arguments we want amongst ourselves, and turn up our noses at arguments that are clearly passé in our world…but if we ignore the reality of these arguments in the policy and practice world, our thinking and arguing will be of little consequence.

I suppose it is worth noting, in full disclosure, that I found the post Harford tweeted to be a remarkably facile justification for continuing to focus on GDP growth. But it is Saturday morning, and I would rather play with my kids than beat that horse…

The Guardian recently ran a piece titled “Food scarcity: the timebomb setting nation against nation.” It was retweeted a lot across my social network, enough that I feel the need to respond to it.  So, here it goes.  The article is yet another example of the remarkably durable narrative of production crisis that dominates discussions of food security today.  The article operates from the assumption that we are running out of food, and then selectively interprets quotes from Lester Brown and Oxfam to support this attention-grabbing story.   The problem here is that Brown/Oxfam make much more nuanced claims than suggested by the headline, which perpetuates the neo-Malthusian agenda of scarcity that dominates modern food security.  In short, I find the very title and tone of the article to be terribly irresponsible – in attempting to bring attention to the very serious issue of global hunger, this article sets back intelligent conversation about the causes of the problem, and therefore its solutions.

It takes little but careful reading to see that the Guardian piece doesn’t actually have the evidence to say that food scarcity is a geopolitical timebomb.  Brown never says we have an absolute scarcity of food in the world, just increased levels of pressure on the food system.  The issue of increased pressure is not, as the article suggests, about production, per se: it is about a complex global political economy that intersects in complicated ways with the remnants of colonialism, failed development, and environmental change in particular ways in specific places.  Sure, US grain production is down 15%…but that isn’t a big deal against the GLOBAL 40% rate of waste in the food system.  We can cover the current US shortfall (indeed, more or less any conceivable global shortfall) with ease just by cleaning up some low-hanging fruit in the global supply chain, such as improving the transportation networks from farm to market in the Global South.

The only actual argument for scarcity in the article is buried down the page, in Evan Fraser’s claim:

“For six of the last 11 years the world has consumed more food than it has grown. We do not have any buffer and are running down reserves. Our stocks are very low and if we have a dry winter and a poor rice harvest we could see a major food crisis across the board.”

It seems to me that Fraser is misreading his evidence. It is possible that the world has consumed more food than has been available on agricultural markets…but this is NOT THE SAME THING as the amount of food grown.  In each of the last 11 years, humanity grew much more food than it consumed. It’s just that each year we then wasted about 40% of that production as it either rotted on the way to market (a common problem in the Global South) or we threw it away uneaten (a problem in the wealthy countries).

So if there is no global food production crisis, why are we seeing land grabbing that will set “nation against nation”?  After all, if there is plenty of agricultural production globally, land-grabbing for food supplies is nonsensical behavior. Prices are where they are because the global food system has significant problems that could be addressed relatively easily and at relatively low cost (when compared to the challenge of completely reengineering an agricultural ecosystem). Anyone analyzing things in a serious way should see this, and recognize that food prices are a bubble that could be popped by a serious infrastructural development push.  And, as it happens, they have.  If you read the article carefully, you realize that there is no evidence in this article that land grabs are for food as much as they are for biofuels. Oxfam’s report is more to the point – the planting of biofuels has to be taken seriously, as that does take arable land out of local production, which can stress local food systems.  But if anyone thought there was a serious global food shortage, they would not buy arable land for biofuels – they would buy it for food itself, as after a certain point food prices become inelastic. The very fact the land grabs are heavily for biofuels tells us all we need to know about the idea of a global food shortage.

Rising food prices in today’s world just signal a stress point on today’s (astonishingly inefficient) food system. Leveraged correctly, these pressures could bring about dramatic changes in global food markets, as saving even half of the food that rots on the way to market in the Global South would more than offset all but the most extreme local food deficits.  This is an opportunity to make changes in the food system that are immediate and relatively cost-efficient.  For all of the noble intents here, ginning up cries of false scarcity in the name of focusing attention on global hunger drags the policy conversation away from real, achievable solutions.

Man, has there ever been a less enticing blog post title?  But it pays to be direct – so there it is.  I have funding for a Ph.D. student, starting in January, to help me on my USAID-funded work on climate services for development.  So, without further ado, the ad:

Graduate Student Opportunity for January 2013

University of South Carolina, Department of Geography

Ed Carr is seeking a Ph.D. student to support ongoing work on climate services for development in sub-Saharan Africa and develop an independent research program in this broad area of inquiry.  The funding for this position is attached to USAID’s Climate Change Resilient Development (CCRD) program, and the candidate will have specific responsibilities supporting the the development of field methods and the analysis of preliminary data, as well as conducting extensive fieldwork in one or more Malian communities in May-July 2013 as part of the project “An Assessment of Mali Meteorological Service’s Agrometeorological Program.”

Qualifications:

  • Candidates will have to be admitted to the geography graduate program at the University of South Carolina
  • Candidates should be from a country in which USAID operates. Preference will be given to candidates from West Africa, then other parts of sub-Saharan Africa, as this is the current target region for the project.
  • Candidates should have experience in one or more of the following: climate change adaptation, rural/community development, rural agriculture, climate science
    • The bulk of initial project work will focus on community-level information needs, and therefore preference will be given to those candidates with experience conducting qualitative research in rural settings.
  • Candidates should hold a Masters degree in Geography, Anthropology, Planning or another closely related field
  • Excellent written and spoken English.  French language ability is preferred.

The duration of funding is January-July 2013, with likely continuation through July 2014.  The candidate will receive tuition, a living stipend, and salary/research support for work to be conducted in May-July 2013.  Candidates who meet departmental expectations of progress and excellence will be eligible for additional semesters of support to complete their degrees.

Please note the very short lead time for this opportunity – viable candidates will likely have to have a visa in hand if they are to start in January 2013.  Candidates who cannot make this deadline, or who are not selected in this round, should stay tuned – I am hoping to open up a few more slots in the fall.

Prospective candidates are encouraged to contact Ed Carr at carr@sc.edu.  Applications are due on 1 November, 2012 via the instructions on the departmental web page: http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/geog/academics/admissions.html

 

 

Friend/colleague/journalist Keith Kloor has a very interesting piece about the problematic character of some research that recently purported to cast doubt on the health safety of GMOs.  The piece is an excellent effort to push back against crap science and crap evidence in the GMO debate, and stands as an interesting example of a general need to critically evaluate “scientific” claims about any number of issues from the harmful character of vaccines to those would deny anthropogenic climate change.  However, the piece, in making a strenuous argument for evidence, overreaches in its conclusions and too-quickly dismisses the ecological issues associated with GMOs – exactly the opposite outcome Keith was seeking.

In general, I agree with Keith that the screaming about the health impacts of GMOs has greatly outstripped the evidence, but I take issue with the idea that GMOs have been largely proven safe all around.  There remain significant questions about ecological impacts that have not attracted a solid scientific consensus (i.e the impact/cost/tradeoffs of gene flow between GMOs and the surrounding ecology, pest resistance, etc. –.  The evidence base in this area is pretty small, and ecological systems are very diverse and complex, so the levels of uncertainty here are fairly epic (Pamela Ronald, whose article Keith references approvingly, even notes that the ecological impacts of GMOs are still an open issue).  Honestly, Keith is too dismissive of this challenge:

Some of these folks are worried about new genes being introduced into plant and animal species. But humans have been selectively breeding plants and animals pretty much since we moved out of caves, manipulating their genes all the while. The process was just slower before biotechnology came along.

Modern genetic engineering does not have all that much to do with selective breeding.  We are doing things in GMOs that could not occur in nature, which is rather different then applying what amounts to a modified evolutionary force (human selection of seeds to plant the next season or animals to breed) in the selection of traits within certain crops.

Another big concern that has been widely reported is the “rapid growth of tenacious super weeds” that now defy Monsanto’s trademark Roundup herbicide. That has led farmers to spray their fields with an increasing amount of the chemical weed-killer. Additionally, some research suggests that other pests are evolving a resistance to GMO crops. But these problems are not unique to genetic engineering. The history of agriculture is one of a never-ending battle between humans and pests.

Again, this is a bit off to one side.  Yes, agriculture has always been about the radical simplification and management of ecosystems in a complex world, and therefore is indeed an endless battle for control between farmer and surrounding ecology.  What this elides, though, is the fact that some of these GMOs have made things harder for us in the long run.  It is hard to sell this as a good, or even neutral, outcome.

I raise this issue because of its implications for conversations about food security. People (some, but not all) working in food security tend to be a bit dismissive of the ecological concerns surrounding GMOs, loosely equating them with the human consumption concerns that have largely been disproven at this point.  The response to insistent questioning about ecological impacts is the argument that, on balance, GMOs have done more good than harm and/or that GMOs are necessary for global food security going forward.  The “more harm than good” argument seems to me based on evidence that is hardly complete, and often references a glowing, startlingly unproblematic vision of the Green Revolution.  The “we need GMOs” is a crisis narrative of food production that drives current and future claims about their value.  At the moment, much of the food security world is arguing that there is a dire food production crisis either coming or just arrived (embodied in the 2008 and 2011 food price spikes), and therefore we cannot wait for the burden of proof surrounding any issue associated with GMOs – we must act now!  This crisis narrative effectively reduces anyone who raises objections to an all-out push for more production to some sort of monster who would rather let innocents starve than engage with the messiness of the real world. Basically, precaution is conflated with timidity, making those who show concern over the ecological impacts of GMOs into the food security equivalents of Neville Chamberlain.

This would perhaps be true…if, in fact there were a global production crisis and we needed GMOs to feed everyone. This is a much harder thing to sell, however, when one realizes that the world produces roughly twice as much food as needed to feed everyone adequately each year.  There isn’t a global production crisis (though there are local production crises that arise from complex causes and need to be addressed in locally-specific ways). I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: globally, there is plenty of food. Now, and likely for quite some time. Period.

In the twitter conversations that emerged around Keith’s article, Robert Wilson, a mathematical ecologist, argued for “an adjusted precautionary principle where we consider the risks of inaction, as well as action.”  This strikes me as both reasonable and necessary when discussing food security policy and programs these days.  If we did this, though, I think we would find that the risks of inaction are, in fact, substantially smaller than the risks of action – this is not to say there are necessarily huge risks to action, just that when you are producing twice the calories needed already, the risk from doing nothing is, at least in the short term, pretty small.  There is time to test more crops, more widely, under more conditions, before we arrive at any production crunch.  There is no need to rush.

In short, we need to be sure that our efforts to push back against crap science (which is really what Keith was doing in his article) don’t overreach and inadvertently empower narratives and arguments that are not supported by the evidence – exactly the opposite outcome Keith sought.