Lynxes, and Soybeans, and Bears, Oh My!

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
Jesse Ausubel on Agriculture, ... Paul Robinson on Cooperation, ...

When you think about "high-tech," you tend to think about your electronic devices, silicon chips, the Internet...But what about nature? How much do bears, deer, and whales owe to technology?

This week's EconTalkepisode with Jesse Ausubel is a whirlwind of food, transportation, wilderness, and more. There's a lot to think about, and we know you doing just that! So please share your thoughts based on the prompts below in the Comments, and let's continue the conversation.

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1. Ausubel claims that if the world shifted to a more plant-centric diet, this would be better for the land. Roberts points to the paleo craze, which seems to dampen this possibility. How might prices play in role in encouraging one or the other? Consider the price of soybeans, the price of animal protein and the price of land used for one or the other.

2. Roberts notes that in his neighborhood, deer have become "vermin" for many residents. How does this illustrate the costs and benefits of "rewilding?" Have you noticed any rewilding over your lifetime based on where you live or on your travels?

3. Recall Dr. Seuss' story of The Lorax, and Ausubel's note that only 20% of logging in the US is done on lands farmed for trees. Knowing this, how might the tale of the Onceler be retold?

4. Does Ausubel overestimate the effect of technology on the increasing scope of nature? Many scientists worry about the pace of extinction. How might Ausubel respond to their claims?

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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Jeff W writes:

1) Animal protein need not be as factor intensive as it currently is. If a family of four people substituted crickets in favor of another animal protein for one meal a week, we could save 650K L of water per year. Insect-based proteins could undercut traditional animal proteins on price and could be farmed anywhere, provided indoor climate control is available.

Protein prices could be cheaper, but we haven't seen entomaphagy take off yet. I think this is because of consumer preferences, but it seems too good of a deal that I would have thought our preferences would have adapted. So maybe I'm missing something.

2) The cost of deer goes well beyond the nuisance of having your garden disappear overnight. Vehicle accidents involving deer cause over $4B worth of a damage a year in the US and 200 deaths! So it looks like rewilding has been good for auto repair shops.

Kevin Clark writes:

It seems more likely that, rather than cut meat consumption, we'll replace it with grown (cloned) meat. This doesn't contradict anything Ausubel predicts - rather it fits right in. It would ride the efficiency curve while requiring less land, transportation & labor.

Jason U writes:

Jeff W

1.) Good luck trying to convince people to eat crickets. I would never eat cricket.

2 the only "vermin" I find annoying where I live are other people

Gregory McIsaac writes:

Question 2) Some species that have made considerable recoveries in my lifetime: Bald Eagle, Osprey, Great Blue Heron, Coopers Hawk (in the eastern USA) and Canada Geese.

For the Bald Eagle and Osprey, banning of DDT seems to have been an important part of their recovery, but improved water quality may also play a role. For the Great Blue Heron, a ban on hunting, improved water quality and perhaps increased wetland habitats were probably important. Coopers Hawks seem to have adapted to hunting birds that congregate around suburban bird feeders. Canada Geese benefited from a captive breeding program that favored a large subspecies that was favored by hunters. That breeding choice has probably exacerbated the costs that Canada Geese impose.

Canada Geese probably impose the most nuisance and cost because they are so numerous and tend to congregate in urban environments. The largest cost comes from collisions with aircraft, but any bird can collide with an aircraft and cause damage.

Question 4) I think Dr. Ausubel might respond to concerns about the extinction crisis by saying that it is an important reason to rapidly improve efficiencies in food, fuel and fiber production so that we can more quickly release more land and water to nature. While I agree with that in principle, I think there is also a need to pay attention to the complexities of land and water habitat needs of various threatened and endangered species. Over the course of the 20th century, efficiencies have resulted in vast expanses of certain geographic areas being converted to a limited range of land uses (e.g., corn and soybeans in the Corn Belt). Habitat protection and restoration in these areas can be expensive and contentious because there is a conflict between maximizing efficient production and preserving species diversity.

An alternative response would be to point out that there have been five previous extinction periods, each followed by a recovery that added a greater diversity of species. These recoveries took millions of years, however.

Amy Willis writes:

@Kevin- Wow...I hadn't thought about the cloning angle. That's an interesting question...And would make a fascinating episode of its own!

Orn Gudmundsson, Jr. writes:

While Mr.Ausubel rightly brings up worldwide forest expansion and a few trouble spots, he neglects the significant differences between softwood forests and hardwood forests. The listener could also be left with the idea that plantation forestry is synonymous with privately-owned and managed forests.

The best forest management around the world is highly correlated with good governance and private ownership, which together, help avoid the tragedy of the commons. The United States has 70% more forestland than in the 1600s.

Hardwoods, which are valued for their decorative properties in furniture, floors, kitchen cabinets, etc., grow better in natural forests where they then have fewer knots. The species diversity also helps with wildlife.

In the United States, the hardwood forests are primarily around and east of the Mississippi, the longest settled part of the country and so more likely to be privately-owned. Over 90% of the product comes off of private land and, through a combination of efficient agriculture and management (without plantation forestry), the standing inventory of hardwood has more than doubled since 1953, which accounts for most of the growth in U.S. forestland since then.

Plantation forestry or farming is not necessarily the best future for all wood products, the U.S. hardwood forest, which makes up about 40% of our total Is a successful mix of commerce and nature.

Seth writes:

As I listened, I kept wondering whether the growth in agricultural yields was a direct result of increased reliance on petroleum in every aspect of farming. So I went to the article in "The Breakthrough" which seems to be the main basis for Ausubel's story.

There, Ausubel addresses this question with one terse sentence stating his good news conclusion without elaboration: "Crucially, rising yields have not required more tons of fertilizer or other inputs."

Well, alrighty then. We don't need to trouble ourselves about what any of those "other inputs" might be, much less what side-effects they might be having. I'd have appreciated some examination of the evidence for this bald assertion. Yields up, acreage down, um, what else changed? Repeal of the law of conservation of mass, perhaps? Would like to understand *how* yields have increased in some detail instead of listening to cute stories about deer in residential subdivisions.

Gregory McIsaac writes:

Seth wrote:
“Yields up, acreage down, um, what else changed? Repeal of the law of conservation of mass, perhaps? Would like to understand *how* yields have increased in some detail…”

I think a large part of the cause of increased corn yields is that newer corn varieties, developed from conventional breeding and genetic engineering, are more capable of using the existing water, light and fertilizer resources, and are less susceptible to damage from insects or competition from neighboring plants. There have been a series of field experiments in which older and newer corn varieties were grown under older and newer management practices and the main reason for higher yields from the newer varieties has to do with their ability to resist insect damage and competition from neighboring plants, so seeds can be planted closer together and the individual corn plants are still able to produce a full ear. But there have also been other improvements in management which positively interact with genetic improvements.

You can read some explanation of it here:

This web site is from a company that produces new varieties of corn and you might expect them to say that their product is the main reason for the yield improvements, but the underlying science has gone through peer review and I think it is legit.

As far as getting higher yields with little or no increase in fertilizer, this is true only after about the mid 1990s. I think there are two main reasons for it, which I mentioned in a comment on the first web page for this episode, and I repeat here: First, a large percentage of farmers were applying more fertilizer than crop scientists recommended in the 1970s and 80s. I don’t know why, but I think a combination of mistrust and misunderstanding was involved. Many older farmers had little more than a high school education. Over time I think more cropland has come under the management of people who have a better understanding of the relevant science. Secondly, the higher yielding corn varieties have less protein content and more starch. Protein requires nitrogen and phosphorus (from either fertilizer, manure or soil stocks). Starch is made from photosynthesis. So, by having less protein per bushel of corn, there is less need for fertilizer per bushel of corn harvested.

Also, farmers generally need to apply fertilizer well before they know how much rainfall or insect infestations will limit their final crop yield. They fertilize for an expected yield, which may not occur. Low crop yields from drought or pest infestation can leave much of the fertilizer in the soil. Phosphorus and potassium fertilizer generally remain in the soil and could be used by a subsequent crop. But nitrogen fertilizer is more susceptible to being lost to groundwater or the atmosphere. Consequently, low corn yields due to drought and pest infestations leads to lost nitrogen fertilizer. But, the new corn varieties that produce higher yields during droughts and insect infestations also are able to utilize more of the applied nitrogen fertilizer.

Gregory McIsaac writes:

On preserving wildlife, the most recent episode of Radiolab focuses on the role of hunting, hunting permit auctions, and private property in preserving wildlife in southern Africa.

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