Archive for the 'Ethanol' Category

Apr 11 2008

“Agflation”, conservation, and the loss of wildlands in America

How does a growing Chinese middle class threaten duck populations in the American Midwest? Here’s the story:

As Prices Rise, Farmers Spurn Conservation Program – New York Times

“You can’t pay me NOT to farm this land!”

This is the view being expressed by more and more American farmers today. Since 1985 the US government has paid hundreds of thousands of farmers around $50 per acre of land per year to NOT grow food. In other words, if you were a farmer with 1,000 acres, you could earn $50,000 a year for not doing anything with it at all, just letting it sit idle.

What is the logic of such a program? In the mid-80’s food prices were so low that farmers working their tails off to cultivate and harvest their lands often found themselves losing money when they went to sell their crops. The traditional farming lifestyle was in jeopardy as farmers experienced year after year of economic losses. Improvements in farm equipment, along with the widespread use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides had increased farm yields to levels never before achievable in human history. What increases productivity for all farmers, however, also increases total supply of crops, driving prices to historic lows. All this meant farmers could barely get by in the American heartland.

Enter the government:

…the Conservation Reserve was conceived as part of the 1985 Farm Bill. Participants bid to put their land in the program during special sign-ups, with the government selecting the acres most at risk environmentally. Average annual payments are $51 an acre. Contracts run for at least a decade and are nearly impossible to break — not that anyone wanted to until recently.

Things were great for the farmers. Output fell as millions of acres went into disuse, while farm incomes rose due to rising prices for their outputs and transfer payments from the American taxpayers. Farmers now had to work less to earn more money.

Today, however, farmers are putting millions of idle acres back into cultivation. They are choosing to work harder and farm more land in order to take advantage of the rising world food prices caused by the increasing demand for meat among the world’s emerging middle class and the rising price of grains due to the push to promote ethanol as a renewable energy.

The farmers’ behavior today is a perfect demonstration of the law of supply, which acknowledges the direct relationship between a product’s price and the quantity that producers will bring to market. There are actually two markets at work here: the market for cropland, and the market for wildlands. Farmers face a tradeoff in their decision of whether to farm their land or let it lay fallow. In 1985, the government made the decision that not enough land was lain fallow, so it subsidized farmers who set lands aside for conservation. Since subsidies are a determinant of supply, the supply of idle land increased while the supply of cultivated land decreased, driving up food prices.

In addition to the law of supply, this article also encompasses the concept of market failure. The Farm Bill of 1985 inadvertently corrected a market failure relating to “merit goods”, or those that create positive externalities or spillover benefits for society. In the case of farmland, the less land was used for farming, the healthier the wildlife populations on the now idle lands of the American Midwest. Hunters, environmentalists, and conservation groups had much to cheer about:

,,,hunters had more land to roam and more wildlife to seek out, with the Agriculture Department estimating that the duck population alone rose by two million; and environmentalists were pleased, too. No one disputes that there are real environmental benefits from the program, especially on land most prone to erosion.

At its peak the “Conservation Reserve”, as it was known, saw more than 36 million acres set aside for wildlife. Today, however, farmers are choosing to put this land back into cultivation.

Markets are complicated things. Markets do a fantastic job of assigning values to easily tradeable commodities like corn, soybeans, sunflower seed oil, and wheat, which happen to be some of the crops most commonly grown on the millions of acres set aside for conservation since 1985. What market fail to do, however, is to assign adequate values to the non-tradeable goods in our society. The biodiversity of a wild grassland, the health of a water fowl population, the carbon-sequestration capacity of a standing forest, and the joy a hunter gets from roaming a fenceless wild land.

As food prices continue to rise in response to the shift towards bio-fuels and the growing demand for meat among developing countries’ consumers, there will be more and more pressure for farmers in the industrialized world to take their lands out of conservation and put them into cultivation. This is not only a rich world phenomenon either. In Brazil, farmers are responding to rising sugar prices by cutting down ever growing chunks of the Amazon, one of the world’s last great rainforests, sometimes called “earth’s lungs” because of its ability to trap carbon from the atmosphere.

If balance between conservation and cultivation is to be achieved, it requires a market system that puts a tangible, tradeable value on the sometimes intangible “goods” relating to the environment. For now, a short-term solution might be a new Farm Bill that offers farmers a more substantial payment for keeping lands idle. Such an interventionist approach may stem the loss of wild lands, but does little to address the bigger problem of market failure underlying the degradation of the world’s remaining natural environments.

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Jan 14 2008

When markets work…

Michael Munger, Bosses Don’t Wear Bunny Slippers, If Markets Are So Great, Why Are There Firms: Library of Economics and Liberty

The other day when we introduced our unit on market failure, we began by revisiting the concept of free markets as mechanisms for allocating scarce resources efficiently. As I was reading blogs tonight, I stumbled upon this blog post by Michael Munger, professor of political economy at Duke University, where he shares an anecdote he uses when introducing the allocating power of markets through the price mechanism:

When I teach political economy, I start with the neoclassical theory of consumption, and then cover production. And I show students how miraculous is it that the actions of millions of people who have never met can be directed by prices. Resources move toward their highest valued use, and consumption goods are delivered to the consumers who want them.

For example, the United States promoted ethanol as an auto fuel. This sharply increased the price of corn worldwide. As Brazilian reporter Kieran Gartlan put it: “Higher prices are leading Brazilian farmers to plant more second crop corn this year, and the country’s modest corn exports are expected to expand [from 42 million tonnes to 48 million tonnes, an increase of 230 million bushels.]” (DTN, March 2, 2007, emphasis mine).

No one directed the Brazilian farmers to shift to corn production. The article puts it perfectly: “Higher prices are leading farmers….” The leadership comes from the prices themselves! The farmers may have had no idea why the price of corn had increased, to $4.00 per bushel. (After all, Brazil uses sugar, not corn, to produce its ethanol.) But Brazilian corn production increased within a year, by nearly 15%. No one made the farmers switch; they made choices. Other corn producers, in Argentina, Mexico, and several African countries, followed suit. No one talked about it, no one gave any orders; prices led them.

The reason I post this excerpt from professor Munger’s blog now is that it serves as a great response to a student who on the first day of our market failure class posited that perhaps the government could do a better job of deciding what goods and services and how much of them should be produced in an economy.

Yes, markets fail, and for many reasons: a concentration of power among a few large firms, an underallocation of resources towards goods that have spillover benefits, the over-provision of goods that have spillover costs, the failure of the market to provide public goods: these are examples of how market fail.

But when markets work, they really work! The efficiency of resource allocation that results from free, competitive, markets is unrivaled by any central planning agency. Munger’s example above is a simple illustration of this allocative power of markets and prices.

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May 22 2007

Hog Heaven!

High corn price mean pigs eat candy bars, french friesAnother Reeces, please!

Oh, the life of a pig… Due to the rising price of corn (thanks to increased production of corn ethanol), farmers all over America are substituting relatively cheap junk food to keep their porkies plump!

“Besides trail mix, pigs and cattle are downing cookies, licorice, cheese curls, candy bars, french fries, frosted wheat cereal and peanut-butter cups. Some farmers mix chocolate powder with cereal and feed it to baby pigs,” writes Lauren Etter.

My wife calls that last one “puppy chow” when she makes it! It’s mmm… good!

“California farmers are feeding farm animals grape-skins from vineyards and lemon-pulp from citrus groves. Cattle ranchers in spud-rich Idaho are buying truckloads of uncooked french fries, Tater Tots and hash browns.”

Mom’s, don’t let your kids read this article, you’ll never hear the end of it: “But MOOOMMM, even FARMERS let their animals eat french fries, peanut butter cups and licorice for dinner, why can’t you let ME??!!”

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