NYT hatchet job on GMOs shoots first, aims second

Brent Willett, CEcD, is executive director of Iowa's Cultivation Corridor.

The Oct. 29 New York Times article “Doubts About the Promised Bounty of Genetically Modified Crops” has drawn widespread condemnation from the agriculture and bioscience communities disputing its basis, key points and Shutterstock_68377594conclusions. Here's mine.

The piece opens with the suggestion that longtime concern about the safety of genetically modified crops — a premise agricultural experts and scientists have been arguing is inaccurate for years — is founded. That virtually no objective evidence-based science exists to undergird such an assertion is overlooked in the piece and in fact is contradicted by the headline on the Times’ own May 17 article “Genetically Engineered Crops Are Safe, Analysis Finds.”

Faced with mountains of objective evidence that disputes GM crop safety concerns, the Oct. 29 article’s author, undeterred, moves to argue we are all faced with a more basic issue we all have somehow missed: “Genetic modification in the United States and Canada has not accelerated increases in crop yields or led to an overall reduction in the use of chemical pesticides.”

Nonsense. According to Ken Russell, associate professor in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture at the University of Nebraska, national corn yield averages 125 bushels per acre, up nearly 500% since the 1930s and the advent of reliable yield tracking technology. GMO technology, he argues, has a lot (but not all) to do with it. “[M]uch of this improved yield was the result of improved genetics; that is, it occurred because farmers were planting improved varieties of corn developed through plant breeding,” he writes

To be extraordinarily conservative, even if we presume GM technology has had something to do with just a quarter of the crop yield increases we’ve seen in this country since its use became widespread in the early 2000s, the technology has played an outsized role in the greatest run-up in crop yields in human history. 

Too, to limit the exponential value to human life that GM technology has brought to the United States and Canada, as Borlaug the Times piece does, is artificially limiting and ignores the incredible contributions of the technology to alleviating hunger in the developing world. For example, the groundbreaking work in plant breeding done by our own celebrated Norman Borlaug, he of the World Food Prize, is said to have saved -- literally -- a billion lives. For only one of countless examples of the humanitarian impact Borlaug’s work has had across the globe, his development of drought- and disease-resistant wheat more than doubled wheat production in India and Pakistan in the 1970s, saving millions from starvation.

At Iowa’s Cultivation Corridor, one of the nation’s first cluster-based economic development organizations focused on value-added agriculture, I spend a great deal of time with our agricultural research and agbioscience communities in Iowa, which are anchored by Iowa State University and boast some of the world’s top ag and bioscience companies.  Here, some of the world’s top researchers and agricultural scientists work collaboratively with public and private sector stakeholders to contribute solutions to the world’s most pressing food and nutrition challenges. 

The Times’ journalistic disparagement of the work of these men and women and their colleagues all over the world to create technologies that will feed a global population of 10 billion people in 2050 is irresponsible and reprehensible. We should all be grateful that it will not deter those who are working to develop better, more sustainable ways to feed us all.

BrentWillett.org | 515-360-1732

bwillett@cultivationcorridor.org | @brent_willett | LinkedIn.com/in/brentwillett

Electric cars make sense in Iowa

Electric cars 01Rob Smith is principal architect at CMBA | Smith Metzger.

Little-known fact about electric vehicles: Des Moines is where the first American electric car was built, by William Morrison in 1887. The range was 50 miles, and in the early 1900s there were more electric cars on the road than any other type. Thomas Edison also built one, in 1913.

Now every manufacturer is racing to see how quickly an electric vehicle (EV) can come to the market. 

And the “greenness” of the EV has been hotly debated. I am sure you have heard of many of the issues.

  • The EV has a similar carbon footprint from the manufacturing process to that of any other car. In fact, the EV uses many rare metals to keep the vehicle lightweight.
  • The manufacture of some types of batteries causes great damage to the environment because of strip mining. That may or may not be a big issue.
  • The emissions are greatly reduced compared to the gas engine. No debate here.

But the biggest factor in the “greenness” of the EV is where on the planet it is charged. 

Electric cars 02The source used to produce the electricity trumps all the other green factors of the electric vehicle. Therefore, Iowa, with an estimated 40% of electricity generated by wind power, is the perfect place to operate an EV.

In Colorado, where coal produces electricity, the footprint equals a car getting poor gas mileage. If the EV is charged where the electricity is produced mostly from wind, hydro or nuclear, the effect can be equal to operating a gas-powered car getting 100 miles per gallon.

Let me know if you are ready to go all electric. Email me at smith.r@cmbaarchitects.com

Cubs, Trump, Dow industrials all beat the odds. December forecast: Pigs fly?

Kent Kramer, CFP, AIF, is chief investment officer/lead adviser at Foster Group. He writes about investing for IowaBiz.com

Like many Americans, I keep looking out my window for pigs with wings ... the euphemism “when pigs fly” having been recently invoked for:

  1. The Chicago Cubs winning the World Series after a 108-year drought, finding themselves down three games to one to the Cleveland Indians on Oct. 30 (15% probability*).
  2. Donald Trump winning the United States presidential election after an aggregated index of national polls gave him less than a 3-in-10 chance to win on Nov. 8 (28.6% probability*).
  3. U.S. stock market indices reaching all-time highs within 24 hours of Nov. 8's unexpected election results, given the plummeting futures markets as election returns were tallied in the early morning hours of Nov. 9. (Dow futures down over 5% at 1:30 a.m. EST 11/9/2016.+)

For each of these three outcomes, the odds against them occurring were very long. In other words, those professions specializing in making predictions (bookies, pollsters, certain hedge funds) ended up being wrong in historically significant ways.

In the days leading up to the recent election, I had the opportunity to speak with a number of audiences and investors about what (if anything) the coming election meant for financial markets and portfolios. As tempting as it was to make a prediction, after 22 years of observing investment market behavior as a “professional,” I resisted, knowing that the odds of making anything like a correct prediction were no better than 50-50.  

Sports fans, political observers and many investors can’t seem to help themselves when it comes to the temptation of making predictions. We watch the news, talk with friends and colleagues, read the pundits, editorials and analysis, and we believe that we can “see the writing on the wall.” While it’s fun to do this with our sports loyalties, it’s potentially disastrous to act on our predictions when it comes to portfolios.

There were professional and institutional investors on the wrong side of that 5% fall in the value of Dow futures. They were predicting a very negative impact on U.S. stocks as a result of the surprising election outcome. However, as U.S. markets began the trading day Wednesday morning following the election, the Dow Jones industrials index opened down a minuscule 0.08% and closed the day up 1.4% at a new record high+. Taking investment actions in line with those negative predictions in the early hours proved very costly.

In a recent white paper on the benefits of diversification, researcher Wei Dai, Ph.D., finds that under many conditions diversification not only reduces volatility, but, “For all investment horizons, there was a substantial increase in the reliability of outperformance as the portfolios become more diversified.”++ Dai was researching U.S. stock portfolio strategies formed around varying degrees of overweighting to value and smaller company stocks and how taking a more or less diversified approach affected results.

For investors who are thinking about how to position their portfolios for higher probabilities of outperformance, Dai’s conclusion supports the idea that consistent diversification over longer time periods is a more reliable strategy for both reducing risk and enhancing return than acting on short-term predictive models using timing models and smaller numbers of stocks.

* Both according to FiveThirtyEight.com a leading statistical modeling website for sports, politics and economics.

+ Wall Street Journal, Nov. 9, 2016

++ "How Diversification Affects the Reliability of Outcomes," Wei Dai, Ph.D., Dimensional Fund Advisors LP

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