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Thursday April 26, 2018

Which states are most likely to oppose animal-rights political action?

Researchers at Oklahoma State looked at the history of state ballot initiatives restricting the confinement of farm animals and chickens, matched the demographics of the voters who supported those initiatives in California, and then conducted a "thought experiment" predicting the likelihood of the failure of similar agendas in other states. Here are the top half dozen states considered least likely to support such political action.

Where can groups like the Humane Society of the United States be expected to succeed? Click here to find out.


No. 6 Least Likely: Nebraska

With almost $1 billion in hog sales and 2.8 billion eggs produced annually, Nebraska--despite a political process that offers access to the ballot initiative--appears fairly safe from imposed restrictions on pig and poultry farms. However, the Oklahoma researchers warned, Nebraska could become an important keystone in what could be called "the Ohio strategy:" Win an initiative in a large farm state restricting gestation crates or caging hens and then rally the affected farmers in that state to lobby their peers on a nationwide level to support similar restrictions in order to "level the playing field." Projected voter support rate in Nebraska for a California-style initiative: 28 percent.

West Virginia

Least likely No. 5: West Virginia

West Virginia's combination of income levels, education, age, political affiliation and other demographics leaves it resistant to initiatives driven by animal-rights groups. The percent of voters likely to support such actions: Only 28 percent.


Least likely No. 4: Oklahoma

A half billion dollars in annual hog sales and roughly three-quarter billion eggs produced per year, coupled with demographics that tend to make California-style initiatives unpopular, leaves Oklahoma relatively safe despite its offering access to the ballot-initiative process. Only an estimated 23 percent of voters would support such a measure.


Least likely No. 3: Iowa

Ranking as the nation's biggest hog grower, no access to the ballot initiative process, and a low predicted support rate of only 21 percent all leave Iowa the most powerful hog state immune to gestation-crate bans, the Oklahoma study predicts.

South Dakota

Least likely No. 2: South Dakota

States with the lowest predicted support rates for animal-rights ballot initiatives are dominated by Mainline Protestantism, the study noted--the demographic that highly predicts opposition to California-style activity. Such Protestant identity makes areas of New England, which are highly sympathetic to such politics, "a very different place than the Protestant Dakotas," they write. Predicted support rate in heavily Protestant and livestock-engaged South Dakota: Only 17 percent.

North Dakota

Least likely to accept animal-welfare ballot initiatives? North Dakota

Like its neighbor to the south, heavily Protestant and politically conservative North Dakota tops the list of projected disinterest in political initiatives like California's, with but a 14 percent predicted support rate. With a large dependence on livestock, the largest number of farms per rural capita of any state, and among the highest white ethnicity rates—all of which impact affinity for such politics—"Prop two stands little chance of passing" there, the study concludes.


Will antibiotic bans break the piggy bank?The U.S. Food & Drug Administration announced in mid-December it planned to issue a final set of guidelines that would eventually end the ability of farmers to use most animal drugs marketed in this country for improving how fast and how efficiently animals grow.

Because as many as nine out of 10 U.S. hog farmers use antibiotics at some point, according to USDA survey data—and 43 percent of those farmers say they use antibiotics specifically for the purpose of helping animals grow better--a soon-to-be-published study in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics predicts ending such use of antibiotics has the potential to make a financial impact on hog farmers and the pork market.

USDA economists Nigel Key and William McBride use data from the 2009 USDA Agricultural Resource Management Survey of feeder-to-finish hog producers—those farmers who buy pigs shortly after weaning at about 3 weeks old and then raise them to final weight—to estimate the potential effects on overall hog output and the variation in output that could result from banning antibiotics to promote growth.

Their results estimate that such use of antibiotics—often referred to as “sub-therapeutic use”—has a small positive effect on productivity and production risk, increasing output by 1 percent to 1.3 percent, while reducing the variation in output by 1.4 percent. Farmers could expect to immediately lose those productivity improvements should sub-therapeutic antibiotics be banned.

Although that percent change in productivity may seem minor, given the amount of controversy the practice endgnders in the media and the public, local grocers may be able to relate to the potential impact it would have on individuals because farmers, like grocers, operate on narrow margins. The researchers note that the average feeder-to-finish hog farmer had an average net return of only about 11 percent of sales in 2009--the year from which their data came. That means, assuming no change in prices for his hogs, an independent farmer forced to stop using sub-therapeutic antibiotics could be expected to see his income drop by about 10 percent, depending on how much he was paying for the antibiotics that were no longer being used. Even non-independent hog farmers—those who grow hogs owned by large corporations under contract, typically for a set payment per head of hog delivered—would also likely face losses. Because many are paid a bonus or on an incentive basis for delivering hogs at a standard weight and variability, the loss of ability to use those antibiotics would likely reduce the amount of pork they get paid for at their end of their contracts.

Because it would likely reduce pork supplies, at least temporarily, a national ban on sub-therapeutic antibiotics would likely result in higher hog prices, which would have the potential to impact the grocer. Ironically, the group most likely to suffer most from a ban on growth-promoting antibiotics would be the small share of farmers who currently earn a premium from marketing their hogs as “antibiotic-free.” Among the 16.3 percent of feeder-to-finish operations who said they used no antibiotics of any kind, about 15 percent reported receiving a price premium for not using antibiotics. Those growers would likely see the premium for their marketing trait evaporate overnight with the ban on the practice.

The USDA researchers caution that some limitations of their study design make it likely they have not captured the full potential impact of an antibiotics ban. For instance, they did not account for any downstream costs that might affect the processors by the expected decrease in the uniformity of hog size, which is known to slow down production lines. In addition, they did not estimate any impact on operations that handle newborn and newly weaned pigs. If the experience among European hog farmers when that continent banned the practice is any indication, the impact would be much larger for those operations. The resulting impact on pork supplies and the cost to the grocer would also likely be larger.

New USDA study raises questions about the legitimacy of promoting food stamps to improve consumers' healthy eating

Do food stamps really lead to healthy eating?As Congress considers appropriations for the farm bill, which funds the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program--even while USDA reports a record 48 million Americans have now joined participation in the program--advocates actively and vocally champion the value of the food stamps program. USDA argues SNAP is not only the “largest program in the domestic hunger safety net,” but it also helps low-income families in making food choices that help them meet dietary guidance for health.

"SNAP is important beyond alleviating hunger," argues the non-profit anti-poverty activist group Nebraska Appleseed. "It aids in improving nutrition and health, especially among children, by increasing access to healthy and nutritious foods including fruit and produce."

But does it?

Researchers in collaboration with the Economic Research Service of USDA in 2004 conducted a sweeping review of the existing scientific literature on that question. Examining a wide range of diet-related outcomes for studies published between 1973 and 2002, they found little evidence of any significant association between SNAP and individual dietary intake. A few studies did find the program is associated with improved nutritional intakes; however, a few have also likewise found similar association with poorer nutritional intake.

In an attempt to try to help settle the question, USDA just released a new detailed study that looked at the Healthy Eating Index scores for adults in low-income households that do and do not participate in SNAP. The study also tried to go further by attempting to tease out the confounding effects that could impact not only the HEI for different groups not related to food-stamp use, but also which might affect their tendency to enroll in the food-stamp program in the first place. You can read the entire report here.

As with the 2004 review, the researchers once again conclude the evidence as to whether SNAP participation either benefits or harms the quality of participants' diets remains largely inconclusive. However, some important points do emerge from the work:

  • After the effect of food-stamp participation, observed characteristics of the groups and unobservable factors were statistically accounted for, they showed SNAP participants actually do marginally worse on total HEI than comparable nonparticipants: about 1.25 points lower, or about 2.5 percent of the group average. In terms of dietary components, this difference amounts roughly to a half a cup of fruit, two-thirds of a cup of vegetables, or 1.33 ounces of whole grain products. With the exception of saturated fat and sodium intake, scores for all of the HEI components were actually worse for SNAP participants than nonparticipants, although most by just small fractions of a point.
  • The study did find SNAP participation increases the likelihood that participants will consume whole fruit by 23 percentage points; on the downside, it also induces participants to decrease their intake of dark green or orange vegetables by a modest amount— the equivalent of about 1 ounce for a 2,000-calorie diet. The authors theorized that the effect could be the result of both time constraints associated with SNAP’s work requirements and extra income—that is, people participating in SNAP may see whole fruit as more affordable with a little extra income, and they may eat more of it because it requires no preparation time. At the same time, dark green/orange vegetables could be less attractive to SNAP participants because these foods may require more preparation time.
  • Based on the statistical breakdown of their results, the authors suggest it's probably unrealistic to argue that enrolling people in SNAP incrementally improves their HEI score. It's more likely that any improvements are made by shifting them from one consumer category into another. In other words, it likely causes a non fruit eater to become a marginal fruit eater; a marginal fruit eater to become a fruit eater at the daily recommended amount.

Getting an unbiased estimate of the effect of SNAP on diet quality is a difficult task, the authors caution. It is reasonable to believe households that choose to participate in SNAP have differences compared to similar low-income households that don't enroll--differences that could affect their quality of eating regardless of being enrolled in SNAP. For example, households that participate in SNAP might value food and nutrition more than similar households that don't. Those confounding factors make any question of how to alter the program (for instance, by lobbying for their increased use at farmers markets) without reducing its effectiveness a difficult question, one that warrants further research.

Nebraska senators ask EPA to listen regarding coal

Nebraska senators Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer sent a public letter to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy this month requesting EPA ensure its "listening sessions" regarding the administration's proposed carbon regulations include citizens, businesses and farms. The Nebraska senators say the regulations would harm all those groups.

"We all want a cleaner environment," Johnanns said in his release statement regarding the letter, "but this Administration is blind to the economic consequences their anti-coal agenda is having on rural America."

"These regulations will drive up costs for every Nebraska farmer and rancher, business owner and manufacturer, and family each time they turn on the lights. I've told EPA about the economic hardships they are causing. It's time they hear it straight from Nebraskans," he said.

Meanwhile, the two Nebraska senators also joined a bipartisan group of 16 senators last week to meet with administrator McCarthy to urge changes to the proposed Renewable Fuel Standard 2014 rule. The delegation argues EPA's proposed rule would hurt the biofuels industry by lowering the biodiesel target below current industry production levels and reduce the total biofuels target by over a billion gallons, discouraging investment and hurting jobs and rural communities across the country. The EPA's proposed rule would set the biodiesel target at 1.28 billion gallons, which is below current industry production levels of around 1.7 billion gallons. It would also reduce the total biofuels target to 15.2 billion gallons--1.34 billion gallons below the 2013 target of 16.55 billion gallons, and almost 3 billion gallons below the 2014 statutory target of 18.15 billion gallons.

In today's quest to cure the general public of its presumed food-related health issues like obesity, diabetes and heart disease, the "natural public policy imperative," according to a pair of New York marketing researchers, is to use policy that can "nudge" consumers from buying and eating unhealthy food toward the healthier food options policy makers decide to be more appropriate. In the eyes of advocates like Yale University professor Kelly Brownell, for instance, who sees the path to healthier food choices as no different than the path to a tobacco-free world, the solution is as simple as having the political will to add surcharges and subsidies on sinful foods to promote healthier food consumption behavior.

Although that economically driven incentive system may be clear, it is far from simple, according to an upcoming study soon to be published:

A team of researchers led by North Carolina State economist Chen Zhen directly tested whether the idea that forcing consumers to pay more for sugar-sweetened drinks will encourage them to lose weight because they drink less holds true in the real world, where policy often ignores the practical fact that shoppers may simply switch an artificially inflated "sinful food" for a cheaper one nearby on the shelf. Zhen notes existing research has found little to no relationship between existing tax rates and body weight. It shouldn't come as a surprise, he notes, because current taxes on soft drinks designed to raise revenue rather than cut caloric consumption are trivial in comparison to those taxes that are designed to impact behavior, particularly tobacco taxes. Meanwhile, he notes, estimates of the impact tobacco-scale taxes might have on soft drink consumption do suggest they would reduce consumption; however, they haven't taken into account consumers' ability to simply switch to other non-taxed, high-calorie foods.

To attempt to do that, Zhen and others used a sophisticated demand-estimation model looking at household Nielsen Homescan consumer purchase panel data. They modeled household purchases of a set of 23 food and beverage categories, including three major sugar-sweetened beverage categories--soft drinks, energy drinks and juice drinks--attempting to simulate the effects of a half-cent per ounce increase in their price. In addition to the change in drink consumption and calories consumed, they also modeled the expected change in fat and sodium.

The result? Across households of all incomes, about one-half of the reduction in drink calories a price increase would result in would be offset by increases in calories from other foods and beverages. Although a price increase would be expected to lead to a net reduction of 7.9 kilocalories per capita per day, it would increase daily per capita fat and sodium intakes by 0.2 g and 49.8 mg, respectively. The increase in the price of sugar-sweetened drinks also would be expected, according to the model, to lead shoppers to drink less milk, less 100-percent juice, and less bottled water, even as it would induce an increase in diet soft drinks.

Bottom line: Ignoring the cross-effect of a sin tax on soft drinks on other foods means policy makers could be overestimating the effect of such a tax on overall calorie reduction by over 100 percent on average. In addition, a "back of envelope" calculation in the overall welfare loss for low-income households caused by such a tax is about $5 per household per year more than high-income households because low-income households reported higher sugar-sweetened drink purchases. This difference in welfare loss between low- and high-income households reinforces another ugly reality of the sin tax: It's a regressive tax that hits the poor relatively hardest, at least in the case of sugar-sweetened drinks.

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