Opposing environment-friendly rice with higher yields

The MIT Technology Review reports that scientists have produced a genetically modified rice strain that emits far less methane than traditional varieties.  It emits one thirtieth as much in summer and half as much in winter.  It does this because a single gene from barley has been inserted to make the plant yield 43% more grain per plant, so less carbon goes into the roots and the soil to be converted by microbes into methane.

Despite its enhanced yield and lower greenhouse gas emission, it is estimated that it could be 10-20 years before it becomes available to farmers.  This is because scientists will have to use traditional breeding methods to produce a rice that is scientifically the same, including the same gene.  As Chuanxin Sun, the report’s senior author, puts it: 

“Right now of course it’s a GMO issue, and we cannot deliver this variety directly to farmers. We have to use traditional breeding methods and breed the new, society-acceptable variety for farmers.”

It is thanks to completely unwarranted scare stories from environmental groups that progress in genetic modification has been held back.  Millions of children have suffered blindness or death because of opposition to ‘golden rice’ modified to biosynthesize beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A, to combat a shortage of dietary vitamin A in some areas.

Millions more live at precarious subsistence levels because they are denied access to GM crops with enhanced yield or greater saline or drought resistance.  Innumerable field tests have failed to show adverse effects on humans, yet many in the environmental lobby campaign for all GMOs to be rejected.  They do not hesitate to trample down experimental crops planted with the support of democratically elected governments.

Many of the NGOs will undoubtedly oppose the new rice, despite its hugely increased yield and smaller environmental footprint.  Scare stories are what they do, and they keep the subscriptions and donations rolling in.

Hunting Foxes… Because You Like It

Last week, a new vote on whether the Hunting Act, the scorn of politics in the early 2000s, should be amended, was thrown out of the window. There was none of the anger that had filled the 400,000 protestors outside of Parliament Square in 2004, nor the 700 hours of debate that had occupied the Commons. Only a smug look from Nicola Sturgeon, as she realised she had outsmarted David Cameron.

Amending and repealing the Hunting Act has long been on the agenda for the Conservatives. Before the 2010 election, there were murmurings that, were a Conservative majority to take power, repeal of the ban on fox hunting with dogs would be looked at.

So let’s look at fox hunting with dogs. The Countryside Alliance declares the Hunting Act bad for the rural economy, bad for rural communities, bad for animal welfare and a waste of police resources’. It is true that reports of malpractice on foxhunts and police prevention take up time and resources. Very few convictions for those hunting with dogs have ever been brought about, despite the amount of evidence which animal rights groups present. ‘Bad for animal welfare’ is somewhat difficult to comprehend, but if they mean that it is bad for animal welfare that poultry might be killed by a fox, before they are killed by the slaughterhouse, perhaps this is an understandable argument. Bad for the rural economy and rural communities is a dubious case to make. Many hunts have seen their numbers grow since the ban. The Burns Report, which examined hunting before the Hunting Act was introduced, registered 178 hunts in 2000; there are now 176. However, although there are fewer hunts, the number of participants has dramatically risen. 20,591 people were subscribed for foxhunts in 2000; around 45,000 now take part regularly in hunts. The demand for foxhunting has certainly not diminished.

Most interesting of all is to examine how hunting affects fox numbers. Perhaps the most reiterated reason which hunting enthusiasts enjoy promoting is that hunting is a form of culling – that without hunting, foxes would be ravaging farming communities. Realistically, fox hunting causes very little impact to fox numbers and likely increases them if anything. Fox numbers are determined by competition. Foxes will move into territories where they find it easier to find food and face less competition from other foxes. This means that there is a constant movement of foxes which cannot be stopped by hunting. Moreover, studies have shown that the more foxes killed in a winter cull, the more that are born in litters come springtime. The greatest regulator of the fox population are the foxes’  social factors themselves: social groups of foxes will defend their territory from other fox groups on a nationwide level. Other factors involve food availability and disease, but these tend to be local issues with little impact.

Fox hunting has very little to do with the actual real numbers of foxes killed. Those who participate should not try to convince both others and themselves that they are a necessity to the protection of farming. It remains their liberty to hunt, but it is for the purpose of their enjoyment, not conservation.

This article was written by Benjamin Jackson, a Research Associate at the Adam Smith Institute. Benjamin is half-way through his Classics degree at the University of Edinburgh.

Housing the Homeless

Homelessness in the UK is on the rise. 2014 figures show that 2,744 people slept rough on any one night in England, a 55 per cent rise on 2010. In London, there has been a rise of 16 per cent in a single year. Homelessness is a result of poverty and creates a downward spiral that is difficult to escape from. It is clear that it is an issue that needs to be tackled, particularly given the rising figures.

The current policy on homelessness from the government centres on preventing long-term rough sleeping on the streets. The ‘No Second Night Out’ scheme has been successful in achieving this aim: its introduction led to 75 per cent of rough sleepers not spending a second night on the streets. An admirable success – but largely superficial.  It does not account for the ‘hidden homeless’, those who live in hostels, nor is it a lasting solution to homelessness. It is extremely difficult to build a life around inconsistent housing.

The root problem of homelessness is not achieved by taking people off the streets into temporary housing. It is only solved by people having places to live. And the current crisis in UK housing is not helping this. The severe lack of affordable housing is forcing people onto the streets and into homelessness. In 2013-2014, only 140,000 houses were built for the demand of 250,000, hardly enough to cover those who can afford to buy them, let alone those who live on the streets. Moreover, the cut to housing benefit announced in the July budget will not be conducive to preventing homelessness, instead, making it more difficult to combat it.

When examining the most successful solutions to homelessness, offering effective housing solutions is the best way. Preventative measures have been lauded, but these do not help those who are recurrently homeless. Schemes in America and Canada offering long-term housing have been hugely successful in turning around homelessness figures. Utah has dramatically reduced their homeless problem through their Housing First program that offers housing to homeless people with no strings attached. When given a stable home, rather than inconsistent halfway housing, people were able to effectively build their lives. Similar projects in cities across Canada have brought the same results, showing that it is also more cost effective to offer housing rather than pay for the upkeep of the homeless in temporary accommodation, particularly when we included costs accrued indirectly – such as healthcare.

But these solutions seem unlikely to be as effective in the UK while housing is at such a premium and remains as expensive.  Until then, the government will have to rely on preventative measures as its most effective solution until it can solve the real problem of housing.

 

This article was written by Benjamin Jackson, a Research Associate at the Adam Smith Institute. Benjamin is half-way through his Classics degree at the University of Edinburgh.

Moving away from aid in development

Today, world leaders are meeting in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa for the third Financing for Development summit. This builds upon the work of previous summits to produce a framework for the funding of development programmes and all that entails. It’s an important discussion, not least of all because after decades of hurling cash at nations, growth in recipient nations has been sub par.

Clemens et al. indicate that a 1% increase in aid in one year results in a 0.1-0.2% growth in real GDP per capita on average, which emerges in the following 5-10 years from the aid increase. Previous studies have conflicted in their findings of the impact of aid on growth – this paper reconciles the various views by controlling for confounding factors and considering just those factors that tend to have a short-term impact. Such a modest increase (combined with the fact that this is an average figure – many countries would not have benefited from aid at all) indicates that the effectiveness of aid is, from a charitable perspective, suspect. In subsequent posts on this subject, I’ll write on alternatives to aid.

Development aid is often confused with humanitarian aid – and this makes it look much more appealing than it really is. Few people would advocate not donating to emergency causes in other nations to help in the aftermath of a crisis; long-term development aid doesn’t have this morally glossy hue. The main reason is simply just that the evidence doesn’t show it to be very effective.

The economist Dambisa Moyo has written extensively on this subject in her book, Dead Aid (2010). She puts forward the argument that aid in Africa has served only to entrench aid dependency, and result in market-distorting inefficiencies. The consequence of this approach is one in which donor nations are off the hook but none of the promised benefits have accrued to the recipients. Moyo also indicates some evidence to show that nations that didn’t receive aid have done better than those that have. Her research and argument goes further than many mainstream development economists (i.e. Paul Collier, who maintains that the right kind of aid can be helpful) – for Moyo, it’s not just that aid has been ineffective, but that aid has entrenched the poverty it sought to cure Africa of.

This provides great context for Lucy Martin’s paper on the impact of tax compared with aid. Martin finds from experiments in Uganda that citizens are 13% more willing to punish leaders for misusing tax revenue on average – but those with most experience of taxation are 30% more likely to punish government. The theory is simple: the loss of utility is higher when, not only do you lose earned income, but that income is not put to good use to produce social goods. The fact that in many countries, poor citizens do not pay tax results in less anger and frustration at poor governance. Aid as a substitute for tax revenue hence enables this process to continue and results in less frustration – and less clamour for better governance, without which the institutions that result in development cannot develop.

In 2006, William Easterly wrote:

The evidence is stark: $568 billion spent on aid to Africa, and yet the typical African country no richer today than 40 years ago. Dozens of “structural adjustment” loans (aid loans conditional on policy reforms) made to Africa, the former Soviet Union, and Latin America, only to see the failure of both policy reform and economic growth. The evidence suggests that aid results in less democratic and honest government, not more. Yet, unchastened by this experience, we still have such absurdities as the grandiose plans by Jeffrey Sachs and the United Nations to do 449 separate interventions to reach 54 separate goals by the year 2015 (the Millennium Development Goals), accompanied by urgent pleas to double aid money.

Nothing much has changed since his time of writing, except we have committed yet more resource to an aid programme which is at best ineffective and at worst harming the prospects of the world’s poorest. The insights of extensive research and leading economists should inform us to proceed carefully and to give more weight to those areas of development that might be more fruitful. Most importantly, when the evidence suggests we might be doing enormous harm to those least able to bear it, our governments should be proceeding with humility and caution rather than hiding behind their cheque books.

 

It was the Yanks wot won it

This isn’t the result we usually think of. It’s more likely that we’ll think that the terrible loss of life by the Soviets, or perhaps plucky little Britain, fighting on alone, is really what won the battle against the Nazis. but the wisdom of the crowds has it right again:

As the world celebrates the 70th anniversary of Allied victory in Europe, millions in the UK will honour the role played by British forces in the defeating Nazi Germany.

According to a new poll, however, most other countries look to the United States as the country that did the most to vanquish Adolf Hitler.

A YouGov survey asked respondents from the US, Britain, and several European countries who they thought was most essential to defeating Germany in the Second World War and the US was the top choice in all but the UK and Norway.

Modern war isn’t won by battles. It’s won by winning the war. And that’s more a matter of logistics than anything else. And it’s at that point that America becomes so important. The vast productive capacity of the American economy meant that Germany was going to be defeated, whatever else happened, in the end. Once, that is, that the United States had come into the war on the side against Germany.

We can talk a lot about tactics, battles, who suffered most (that has an easy answer, those inbetween Germany and Russia, those in the Bloodlands) but the eventual outcome was never really in doubt. Not once the American economy entered on the one side.