agriculture

Technological Progress Freed Children from Hard Labor

It’s summertime and across the United States, children are away from school. The custom of long breaks in the school year dates to when most Americans worked in agriculture and often needed their children’s help on the farm. Of course, most children simply didn’t attend school, instead helping with housework and grueling farm labor year-round. In 1820, for example, primary school enrollment in the United States was just over 40 percent. That percentage rapidly shot upward in the coming decades, reaching 100 percent by 1870. But even then, many children didn’t make it past elementary school. In 1870, U.S. mean years of schooling stood at just 4.28. That number has risen steadily ever since. What changed? Technology, for one thing.

In his book Enlightenment Now, Harvard University professor Steven Pinker recounts how technology helped get boys off the farm and into the classroom. He quotes a tractor advertisement from 1921:

“By investing in a Case Tractor and Ground Detour Plow and Harrow outfit now, your boy can get his schooling without interruption, and the Spring work will not suffer by his absence. Keep the boy in school—and let a Case Kerosene Tractor take his place in the field. You’ll never regret either investment.”

As more farms adopted efficiency-enhancing agricultural devices like kerosene tractors, more boys attended school instead of working the fields. For girls, the huge time savings brought on by labor-saving household devices played a similar role. As running water, electricity, washing machines, and other modern conveniences spread, time spent on housework plummeted. Pinker’s book also contains a telling chart documenting the change.

This Thanksgiving, I’m Thankful for NAFTA

As the 5th round of talks on the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) wrap up, the United States, Canada and Mexico continue to work out the technical details of their various proposals. Being the week of Thanksgiving, and because I can’t stop thinking about all the great food I’m going to eat on Thursday, I figured it’s a perfect time to reflect on the benefits of NAFTA for Americans who buy a variety of agricultural products.

When you look at products imported for consumption, that is, products that receive no additional processing, imports from Canada and Mexico have grown quite a bit since NAFTA was finalized in 1994. Imports are important because they allow consumers greater choice (like fruits and vegetables in winter!), as well as lowering prices so that everyone gets to enjoy some Thanksgiving cheer.

NAFTA Consumer-Oriented Ag Imports

Clayton Yeutter, RIP

After a long battle with cancer, Ambassador Clayton Yeutter passed away on Saturday at the age of 86 at his home in Potomac, Maryland. With his passing, the world parts not only with a brilliant, effective, accomplished leader, but an extraordinarily generous, decent man whose enduring kindness and humble demeanor made politics and policymaking in Washington more tolerable for all involved.

Clayton Yeutter had a long an illustrious career spent in both the private and public sectors, as well as in academia, but he is probably best known for his service during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

As Reagan’s U.S. Trade Representative from 1985 to 1989, Ambassador Yeutter presided over implementation of the very first U.S. bilateral free trade agreement (with Israel) and he launched and oversaw negotiation of the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement, which evolved into the North American Free Trade Agreement, to include Mexico, in 1994.

As USTR, Ambassador Yeutter also launched and advanced the “Uruguay Round” of multilateral trade negotiations in 1986, under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which resulted in broader and deeper reductions in global barriers to trade than had previously been achieved, and it established the World Trade Organization in 1995.

During the first two years of the George H.W. Bush administration (1989-91), Yeutter served as Secretary of Agriculture, where he was instrumental in steering U.S. agricultural policy back to a more market orientation, from which it had deviated in the mid-1980s. The 1990 farm bill (The Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990) included reductions in agricultural subsidies that were negotiated during the Uruguay Round.

Yeutter held other high-profile positions, including an eight-year stint as President and CEO of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange—a period during which the volume of trade in agricultural, currency, and interest rate futures more than tripled. He served as Republican National Committee Chairman for two years, following the death of Lee Atwater.

NYT Article Understates the Benefits of GMOs

An Oct. 29, 2016, article by Danny Hakim in The New York Times gives a decidedly skewed view of the benefits of agricultural biotechnology. It is based on the author’s presumption that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were supposed to accomplish two things: (1) increase crop yields; and (2) reduce the use of chemical pesticides.  In essence, Hakim sets up two straw men and proceeds to knock them down using questionable analysis.

Elevated CO2 Stimulates the Growth of Papaya

Papayas are spherical or pear-shaped fruits known for their delicious taste and sunlit color of the tropics. Upon his arrival to the New World, Christopher Columbus apparently could not get enough of this exotic fruit, reportedly referring to it as the “the fruit of angels.” And the fruit of angels it may indeed be, as modern science has confirmed its value as a rich source of important vitamins, antioxidants and other health-promoting substances to the consumer.

Elevated CO2: A Key Driver of Global Greening Observations

Despite a constant barrage of stories portraying rising atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) as a danger and threat to the planet, more and more scientific evidence is accruing showing that the opposite is true. The latest is in a paper recently published in the journal Scientific Reports, where Lu et al. (2016) investigated the role of atmospheric CO2 in causing the satellite-observed vegetative greening of the planet that has been observed since their launch in 1978.

It has long been known that rising CO2 boosts plant productivity and growth, and it is equally well-established that increased levels of atmospheric CO2 reduce plant water needs/requirements, thereby improving their water use efficiency. In consequence of these two benefits, Lu et al. hypothesized that rising atmospheric CO2 is playing a significant role in the observed greening, especially in moisture-limited areas where soil water content is a limiting factor in vegetative growth and function. To test their hypothesis, the three scientists conducted a meta-analysis that included 1705 field measurements from 21 distinct sites from which they evaluated the effects of atmospheric CO2 enrichment on soil water content in both dryland and non-dryland systems.

Arctic Methane Scare Oversold

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

Methane is all the rage. Why? Because 1) it is a powerful greenhouse gas, that molecule for molecule, is some 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide (when it comes to warming the lower atmosphere),  2) it plays a feature role in a climate scare story in which climate change warms the Arctic, releasing  methane stored there in the (once) frozen ground, which leads to more warming and more methane release, ad apocalypse, and 3) methane emissions are  also be linked to fossil fuel extraction (especially fracking operations). An alarmist trifecta!

Turns out, though, that these favored horses aren’t running as advertised.

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