My Annual Review 2015

This year was a bittersweet year for us. The health of my mother-in-law, Hannah, hasn’t improved and Leorah is dedicated to helping her be as peaceful and pleasant as possible. I admire Leorah’s strength and love for her mother. We all remember her dynamic and creative personality while facing the current reality of old age and realize that this is the cycle of life.

At the same time, we enjoy seeing our grandchildren bloom into little people with personalities and opinions (in their own right)! We enjoy playing with Arlo (son of Eyal and Beth), Adelaide (daughter of Aytan and Davina), and Geo (son of Shie and Leigh) and appreciate the smile and laughter of baby Nava, Geo’s sister. There is nothing more gratifying than having successful, and self-reliant, adult children with wonderful families of their own. Another gratifying event was that the Warriors won the championship after 30 years of waiting.

safta adisafta nava

Both the Beahrs ELP and the MDP while going through transitional phases continue to grow and prosper. Anita Ponce, the former anchor of the Beahrs ELP, decided to pursue new opportunities leaving it in the good hands of Mio Owens. Mio is also in charge of the Berkeley International & Executive Program, and this coming year, we will host a major executive training workshop on supply chain and innovation, which will be a first for Berkeley. Eunice Kim, who brought energy, elegance and wisdom to the MDP from its inception, also left to take on new challenges. We are really excited about her new family, congratulations Eunice and David! Fortunately, George continues to be the pillar of strength and innovation for our program and we were fortunate enough to hire Lauren Krupa as our career and admissions sage. Both programs are in good hands and deserve your support!

MDP Class of 2015

Research-wise, this year was very productive. I continued my work showing the more enlightened policies on both biofuels and biotech and towards an economy transitioning from one relying on non-renewable resources to a more sustainable one relying on renewable resources.

This coming year we are looking forward to another bioeconomy conference at Berkeley and the 20th anniversary of the ICABR at Ravello. I have new studies on the economics of water conservation and water and climate change. I coauthored a study surveying alternative perspectives to food and agriculture by non-economists. After many decades, I was able to publish the final chapter of my dissertation.

My newest initiative is to understand how new innovations create supply chains. I have always been fortunate to work with wonderful collaborators and students along with excellent support (thanks Angie, Scott, Hillary, and Ben!). This year I also started an exciting collaboration with Tom Reardon, who will also teach at the MDP.

ELP graduation

As usual, this year was one of travel. I was fortunate to visit my family in Israel and to have my sister, Dina, and her family visit us in Berkeley. My travels brought me to Slovakia, three times to Italy, to Germany and to Nepal. All rewarding experiences that showed me that while people may look and behave differently, we are all quite similar.

Happy 2016, a year of happiness and peace.

all grandchildren

Training Environmental Leaders in Nepal, Sandee Style

I had always wanted to visit Nepal and between the 9th and 14th of December I finally made the voyage. I participated in a seminar of Sandee (the South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economists) and spent some time with my colleague and friend Biswo Poudel.


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The flight to Kathmandu is among the longest as it one of the farthest locations from San Francisco. I selected the shortest flights and after 24 hours in transit I was in Kathmandu – unfortunately my luggage could not keep up with the pace of flying and arrived the next day, after enjoying an overnight stay in Bangkok.

Life in Nepal is affected by two recent setbacks: First, the major earthquake that shook Nepal in April 2015. On the surface there were not many obvious signs that this had happened. A few houses in the downtown area were crumbled – but many more are not habitable. In the older part of town and in the villages the damage was much more substantial – many old houses and some temples collapsed.

The Nepalese have also faced a de facto blockade of goods shipped through India. The blockade is apparent everywhere: queues of cars waiting for gas at official government facilities, many flights have been canceled and planes that serve Nepal bring their fuel with them. Tourist resorts are deserted and there are few choices of food at restaurants and even a shortage of medicine in hospitals. The pain of the blockade was reduced by the smuggling of fuel – and more than doubling the price of gasoline in the black market. I could not figure out the cause of the blockade, but I suspect that whatever were the sins of Nepal, the blockade was an excessive response.

I figured out that while Nepal is part of the Indian civilization, it hates to be treated like a little brother. The Nepalese are also stuck between India and China. They have been independent for millennia and want to keep good relations with the giants at its borders, and want to do so without taking sides.

I also realized that religion plays a major role in Nepal — there are 4000 temples in Kathmandu — and the music and chanting from temples are pervasive. Many of the Nepalese are both Hindi and Buddhist and I learned to appreciate their religious perspective. While the monotheistic religions believe that the world is ruled by one deity, my Nepalese friends assume that the world is ruled by a cabinet with many rulers through a hierarchical system. In Nepalese schools there are temples to the education gods and in hospitals, to the medicine gods. This approach may be quite inclusive – if you believe in many gods, the odds of accepting another one seems to be quite high.

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Despite the Modi blockade (named after the Indian prime minster, who the Nepalese viewed until recently as a reformer and good neighbor, and now see him as a capricious bully), my trip was wonderful. The limited food choices were still very tasty, a combination of interesting Indians dishes with fresh salads and soups. The weather was spectacular: I enjoyed watching snowy mountaintops when the temperature below in the valley is around 60F. Biswo and his wife, Pratibha, showed me fascinating parts of their country and the Sandee workshop was wonderful.

As I understand it, Sandee is part of a program initiated by Karl Goran Maeler and Sir Partha Dasgupta and by the Swedish Beijer Institute, which was aimed to create leaders of environmental economics research in developing countries.

The program established four regional networks for Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia and Sandee for South Asia. Each program has its unique features and flavors. Sandee is 15 years old, and offers education and training activities, including a summer school of three weeks in environmental economics, a shorter winter program and other educational and policy programs.

The most advanced program is a research-training program for economists with a PhD or masters degree who work as assistant professors as well as in government. Each year, the program selects 5 to 15 participants from a pool of applicants. Participants receive around $10,000 annually to conduct supervised research for 2-3 years.

Each participant is assigned an advisor, and the participants meet their advisors at the biannual workshops. The advisors – the “faculty” of the program – are leading environmental and resource economists from prominent universities.[1] The advising process is very detailed and deep: the participants and their advisors interact constantly and during the biannual meeting each candidate makes a presentation and receives feedback from the advisors, other assigned reviewers, and other participants. The reviewing and feedback processes assist the candidate in designing a conceptual framework and data collection plan, and help to improve the analysis and writing of a research publication.

Some of the time of the biannual meetings is allocated to learning and exposure to new research. I was invited to the 31st biannual workshop to speak about my work on Biotechnology and Sustainable Development. Another guest speaker was Professor Mushfiq Mobarak from Yale, who provided an excellent review on the use of impact assessment studies as tools for increase adoption improved practices and for introducing change.

Both of us also served as commenters on the participants’ presentations. I was very impressed with the depth and quality of these the research efforts, which covered major issues of development and the environment. Particular emphasis was given to (1) understanding and designing strategies for adaption to climate change, (2) analysis of the factors that influence adoption of new technologies and estimating the impacts of these technologies, and (3) estimating the cost and benefits to economic agents in developing countries from environmental conservation activities that provide global benefits. Such activities may include conservation of biodiversity and sequestration of greenhouse gases.

The perception is that the toughest challenge of an academic career is to get a degree and then a job. I think that actually working on your own after graduation is even more challenging. This is especially so in a developing-country environment, in which young scholars are frequently not surrounded by experienced faculty members who provide support and can teach the tricks of the trade.

The biannual research and writing workshop train the participants to withstand the rigorous critical review that academic researchers face and help them to respond to feedback rather than give up. They provide the exposure and skills that will make researchers much more effective teachers, advisors, and colleagues in their own right. I admire the commitment of the advisors, who have been coming to South Asia twice a year to supervise their students for minimum or no compensation. Their dedication is a testimony to the value of the program – as economists who value their time dearly they would not make this effort unless the benefits are immense and justify the cost.

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I learned from this program what the term “capacity building” means, both in concept and practice. The program creates research leaders, and some of the participants go on to become policy analysts, advisors, and scholars.

The program also improves their skills as teachers and in turn, will cultivate the skills of their students. Finally it brings together economists from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri-Lanka, and Nepal. I saw emerging friendships and collaborations that may forge better understanding between future leaders of nations, many of which have a history of conflicts and misunderstandings.

My 15 years of experience as co-director of the Beahrs ELP allows me to appreciate Sandee even more. Beahrs ELP participants are from many disciplines and the program emphasizes broadening of horizons and multidisciplinary cooperation. Sandee’s emphasis is to strengthen the capacity of economists in their chosen disciplines.

Both of the programs work to build an international network of collaboration. We invest immense amounts in educating our youth, but education does not need to end with graduation. With the fast accumulation of new knowledge and technological change, some forms of knowledge and skills become obsolete. Both programs are forums for lifelong learning that is especially important in the context of development work. I believe that these types of investments in our future deserve support and nurturing.

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After the workshops, Biswo and Pratibha took me on a tour of Chitwan (their hometown) and the region’s national park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While we didn’t see the emblematic Mount Everest, we were nestled in a valley surrounded by towering mountains and wide rivers running through it.

One attraction of the region is its jungle safari, where you may encounter rhinos, elephants, crocodiles, and, if you are lucky, tigers. This region also taught me about environmental leadership in action. During the civil war in Nepal (1996-2006), environmentalists in the region risked their lives to save its animals and were successful in establishing an active ecotourism industry.

Absent are the Holiday Inns and Hiltons, and instead there are homegrown and charming resorts that attract people from all over the world. Some tourists may climb the Himalayas and then relax at these charming resorts. My time in Nepal showed me that environmental leadership is about learning and practice. It requires support from the outside but it must also build commitment from the inside.

[1] The advisors this year were Jeff Vincent and Subarbau Patanayak from Duke University; Celine Nauges from the University of Tolouse; Jean Marie Baland from University of Namur Belgium; the founding director of the program, Priya Shyamsundar, and its current director, E. Somanathan from the Indian Statistical Institute; and Enamul Haque from Asian Center for Development.

AgBiotech and Climate Change

http://blogs.berkeley.edu/2011/08/14/agbiotech-and-combating-climate-change/

There is a growing concern about climate change and much of the worry pertains to the implications of climate change for food and agriculture. There is emerging evidence that increased heat beyond a certain threshold is likely to reduce yields and that climate change will require adaptation and change in land use patterns across locations. For example, farmers will need to switch to crop varieties that are more drought and heat tolerant and farming systems may need to adjust to new pests that arise from changing climates. Technologies that will enable agriculture to adapt to changing weather patterns should be a very valuable component in responding to climate change. Such technologies will have extra appeal if they can also mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and slow global warming.

We will argue that agricultural biotechnology and GMO (genetically modified organisms) can contribute to adaption of climate change and has already contributed to mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions. It suggests that changes in the regulatory environment that will enable faster adoption and further development of biotechnology will be major social and environmental benefits.

Agricultural biotechnology applies the new knowledge of molecular biology and genetics that followed the discovery of DNA in the 1950’s to improve crops and livestock. Tools of biotechnology have revolutionized medicine and similar tools have been developed to increase agricultural productivity. With genetic modification, scientists can modify a small number of genes in plants and provide it with the capacity to resist disease, improve product quality, have a longer shelf life, etc. Thus far, the main application of GMOs in agriculture has been pest resistance and enabling the yearlong use of herbicides. This technology has been used mostly with four crops: corn, soybean, cotton and canola. Countries in North and South America adopted GM varieties for all of these crops and China and India and other countries have adopted it with cotton. Europe has practically banned the use of GM varieties and it has been hardly adopted in most African countries, except for South Africa. But even with limited use, biotechnology has made significant positive impacts.

A recent National Research Council report documented the major environmental benefits to GMOs relative to traditional farming. GMOs in the US and in other countries, reduce significantly the use of rather toxic pesticide chemicals and there is evidence that they actually save significant amount of lives in India and China. While in the US and China, GM varieties mostly replaced pesticide chemicals, in countries with lower use of pesticides, GMOs were able to reduce pest damage that can be very high. Adoption of Bt cotton was estimated to double yields in developing countries while the yield effect in developed countries was about 25%. In developing countries, GMO was estimated to increase yield by 60% while in developed countries, the yield effect was estimated to be 20%. These GM varieties increase yield both by reducing pest damage but also by making production more profitable so that farmers apply more intensive fertilizer, which also contributed to increase yields. Adoption of GMOs enabled to increase the output of soybean in Argentina by controlling weeds that allow double cropping of soybean and wheat. The increased supply because of GMOs contributed to reduce commodity food prices. We estimated that the commodity food price reduction effect, because of GMOs, is at least as big as price increases due to diversion of crops to produce biofuel. The very poor in developing countries are the main beneficiaries for increased agricultural supply and reduced commodity food prices and by increasing supply, GMOs help the poor and literally saves lives.

It is easy to show that if restrictions on the adoption of GMOs would have been removed and adoption rates of GM varieties in Europe would have been similar to the observed patterns of adoption, then much of the recent increase in commodity food prices would have been diminished. Introduction of GM varieties to wheat and rice would have further reduced commodity prices whereby helping the poor and would have released resources for other uses.

But these impacts of GM varieties have significant impact on climate change. Increases in yields suggest fewer amounts of land, as well as fertilizer and other chemicals are required for agricultural production. Reduction of land requirements for agriculture slows the process of deforestation and the immense emission of greenhouse gases associated with it. Agricultural fertilizers, as well as irrigation and other chemicals, are very energy intensive and reduction of its use due to GMOs also reduces greenhouse gas emissions. The land use saving effect of GM varieties is estimated to have the equivalent effect of taking between 800,000-9 million passenger cars off of the road. We figure that the adoption of Bt cotton in the US saves the equivalent of carbon emissions from 25,000 cars per year, achieved by reducing agro-chemical use. The use of herbicide-tolerant varieties enable large scale adoption of low-tillage practices that sequester carbon and greenhouse gas sequestering effect is estimated to be equal to that of taking 6.4 million cars off the road.

These are preliminary estimates and depend on assumptions, but they demonstrate a significant contribution of GM to the mitigation of climate change. Greenhouse gas emission reduction would have been much larger if GM varieties would have been used in other crops, for example wheat and rice, by reducing their acreage. Another source of impact of GMOs on greenhouse gases is through their effect on commodity prices. There is a growing concern that increases in commodity food prices population and economic growth as well as biofuel, is leading to deforestation and extra greenhouse gas emissions. The reduction of food prices associated with the adoption of GMOs will reduce this effect.

Unfortunately, the countries and groups that are most concerned about climate change are frequently strongly opposed to expansion of GMOs. As with any new technology, GMOs may pose some risk but the experience thus far suggests that these risks are minimal. Obviously policies to monitor and control risks are important but regulations need to enable the technology to reach its potential to help people. It seems that the decisions to ban GMOs entirely or heavily regulate it, are based on desire to control uncertain low probability risks without realizing certain large gains are being lost.

The heavy regulation of GMOs are unsound not only because of the loss of benefits from existing varieties, but because of the loss of potential benefits from newer applications of GMOs. The rate of innovation and patenting was growing very fast until 1999 but after the European ban on GM varieties, the innovation rate has declined. Many scientists have tens of new traits on the shelf and are unable to find investors, either private or public, that will commercialize these innovations and move them further. Among these innovations are traits that increase the digestibility of feed crops like soybean, which reduce the amount of land required per ton of meat (thus reducing deforestation and agricultural chemical use) and reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that is released by cattle during digestion. Other unutilized traits can optimize water use and increase resistance to a wide variety of pests and expand shelf life. All of these unutilized traits have the potential increase significantly the productivity of resource use in agriculture and thus reduce energy required as well as the greenhouse gases it emits.

While GM varieties have already made a contribution, their ability to develop them quickly and effectively will be crucial as the pace and severity of climate change intensifies the need for fast adaptation is more acute. The concern about the risk of GMOs is understandable but you have to take small risks to avoid big ones. We should strive for policy reforms where Europe will become friendlier to GMOs and the US will join, and even lead the global effort to contain climate change. Climate change is a major challenge and we need the best tools we have to fight it. We need to fight fire with fire.