Organic marketing: Not truthful, often misleading

I am supportive of those who choose to grow organic food and those who choose to buy it. However, I do not accept the organic industry’s attack on new tech agriculture. It is entirely without justification.

If the roles were reversed and conventional agriculture engaged in similar “black marketing” against organics, the regulatory authorities and consumer groups would come down like a ton of bricks.

One wonders why, then, this multibillion-dollar industry gets a free ride to propagate negative and false advertising denigrating the livelihood of the vast majority of America’s farmers.

It’s time for it to stop.

JOHN R. BLOCK was U.S. secretary of agriculture from 1981 to 1986. On the Academic Review report John begins with this 

As someone who has dedicated his career to agriculture, I’ve often wondered what drives the now double-digit growth in the $35 billion U.S. organic products industry. Why are so many people willing to pay premiums up to 100 percent or more for items that carry an organic label, and do they really understand what that label means and — even more important — what it doesn’t mean?

Many of these questions have now been answered in a blockbuster report by the scientific-integrity watchdog Academics Review. The report examines the last 25 years of academic and organic industry market research, public statements and often questionable marketing practices.

What they have found should be raising red flags for all of us.

The organic industry likes to project a friendly image of small farmers and contented cows. But as this report extensively documents, the behavior of this multibillion-dollar industry is considerably less benign.

Among the other findings is the extent to which the large organic food corporations engage in what it describes as deceptive advertising linked to scientifically baseless scares about conventional food.

Worse, this “black marketing” takes place with the implied approval of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Organic Seal and the silent acquiescence of the regulatory authorities charged with ensuring that all labeling and advertising be “truthful and non-misleading.”

As a leading consultant warned the organic industry in the 1990s, “If the threats posed by cheaper, conventionally produced products are removed, then the potential to develop organic foods will be limited.” Since then we’ve witnessed a remorseless campaign based on junk science or no-science attacking food grown with modern fertilizers, pesticides, GMOs and other technologies.

Advertising and promotional material — including “educational” materials developed for schools — suggest non-organic food is linked to almost every disease under the sun, including “developmental and learning problems such as ADHD,” “high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, depression and cancer.”

Tens of millions of organic marketing dollars flow annually to activist organizations such as the Environmental Working Group which spread misinformation and fear. Unsupported, provably counter factual claims are so habitual to the industry that they are even included in official statements: “Not only is organic safer, healthier and more nutritious,” claims the Organic Consumer Association in testimony to USDA, but buying organic will “reduce food-borne illness and diet-related diseases.”

The Organic Seal does not and cannot signify any health or safety criteria whatsoever. It merely certifies that products were produced using less modern inputs.

Source…

Why Consumers Pay More for Organic Foods? Fear Sells and Marketers Know it.

You have probably noticed how much of the anti-GMO and organic industry advertising is based on fear-mongering. For a deep dive into how this works, I suggest the 2014 Academic Review report:

Why Consumers Pay More for Organic Foods? Fear Sells and Marketers Know it.

An academic review of more than 25 years of market research, marketing tactics and government programs driving sales in the organic and natural product industries

(April 8, 2014 Priest River, ID) An extensive review of more than 200 published academic, industry and government research reports into why consumers adopt organic product purchasing behaviors was conducted by Academics Review – a non-profit led by independent academic experts in agriculture and food sciences. This review was then supplemented with an assessment of more than 1,000 news reports, 500 website and social media account evaluations and reviews of hundreds of other marketing materials, advertisements, analyst presentations, speeches and advocacy reports generated between 1988 and 2014. Our findings were reviewed and endorsed by an international panel of independent agricultural science, food science, economic and legal experts from respected international institutions with extensive experience in academic food and agriculture research and publishing.

Our report finds consumers have spent hundreds of billion dollars purchasing premium-priced organic food products based on false or misleading perceptions about comparative product food safety, nutrition and health attributes. The research found extensive evidence that widespread, collaborative and pervasive industry marketing activities are a primary cause for these misperceptions. This suggests a widespread organic and natural products industry pattern of research-informed and intentionally-deceptive marketing and paid advocacy. Further, this deceptive marketing is enabled and conducted with the implied use and approval of the U.S. government endorsed and managed U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Organic Seal and corresponding National Organic Standards Program (NOSP) in direct conflict with the USDA’s NOSP stated intent and purpose.

“It is our hope that responsible members of the organic food industry and government officials will use these findings to address consumer misperceptions about important issues of food safety and nutrition,” said Professor Bruce Chassy, professor emeritus University of Illinois, Department of Food Science & Human Nutrition. “Accurate food safety, nutrition and health information combined with consumer pocket book protections should be a threshold standard for any U.S. government program that cannot be coopted by special interest marketing groups.”

Dietary pesticides (99.99% all natural)

Plants are not just food for animals… The world is not green. It is colored lectin, tannin, cyanide, aflatoxin, and canavanine [Janzen (16)].

A false claim keeps crossing my desk: that organic foods are safer; and especially safer due to the prohibition of synthetic pesticides. This is false. In fact the motivation for development of many of the synthetic pesticides in use today is to reduce toxicity for both consumers and agricultural workers. This effort has been successful, but due to the vested interests in the “organic” marketing designation the prohibition against synthetic pesticides prevails.

John R. Block was U.S. secretary of agriculture from 1981 to 1986, so he is a good source for a concise summary of what “organic” really means:

The Organic Seal does not and cannot signify any health or safety criteria whatsoever. It merely certifies that products were produced using less modern inputs.

“Let me be clear about one thing,” said USDA Secretary Dan Glickman when organic certification was being considered. “The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.”

Yet USDA’s own research shows consumers buy higher priced organic products because they mistakenly believe them safer and more nutritious.

The science is clear on this point: As numerous studies, USDA monitoring, and a massive “meta-analysis” recently conducted at Stanford University confirm, organic foods are no more nutritious, nor do they carry any fewer health risks, than conventional foods. In fact, a good case could be made that conventional food may be considerably safer.

 My quick summary is organic labeled products are limited to pre-scientific agriculture.

Are natural pesticides better? Definitely, not – though, because natural pesticides are not regulated,  we know much less about their toxicity. Bruce Ames is one of the heroes of environmentalism, so NY Times science writer John Tierney turned to the Ames et al 1999 paper to document his column Synthetic v. Natural Pesticides: the captioned Dietary pesticides (99.99% all natural). This paper is open access, free PDF here, by B N Ames, M Profet, and L S Gold: Division of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of California, Berkeley.

When a toxicologist says “99.99%, by weight, of the pesticides we eat are natural” she is probably referring to this paper. I like the way John Tierney characterizes the Ames work

Dr. Ames was one of the early heroes of environmentalism. He invented the widely used Ames Test, which is a quick way to screen for potential carcinogens by seeing if a chemical causes mutations in bacteria. After he discovered that Tris, a flame-retardant in children’s pajamas, caused mutations in the Ames Test, he helped environmentalists three decades ago in their successful campaign to ban Tris — one of the early victories against synthetic chemicals.

But Dr. Ames began rethinking this war against synthetic chemicals after thousands of chemicals had been subjected to his test. He noticed that plenty of natural chemicals flunked the Ames test. He and Dr. Gold took a systematic look at the chemicals that had been tested on rodents. They found that about half of natural chemicals tested positive for carcinogencity, the same proportion as the synthetic chemicals. Fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices contained their own pesticides that caused cancer in rodents. The toxins were found in apples, bananas, beets, Brussel sprouts, collard greens, grapes, melons, oranges, parsley, peaches — the list went on and on.

Then Dr. Ames and Dr. Gold estimated the prevalence of these natural pesticides in the typical diet. In a paper published in 2000 in Mutation Research, they conclude:

About 99.9 percent of the chemicals humans ingest are natural. The amounts of synthetic pesticide residues in plant food are insignificant compared to the amount of natural pesticides produced by plants themselves. Of all dietary pesticides that humans eat, 99.99 percent are natural: they are chemicals produced by plants to defend themselves against fungi, insects, and other animal predators.

We have estimated that on average Americans ingest roughly 5,000 to 10,000 different natural pesticides and their breakdown products. Americans eat about 1,500 mg of natural pesticides per person per day, which is about 10,000 times more than the 0.09 mg they consume of synthetic pesticide residues.

Even though these natural chemicals are as likely to be carcinogenic as synthetic ones, it doesn’t follow that they’re killing us. Just because natural pesticides make up 99.99 percent of the pesticides in our diet, it doesn’t follow that they’re causing human cancer — or that the .01 percent of of synthetic pesticides are causing cancer either. Dr. Ames and Dr. Gold believe most of these carcinogenic pesticides, natural or synthetic, don’t present problems because the human exposures are low and because the high doses given to rodents may not be relevant to humans.

“Everything you eat in the supermarket is absolutely chock full of carcinogens,” Dr. Ames told me. “But most cancers are not due to parts per billion of pesticides. They’re due to causes like smoking, bad diets and, obesity.”

He and Dr. Gold note that “many ordinary foods would not pass the regulatory criteria used for synthetic chemicals,” but they’re not advocating banning broccoli or avoiding natural pesticides in foods that cause cancer in rodents. Rather, they suggest that Americans stop worrying so much about synthetic chemicals:

Regulatory efforts to reduce low-level human exposures to synthetic chemicals because they are rodent carcinogens are expensive; they aim to eliminate minuscule concentrations that now can be measured with improved techniques. These efforts are distractions from the major task of improving public health through increasing scientific understanding about how to prevent cancer (e.g., what aspects of diet are important), increasing public understanding of how lifestyle influences health, and improving our ability to help individuals alter their lifestyles.

You can read a detailed account of their work in the Handbook of Pesticide Toxicology.

Plant Science Expert Panel

Leaf

Sense about science is hosting a valuable Q&A between the public and a panel of plant scientists. You can participate

Send questions via our online form, Twitter to @senseaboutsci using #plantsci, or email us at plantsci@senseaboutscience.org.

The linked science panel page is comprised of expert answers attached to the public questions. As you would expect given the makeup of the UK science panel, the quality of the responses is high. I’ve selected one example demonstrating the nuance offered by Professors Jones and Leyser:

“The environment secretary, Liz Truss, has said that US farmers growing GM crops use less water and less pesticide. Is she right to say this?”
08/01/2015

Prof Jonathan Jones:
GM is a method that can be used to confer many different and useful traits. Liz Truss is right to say GM crops can reduce the environmental impact of agriculture. In the US, Bt maize and Bt cotton require less insecticide to control insect pests. Glyphosate (Roundup) is a less damaging herbicide than the herbicides it replaced. Unfortunately, like antibiotics, reliance on one compound (glyphosate) has selected herbicide-resistant weeds in the US, reducing glyphosate effectiveness for weed control. Another GM trait in maize has been used to elevate tolerance of drought stress. For the UK, blight resistant potatoes will require less fungicide applications, and there are many other potential nutritional and agronomic benefits that could be conferred using the GM method.

Prof Ottoline Leyser:
Farming practices associated with each GM crop differ, depending on the specific characteristic that has been introduced. It is therefore not meaningful to state that growing GM crops results in less water and pesticide use, because it depends entirely on which GM crop you are talking about and what the normal practices are for the equivalent non-GM variety. For example, there is very good evidence that the use of GM cotton engineered to resist insect attack has reduced the use of insecticides in cotton production compared to previous practice. However, the use of GM technology to increase vitamin A production in rice does not affect how much pesticide is used.

One type of crop where there has been a particularly vigorous debate about the environmental impacts is herbicide-tolerant crops. There is no doubt that the widespread planting of herbicide-tolerant crops has led to an increase in the use of the specific herbicides tolerated by these crop varieties. Some argue that this has reduced the use of alternative, more environmentally-damaging herbicides. Others point to the negative effects on insect biodiversity caused by the reduction in weeds associated with more effective weed management. Others still highlight the emergence of weeds resistant to herbicides. These debates are important, but they have nothing to do with GM. While many herbicide-tolerant crops have been produced using GM methods, others have been produced using conventional methods, and all the arguments are about herbicides and their use, not about GM. Just as it is inaccurate to say that GM crops reduce pesticides, it is equally inaccurate to say that they cause superweeds.

We need to be able to choose the best solutions to each challenge facing the food supply chain. In some cases this will include a particular GM crop, but in many cases it will not.

How Will We Feed 9 Billion?


Image credit National Geographic, Photographer George Steinmetz

When we think about threats to the environment, we tend to picture cars and smokestacks, not dinner. But the truth is, our need for food poses one of the biggest dangers to the planet.

Agriculture is among the greatest contributors to global warming, emitting more greenhouse gases than all our cars, trucks, trains, and airplanes combined—largely from methane released by cattle and rice farms, nitrous oxide from fertilized fields, and carbon dioxide from the cutting of rain forests to grow crops or raise livestock. Farming is the thirstiest user of our precious water supplies and a major polluter, as runoff from fertilizers and manure disrupts fragile lakes, rivers, and coastal ecosystems across the globe. Agriculture also accelerates the loss of biodiversity. As we’ve cleared areas of grassland and forest for farms, we’ve lost crucial habitat, making agriculture a major driver of wildlife extinction.

National Geographic’s special feature on Feeding 9 Billion is a good resource, especially for their graphics illustrating key aspects of the challenge. Of the agricultural inputs it is water, land use and energy that get most of my attention. Land and energy collide when you consider how you will substitute low-carbon energy sources for electricity, fertilizers, machinery for 9 billion. Study this graphic of Ice-Free Land, then ask yourself how you would solve these challenges?

To scope the problem a good place to learn the scale of what is required read Our High-Energy Planet, a report produced by The Breakthrough Institute:

“Climate change can’t be solved on the backs of the world’s poorest people,” said Daniel Sarewitz, coauthor and director of ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes. “The key to solving for both climate and poverty is helping nations build innovative energy systems that can deliver cheap, clean, and reliable power.”

If you are wondering if there will be any farmland left after fossil fuels are replaced with renewables, a good place to begin is by studying energy expert Vaclav Smil’s Power Density Primer, and Energy Transitions.

On improving agriculture, these earlier posts should be helpful:

Lastly more Vaclav Smil, investigating the materials resources: Will nine billion people exhaust our materials resources?

Paul Collier on African Agriculture and Urbanization

Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion, is a thoroughly reliable source on development economics and development policy options.

In a recent review of Roger Thurow’s new book, The Last Hunger Season, Paul Collier asks: “Why is Africa so dependent on imported food, despite being the least urbanized and most land-abundant continent?” Though the answer is simple, African agriculture is not sufficiently productive, the solutions are more complicated and controversial.

Though new seed technologies and commercialized agricultural practices are likely the best ways to produce more food and overcome hunger, Collier notes that these approaches don’t currently attract much support from African governments, NGOs, and development agencies. Among the concerns is that a switch from smallholder to commercial agriculture would lead to an influx of migrants to cities that are not prepared to accommodate them. But as Collier suggests, this transition looks inevitable.

This, to my mind, is the more fundamental long-term failing of African development: The children of smallholders should, and will, pour into cities. So it is vital that cities become engines of opportunity: That is what cities are for — high density is the handmaiden of economic activity. Millions of young people could be productively employed in Africa’s cities, so the key policy issue that governments and development agencies need to address is what has been impeding urban success — and it isn’t the low productivity of smallholders.

Collier does not get into detail about what is impeding urban success but governance is no doubt near the top of the list. Policy approaches to accommodating the influx of urban residents in cities in the developing world will have to account for the limited capacity of many governments to enforce the rules. This is a theme in Solly Angel’s new book, Planet of Cities. Angel’s approach to planning for urban expansion recognizes that urban growth is fastest in the parts of the world where governance is relatively weak. He envisions a public strong role in planning for urban expansion, but one that is narrow enough to have a reasonable chance of being executed by capacity constrained governments.

Source: Paul Collier on African Agriculture and Urbanization; NYU Stern Urbanization Project Brown Bag Discussion Series.

A Marriage of Two Agricultures & Vermont, the Stupid State

Jason Sibert interviews Raoul Adamchak co-author with geneticist Pamela Ronald of one of our favorite books Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food. Jason introduced the interview with the story of the Stupid State Vermont, the first US state silly enough to:
  • Shut down Vermont Yankee, the nuclear plant providing >70% of Vermont electrical generation.
  • Attempt to ban GMOs by mandating labeling.

Jason wrote:

Just three weeks ago, Vermont became the first state to mandate the labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms. To understand just how feverish the debate over GMOs has become, consider that when the bill was passed into law, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin compared the issue to other state laws banning slavery and allowing same-sex marriage. “Today, we are the first state in America that says simply, ‘Vermonters have spoken loud and clear: We want to know what’s in our food,’” Shumlin declared.

The framing of a consumer’s “right to know” has proved to be a powerful political instrument. Around the country, state legislatures are considering labeling GMOs, with the goal of many to ban them. At the same time, the environmental benefits of organic farming are touted as the better alternative, as synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are prohibited. But is the whole argument misguided? And do genetic engineering and organic farming both have something to teach us?

Please read Jason’s short interview which leads with this smart question: Can organic and biotech be considered converging technologies?

Yes. They both aim for an ecologically sound form of agriculture and both aim to reduce toxic inputs. For example, both organic farmers and farmers of pest resistant GE crops use a nontoxic insecticide called BT.

Organic farmers spray BT, whereas farmers that grow BT cotton don’t need to spray because the bacterial gene encoding is built into the crops genetic code. BT is a favorite tool of farmers because it does not harm mammals and is specific to pests and that is why organic farmers have used it for over 50 years.

 

Jennie Schmidt: The Costs of GMO Labeling

NewImage

Jennie Schmidt is the proprietor of TheFoodieFarmer “Blogging about how your food gets from field to fork”. Jennie is very different from your typical Whole Foods customer, who has never set foot on a farm – she knows farming in depth. In particular she understands the supply chain – which is why she is especially qualified to write the captioned essay on what “right to know” really costs. This is the real deal, carefully researched, first-hand explanations of what is involved in establishing traceability of every ingredient that goes into food on your supermarket shelf. Read Jennie for the particulars. She closes with this summary:

Those who say GMO labeling won’t add to the consumer’s grocery bill need to go back to Economics 101 and some basic high school math.

True traceability in our food supply system will be hugely expensive.

Its likely that as a nation, we’d never capitalize all that infrastructure to achieve true traceability.

Which goes to the crux of the matter – this isn’t about labeling, as I cited in my last GMO blog, labeling is a means to an end. As noted by many activist groups, the ulterior motive behind labeling is not about a consumer’s right to know, it is about banning the technology.

Say NO to mandatory GMO labeling. Stand for science.

I liked Jennie’s essay so much that I posted the following comment:

Jennie – thanks heaps for taking the time to document some of the true costs that the “right to know” lobby wants to impose on consumers. I’m happy to see you already have a well-deserved pat on the back from Prof. Kevin Folta.

When we see such a “movement” promoting regulations that don’t make sense – that’s a good time to ask “who benefits?” If we follow the incentives we find there are a number of special-interests who are funding this campaign. David Tribe framed the smelly bedfellows as Big Quacka and Big Organic.

A concept from Public Choice economics that helps us understand how these hidden interests operate is called “Bootleggers and Baptists”. In your GMO labeling case the Bootleggers include Whole Foods and trial lawyers. Back in the CA Prop 37 fight I wrote a few posts on this concept, such as How California’s GMO Labeling Law Could Limit Your Food Choices and Hurt the Poor and Scott Andes: Why California’s GMO Labeling Proposition Should be Defeated.

The key idea is that the Bootleggers have learned that the best media reception is obtained by fronting the Baptists, preferably worried-looking moms holding their beautiful babies.

The Bottom Line: if you want to know about food and farming – talk to farmers, not to Greenpeace.

Norman Borlaug: A Man For All Seasons

Norman Borlaug was a friend and mentor of molecular biologist Henry Miller, hence this moving salute to Borlaug's 100th:

In his professional life, Norman struggled against prodigious obstacles, including what he called the “constant pessimism and scare-mongering” of critics and skeptics who predicted that in spite of his efforts, mass starvation was inevitable and hundreds of millions would perish in Africa and Asia. His work resulted not only in the construction of high-yielding varieties of wheat but also in new agronomic and management practices that transformed the ability of Mexico, India, Pakistan, China, and parts of South America to feed their populations.

How successful were Norman’s efforts? From 1950 to 1992, the world’s grain output rose from 692 million tons produced on 1.70 billion acres of cropland to 1.9 billion tons on 1.73 billion acres of cropland — an extraordinary increase in yield per acre of more than 150 percent. India is an excellent case in point. In pre-Borlaug 1963, wheat grew there in sparse, irregular strands, was harvested by hand, and was susceptible to rust disease. The maximum yield was 800 lb per acre. By 1968, thanks to Norman’s varieties, the wheat grew densely packed, was resistant to rust, and the maximum yield had risen to 6000 lb per acre.

Without high-yield agriculture, either millions would have starved or increases in food output would have been realized only through drastic expansion of land under cultivation — with losses of pristine wilderness far greater than all the losses to urban, suburban and commercial expansion.

Norman recalled afterwards without rancor the maddening obstacles to the development and introduction of high-yield plant varieties: “bureaucratic chaos, resistance from local seed breeders, and centuries of farmers’ customs, habits, and superstitions.” About his experience in India (in the early 1960′s), he said:

When I asked about the need to modernize agriculture, both scientists and administrators typically replied, “Poverty is the farmers’ lot; they are used to it.”

I was informed that the farmers were proud of their lowly status, and was assured that they wanted no change. After my own experiences in Iowa and Mexico, I didn’t believe a word of it.

In Pakistan and Egypt, government research directors actually sabotaged trials of Norman’s seeds in order to discredit his work. As a result, people starved.

(snip)

Please read Dr. Miller's essay – you'll be glad you did.

 

From subsistence farming to prosperity?

Nairobi 2009

[Image Nairobi 2009 ©Corbis, Nigel Pavitt]

For several years I’ve been writing about the development challenge — what policies are the most effective to help Paul Collier’s “Bottom Billion” escape from poverty to our world of prosperity? There are a number of central ideas which I think of in an interdependent relationship: (Industrial agriculture, urbanization, cities) => (Ideas, innovation, economic growth) => (Women control their own fertility, women’s education, population growth stabilizes). This virtuous pyramid rests on a foundation of affordable, low-carbon energy.

The purpose of this post is to offer recommendations for print, audio and video resources on these topics.

A good place to begin is with iconic ecologist Stewart Brand:  Environmental Heresies at MIT Technology Review “The founder of The Whole Earth Catalog believes the environmental movement will soon reverse its position on four core issues.” Rethinking Green (video, SALT lecture). And his 2010 book Whole Earth Discipline.

For a current and informed view of development challenges and progress, see the 2014 Gates Letter “3 Myths That Block Progress For The Poor”.

Are you concerned that population growth is out of control? Then read the recent essay by Stanford professor Martin Lewis “Population Bomb? So Wrong”. Marian Swain at the Breakthrough Institute looks at the current situation for population growth rates, carbon free energy, food supplies and development in Four Surprising Facts About Population: Why Humans Are Not Fated to Ecological Disaster. I’m reasonably confident that you will have fewer population nightmares after watching Hans Rosling in the BBC documentary “DON’T PANIC — The Facts About Population“.

My current favorite introduction to both climate change and energy policy  is Stanford University nuclear physicist and Nobel laureate Burton Richter’s 2010 book: Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Climate Change and Energy in the 21st Century. It is very accessible to the non-technical reader, and balanced in the presentation of energy policy options. Dr. Richter calls energy-policy winners and losers as he sees them.

For an overview of agricultural reform try Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak’s “Organically Grown and Genetically Engineered: The Food of the Future” [video of their SALT talk], [the book at Amazon]. On agriculture and urbanization, try Why big dams and big ag are good for the poor (transcript of interview with Harvard’s John Briscoe).

Regarding urbanization: ideas come from places where people congregate – in particular cities. Innovation comes from banging ideas against each other. And the central engine of economic growth is innovation – both in the form of new technologies and new institutions (or rules). This is one of the insights that made Paul Romer one of today’s most influential economists. Romer’s “endogenous growth theory” or “new growth theory” is sure to win him a much-deserved Nobel Prize. From Dr. Romer’s Stanford biography:

(…) The contrast between the economics of objects and the economics of ideas is the thread that runs through my work. In graduate school, I wondered why growth rates had been increasing over time. Fresh from cosmology, I was not motivated by policy concerns. It just seemed like an important puzzle. Existing theory suggested that scarcity combined with population growth should be making things worse, but they kept getting better at ever faster rates. New ideas, in the form of new technologies, had to be the answer. Everyone “knew” that. But why do new technologies keep arriving at faster rates? One key insight is that because ideas are nonrival or sharable, interacting with more people turns out to make us all better off. In this sense, ideas are the exact opposite of scarce objects. (See my recent paper with Chad Jones for more.)

For an introduction to Romer’s growth theory I recommend Paul’s chapter “Economic Growth” inThe Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, and the Econtalk interview “Romer on Growth” (if you prefer to read, see the full transcript).

Paul Romer’s current project is Charter Cities, a pragmatic scheme to overcome the development bottleneck of bad rules (for examples of bad rule systems think of Haiti, Zimbabwe, North Korea). I am persuaded that the Charter Cities concept has a chance to evolve into an effective development tool, and continue to find every Romer presentation fascinating. There are two TED Talks so far: Paul Romer’s radical idea: Charter cities (2009) and Paul Romer: The world’s first charter city? (2011 regarding Honduras).

For a 2011 look at cities as idea- and hence prosperity-generators, Harvard’s Ed Glaeser is getting a lot of favorable comment on his 2011 book Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Glaeser is the subject of an excellent Freakonomics Radio podcast [MP3], and the London School of Economics lecture of the same title. See also the LSE review of Triumph of the City.

More on cities, ideas and growth: why do cities seem to be able to keep growing while most corporations die? Geoffrey West and colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute have been searching for a common theory which might answer that question. Geoffrey recently gave a thoughtful lecture at the Long Now Foundation (SALT).

Lastly, on the same theme, Steven Johnson’s 2010 book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation is summarized in his TED Talk: Where good ideas come from, and in his recent RSA Animate lecture of the same title. Enjoy!