Beahrs ELP Blog

God helps those who help themselves

David Zilberman photoBy Professor David Zilberman, Agricultural and Resource Economics, UC, Berkeley
This article was originally published on The Berkeley Blog.
Read the original article.


I grew up in a religious family but I am not particularly religious. I believe that there is (are) some Supreme Being(s) above us, but I consider the religious narrative and beliefs of organized religion to be fiction; albeit fiction with many useful lessons, but nevertheless, fiction.

One of my favorite religious stories is of a pious man who was once caught in rising floodwaters. He climbed onto the roof of his house and prayed to the heavens to save him. Soon, a neighbor came by in a canoe and said, “Hop in and we’ll paddle to safety.“ The pious man replied, “No thanks, I’ve prayed to God and I’m sure he will save me.” Later the police came by in a boat to rescue him and again he turned it down because he was sure God would save him. A little later a rescue helicopter hovered overhead, let down a rope ladder and said “The waters will soon be above your house. Climb the ladder and we’ll fly you to safety.” And again, the pious man refused help. Soon, the floodwaters were too much to bear and the pious man drowned.

When he arrived at heaven he demanded an audience with God asked, “Why am I dead when I prayed for you to save me?!”

God simply replied, “I sent you a canoe, a boat and a helicopter. What more did you want from me?”


I thought about this story when I was at the International Consortium of Agricultural Biotechnology Research conference in Kenya. Despite security concerns, about 200 people braved to attend this conference at a resort in Kenya, where about half of were African scholars. The main lesson of the conference was how many new opportunities were introduced but unused because of heavy regulation. In a previous paper, I discussed the thousands of lives and hundreds of thousands of cases of blindness that might have been saved if the regulatory burden on Golden Rice was loosened and the commercialization was allowed 10 years ago. But in Kenya I learned about many other cases.


For example, scientists developed a corn variety that has combines drought-tolerant and insect-resistant varieties for use in smallholder farms in sub-Saharan Africa. However, the use of the technology is blocked by restrictive regulations because the patent of the technology is supposedly owned by large corporations although they are allowing its use for free. People complain about Monsanto raking in millions from poor farmers in Africa, but in this case, the technology is given away. I do not see Apple or Samsung doing the same, but many people still benefit from their phones. We know that insect-resistant maize in South Africa, increases yields for smallholders by ~30%, and if there is a chance to avoid droughts, that is for the better. Another innovation developed by African plant scientist Jennifer Thomson is new GM trait that can address the maize streak virus that is endemic to Africa, which causes significant crop losses, ~30% and above. Again, the commercialization of this variety is prevented by regulatory constraints.

A third example is the transgenic variety that is able to address a major disease in regular bananas and plantain-bananas, which are a major staple food for many subsistence farmers in East and Central Africa. Again, these varieties were developed by African scientists and some of these transgenic varieties can also address nematode problems that reduce yields by 20-30%. These varieties are currently banned and as a result, they put many lives at risk. As an economist I can figure out how many lives can be saved statistically, and the numbers are staggering. About tens of millions of people depend on the bananas, corn is a main staple food for much of Africa, and even if a few percent points don’t suffer from malnourishment, the gains are immense.

These are but a few examples of how we are missing out on opportunities to address rising challenges in agriculture and food security and the price is paid by the poor. But this cost is likely to be much more severe in the future. We are all concerned about climate change and addressing climate change will require tools for mitigation and adaptation. Already GM varieties help mitigation because in many cases they allow no-tillage varieties that sequester carbon, but when it comes to adaptation, we need quick ways to modify varieties to adjust to changes in weather. Transgenic technologies are great tools that are given ‘by the gods’ to develop new varieties. Who will suffer from not using them?

I understand that some oppose GM developments because of unknown safety risks, while others oppose it because of its association with monoculture, industry and big corporations. But the net effect may be that we will all drown because we missed the canoe, the boat and the helicopter.

Institute Founded by ELP Alum Wins a Pan African Award

OsmondWe would like to heartily congratulate the Njeremoto Biodiversity Institute, founded by ELP ’08 alumnus Osmond Mugweni, for winning the Pan African Award for Entrepreneurship in Education for 2014!

This award honors the Njeremoto Biodiversity Insitute’s innovative and scalable model for education to meet the substantial demand that exists across Africa. As always, we are incredibly happy and proud to see the accomplishments of our alumni.

The award, founded in 2007, recognizes entrepreneurial approaches to education that provide long-term models of growth and development for Africa.

As pressure on Russian media increases, balanced news is harder to find than ever

By Angelina Davydova, St Petersburg State University
This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Russian media is in turmoil again. After the editor-in-chief of the independent online news website was fired, almost 40 journalists and editors left the publication. An independent, privately owned TV channel, Dozhd, was dropped by a number of leading cable and satellite operators and is facing closure following financial losses. RIA Novosti, a state-owned but until recently fairly balanced news agency, has been re-structured into a new institution with an aim of promoting Russia’s image worldwide.

Conversations about the trustworthiness and bias of news sources are taking place all over Russia. A recent example is a poll by, which asked the country’s leading media experts and journalists where they get their news from nowadays. That question seems to be more relevant than ever at the moment, with serious doubts surfacing about control over and pressure on the traditional media, while new and social media introduce more “information noise” than useful news content.

It would be wrong to say the Russian media is completely washed-out and ruined, since some oppositional or independent items are still being published in print and online. But many of my media colleagues report that it’s becoming more and more difficult to get a “full news picture” each day. To get coverage from all sides, I would need to read media with positions ranging from strictly pro-Kremlin to entirely oppositional, plus social media, plus foreign media. This obviously takes serious time and effort; many friends and fellow colleagues of mine simply prefer to take some time off.

Interestingly, with the growing number of publications and growing importance of social networks, careful filtering and selection of sources is becoming more important than ever before. It is exactly in this area that the professional media-houses are expected to do their job – producing accurate, precise, fair and unbiased information and news, based on their experience and expertise, to give a trustworthy and representative picture of the world.

But with the growing political and economic pressure on independent journalism, the number of established and trustworthy media houses in Russia is falling. It is true that many new media projects are appearing, usually on a small scale or with a specialised remit. But for many of my friends who recently lost their journalistic jobs, even in Moscow, Russia’s media capital, finding a good place to work is becoming so difficult that they are leaving the profession altogether. I personally am trying to combine journalism with teaching and managing media training projects, so as not to be too dependent on one employer.

The Russian media sector is facing a number of challenges, both local and international in scale. At the national level, the media is under more and more political and financial pressure, with private owners being forced to influence editorial positions to preserve their business. On the other hand, Russia’s media is vulnerable to the global downturn in media revenues, with no sustainable financial model in sight. A number of media outlets are turning tow paywalls or crowdfunding schemes, among them TV Dozhd and Both have yet to prove their viability. As a very active media consumer and social media user, I have long been getting requests for funding from numerous charities, NGOs, civil society initiatives; now, more and more are coming from media projects.

Tough times

I have certainly noticed an uptick in social media and citizen journalism over the last few months. Still, at a time of international conflict, with the accordant surge of propaganda, one has to double-check everything appearing online and in social networks in particular, read multiple sources, compare the facts – all of which requires a serious investment of time.

Media analysts had high hopes for the self-regulating mechanisms of the internet, which they hoped would create a decentralised and participatory system to verify, analyse and systematise the new surge of user-generated content. As things stand, in Russia at least, this mechanism is certainly not fully functioning.

All the information is certainly out there. When the authorities block online resources, new ones spring up in their place; when they shut down opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s blog, claiming he’d violated the rules of his house arrest, his colleagues simply started a new one. But this abundance doesn’t seem to be bringing much clarity and level-headedness to Russia’s Gordian knot of media wars and political interests.

Instead, most media consumers seem to be sticking to outlets that represent their position and tell them what they want to hear – whether that’s extremely pro-patriotic, or extremely anti-Kremlin. This is doing nothing to foster dialogue, and is a poor basis for a healthy public sphere. As a result, Russian society seems to be splitting more and more into self-contained groups consuming media that reinforce their views.

Opinions are polarised, with accusations and slurs heating up social networks. Such conflicts spill over into the real world, with people arguing over the Ukrainian crisis at Russian dinner parties. Official television news seems to have only one story these days, its coverage focused on Ukraine, Crimea and the international reaction to events, with the “us/them” divide, “internal enemies” and the “fifth column” spoken about openly. I find these signs deeply worrying.

I can’t yet say how the situation will look in even a few months, but this is certainly a challenging and disturbing time for journalists in Russia – as well as for their readers and viewers.

The Conversation

Angelina Davydova does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.


Reflections on the 2014 Bioeconomy Conference and the Future of Biofuels

After another successful Bioeconomy Conference last week, Professor Zilberman shares the latest cutting-edge research from the presentations as well as the direction of the biofuels and biotechnology. Stay tuned for video clips from the conference presentations and exclusive interviews with speakers! 


Dear Alumni,

As you know, every year we have a bioeconomy conference, where we invite leading thinkers in this field to UC Berkeley for two days. The basic idea behind the bioeconomy is that the transition to a sustainable system requires moving away from nonrenewable resources, like coal and oil, to sustainable forms of energy, like solar and biofuels. Additionally we have to move from chemistry based on petrochemicals to one based on biological innovations. In order to be able to produce biofuels and other biochemicals, we need to enhance our productivity so that we don’t compromise the welfare of the poor by only allocating resources to produce biochemicals and fuels for the rich. The bioeconomy is about combining better use of biological resources.

The notion of the bioeconomy is not new. There is an old bioeconomy that relies on fermentation; wine and alcohol are bioeconomy products. They serve both as food, health products and fuels. We have cheeses and processed foods. These are all examples of fermentation. New discoveries in science, such as DNA manipulation and other processes, allow us to expand the scope of biological innovations. The bioeconomy conference addresses issues of biofuels, biotechnology and green chemistry.

In US and Europe, biofuels have existed for about ten years. Today ten percent of the gasoline in the US is produced from corn ethanol. In the first few years, the introduction of corn ethanol increased the price of food significantly and was the cause of the main concern. However, the price of corn has since declined and some of our presenters expect the price of corn will drop even further. It seems that this trend of declining biofuel prices will continue in the US and we might even return to the days when corn farmers were subsidized.

The main potential for ethanol in the world is in Brazil where you can grow forty million hectares of sugarcane without affecting forestland. This can replace about fifteen-twenty percent of the gasoline production in the world. The question is why isn’t it being done?

One presenter that Brazil invested too much in the deep-sea water oil which led to the neglect of the sugarcane ethanol development. The presenter suggested that to prevent deforestation it is important to strengthen implementation of forest codes and to intensify the production of cattle and rangeland. Doing so will allow Brazil to meet the same production target with less land, thus having enough land for biofuels. But the extent biofuels will be available in Brazil is uncertain because of policy issues. One thing that is clear after the next election is that Brazil energy policies will change, which will bode well for the ethanol sector.

UC Berkeley’s interest in biofuels is primarily in the development of second-generation biofuels that rely on grasses or wood, and don’t compete with feedstocks. The US government expected much faster development of second-generation biofuels than what actually happened. They are on course to suspend the program because the industry didn’t deliver it. However, we learned that the industry had overcome some of the early learning pains. There is a new commercial facility in Italy that will be utilized in other countries like Brazil. People will use the residue of sugarcane production and biogas for second-generation biofuels. Actually, the second-generation will fulfill some of its promises with delay. Once second-generation will be able to produce extra ethanol in the US, the challenge will be to provide a larger infrastructure to utilize it. That means more gas pumps and flex fuel cars. Development of policy to enhance this activity is also a major challenge.

In the section on biotechnology, we learned that South Africa has a ninety-percent successful adoption rate of GM corn. It is grown by a lot of poor farmers and there also attempts to introduce new varieties for virus resistant. The big challenge is the issue of regulation. There was also a presentation that there are prospects of introduction of drought tolerant- and vitamin A enhanced- GMO, and while this product is economically viable, the registration and acceptance continue to be major challenges. The GMO debate continues.

Two interesting presentations were about future technology. The EU is working with African nations to develop a supply chain for solar energy.  Since solar energy is not always available, they started to combine solar and biofuels to have more reliable and viable systems of energy. The design of the system is a major policy challenge, but in the conference we saw the first model to assess its impacts and costs. Finally, there was an interesting presentation on the use of cassava, especially in Asia, as a biofuel feedstock. There were several other presentations on other biofuel stocks for developing countries. It seems that there was an initial hype of this concept and didn’t fulfill expectations. But there are some products that do and are very promising.

I think that the bioeconomy is essential for our future, especially given the threat of climate change and high environmental costs of fossil fuel reliance. But it requires investment in research, some small risks and significant regulatory reform. In the end, it will benefit humanity and, I believe, the people in developing countries.



On Life Economics and the Environment in China

by David Zilberman
Read the original article here.

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of participating in the second Chinese Environmental Economics workshop in Shanghai. Professor Jinhua Zhao of Michigan State and Shanghai University, one of the best PhD students I have ever advised, organized the workshop in Shanghai.

The conference facilities were modern and impressive and most of our Berkeley facilities seemed obsolete in comparison. We had about 50 participants who were very serious and attentive. I felt an implicit social pressure to attend all of the sessions, which is unlike many workshops in the U.S., where participants may wander in and out of sessions.

The presentations are in English, and I think that the quality of the English of the Chinese speakers tends to improve the younger they are. One reason is the increased exposure to TV and the Web in recent years. The presentations and conversations with the participants and journalists were very valuable both in informing me on the environmental economics and policy in China, and on life and attitudes there.

The attitudes of many of the Chinese towards their nation and life reminded me of the attitudes I witnessed in Israel where I grew up. In both cases, people have a sense of national purpose, and both pride in recent achievements and modesty because of the apparent deficiencies. It seemed that people thought, “We are part of a great nation which has been humiliated for years. During the last few years we have made an incredible progress but we are still behind, and need to catch up, but we will be ahead one day.”

I was reminded that China was the world most advanced nation until 600 years ago, but now it is on the comeback trail. The Chinese people cannot wait when few years from now China will have the largest Gross National Product (GNP) in the world. But they are also aware that they will still be behind as long as GNP per capita trails the U.S. and Europe significantly. The new skyline of Shanghai, anchored around the magnificent Shanghai Pearl tower, seen here during the day and at night, is an apparent indicator of success and source of pride.

The Shanghai Pearl Tower

The Shanghai Pearl Tower

My student guide around the city

My student guide around the city

The urban life is Shanghai is much less glamorous than these pictures may portray. About 28 million people live in the city and the streets are very crowded. Smog is a constant even on good days, (the air quality though is much better than in Beijing) and people live in modest quarters in high rises, like Manhattan on steroids.

Smoggy skyline in daylight

Smoggy skyline in daylight

Bustling metropolis

Bustling metropolis

I learned that the Chinese are very serious in their intentions to solve environmental problems because air pollution makes breathing difficult and is killing millions. In many regions water quality is terrible and aquifers are disappearing, and many environmental and cultural treasures were lost in the race towards improving material well-being.

Congestion, GHG, air quality

The conference participants seemed to believe that they could have an impact on policy making.  The Chinese government has introduced regulations that aim to reduce congestion, green house gas emissions and especially improve air quality.

One concrete concern was about congestion. Every year, 19 million new cars are sold in China, new roads are being built, and more people are waiting for their turn at the wheel. Yet traffic jams and air pollution are afflictions associated with these developments and policymakers need to find a way to balance material well being with environmental quality protection.

China may use either auctions or lotteries to allocate car licenses, which will slow the large-scale adoption of cars, not prevent it. In China there are perhaps 80 cars per 1000 people, while in the U.S. and Western Europe 500-800 cars per 1000 — and this wide gap will be bridged.

The negative side effect of expansion of the car fleet can be reduced by effective policy design, which is a major priority item in the research agenda of transportation and environmental economists in China. Parts of China have already developed effective public transportation.

I was very impressed by the advanced subway system of Shanghai (especially in retrospect; when I returned to the U.S., the escalator in the L.A. Airport looked antiquated and did not even function), but much more is needed to address the growing demand for transportation.

I felt that climate change was not a major environmental policy priority in China. The main attention is given to the immediate air pollution, congestion and water availability and quality problems. I mentioned it to a participant and he was not surprised.

China does not perceive itself to be a big loser from climate change. Some regions may gain from warmer climate and others will lose, but the aggregate effect is perceived to be small. I mentioned to this individual that the differential regional impacts may cause significant hardships, conflicts and relocations — and he agreed, but suggested that the Chinese politicians and public are more concerned about the serious short-term environmental problems and they will be addressed first.

There is growing awareness and concern about the intensive use of coal and a desire to reduce it, which will address both climate change and air pollution concerns. One avenue is to take advantage of the vast natural gas reserves in Western China, which are the largest in the world. But this effort is not without its drawbacks.Natural gas emits half as many greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy as coal, which is an improvement but still significant. Its use will require a large investment in pipelines and the use of fracking,even with all of its limitations. Thus while natural gas can improve air quality and reduce green house gas emissions, emphasis should be given to technologies and incentives for their development and adoption, which will conserve energy and increase its efficiency.

The Chinese I met have emphasized that some of the main challenges facing China will be dealing with growing population and building a more effective social-welfare net. For this to happen the state has to increase its revenue. Relative to GNP, tax earnings in China (around 11%) are much lower than in the West (27% in the U.S., 36% in the EU), and that limits the capacity to support the elderly and upgrade health and welfare services. The challenge is to find effective tax sources. This may bode well for the environment, and some Chinese economists envision that a carbon tax and other pollution and sin taxes may serve as source of income for the government.  I am curious whether, and to what extent, this will happen.

Reducing corruption

Another policy priority in the short run seems to be reduced corruption.

While China has a strong central government and the party’s presence and eyes are felt everywhere (but not discussed much), the government is not strong enough to prevent the widespread corruption which, like the weather, everyone complains about and no one can control. Perhaps bribes and side payments are mechanisms by which people in power are taking advantage of their positions, while society as a whole pays a price.

I understand that there is an ongoing campaign to reduce corruption and it is manifested in emphasizing frugality in public events. For example, the traditional lavish banquets celebrating Chinese New year in state-owned enterprises were eliminated. Perhaps as a result, the food offered in our conference — which included frequent, alcohol-rich, banquets — was decent but not as spectacular as the food and drinks offered in my previous visit to Beijing and Western China.

One strength of the Chinese system is the relative emphasis on merit in school and business. To a large extent people are promoted based on performance, in exams or in office. That leads to dedication to learning, and the Chinese PhD students I met reminded me of Jewish religious scholars in their 24/7 dedication to study to the exclusion of anything else. I actually told some students that for social scientists, experiencing life (e.g, visiting a museum, a new location, or having a relationship) should not be considered “wasting time” but rather “applied research”.

It was also suggested that the internal competition between bureaucrats may lead to cheating, as they want to be promoted and thus may cheat to look good and rise to the top, and amazingly new methods were presented in the conference, to quantify and detect such cheating. It was also emphasized that the bureaucratic competition is a barrier to regional cooperation and reduces the creation of public goods, and designing incentives and policies to overcome the negative side effect of this competitiveness is a major research and policy challenge. While I realize the high price China pays for the competition in schools and government service, the emphasis on merit is a major contributor to its recent successes.

Amidst beautiful gardens

Amidst beautiful gardens

While much of the trip was dedicated to modern China, I spent the last day touring some of the treasures of the past, treasures that seem to disappear. Balancing economic growth and preservation seems to be the major challenge facing China today.


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