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Setting an organic agenda

July 1, 2021

ASU Swette Center's report on organic food market is a critical to-do list for the president, Congress to mull over

Arizona State University’s Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems has issued a new report on how the organic food market can be improved, and it's targeting the most powerful person in the free world — President Joe Biden.

His title is right there on the front cover: "The Critical To-Do List for Organic Agriculture: Recommendations for the President."

The 69-page report, which has 46 recommendations for Biden, is an outgrowth of discussions between the center, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Californians for Pesticide Reform. They spent the last two years working together to produce a comprehensive report based on cutting-edge science.

And it doesn’t just address food. It tackles climate change, research, supply chain, animal welfare standards, racial justice, social equity and enforcement.

The Swette Center decided to publish these recommendations in advance of the full report, given the interest of the new administration and Congress in pursing an organic agenda.

Woman in down vest

Kathleen Merrigan

ASU Now spoke to Kathleen Merrigan, executive director of the Swette Center and a senior sustainability scientist with the Global Institute of Sustainability and Innovation, about the report’s recommendations and some key findings.

Question: Your report has 46 recommendations. Seems like a strange number. Was there a reason for this particular number?

Answer: Joe Biden is the 46th president of the U.S. and so we decided to have some fun and play with this number, along with many others in the report. For example, at the start we provide scene-setting numbers. The reader learns that it was 30 years ago that Congress passed the law that established national standards for organic food and, that after years of exponential growth, the U.S. organic market just hit $62 billion in 2020. Organic is sold by most grocers and 82% of Americans say they purchase at least some organic food. In our conclusion, we describe 36 of the recommendations as "low hanging fruit," and by this we mean that President Biden has the power today to implement most, if not all elements of these recommendations. Our goal was to identify easily achievable actions for the new administration that, if undertaken, would immediately power-boost organic agriculture. Now that the report is out, our job is to make sure it makes a difference. We are hard at work getting it into the inboxes of organic advocates and policymakers.

Q: There are several recommendations that relate to young and beginning farmers. Why this emphasis?

A: The average age of farmers in this country is 57.5 years, with a third of farmers over the age of 65. I know farmers in their 80s still milking cows, a really tough, 365-day a year job. The reality is that many farmers want to retire, but there is no one in the wings ready to take over their operations. The aging of America’s agricultural workforce is a very serious problem. We need to repopulate our working lands and rural communities with young people.

The good news is that organic is luring the next-gen into farming. Young people are interested in the environmental and health aspects of organic, but also the price premiums. The little bit more we pay for organic helps small-scale beginning farmers survive in what is a highly capital-intensive industry. Consider alone the cost of land, which is often the biggest barrier aspiring farmers face. This is particularly true for Black and Indigenous farmers, who have been systematically deprived of land, a topic that is receiving long overdue attention in Congress. Another big challenge is surviving the three-year transition period when farmers need to follow all the organic standards but cannot yet label their food as organic. Among other things, we recommend increased technical and financial assistance to help farmers transition to organic. I’m working now with a small group of people to provide detailed policy recommendations for an upscaled transition program that I hope will be announced by the new administration soon.

To do list for organic agriculture

Q: What’s an example of the use for these numbers when it comes to benchmarking and policy success?

A: A mentor of mine, Garth Youngberg, wrote a report on organic agriculture in 1980 when he was an economist at (the U.S. Department of Agriculture) for which he was promptly and unjustifiably fired  — later Garth was recognized with a McArthur Foundation Genius Award. It is one of many historic examples of USDA not supporting the organic sector. Fast forward to today, and things have not changed that much, with USDA support for organic lukewarm at best. One way we can document this is by using numbers. In our report, we establish a baseline of support that USDA should provide the organic sector — 6% of whatever dollars are being distributed. We chose this number because 6% of food purchased in the U.S. today is organic. We argue that support for the organic sector should, at minimum, be commensurate with its market share. For example, if USDA spent 6% of its annual $4 billion research budget on research directly pertinent to organic agriculture, it would amount to $240 million, which is nearly $2 million more than is currently spent. I know many of ASU’s sustainability scientists and scholars would benefit if organic research was upscaled. By using numbers, we can go USDA agency by agency and contrast the support provided to organic to overall budget allocations and demand a fair share.

Q: Of all your recommendations, is there a standout one for Arizona?

A: The majority — about 59% — of Arizona farmers and ranchers are Native American. While many Native Americans, here in Arizona and across the country, utilize production practices consistent with the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) standards, few go through the process to become certified to label and sell their products as organic. Part of the reason for this is that the USDA NOP is not well calibrated to Tribal Nation needs. After consulting with tribal leaders, including the Intertribal Agriculture Council, we came up with a few different certification pathways that we believe will work for Tribal Nations. The irony for me is that Native Americans pioneered many of the practices that organic farmers depend on and yet they are not beneficiaries in the marketplace. This has to change. Consider that in the U.S. there are almost 80,000 Native American farmers and ranchers and tens of millions of acres of farmland under tribal control. What an opportunity!

Q: Does organic farming contribute to improving the climate, a central concern alongside food security of the new ASU Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory?

A: Organic production uses 45% less energy than conventional agriculture, largely because organic standards prohibit use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. Soil-building practices required in organic, such as crop rotation, create healthier soils that absorb rainfall better, help prevent runoff and erosion, and store more water to sustain crops through drought. This fall, the Swette Center will release a report, written in partnership with Natural Resources Defense Council and Californians for Pesticide Reform, that will lay out the latest science around organic and climate, health and the economy. It has been a labor of love and we look forward to sharing it. What our report will show, however, is that while organic is part of the answer to achieving climate-smart agriculture, even organic production systems need to further evolve to secure our future. Among the 46 recommendations in the current report is that a water stewardship standard be added to the list of National Organic Program requirements. We also recommend that greater investment be made in breeds and seeds adapted for organic systems and climate change. 

Q: As people go grocery shopping or visit a farmers market, what’s one thing you want them to keep in mind?

A: The No. 1 reason people buy organic food is health. We began our conversation with a number, let us close with one: 970,000,000. That is the number of pounds of pesticides applied to U.S. crops each year, nearly one-fifth of global pesticide use. Even after rinsing produce, which we should always do, some pesticides enter our bodies through residues that do not wash off. The smart — and safest — choice is organic because organic farmers are prohibited from using nearly all synthetic pesticides. Based on government data, the Environmental Working Group puts out an annual list of foods with the most concerning pesticide residues (The Dirty Dozen) and a list of foods of least concern (The Clean 15). While EWG describes organic as “the original clean food” and advocates for it, they produce these annual lists to help people on limited budgets prioritize which organic items to buy.  

Top photo courtesy of iStock/Getty Images. Graphic by Alex Davis/Media Relations and Strategic Communications

Reporter , ASU News


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Phoenix Suns defy the odds by posting the right numbers

July 1, 2021

W. P. Carey senior lecturer says statistically speaking, the Phoenix Suns look good on paper as they head to the NBA Finals

Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2021 year in review.

The Phoenix Suns advanced to the NBA Finals after a hard-fought series with the Los Angeles Clippers, taking them in a 4-2 game series Wednesday night. It’s the first time in more than a quarter-century the Suns have been back to the championship series.

At the beginning of the season, no one could have predicted the Suns’ amazing run, especially Las Vegas oddsmakers, who gave the team a 2% chance of winning a title. Not even Daniel McIntosh, a senior lecturer with the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, could have predicted how far the Suns have come.

McIntosh worked seven years with the NBA, tracking data protocols and developing a cutting-edge methodology for 15 different teams. This gives him an insight into the game most others don’t have.

ASU News spoke with McIntosh about the Suns' spectacular season and why they’re playing so well from a statistical point of view.

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Daniel McIntosh

Question: You seem like a person who looks at the NBA game differently — would that be accurate?

Answer: That’s probably a fair assessment. What I would say is that I think a lot of people are now starting to look at sports in a different way. Maybe that’s inner, self-conscious me speaking, still trying to fit in with the cool jocks and not be weird but, truthfully, I’ve always sort of looked at the data side of sports. I remember listening to a Bobby Knight interview. He was talking about how he didn’t understand why his players got so excited after a dunk. One of his players is hooting and hollering and Bobby deadpanned and said, “What? Was it worth more than two points?” That resonated with me and started me down the path of thinking about how data and sports intersect. Specifically, how I could gain an edge by working smarter, not harder.

Unsurprisingly, as a young postgraduate, on the prowl for opportunities, I thought it would be fun to try and make money on this intersection. The easiest way — well, maybe not easiest, but certainly most fun way — would be to make money gambling on sports. I had a background in basketball, played in my youth, coached at the high school level and was able to serve in a support role for Coach (Charli) Turner Thorne at the USA Basketball training facility during her time coaching in their Olympic development program. I figured if I could make a model work, it would be in basketball. I cobbled together as much data as I could get my hands on, built out predictive models, leveraged every statistical trick and cutting-edge methodology out there in hopes of making money watching sports … and failed, miserably. Every back test came in negative.

I was convinced that my math was correct, but that I was limited by the data publicly available. Around this time, the NBA rolled out their SportVu player tracking data protocols and installed four cameras in every NBA arena measuring each player 25 times per second. I knew if I could get access to this data before anyone else did, I could beat Las Vegas. Well, long story short, I was able to get access to the data but was told strictly that I couldn’t use it for betting.

Quite frankly, the teams and league didn’t know what to do with this data, and so I was able to carve out a niche as a consultant working with over a dozen NBA teams and the league office exploring this data. We started looking at position, speeds, accelerations and a variety of other metrics to evaluate player performance and develop management strategies. If you are familiar with the now-infamous concept of “load management,” that was the genesis of that idea. We looked at how to put players in the best position to succeed, how to keep them healthy and how to return them to full performance if they did happen to sustain an injury.

Q: This sounds like the concept for the book and movie “Moneyball,” except it’s being applied to basketball?

A: That’s exactly right! The NBA has taken the analytics baton from baseball and run with it. Baseball has “Moneyball” and Bill James, while basketball has “Basketball on Paper” and Dean Oliver. Not quite as catchy of a title but the same thinking. The neat thing is that the broader public is starting to appreciate these ideas. For the NBA, this mindset entered the public consciousness when NBA teams started tanking and were told to “trust the process” and emphasize the three-point shot, first with the Golden State Warriors and then to an even more extreme Daryl Morey and the Rockets. The basic idea is simple. A 21-foot shot can be worth two points, but a 22-foot shot can be worth three points. Why not take that little step back and get 50% more reward? That fundamentally changed how teams think about offense.

The problem is that these advantages aren’t sustainable. In other words, once teams saw that shooting three-pointers was mathematically more efficient, everyone else did the same thing. It’s a copycat league. It was in this context that teams were very excited to look at new and proprietary sources of data like XYZ player tracking and the metrics we were developing. It was fun to look at a team and say, “There’s no way they keep this up.” Sadly, this often applied to my hometown teams.

Q: Going into this season, what were your expectations of the Suns?

A: It’s a great question. You’re asking how well do our models do when they are applied to real-world settings. So first, let me say I was wrong about the Suns. I’ve already had to eat crow about the signing of Chris Paul. I expected the Suns would likely be a playoff team but max out around a five seed. I had them as a slightly above-average team entering the season.

In looking at the team, they were young, unproven and had no playoff experience for the core returning players. The team last made the playoffs in 2010 and last made the NBA Finals in 1993. This level of success is rare for great teams and even rarer for the Suns specifically. Adding a 36-year-old point guard with a fairly rich injury history didn’t seem to be a winning formula.

Q: What are some of the factors that are contributing to the court success of this year’s team?

A: I can point to three things that have significantly helped this team. First, they’ve stayed healthy compared to their elite peers. Man-Games Lost is a website that tracks the number of games missed due to injury by a team. In their metrics, the Suns had the third-lowest injuries for the year. Then, look at the playoffs and it is all about matchups. The Suns have faced three teams who have had significant injuries to star players. The Lakers dealt with injuries to Anthony Davis and LeBron James. The Nuggets had Jamal Murray out, and the Clippers had Kawhi Leonard and Serge Ibaka out. On the opposite side of the bracket, Brooklyn had major injuries to James Harden and Kyrie Irving, and Atlanta with Trae Young and Milwaukee with Giannis (Antetokounmpo). That level of elite-level production is nearly impossible to replace, and the Suns have been the beneficiaries so far.

Second, they’ve benefitted from a home-court advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs. The Lakers were only able to have around 45% of their stadium full throughout their series with the Suns. The Suns, in Game 5, had 90% of their stadium full. In a series where teams might be separated by a few points, that loss of home-court advantage is significant.

Third, the Suns have benefited from a unique ability to work against the current NBA defensive strategy. As I mentioned earlier, the three-point shot is the most efficient in the game. NBA teams know this and now build defenses around stopping three-point shots and limiting layups and dunks. The Suns are constructed in such a way that they have two great shooters that can exploit this strategy. Chris Paul and Devin Booker are both elites when it comes to shooting mid-range jumpers. The Suns ranked No. 1 in closely guarded field goal percentage this year. They were one of four teams to rank in the top 10 in the NBA in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They are a very good basketball team. That in combination with the fortunate matchups and injuries has led to the regular- and postseason success.

Q: What are some other important factors we can’t see that are important in this incredible run?

A: I don’t think people have adequately accounted for the strangeness of this season. The pandemic created a nightmare scenario for the league. Usually, a season ends in July and starts in October. There’s a nice three-month break to recover and prepare for the upcoming season. This past year, the season ended in October and started back up in December. That’s 30 fewer days to get a body ready for the rigors of an NBA season. That’s huge from a ramp-up, ramp-down, injury-management perspective.

Factor in that the Suns were a young team, had the short eight-game bubble success to build on but no playoff grind, and you have a built-in advantage to help this team. The growth of Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker then puts them in the place they are today: competing in their first NBA finals since 1993.

Q: We’ve touched on the “Moneyball” aspect of today’s game. Where do you see the future of the NBA?

A: Predicting the future is difficult, but I can speak to some interesting trends. First, the G League is becoming a viable alternative to college basketball. If that were to continue, with more money and endorsement opportunities, you’d have closer to a European model than the current collegiate model.  What happens in the name, image and likeness space plus the new CBACollective bargaining agreement, the labor contract between the NBA and the players association. all will impact how this shakes out. But the ramifications of this change would be how teams develop players. We don’t have youth academies in the U.S. We have AAU (Amatuer Athletic Union). I think one of the biggest changes will be how we scout, identify and sign talent.

Then on the court, we are seeing the use of analytics explode. I’ve mentioned XYZ player data, and that data is broken down into performance and tactical. Performance looks at things like speeds and accelerations. Tactical looks at things like defenses, sets and outcomes. How did we do against zone offense in these situations? The divide between these two is tough to cross, but new data sources like sleep-tracking data, increased wearable technologies and things like AI are working to fill in the gaps to make our models better. As I mentioned, the NBA is a copycat league. Much of what teams are working on is how do we develop things in-house that are harder for other teams to copy.

Q: Statistically speaking, should I make a trip to Las Vegas and place my entire life savings on the Suns to win the championship?

A: Oh, man! I knew this was coming. … As someone that has lost his fair share of money to Las Vegas, my answer would be an emphatic no. There’s a reason million-dollar hotels are popping up in the middle of the desert. They are very good at what they do, and they have access to models, data and wager histories that you and I don’t. Add in that they’ve also created a built-in edge with how they set their lines, and it’s a losing proposition. If you look at gambling as entertainment, like spending $20 to go to a movie or $20 on the Suns to win, I think it serves its purpose. If you start putting your life savings on it, that’s probably a pretty bad idea. But there’re stories of it working, so paraphrasing Dirty Harry, “Do you feel lucky?” 

Top photo courtesy of iStock/Getty Images

Reporter , ASU News