A Series of Unfortunate Omelettes: Lithium in Food Review & Survey Proposal

One thing that makes lithium a plausible explanation for the obesity epidemic is that clinical doses of lithium cause weight gain as a side-effect. A clinical dose of lithium is in the range of 1000 mg (“300 mg to 600 mg … 2 to 3 times a day”), and people pretty reliably gain weight on doses this high. In a 1976 review of case records, about 60% of people gained weight on clinical doses, with an average weight gain of about 10 kg.

But those are clinical doses, and it seems like the doses you’re getting from the environment are generally much smaller. There’s usually some lithium in modern drinking water, and there’s more lithium in drinking water now than there used to be. It seems to get into the water supply from things like drilled water wells, fracking, and fossil fuel prospecting, transport, and disposal. But even with all these sources of contamination, the dose you’re getting from your drinking water is relatively low, probably not much more than 0.2 mg per day. If you live right downstream from a coal plant, or you’re chugging liter bottles of mineral water on the regular, you could maybe get 5 or 10 mg/day. But no one is getting 1000 mg/day or even 300 mg/day from their drinking water. 

So what gives? 

Effects of Trace Doses

One possibility is that small amounts of lithium are enough to cause obesity, at least with daily exposure.

This is plausible for a few reasons. There’s lots of evidence (or at least, lots of papers) showing psychiatric effects at exposures of less than 1 mg (see for example meta-analysis, meta-analysis, meta-analysis, dystopian op-ed). If psychiatric effects kick in at less than 1 mg per day, then it seems possible that the weight gain effect would also kick in at less than 1 mg. 

There’s also the case study of the Pima in the 1970s. The Pima are a group of Native Americans who live in the American southwest, particularly around the Gila River Valley, and they’re notable for having high rates of obesity and diabetes much earlier than other groups. They had about 0.1 mg/L in their water by the 1970s (which was 50x the national median at the time), for a dose of only about 0.2-0.3 mg per day, and were already about 40% obese. All this makes the trace lithium hypothesis seem pretty reasonable.

Unfortunately, no one knows where the weight gain effects of lithium kick in. As far as we can tell, there’s no research on this question. It might cause weight gain at doses of 10 mg, or 1 mg, or 0.1 mg. Maybe 0.5 mg a week on average is enough to make some people really obese. We just don’t know.

Some people in the nootropics community take lithium, often in the form of lithium orotate (they use orotate rather than other compounds because it’s available over-the-counter), as part of their stacks. Based on community posts like this, this, and this, the general doses nootropics enthusiasts are taking are in the range of 1-15 mg per day. 

We haven’t done a systematic review of the subreddit (but maybe you should, that would be a good project for someone) but they seem to report no effects or mild positive effects at 1 or 2 mg lithium orotate and brain fog and fatigue at 5 mg lithium orotate and higher. Some of them report weight gain, even on doses this low. The fact that a couple extra mg might be enough to push you over the line suggests that the weight gain tipping point is somewhere under 10 mg, maybe a lot under. And for what it’s worth, all of this is consistent with the only randomized controlled trial examining the effects of trace amounts of lithium which found results at just 0.4 mg a day. 

Clinical and Subclinical Doses

Another possibility is that people really ARE getting unintended clinical doses of lithium. We see two reasons to think that this might be possible.

#1: Doses in the Mirror may be…

The first is that clinical doses are smaller than they appear. 

When a doctor prescribes you lithium, they’re always giving you a compound, usually lithium carbonate (Li2CO3). Lithium is one of the lightest elements, so by mass it will generally be a small fraction of any compound it is part of. A simple molecular-weight calculation shows us that lithium carbonate is only about 18.7% elemental lithium. So if you take 1000 mg a day of lithium carbonate, you’re only getting 187.8 mg/day of the active ingredient.

The little purple orbs are the pharmacologically active lithium ions, everything else is non-therapeutic carbonate

For bipolar and similar disorders, lithium carbonate has become such a medical standard that people usually just refer to the amount of the compound. It’s very unusual for an ion to be a medication, so this nuance is one that some doctors/nurses don’t notice. It’s pretty easy to miss. In fact, we missed it too until we saw this reddit comment from u/PatienceClarence/, which begins, “First off we need to differentiate between the doses of lithium orotate vs elemental lithium. For example, my dosage was 130 mg orotate which would give me 5 mg ‘pure’ lithium…” 

Elemental lithium is what we really care about, and when we look at numbers from the USGS or serum samples or whatever, they’re all talking about elemental lithium. When we say people get 0.1 mg/day from their water, or when we talk about getting 3 mg from your food, that’s milligrams of elemental lithium. When we say that your doctors might give you 600 mg per day, that’s milligrams lithium carbonate — and only 112.2 milligrams a day of elemental lithium. With this in mind, we see that the dose of elemental lithium is always much lower than the dose as prescribed. 

A high clinical dose is 600 mg lithium carbonate three times a day (for a total of 1800 mg lithium carbonate or about 336 mg elemental lithium), but many people get clinical doses that are much smaller than this. Low doses seem to be more like 450 mg lithium carbonate per day (about 84 mg/day elemental lithium) or even as little as 150 mg lithium carbonate per day (about 28 mg/day elemental lithium).

Once we take the fact that lithium is prescribed as a compound into account, we see that the clinical dosage is really closer to something like 300 mg/day for a high dose and 30 mg/day for a low dose. So at this point we just need to ask, is it possible that people might occasionally be getting 30 mg/day or more lithium in the course of their everyday lives? Unfortunately we think the answer is yes.

#2: Concentration in Food

The other reason to think that modern people might be getting clinical or subclinical doses on the regular is that there’s clear evidence that lithium concentrates in some foods. 

Again, consider the Pima. The researchers who tested their water in the 1970s also tested their crops. While most crops were low in lithium, they found that one crop, wolfberries, contained an incredible 1,120 mg/kg.

By our calculations, you could easily get 15 mg of lithium in a tablespoon of wolfberry jelly. If the Pima ate one tablespoon a day, they would be getting around 100 times more lithium from that tablespoon than they were getting from their drinking water.

The wolfberries in question (Lycium californium) are a close relative of goji berries (Lycium barbarum or Lycium chinense). The usual serving size of goji berries is 30 grams, which if you were eating goji berries like the ones the Pima were eating, would provide about 33.6 mg of lithium. This already puts you into clinical territory, a little more than someone taking a 150 mg tablet of lithium carbonate.

If you had a hankering and happened to eat three servings of goji berries in one day, you would get just over 100 mg of lithium from the berries alone. We don’t know how much people usually eat in one go, but it’s easy enough to buy a pound (about 450 g) of goji berries online. We don’t have any measurements of how much lithium are in the goji berries you would eat for a snack, but if they contained as much lithium as the wolfberries in the Gila River Valley, the whole 1 lb package would contain a little more than 500 mg of lithium.

So. Totally plausible that some plants concentrate 0.1 mg/L lithium in water into 1,120 mg/kg in the plant, because Sievers & Cannon have measurements of both. Totally plausible that you could get 10 or even 100 mg if you’re eating a crop like this. So now we want to know, are there other crops that concentrate lithium? And if so, what are they?

In this review, we take a look at the existing literature and try to figure out how much lithium there is in different foods. What crops does it concentrate in? Is there any evidence that foods are further contaminated in processing or transport? There isn’t actually all that much work on these questions, but we’ll take a look at what we can track down.

Let’s not bury the lede: we find evidence of subclinical levels of lithium in several different foods. But most of the sources that report these measurements are decades old, and none of them are doing anything like an exhaustive search. That’s why at the end of this piece, we’re going to talk a little bit about our next project, a survey of lithium concentrations in foods and beverages in the modern American food supply.

Because of this, our goal is not to make this post an exhaustive literature review; instead, our goal is to get a reasonable sense of how much lithium is in the food supply, and where it is. When we do our own survey of modern foods, what should we look at first? This review is a jumping off point for our upcoming empirical work.

Context for the Search

But first, a little additional context. 

There are a few official estimates of lithium consumption we should consider (since these are in food and water, all these numbers should be elemental lithium). This review paper from 2002 says that “the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1985 estimated the daily Li intake of a 70 kg adult to range from [0.650 to 3.100 mg].” The source they cite for this is “Saunders, DS: Letter: United States Environmental Protection Agency. Office of Pesticide Programs, 1985”, but we can’t find the original letter. As a result we don’t really know how accurate this estimate is, but it suggests people were getting about 1-3 mg per day in 1985.

These numbers are backed up by some German data which appear originally to be from a paper from 1991, which we will discuss more in a bit: 

In Germany, the individual lithium intake per day on the average of a week varies between [0.128 mg/day] and [1.802 mg/day] in women and [0.139] and [3.424 mg/day] in men. 

The paper also includes histograms of those distributions: 

Both of these say “mg/day” but we’re pretty sure that’s 1000x too high and they should say “µg/day”. If it were mg/day we think many of these people would be dead?

We want to call your attention to the shape of both of these distributions, because the shape is going to be important throughout this review. Both distributions are pretty clearly lognormal, meaning they peak early on but then have a super long tail off to the right. For example, most German men in this study were getting only about 0.2 to 0.4 mg of lithium per day, but twelve of them were getting more than 1 mg a day, and five of them were getting more than 2 mg a day. At least one person got more than 3 mg a day. And this paper is looking at a pretty small group of Germans. If they had taken a larger sample, we would probably see a couple people who were consuming even more. You see a similar pattern for women, just at slightly lower doses.

We expect pretty much every distribution we see around food and food exposure to be lognormal. The amount people consume per day should usually be lognormally distributed, like we see above. The distribution of lithium in any foods and crops will be lognormal. So will the distribution of lithium levels in water sources. For example, lithium levels in that big USGS dataset of groundwater samples we always talk about are distributed like this:

With scatterplot because those outliers are basically invisible on the histogram

Again we see a clear lognormal distribution. Most groundwater samples they looked at had less than 0.2 mg/L lithium. But five had more than 0.5 mg/L and two had more than 1 mg/L.

This is worth paying close attention to, because when a variable is lognormally distributed, means and medians will not be very representative. For example, in the groundwater distribution you see above, the median is .0055 mg/L and the mean is .0197 mg/L. 

These sound like really tiny amounts, and they are! But the mean and the median do not tell anywhere close to the full story. If we keep the long tail of the distribution in mind, we see that about 4% of samples contain more than 0.1 mg/L, about 1% of samples contain more than 0.2 mg/L, and of course the maximum is 1.7 mg/L. 

This means that about 4% of samples contain more than 20x the median, about 1% of samples contain more than 40x the median, and the maximum is more than 300x the median.

Put another way, about 4% of samples contain more than 5x the mean, about 1% of samples contain more than 10x the mean, and the maximum is more than 80x the mean.

We should expect similar distributions everywhere else, and we should expect means and medians to consistently be misleading in the same way. So if we find a crop with 1 mg/kg of lithium on average, that suggests that the maximum in that crop might be as high as 80 mg/kg! If this math is even remotely correct, you can see why crops that appear to have a low average level of lithium might still be worth empirically testing.

Another closely related point: that USGS paper only found those outliers because it’s a big survey, 4700 samples. Small samples will be even more misleading. Let’s imagine the USGS had taken a small number of samples instead. Here are some random sets of 6 observations from that dataset:

0.044, 0.007, 0.005, 0.036, 0.001, 0.002

0.002, 0.028, 0.005, 0.001, 0.009, 0.001

0.003, 0.006, 0.002, 0.001, 0.001, 0.006

We can see that small samples ain’t representative. If we looked at a sample of six US water sources and found that all of them contained less than 0.050 mg/L of lithium, we would miss that some US water sources out there contain more than 0.500 mg/L. In this situation, there’s no substitute for a large sample size (or, the antidote is to be a little paranoid about how long the tail is).

So if we looked at a sample of (for example) six lemons, and found that all of them contained less than 10 mg/kg of lithium, we might easily be missing that there are lemons out there that contain more than 100 mg/kg.

In any case, the obvious lognormal distribution fits really well with the kind of bolus-dose explanation we discussed with JP Callaghan, who said: 

My thought was that bolus-dosed lithium (in food or elsewhere) might serve the function of repeated overfeeding episodes, each one pushing the lipostat up some small amount, leading to overall slow weight gain. … I totally vibe with the prediction that intake would be lognormally distributed. … lognormally distributed doses of lithium with sufficient variability should create transient excursions of serum lithium into the therapeutic range.

In the discussion with JP Callaghan, we also said:

Because of the lognormal distribution, most samples of food … would have low levels of lithium — you would have to do a pretty exhaustive search to have a good chance of finding any of the spikes. So if something like this is what’s happening, it would make sense that no one has noticed. 

What we’re saying is that even if people aren’t getting that much lithium on average, if they sometimes get huge doses, that could be enough to drive their lipostat upward. If we take that model seriously, the average amount might not not be the real driver, and we should focus on whether there are huge lithium bombs out there, and how often you might encounter them. Or it could be even more complicated! Maybe some foods give you repeated moderate doses, and others give you rare megadoses. 

Two final notes before we start the review: 

First, if two sources disagree — one says strawberries are really high in lithium and the other says that strawberries are really low in lithium, or something — we should keep in mind that disagreement might mean something like “the strawberries were grown in different conditions (i.e. one batch was grown in high-lithium soil and the other batch wasn’t)” or even “apparently identical varieties of strawberries concentrate lithium differently”. There isn’t a simple answer to simple-sounding questions like “how much lithium is in a strawberry” because reality is complicated and words make it easy to hide that complexity without thinking about it.

Second, we want to remind you that whatever dose causes obesity, lithium is also a powerful sedative with well-known psychiatric effects. If you’re getting doses up near the clinical range, it’s gonna zonk you out and probably stress your kidneys. 

Ok. What crops concentrate lithium?

Lithium Concentration

Unfortunately we couldn’t find several of the important primary sources, so in a number of places, we’ve had to rely on review papers and secondary sources. We’re not going to complain “we couldn’t find the primary source” every time, but if you’re ever like “why are they citing a review paper instead of the original paper?” this is probably why.

We should warn you that these sources can be a little sloppy. Important tables are labeled unclearly. Units are often given incorrectly, like those histograms above that say mg/day when they should almost certainly say µg/day. When you double-check their citations, the numbers don’t always match up. For example, one of the review papers said that a food contained 55 mg/kg of lithium. But when we double-checked, their source for that claim said just 0.55 mg/kg in that food. So we wish we were working with all the primary sources but we just ain’t. Take all these numbers with a grain of salt.

Particularly important modern reviews include Lithium toxicity in plants: Reasons, mechanisms and remediation possibilities by Shahzad et al. (2016), Regional differences in plant levels and investigations on the phytotoxicity of lithium by Franzaring et al. (2016), and Lithium as an emerging environmental contaminant: Mobility in the soil-plant system by Robinson et al. (2018). Check those out if you finish this blog post and you want to know more.

It’s worth noting just how concerned some of these literature reviews sound. Shahzad et al. (2016) say in their abstract, “The contamination of soil by Li is becoming a serious problem, which might be a threat for crop production in the near future. … lack of considerable information about the tolerance mechanisms of plants further intensifies the situation. Therefore, future research should emphasize in finding prominent and approachable solutions to minimize the entry of Li from its sources (especially from Li batteries) into the soil and food chain.”

Older reviews include The lithium contents of some consumable items by Hullin, Kapel, and Drinkall — a 1969 paper which includes a surprisingly lengthy review of even older sources, citing papers as far back as 1917. Sadly we weren’t able to track down most of these older sources, and the ones we could track down were pretty vague. Papers from the 1930s just do not give all that much detail. Still, very cool to have anything this old. 

There’s also Shacklette, Erdman, Harms, and Papp (1978), Trace elements in plant foodstuffs, a chapter from (as far as we can tell) a volume called “Toxicity of Heavy Metals in the Environment”, which is part of a series of reference works and textbooks called “HAZARDOUS AND TOXIC SUBSTANCES”. It was sent to us by a very cool reader who refused to accept credit for tracking it down. If you want to see this one, email us.

A bunch of the best and most recent information comes from a German fella named Manfred Anke, who published a bunch of papers on lithium in food in Germany in the 1990s and 2000s. He did a ton of measurements, so you will keep seeing his name throughout. Unfortunately the papers we found from Anke mostly reference measurements from earlier work he did, which we can’t find. Sadly he is dead so we cannot ask him for more detail.

From Anke, in case anyone can track them down, we’d especially like to see a couple papers from the 1990s. Here they are exactly as he cites them:  

Anke’s numbers are very helpful, but we think they are a slight underestimation of what is in our food today. We’re pretty sure lithium levels in modern water are higher than levels in the early 1990s, and we’re pretty sure lithium levels are higher in US water than in water in Germany. In a 2005 paper, Anke says: “In Germany, the lithium content of drinking water varies between 4 and 60 µg/L (average : 10 µg/L).” Drinking water in the modern US varies between undetectable and 1700 µg/L (1.7 mg/L), and even though that 1700 is an outlier, about 8% of US groundwater samples contain more than 60 µg/L, the maximum Anke gives for Germany. The mean for US groundwater is 19.7 µg/L, compared to the 10 µg/L Anke reports.

So the smart money is that Anke’s measurements are probably all lower than the levels in modern food, certainly lower than the levels in food in the US.

Here’s another thing of interest: in one paper Anke estimates that in 1988 Germany, the average daily lithium intake for women was 0.373 mg, and the average daily lithium intake for men was 0.432 mg (or something like that; it REALLY looks like he messed up labeling these columns, luckily the numbers are all pretty similar). By 1992, he estimates that the average daily lithium intake for women was 0.713 mg, and the average daily lithium intake for men was 1.069 mg. He even explicitly comments, saying, “the lithium intake of both sexes doubled after the reunification of Germany and worldwide trade.”

That last bit about trade suggests he is maybe blaming imported foods with higher lithium levels, but it’s not really clear. He does seem to think that many foreigners get more lithium than Germans do, saying, “worldwide, a lithium intake for adults between [0.660 and 3.420 mg/day] is calculated.”

Anyways, on to actual measurements.

Beverages

Beverages are probably not giving you big doses of lithium, with a few exceptions.

Most drinking water doesn’t contain much lithium, rarely poking above 0.1 mg/L. Some beverages contain more, but not a lot more. The big exception, no surprise, is mineral water.

As usual, Anke and co have a lot to say. The Anke paper from 2003 says, “cola and beer deliver considerable amounts of lithium for humans, and this must be taken into consideration when calculating the lithium balance of humans.” The Anke paper from 2005 says that “amounts of [0.002 to 5.240 mg/L] were found in mineral water. Like tea and coffee, beer, wine and juices can also contribute to the lithium supply.” But the same paper reports a range of just 0.018 – 0.329 mg/L in “beverages”. Not clear where any of these numbers come from, or why they mention beer in particular — the citation appears to be the 1995 Anke paper we can’t find. 

In fact, Anke seems to disagree with himself. The 2005 paper mentions tea and coffee contributing to lithium exposure. But the 2003 paper says, “The total amount in tea and coffee, not their water-soluble fraction in the beverage, was registered. Their low lithium content indicates that insignificant amounts of lithium enter the diet via these beverages.”

This 2020 paper, also from Germany, finds a weak relationship for beer and wine and a strong relationship for tea with plasma concentrations for lithium. We think there are a lot of problems with this method (the serum samples are probably taken fasted, and lithium moves through the body pretty quickly) but it’s interesting.

Franzaring et al. (2016), one of those review papers, has a big figure summarizing a bunch of other sources, which has this to say about some beverages: 

For water, 1 ppm is approximately 1 mg/L

So obviously mineral water can contain a lot — if you drank enough, you could probably get a small clinical dose from mineral water alone. On the other hand, who’s drinking a liter of mineral water? Germans, apparently.

We think their sources for wine are Classification of wines according to type and region based on their composition from 1987 and Classification of German White Wines with Certified Brand of Origin by Multielement Quantitation and Pattern Recognition Techniques from 2004. The 1987 paper reports average levels of lithium in Riesling and Müller-Thurgau wines in the range of about 0.010 mg/L, and a maximum of only 0.022 mg/L. The 2004 paper looks at several German white wines, and reports a maximum of 0.150 mg/L. This is pretty unsystematic but does seem to indicate an increase. 

This paper from 2000 similarly finds averages of 0.035 and 0.019 mg/L in red wines from northern Spain. This 1994 paper and this 1997 paper both report similar values. We also found this 1988 paper looking at French red wines which suggests a range from 2.61 to 17.44 mg/L lithium. Possibly this was intended to be in µg/L instead of in mg/L? “All results are in milligrams per liter except Li, which is in micrograms per liter” is a disclaimer we’ve seen in more than one of these wine papers.

So it might be good to check, but overall we don’t think you’ll see much more than 0.150 mg/L in your wine, and most of you are hopefully drinking less than a full liter at a time.

She’s just so happy!

The most recent and most comprehensive source for beverages, however, is a 2020 paper called Lithium Content of 160 Beverages and Its Impact on Lithium Status in Drosophila melanogaster. Forget the Drosophila, let’s talk about all those beverages. This is yet another German paper, and they analyzed “160 different beverages comprising wine and beer, soft and energy drinks and tea and coffee infusions … by inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS).” And unlike other sources, they give all the numbers — If you want to know how much lithium they found in Hirschbraeu/Adlerkoenig, “Urtyp, hell” or the cola known as “Schwipp Schwapp”, you can look that up. 

They find that, aside from mineral water, most beverages in Germany contain very little lithium. Concentration in wine, beer, soft drinks, and energy drinks was all around 0.010 mg/L, and levels in tea and coffee barely ever broke 0.001 mg/L.

The big outlier is the energy drink “Acai 28 Black, energy”, which contained 0.105 mg/L. This is not a ton in the grand scheme of things — it’s less than some sources of American drinking water — but it’s a lot compared to the other beverages in this list. They mention, “it has been previously reported that Acai pulp contains substantial concentrations of other trace elements, including iron, zinc, copper and manganese. In addition to acai extract, Acai 28 black contains lemon juice concentrate, guarana and herb extracts, which possibly supply Li to this energy drink.”

BEWARE

We want to note that beverages in America may contain more lithium, just because American drinking water contains more lithium than German drinking water does. But it’s doubtful that people are getting much exposure from beverages beyond what they get from the water it’s made with. 

Basic Foods

We also have a few leads on what might be considered “basic” or “component” foods.

Anke mentions sugars a bit, though doesn’t go into much detail, saying, “honey and sugar are also extremely poor in lithium…. The addition of sugar apparently leads to a further reduction of the lithium content in bread, cake, and pastries.“ At one point he lists the range of “Sugar, honey” as being 0.199 – 0.527 mg/kg, with a mean of 0.363 mg/kg. That’s pretty low.

We also have a little data from the savory side. This paper from 1969 looked at levels in various table salts, finding (in mg/kg):

On the one hand, those are relatively high levels of lithium. On the other hand, who’s eating a kilogram of salt? Even if table salt contains 3 mg/kg, you’re just never gonna get even close to getting 1 mg from your salt.

Plant-Based Foods

It’s clear that plants can concentrate lithium, and some plants concentrate lithium more than others. It’s also clear that some plants concentrate lithium to an incredible degree. This last point is something that is emphasized by many of the reviews, with Shahzad et al. (2016) for example saying, “different plant species can absorb considerable concentration [sic] of Li.” 

Plant foods have always contained some lithium. The best estimate we have for preindustrial foods is probably this paper that looked at foods in the Chocó rain forest around 1970, and found (in dry material): 3 mg/kg in breadfruit; 1.5 mg/kg in cacao, 0.4 mg/kg in coconut, 0.25 mg/kg in taro, 0.4 mg/kg in yam, 0.6 mg/kg in cassava, 0.5 mg/kg in plantain fruits, 0.1 mg/kg in banana, 0.3 mg/kg in rice, 0.01 mg/kg in avocado, 0.5 mg/kg in dry beans, and 0.05 mg/kg in corn grains. Not nothing, but pretty low doses overall.

There are a few other old sources we can look at. Shacklette, Erdman, Harms, and Papp (1978) report a paper by Borovik-Romanova from 1965, in which she “reported the Li concentration in many plants from the Soviet Union to range from 0.15 to 5 [mg/kg] in dry material; she reported Li in food plants as follows ([mg/kg] in dry material): tomato, 0.4; rye, 0.17; oats, 0.55; wheat, 0.85; and rice, 9.8.” That’s a lot in rice, but we don’t know if that’s reliable, and we haven’t seen any other measurements of the levels in rice. We weren’t able to track the Borovik-Romanova paper down, unfortunately.

From here, we can try to narrow things down based on the better and more modern measurements we have access to.

Cereals

We haven’t seen very much about levels in cereals / grains / grass crops, but what we have seen suggests very low levels of accumulation.

Hullin, Kapel, and Drinkall (1969) mention an earlier review which found that the Gramineae (grasses) were especially “poor in lithium”, giving a range of 0.47-1.07 mg/kg. 

Borovik-Romanova reported, in mg/kg, “rye, 0.17; oats, 0.55; wheat, 0.85; and rice, 9.8” in 1965 in the USSR. Most of these concentrations are very low. Again, rice is abnormally high, but this measurement isn’t at all corroborated. And since we haven’t been able to find this primary source, there’s a good chance it should read 0.98 instead.

Anke, Arnhold, Schäfer, & Müller (2005) report levels from 0.538 to 1.391 mg/kg in “cereal products”, and in a 2003 paper, say “the different kinds of cereals grains are extremely lithium-poor as seeds.” Anke reports slightly lower levels in derived products like “bread, cake”. 

There’s also this unusual paper on corn being grown hydroponically in solutions containing various amounts of lithium. They find that corn is quite resistant to lithium in its water, actually growing better when exposed to some lithium, and only seeing a decline at concentrations around 64 mg/L. (“the concentration in solution ranging from 1 to 64 [mg/L] had a stimulating effect, whereas a depression in yielding occurred only at the concentrations of 128 and 256 [mg/L].”) But the plant also concentrates lithium — even when only exposed to 1 mg/L in its solution, the plant ends up with an average of about 11 mg/kg in dry material. Unfortunately they don’t seem to have measured how much ends up in the corn kernels, or maybe they didn’t let the corn develop that far. Seems like an oversight. (Compare also this similar paper from 2012.)

Someone should definitely double-check those numbers on rice to be safe, and corn is maybe a wildcard, but for now we’re not very worried about cereal crops.

Leafy Vegetables

A number of sources say that lithium tends to accumulate in leaves, suggesting lithium levels might be especially high in leafy foods. While most of us are in no danger of eating kilograms of cabbage, it’s worth looking out for. 

In particular, Robinson et al. (2018) observed significant concentration in the leaves of several species as part of a controlled experiment. They planted beetroot, lettuce, black mustard, perennial ryegrass, and sunflower in controlled environments with different levels of lithium exposures. “When Li was added to soil in the pot experiment,” they report, “there was significant plant uptake … with Li concentrations in the leaves of all plant species exceeding 1000 mg/kg (dry weight) at Ca(NO3)2-extractable concentrations of just 5 mg/kg Li in soil, representing a bioaccumulation coefficient of >20.” For sunflowers in particular, “the highest Li concentrations occurred in the bottom leaves of the plant, with the shoots, roots and flowers having lower concentrations.”

Obviously this is reason for concern, but these are plants grown in a lab, not grown under normal conditions. We want to check this against actual measurements in the food supply. 

Hullin, Kapel, and Drinkall (1969) report that an earlier source, Bertrand (1943), “found that the green parts of lettuce contained 7.9 [mg/kg] of lithium.” They wanted to follow up on this surprisingly high concentration, so they tested some lettuce themselves, finding: 

This pretty clearly contradicts the earlier 7.9 mg/kg, though the fact that lettuce can contain up to 2 mg/kg is still a little surprising. This could be the result of lettuce being grown in different conditions, the lognormal distribution, etc., but even so it’s reassuring to see that not all lettuce in 1969 contained several mg per kg.

In this study from 1990, the researchers went and purchased radish, lettuce and watercress at the market in Brazil, and found relatively high levels in all of them:

Let’s also look at this modern table that reviews a couple more recent sources, from Shahzad et al.:

FW = Fresh Weight and DM = Dry Matter, we think? 

None of these are astronomical, but it’s definitely surprising that spinach contains more than 4 mg/kg and celery and chard both contain more than 6 mg/kg, at least in these measurements.

So not to sound too contrarian but, maybe too many leafy greens are bad for your health. 

Fruits & Non-Leafy Veggies

Anke, Arnhold, Schäfer, & Müller (2005) say that “fruits and vegetables supply 1.0 to 7.0 mg Li/kg,” and report levels from 0.383 to 6.707 mg/kg in fruits. 

This is a wide range, and a pretty high ceiling. But as usual, Anke is much vaguer than we might hope. He gives some weird hints, but no specific measurements. In the 2003 paper, Anke says, “as a rule, fruits contain less lithium than vegetative parts of plants (vegetables). Lemons and apples contained significantly more lithium, with about 1.4 mg/kg dry matter, than peas and beans.”

More specific numbers have been hard to come by. We’ve found a pretty random assortment, like how Shahzad et al. report that “in a hydroponic experiment, Li concentration in nutrient solution to 12 [mg/L], increased cucumber fruit yield, fruit sugar, and ascorbic acid levels, but Li did not accumulate in the fruit (Rusin, 1979).” It’s interesting that cucumbers survive just fine in water containing up to 12 mg/L, and that suggests that lithium shouldn’t accumulate in cucumbers under any realistic water levels. But cucumbers are not a huge portion of the food supply.

What we do see all the time is sources commenting on how citrus plants are very sensitive to lithium. Anke says, “citrus trees are the most susceptible to injury by an excess of lithium, which is reported to be toxic at a concentration of 140–220 p.p.m. in the leaves.” Robinson et al. (2018) say, “citing numerous sources, Gough et al. (1979) reported a wide variation in plant tolerance to Li; citrus was found to be particularly sensitive, whilst cotton was more tolerant.” Shahzad et al. say, “Bradford (1963) found reduced and stunted growth of citrus in southern California, U.S.A., with the use of highly Li-contaminated water for irrigation. …  Threshold concentrations of Li in plants are highly variable, and moderate to severe toxic effects at 4–40 mg Li kg−1 was observed in citrus leaves (Kabata-Pendias and Pendias, 1992).” This Australian Water Quality Guidelines for Fresh and Marine Waters document says, “except for citrus trees, most crops can tolerate up to 5 mg/L in nutrient solution (NAS/NAE 1973). Citrus trees begin to show slight toxicity at concentrations of 0.06–0.1 mg/L in water (Bradford 1963). Lithium concentrations of 0.1–0.25 mg/L in irrigation water produced severe toxicity symptoms in grapefruit … (Hilgeman et al. 1970)”.

All tantalizing, but we can’t get access to any of those primary sources. For all we know this is a myth that’s been passed around the agricultural research departments since the 1960s.

The citrus is tantalizing, get it? 

Even if citrus trees really are extra-sensitive to lithium, it’s not clear what that means for their fruits. Maybe it means that citrus fruits are super-low in lithium, since the tree just dies if it’s exposed to even a small amount. Or maybe it means that citrus fruits are super-high in lithium — maybe citrus trees absorb lithium really quickly and that’s why lithium kills them at relatively low levels.

So it’s interesting but at this point, the jury is out on citrus.

Nightshades

Multiple sources mention that the Solanaceae family, better known as nightshades, are serious concentrators of lithium. Hullin, Kapel, and Drinkall mention that even in the 1950s, plant scientists were aware that nightshades are often high in lithium. Anke, Schäfer, & Arnhold (2003) mention, “Solanaceae are known to have the highest tolerance to lithium. Some members of this family accumulate more than 1000 p.p.m. lithium.” Shacklette, Erdman, Harms, and Papp (1978) even mention a “stimulating effect of Li as a fertilizer for certain species, especially those in the Solanaceae family.”

Shahzad et al. (2016) say, “Schrauzer (2002) and Kabata-Pendias and Mukherjee (2007) noted that plants of Asteraceae and Solanaceae families showed tolerance against Li toxicity and exhibited normal plant growth,” and, “some plants of the Solanaceae family, when grown in an acidic climatic zone accumulate more than 1000 mg/kg Li.” We weren’t able to track down most of their sources for these claims, but we did find Schrauzer (2002). He mentions that Cirsium arvense (creeping thistle) and Solanum dulcamara (called things like fellenwort, felonwood, poisonberry, poisonflower, scarlet berry, and snakeberry; probably no one is eating these!) are notorious concentrators of lithium, and he repeats the claim that some Solanaceae accumulate more than 1000 mg/kg lithium, but it’s not clear what his source for this was.

Hullin, Kapel, and Drinkall mention in particular one source from 1952 that found a range of 1.8-7.96 [mg/kg] in members of the Solanaceae. 7.9 mg/kg in some nightshades is enough to be concerned, but they don’t say which species this measurement comes from. 

The finger seems to be pointing squarely at the Solanaceae — but which Solanaceae? This family is huge. If you know anything about plants, you probably know that potatoes and tomatoes are both nightshades, but you may not know that nightshades also include eggplants, the Capsicum (including e.g. chili peppers and bell peppers), tomatillos, some gooseberries, the goji berry, and even tobacco. 

We’ve already seen how wolfberries / goji berries can accumulate crazy amounts under the right circumstances, which does make this Solanaceae thing seem even more plausible. 

Anke, Schäfer, & Arnhold (2003) mention potatoes in particular in one section on vegetable foods, saying: “All vegetables and potatoes contain > 1.0 mg lithium kg−1 dry matter.” There isn’t much detail, but the paper does say, “peeling potatoes decreases their lithium content, as potato peel stores more lithium than the inner part of the potato that is commonly eaten.”

That same paper that tries to link diet to serum lithium levels does claim to find that a diet higher in potatoes leads to more serum lithium, but we still think this paper is not very good. If you look at table 4, you see that there’s not actually a clear association between potatoes and serum levels. Table 5 says that potatoes come out in a regression model, but it’s a bit of an odd model and they don’t give enough detail for us to really evaluate it. And again, these serum concentrations were taken fasted, so they didn’t measure the right thing.

It’s much better to just measure the lithium in potatoes directly. Anke seems to have done this in the 1990s, but he’s not giving any details. We’ll have to go back all the way to 1969, when Hullin, Kapel, and Drinkall included three varieties of potatoes in their study (numbers in mg/kg):

These potatoes, at least, are pretty low in lithium. The authors do specifically say these were peeled potatoes, which may be important in the light of Anke’s comment about the peels. These numbers are pretty old, and modern potatoes probably are exposed to more lithium. But even so, these potatoes do not seem to be mega-concentrators, and Hullin, Kapel, and Drinkall did find some serious concentrators even back in 1969. 

This is especially interesting to us because it provides a little support for the idea that the potato diet might cause weight loss by reducing your lithium intake and forcing out the lithium already in your system with a high dose of potassium, or something. At the very least, it looks like you’d get less lithium in your diet if you lived on only potatoes than if you somehow survived on only lettuce (DO NOT TRY THE LETTUCE DIET).

Apparently the nightshade family’s tendency to accumulate lithium does not include the potatoes (unless the peeling made a huge difference?). This suggests that the high levels might have come from some OTHER nightshade. Obviously we have already seen huge concentrations in the goji berry (or at least, a close relative). But what about other nightshades, like tomatoes, eggplant, or bell peppers? 

Hullin, Kapel, and Drinkall do frustratingly say, “[The lithium content] of the tomato will be reported elsewhere.” But they don’t discuss it beyond that, at least not in this paper. We’ll have to look to other sources.

Shacklette et al. report: “Borovik-Romanova reported the Li concentration in [dry material] … tomato, 0.4 [mg/kg].” This is not much, though these numbers are from 1965, and from the USSR.

A stark contrast can be found in one of Anke’s papers, where they state, “Fruits and vegetables supply 1.0 to 7.0 mg Li/kg food DM. Tomatoes are especially rich in Li (7.0 mg Li/kg DM).” 

This is a lot for a vegetable fruit! It occurs to us that tomatoes are pretty easy to grow hydroponically, and you could just dose distilled water with a known amount of lithium. If any of you are hydroponic gardeners and want to try this experimentally, let us know! 

But tomatoes are obviously beaten out by wolfberries/goji berries, and they also can’t compare to this dark horse nightshade: tobacco.

SURPRISE

That’s right — Hullin, Kapel, and Drinkall (1969) also measured lithium levels in tobacco. They seem to have done this not because it’s another nightshade, but because previous research from the 1940s and 1950s had found that lithium concentrations in tobacco were “extraordinarily high”. For their own part, Hullin and co. found (mg/kg in ash): 

This is a really interesting finding, and in a crop we didn’t expect people to examine, since tobacco isn’t food.

At the same time, measuring ash is kind of cheating. Everything organic will be burned away in the cigarette or pipe, so the level of any salt or mineral will appear higher than it was in the original substance. As a result, we don’t really know the concentration in the raw tobacco. This is also the lithium that’s left over in the remnants of tobacco after it’s been smoked, so these measurements are really the amount that was left unconsumed, which makes it difficult to know how much might have been inhaled. Even so, the authors think that “the inhalation of ash during smoking could provide a further source of this metal”. 

This is also interesting in combination with the fact that people with psychiatric disorders often seem to self-medicate with tobacco. Traditionally schizophrenics are the ones drawn to being heavy smokers, but smoking is disproportionately common in bipolar patients as well. Researchers have generally tried to explain this in terms of nicotine, which we think of as being the active ingredient in tobacco, but given these lithium levels, maybe psychiatric patients smoke so much because they’re self-medicating with the lithium? Or maybe lithium exposure through the lungs causes schizophrenia and bipolar disorder? (For comparison, see Scott Alexander discussing a similar idea.)  

We didn’t find measurements for any other nightshades, but we hope to learn more in our own survey.

Animal-Based Foods

Pretty much everything we see suggests that animal products contain more lithium on average than plant-based foods. This makes a lot of general sense because of biomagnification. It also makes particular sense because many food animals consume huge quantities of plant stalks and leaves, and as we’ve just seen, stalks and leaves tend to accumulate more lithium than other parts of the plants.

toxic waste make bear sad

But the bad news is that, like pretty much everything else, levels in animal products are poorly-documented and we have to rely heavily on Manfred Anke again. He’s a good guy, we just wish — well we wish we had access to his older papers.

It’s like he’s toying with us!!!

Meat

Meat seems to contain a consistently high level of lithium. Apparently based on measurements he took in the 1990s, Anke calculates that meat products contain an average of about 3.2 mg/kg, and he gives a range of 2.4 to 3.8 mg/kg. 

In Anke, Arnhold, Schäfer, & Müller (2005) he elaborates just a little, saying, “Poultry, beef, pork and mutton contain lithium concentrations increasing in that order.”

In place of more detailed measurements, Anke, Schäfer, & Arnhold (2003) give us this somewhat difficult paragraph: 

On average, eggs, meat, sausage, and fish deliver significantly more lithium per kg of dry matter than most cereal foodstuffs. Eggs, liver, and kidneys of cattle had a mean lithium content of 5 mg/kg. Beef and mutton contain more lithium than poultry meat. Green fodder and silage consumed by cattle and sheep are much richer in lithium than the cereals largely fed to poultry. Sausage and fish contain similar amounts of lithium to meat. 

Beyond this, we haven’t found much detail to report. And even Anke can’t keep himself from mentioning how meat plays second fiddle to something else:

… Poultry, beef, pork and mutton contain lithium concentrations increasing in that order. Most lithium is delivered to humans by eggs and milk (> 7000 µg/kg DM). 

This is backed up by Hullin, Kapel, and Drinkall (1969), who said: 

Among foods of animal origin, those which have been found to contain lithium include eggs (Press, 1941) and milk (Wright & Papish, 1929; Drea, 1934).

So let’s leave meat behind for now and look at the real heavy-hitters.

Dairy

The earliest report we could find for milk was this 1929 Science publication mentioned by Hullin, Kapel, and Drinkall. But papers this old are pretty terse. It’s only about three-quarters of a page, and the only information they give about lithium is that it is included in the “elements not previously identified but now found to be present” in milk. 

Anke can do one better, and estimates an average for “Milk, dairy products” of 3.6 mg/kg with a range of 1.1 to 7.5 mg/kg. This suggests that the concentration in dairy products is pretty high across the board, but also that there’s considerable variation.

Anke explains this in a couple ways. First of all, he says that there were, “significant differences between the lithium content of milk”, and he suggests that milk sometimes contained 10 mg/kg in dry matter. This seems to contradict the range he gives above, but whatever. 

He also points out that other dairy products contain less lithium. For example, he says that butter is “lithium-poor”, containing only about 1.2 mg/kg dry matter, which seems to be the bottom of the range for dairy. “In contrast to milk,” he says, “curd cheese and other cheeses only retain 20–55% of lithium in the original material available for human nutrition. The main fraction of lithium certainly leaves cheese and curd cheese via the whey.”

This is encouraging because we love cheese and we are glad to know it is not responsible for poisoning our brains — at least, not primarily. It’s also interesting because 20-55% is a pretty big range; we’d love to know if some cheeses concentrate more than others, or if this is just an indication of the wide variance he mentioned earlier in milk. Not that we really need it, but if you have access to the strategic cheese reserve, we’d love to test historical samples to see if lithium levels have been increasing. 

What he suggests about whey is also pretty intriguing. Whey is the main byproduct of turning milk into cheese, so if cheese is lower in lithium than milk is, then whey must be higher. Does this mean whey protein is super high in lithium?

Whey protein display in The Hague, flanked by boars

Eggs

The oldest paper we could find on lithium in eggs is a Nature publication from 1941 called “Spectrochemical Analysis of Eggs”, and it is half a page of exactly that and nothing else. They do mention lithium in the eggs, but unfortunately the level of detail they give is just: “Potassium and lithium were also present [in the eggs] in fair quantity.”

Anke gives his estimate as always, but this time, it’s a little different: 

Anke gives an average (we think; he doesn’t label this column anywhere) of 7.3 mg/kg in eggs. This is a lot, more than any other food category he considers. And instead of giving a range, like he does for every other food category, he gives the standard deviation, which is 6.5 mg/kg.

This is some crazy variation. Does that mean some eggs in his sample contained more than 13.8 mg/kg lithium? That’s only one standard deviation above the average, two standard deviations would be 20.3 mg/kg. A large egg is about 50 g, so at two standard deviations above average, you could be getting 1 mg per egg. 

That does seem to be what he’s suggesting. But if we assume the distribution of lithium in eggs is normal, we get negative values quickly, and an egg can’t contain a negative amount of lithium.

Because lithium concentrations can’t be negative, and because of the distributions we’ve seen in all the previous examples, we assume the distribution of lithium in eggs must be lognormal instead.

A lognormal distribution with parameters [1.7, .76] has a mean and sd of very close to 7.3 and 6.5, so this is a reasonable guess about the underlying distribution of eggs in Germany in 1991.

Examination of the lognormal distribution with these parameters suggests that the distribution of lithium in eggs (at least in Germany in 1991) looks something like this: The modal egg in this distribution contains about 3 mg/kg lithium. But about 21% of the eggs in this distribution contain more than 10 mg/kg lithium. About 4% contain more than 20 mg/kg. About 1% contain more than 30 mg/kg. About 0.4% contain more than 40 mg/kg. And two out of every thousand contain 50 mg/kg lithium or more. 

That’s a lot of lithium for just one egg. What about the lithium in a three-egg omelette? 

ACHTUNG

To answer this Omelettenproblem, we started by taking samples of three eggs from a lognormal distribution with parameters [1.7, .76]. That gives us the concentration in mg/kg for each egg in the omelette.

Again, a large egg is about 50 grams. In reality a large egg is slightly more, but we’ll use 50 g because some restaurants might use medium eggs, and because it’s a nice round number. 

So we multiply each egg’s mg/kg value by .05 (because 50 g out of 1000 g for a kilogram) to get the lithium it contains in mg, and we add the lithium from all three eggs in that sample together for the total amount in the omelette.

We did this 100,000 times, ending up with a sample of 100,000 hypothetical omelettes, and the estimated lithium dose in each. Here’s the distribution of lithium in these three-egg omelettes in mg as a histogram: 

And here it is as a scatterplot in the style of The Economist

As you can see, most omelettes contained less than 3 mg lithium. In fact, most contained between 0.4 and 1.6 mg.

This doesn’t sound like a lot, but we think it’s pretty crazy. A small clinical dose is something like 30 mg, and it’s nuts to see that you can get easily like 1/10 that dose from a single omelette. Remember that in 1985, the EPA estimated that the daily lithium intake of a 70 kg US adult ranged from 0.650 to 3.1 mg — but by 1991 Germany, you can get that whole dose in a single sitting, from a single dish! 

Even Anke estimated that his German participants were getting no more than 3 mg a day from their food. But this model suggests that you can show up at a cafe and say “Kellner, bringen Sie mir bitte ein Omelette” and easily get that 3 mg estimate blown out of the water before lunchtime.

Even this ignores the long tail of the data. The omelettes start to peter out at around 5 mg, but the highest dose we see in this set of 100,000 hypothetical breakfasts was 11.1 mg of lithium in a single omelette.

The population of Germany in 1990 was just under 80 million people. Let’s say that only 1 out of every 100 people orders a three-egg omelette on a given day. This means that every day in early 1990s Germany, about 800,000 people were rolling the dice on an omelette. Let’s further assume that the distribution of omelettes we generated above is correct. If all these things are true, around 8 unlucky people every day in 1990s Germany were getting smacked with 1/3 a clinical dose of lithium out of nowhere. It’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t feel that. 

Processed Food

One thing we didn’t see much of in this literature review was measurements of the lithium in processed food.

We’re very interested in seeing if processing increases lithium. But no one seems to have measured the lithium in a hamburger, let alone a twinkie. 

There are a few interesting things worth mentioning, however — all from Anke, Schäfer, & Arnhold (2003), of course.

Mostly Anke and co find that processed foods are not extreme outliers. “Ready-to-serve soups with meat and eggs were [rich] in lithium,” they say, “whereas various puddings, macaroni, and vermicelli usually contained < 1 mg lithium/kg dry matter. Bread, cake, and pastries are usually poor sources of lithium. On average, they contained less lithium than wheat flour. The addition of sugar apparently leads to a further reduction of the lithium content in bread, cake, and pastries.”

Even in tasty treats, they don’t find much. We don’t know how processed German chocolate was at the time, but they say, “the lithium content of chocolates, chocolate candies, and sweets amounted to about 0.5 mg/kg dry matter. Cocoa is somewhat richer in lithium. The addition of sugar in chocolates reduces their lithium content.”

The only thing that maybe jumps out as evidence of contamination from processing is what they say about mustard. “Owing to the small amounts used in their application,” they begin, “spices do not contribute much lithium to the diet. It is surprising that mustard is relatively lithium-rich, with 3.4 mg/kg dry matter, whereas mustard seed contains extremely little lithium.” Mustard is generally a mixture of mustard seed, water, vinegar, and not much else. We saw in the section on beverages that wine doesn’t contain much lithium, so vinegar probably doesn’t either. Maybe the lithium exposure comes from processing?

Misc

We notice that for many categories of food, we seem to have simply no information. How much lithium is in tree nuts? Peanuts? Melons? Onions? Various kinds of legumes? How much is in major crops like soy? This is part of why we need to do our own survey, to fill these gaps and run a more systematic search.

It’s interesting, though not surprising, to see such a clear divide between plant and animal foods. In fact, we wonder if this can explain why vegetarian diets seem to lead to a little weight loss and vegan diets seem to lead to a little more, and also why neither of them work great.

Meat seems to contain a lot of lithium, but honestly not that much more than things like tomatoes and goji berries. Vegetarians will consume less lithium when they stop eating meat, but if they compensate for not eating meat by eating more fruit, they might actually be worse off. If they compensate by eating more eggs, or picking up whey protein, they’re definitely worse off! 

Vegans have it a little better — just by being vegan, they’ll be cutting out the three most reliable sources of lithium in the general diet. As long as they don’t increase their consumption of goji berries to compensate, their total exposure should go down. Hey, it makes more sense than “not eating dairy products gives you psychic powers because otherwise 90% of your brain is filled with curds and whey.”

But even so, a vegan can get as much lithium as a meat-eater if they consume tons of nightshades, so even a vegan diet is not a sure ticket to lithium removal. Not to mention that we have basically no information on plant-based protein sources (legumes, nuts) so we don’t know how much lithium vegans might get from that part of their diet.

In Conclusion

There’s certainly lithium in our food, sometimes quite a bit of lithium. It seems like most people get at least 1 mg a day from their food, and on many days, there’s a good chance you’ll get more.

That said, most of the studies we’ve looked at are pretty old, and none of them are very systematic. Sources often disagree; sample sizes are small; many common foods haven’t been tested at all. The overall quality is not great. We don’t think any of this data is good enough to draw strong conclusions from. Personally we’re avoiding whey protein and goji berries for right now, but it’s hard to get a sense of what might be a good idea beyond that. So as the next step in this project, we’re gonna do our own survey of the food supply.

The basic plan is pretty simple. We’re going to go out and collect a bunch of foods and beverages from American grocery stores. As best as we can, we will try to get a broad and representative sample of the sorts of foods most people eat on a regular basis, but we’ll also pay extra-close attention to foods that we suspect might contain a lot of lithium. Samples will be artificially digested (if necessary) and their lithium concentration will be measured by ICP-MS. All results will be shared here on the blog.

Luckily, we have already secured funding for the first round of samples, so the survey will proceed apace. If you want to offer additional support, please feel free to contact us — with more funding, we could do a bigger survey and maybe even do it faster. We could also get a greenhouse and run some hydroponic studies maybe.

If you’re interested in getting involved in other ways, here are a few things that would be really helpful:

1. If you would be willing to go out and buy an egg or whatever and mail it in to be tested, so we could get measurements from all over the country / the world, please fill out this form.

2. If you work at the FDA or a major food testing lab or Hood Milk or something, or if you’re a grad student with access to the equipment to test your breakfast for lithium and an inclination to pitch in, contact phil@whylome.org to discuss how you might be able to contribute to this project.

Links for May 2022

Weird and bad drug interactions are everywhere. Here’s one we didn’t hear about until recently: Combined use of SSRIs and NSAIDs increases the risk of gastrointestinal adverse effects. Here’s a meta-analysis from 2021.

We talked about Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, his amazing wife, and his awesome house in a previous links post; now he’s running for the Senate.

An interesting breakdown of Effective Altruism’s recent ill-fated $14 million introduction to politics and an attempt to describe what an actually effective, Realpolitik approach might look like.

It’s always weird to learn about new historical figures we happen to have caught on film: here’s an interview from 1927 with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about writing Sherlock Holmes and having, in his words, “psychic experiences”.

bad news about cockroach sex — or as the twitter thread says, BUGS SUGAR SEX MAGIK

Bringing empiricism to new topics will be one of the signatures of the 21st century; here’s a great example of finding the perfect author photo with the clever application of photoshop and crowdsourcing. “It also might become my real-life look,” he says. “Because my lovely wife Cassandra said I looked hotter this way.”

More internet science from Troof on nootropics. Hopefully the first of many projects! 

Wikipedia is already well-known for being the repository of all human knowledge, but it still sometimes manages to surprise us. Consider for example the page, ​​Order of battle for the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. If this is anything close to correct, maybe is Wikipedia now one pillar of the intelligence community?

We’ve wanted something like this for a while, and here it is: A list of ways AIs have learned to cheat at videogames. Bad news for attempts to align AI with human values but good news in that some of their strategies, while inventive, are not exactly Skynet. For example, consider: “Agent kills itself at the end of level 1 to avoid losing in level 2.”

Speaking of preparing for the cyberpunk future: comics about self managed abortion and sources of abortion pills, just in case.

In other future news, Futurama was right:

Love food but hate herbicides? How do you feel about LASERS

We’ve kind of been sleeping on Bartosz Ciechanowski but something like this is clearly the future of engineering textbooks. What is this guy’s day job? Should someone just hire him (and a small team?) to create open-source internet engineering manuals for the 21st century? 

Purple.com was “a single-page website created [by Jeff Abrahamson] in 1994. It consisted of no links or text and its only content was a purple background.” This was until November 2017, when it was sold to the internet mattress company, Purple, Inc. for around $900,000. So Jeff created ISoldPurple.com

Cannons: 

First-year recap on a startup that tries to do local/community news different. Kind of surprised they’re still focusing on an ad revenue model but we agree that local news is an undervalued area.

Guy tweets at Microsoft and asks them to release the source code for movie maker from 1995 and they said “okay here you go”

Norway, the Once and Future Georgist Kingdom

(Image CC BY-NC 2.0 by Christopher Michel)

In which guest blogger Lars Doucet provides a translation of the article “Den nye oljen” [The new oil] by Anne Margrethe Brigham and Jonathon W. Moses.

Translator’s Preface

Hi, my name’s Lars Doucet and I’ll be your guest blogger today here at SLIME MOLD TIME MOLD. Today is the 17th of May, Norwegian Constitution day, so I asked SMTM if I could share a fascinating paper from my motherland, publicly available in English for the first time right here. Thanks to SMTM for the venue, and to Jonathon and Anne Margrethe for letting me translate and share their work.

Norway confuses and annoys doctrinaire Capitalists and Socialists alike by pairing a dynamic market economy with an expansive social welfare state. But lurking unnoticed in the background is a third economic philosophy that has profoundly shaped this Nordic kingdom–Georgism. Georgism is a school of political economy that embraces both the free market and the private ownership of capital, while also attacking passive rent-seeking. Its chief aim is to ensure that those things which no man has created (such as land and natural resources) be put to the common benefit of all rather than monopolized by private interests. I’ve written previously on this subject over at Astral Codex TenGame Developer magazineNaavik, and the Progress & Poverty substack. You can find a curated standalone collection of my work at gameofrent.com.

In online discourse, many people’s introduction to Georgism is the tongue-in-cheek meme, “Land Value Tax would fix this.” But there’s a lot more to Georgism than LVT, and Norway is a particularly instructive and successful example of how to apply Henry George’s lessons to a different kind of “land” – natural resources. Modern Norway is an energy powerhouse whose domestic economy runs almost entirely on zero-emission sources (mostly hydro-power). At the same time, their export economy houses one of the most economically successful and technologically advanced petroleum industries in the world.

The Norwegian hydro-power management regime was explicitly set up by Norwegian Georgists in the early 20th century, based on the idea that the nation’s water was the common property of the Norwegian people. These officials realized that when access to a natural resource is limited–either naturally through physical scarcity, or artificially through government regulation–an abnormally high rate of return known as a “resource rent” arises. This super-profit arises not from a private actor’s contribution of labor or capital to the free market, but instead from the monopolistic leverage that limited access to a bounded resource naturally gives.

So who should receive these bountiful “resource rents?” The resource’s owner of course–the Norwegian people. This doesn’t mean that private companies can’t be involved, quite the opposite in fact–just so long as they keep their hands off the resource rents. Norway’s Georgist management regimes for hydro-power and petroleum aike were founded on the same principles. Their success is an empirical refutation of the theoretical claim that private companies won’t be incentivized to discover and efficiently extract resources unless they’re allowed to keep the resource rents.

Norway now sits at a crossroads. The oil will not last forever, and the country cannot remain dependent on petroleum if it wants to transition to a green economy and tackle climate change. Norwegian politicians therefore seek a “New Oil” in emerging natural resource sectors–specifically aquaculture (fish farming), wind and solar power,  and “bioprospecting,” the mining of organisms for useful new chemical compounds (think penicillin). Unfortunately, Norwegian policy makers have lost touch with their Georgist roots and have set up management regimes for these new sectors that will allow private companies to capture the entirety of any emerging resource rents. This means that even if one of these sectors becomes a “new oil,” the windfall profits will go not to the Norwegian people, but instead to literal “rent-seekers” passively extracting monopoly profits at public expensive.

The authors of “Den nye oljen” persuasively argue that Norway must learn from its own successful tradition of Georgist resource management policy in order to chart a sustainable path to the prosperous future it deserves.

The original Norwegian text can be found here:
https://www.idunn.no/doi/pdf/10.18261/issn.1504-2936-2021-01-01

If you find this article interesting, please look for the authors’ upcoming book, The Natural Dividend: Just Management of Our Natural Resources (Forthcoming, 2023, Agenda Press), which expands this argument to apply to the entire world, not just Norway, using case studies from around the globe.

The New Oil

Anne Margrethe Brigham (Senior Researcher, Ruralis)
Jonathon W. Moses (Professor, Department of Sociology and Political Science, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, NTNU)
English translation by Lars Andreas Doucet (independent researcher)

Copyright © 2021 Author(s). This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons CC-BY-NC 4.0 License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/).

Abstract

Norway’s future economy will depend less on petroleum. There are at least two reasons for this: petroleum is a nonrenewable resource, and the need to limit climate change. For these reasons, the Norwegian authorities are seeking out greener opportunities in the fields of bioeconomy and renewable energy. This article considers how the management of key natural resources affects the opportunities available for funding Norway’s welfare state in the future. To do this, we compare the regime used to manage petroleum with those used on wind and hydropower, aquaculture and bioprospecting. The different management regimes play a decisive role in determining the size and scope for taxation of the resource rent that these resources produce. Our analysis shows a break in the Norwegian management tradition for natural resources. The government has opted out of the successful management regimes for hydropower and petroleum and replaced them with regimes that can neither ensure public control nor taxation of the resource rent from wind power, aquaculture and bioprospecting. We conclude that the current management regimes in these sectors cannot contribute to a level of public wealth that can match the one that Norway has become accustomed to from oil.

Keywords
Resource rent, renewable energy, aquaculture, bioprospecting, natural resources

Introduction

Norway has begun to accept a sobering truth: in the future our economy must become less dependent on petroleum; not only because it is a non-renewable resource, but also because of increasing political pressure to reduce our nation’s contributions to climate change. This will not be easy, as we are dependent on the petroleum sector for both jobs and government revenue. Political authorities (and others) have therefore begun to actively seek a new, greener, economic foundation upon which Norway’s future may be built. Many hope to have found this alternative foundation in the so-called “bio-economy”, which, roughly speaking, can be understood as value creation based on the production and exploitation of renewable biological resources (NFD, 2016, p.13),[1] and renewable energy sources.

[1] In the government’s Bioeconomy strategy (NFD, 2016, p.13), bioeconomy is defined as “sustainable, efficient, and profitable production, extraction, and utilization of renewable biological resources for food, (animal) feed, ingredients, health products, energy, materials, chemicals, paper, textiles, and other products. Use of enabling technologies such as biotechnology, nanotechnology and IKT [information and communication technology] are, in addition to conventional disciplines like chemistry, central to development in modern biotechnology

Within the bio-economy and renewable energy fields, there are three sectors in particular that are often put forward as potential “green” replacements for oil and gas in Norway: aquaculture, wind- and hydro-power, and bio-prospecting. The optimism for these sectors is based on the country’s absolute advantages in terms of  “clean” natural resources. In the first sector, aquaculture, Norwegian companies are already world leaders in salmon farming – see e.g. NFD (2015). In the second sector (renewable energy) Norway has a long tradition of exploiting its hydro-power potential, and now is turning its technical expertise to wind power. The third sector, bio-prospecting, is less well-known, but seems to have captured the attention of politicians who hope to encourage research and investment that will allow Norway to play a vital role in this sector in the future (NFD, 2016 and 2017). The government has prepared a strategy to encourage business growth in the bio-economy (see NFD 2016), in order to contribute to job growth as well as the financing of Norway’s comprehensive public welfare system.

Many people trust that Norway’s high standard of living can be maintained by a well-managed transition from a petroleum-based economy to one based on renewable resources. Aquaculture, renewable energy, and bioprospecting alike provide hope for an attractive economic future, because we can expect the demand for renewable resources to increase going forward. The potential for “resource rents” from Norwegian renewable resources have been brought forward in at least two recent NOU’s: NOU 2019:16 (concerning hydropower) and NOU 2019:18 (concerning aquaculture) [TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: “NOU” stands for “Norges Offentlige Utredninger”, meaning “Norwegian Public Reports,” where the government or a ministry creates a committee or working groups to report on different aspects of society.]

The Norwegian government’s ability to consistently collect resource rents has been crucial to harvesting public benefits for all the Norwegian people. The collection of new resource rents ought to be a vital part of the motivation in shifting to an economy based on “green” natural resources (sooner than shifting to e.g. industrial production or a service economy). This raises an important question, which is the motivation behind this article. Is it reasonable to expect that these new sectors will be able to bring forth tax revenue from resource rents in line with what Norway has generated from the oil business?

It is not easy to answer this question, since resource rents are shaped by the economic value of the resource (which can change significantly over time from market fluctuations) and the underlying management regime. Even if it is not possible to predict the future economic value of a natural resource, we can still consider whether the management regime is able to recognize and ensure a potential resource rent, should it arise. This article addresses this issue precisely, by comparing the management regime used in the petroleum sector with the regime used in aquaculture, wind- and hydropower, and bioprospecting. This involves us acknowledging that the management regime for petroleum has been a success. We therefore consider the degree to which this regime has been transferred to the management of alternate resources that many hope can contribute to the financing of our future welfare state. In other words, this is a survey of whether the Norwegian people’s economic interests are properly secured in these four sectors.

In this article we show that the present method for managing these renewable resources is very different from the one used for petroleum. Even if the commercial value of these renewable resources today is low compared to petroleum, it is likely that their relative worth will grow in the future. Since the potential for resource rents changes significantly over time, in line with changing market conditions and ongoing technological progress, we will not attempt to estimate the precise size of future resource rents in these sectors. Nevertheless, it can be reasonable to expect that these natural resources will be even more valuable in the future, and that the potential resource rent will grow, even if it would go too far to say that their worth would be close to what the oil sector gives us today. It is therefore important to discover whether the authorities have the ability to collect this value on behalf of the community. We find that the authorities have traded away the successful management regime typical of the oil sector, and replaced it with regimes that can secure neither commensurate public control nor similar tax revenue from the wind-power, aquaculture, or bioprospecting sectors. It is only in the hydro-power sector that (a portion of) the resource rents are reclaimed by the community.

For over a century the authorities have protected public ownership of the community’s natural resources, and collected the resulting resource rents from private companies. We feel it is remarkable that the authorities now abandon this system for our renewable resources, and in its stead have introduced a number of competing management regimes that focus primarily on increased efficiency. As a consequence, there is a real chance that private investors (both Norwegian and foreign) will be allowed to capture the full resource rents that are created by Norway’s management of natural resources.

The argument that follows has five parts. In the first part we define what we mean by “resource rents,” and how they can be measured and obtained on the basis of the work of Henry George (1886). This makes up the theoretical foundation for the survey that follows. In the second part we give a short description of the method we have used. In the third part we document Norway’s present dependence on the resource rents of petroleum, and the economic benefits that Norway has harvested from the oil business over time. The fourth part of the article gives an overview of the management regimes in the three renewable “candidate resources” that Norway hopes can replace petroleum in the future: aquaculture, renewable energy production (wind and water) and bioprospecting.

The fifth part concludes that Norway’s “new oil” must be managed in a manner that looks beyond the successful management regime of “the old oil.” When we compare the potential for public value creation across the old and new resource sectors, it is clear that our “new oil” cannot generate a public fortune (or be subject to public control) in a way comparable to what we have been used to. This is because any eventual resource rent, regardless of its size, will not be collected for the benefit of the public, but instead will be captured by the private sector.

On Resource Rent

Resource rent is an extra-ordinary value derived from the use of a natural resource, and it is measured by subtracting all costs, as well as a normal-sized profit, from revenue (see figure 1). The reason that natural resources can produce resource rent is that they are limited by nature and/or politics. They are limited by nature in that there are only a certain amount of them (with variations in quality and productivity), while they are limited by politics when the authorities regulate their exploitation and access. When it is not free for just anyone to invest in the exploitation of natural resources that produce positive returns, a sort of monopoly is formed which in turn contributes to an artificially high profit for the “chosen” producers. As Greaker and Lindhold (2019, p. 1) write, it means “…that one can achieve positive profit on the basis of a natural resource over a longer period of time, without new providers wanting to establish themselves. In other words, the limited access hinders the free establishment that otherwise would have pushed down the profit from the operation towards a normal return on capital.” Which is to say, the regulation itself causes the profit to be greater because the market prices will become higher than they otherwise would have been (see Skonhoft, 2020).

Figure 1: Schematic representation of resource rent. Source: Moses and Letnes (2017: 92)

The potential for resource rent is also determined by market forces. Not all natural resources are capable of bringing forth notable amounts of resource rent: sometimes it is simply too expensive to gain access to or produce the resource, relative to the price it fetches in the market. Other times the way in which the resource is managed causes its exploitation to be too expensive or lead to overexploitation (i.e. the tragedy of the commons) [3]. Therefore it is difficult to separate resource rent from the method the community uses to regulate access to its resources [4]. Speaking very generally, political authorities have two main tools for achieving their management goals: ownership, and collection/taxation.

[2] If there was free competition in the market for natural resources, companies/actors engaged in that market would not be able to harvest an abnormally large return. The fact that international oil companies are among the most profitable companies in the world, is in and of itself an indication that there is not free competition in the petroleum markets. Similar cases of disproportionally large incomes are emerging in the aquaculture sector.

[3] See for example, Brox (1987), where Norwegian wild fishery resources and agriculture yielded negative resource rents.

[4] Given our broad definition of resource rent, above. In The Condition of Labor, George (1982 [1893], p.13-15) distinguishes between “monopoly ground rent” and “natural ground rent”–where the latter gives birth to unusually large profits which simply stem from location. See Giles (2017, p. 68). Others distinguish between the ground rent and the regulation rent. See, for example, Skonhoft (2020). [TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: in the original Norwegian, the authors use the term ‘grunnrente’ throughout this piece, which I have consistently rendered (at their indication) as ‘resource rent’. This is what the term effectively means in Norwegian, but it also corresponds perfectly to what Henry George meant by the term ‘ground rent.’]

Ownership

The first tool is used on property rights, and concerns various forms of contracts (for example, licensing agreements, production sharing agreements, licenses, and patents). These tools limit access to resources and help to establish resource rents. While the actual motivation for limiting access to a resource can be to protect it from over-exploitation (for example), the regulation can nevertheless create a resource rent.

It is important to underscore that natural resources are owned by the people. Public ownership of natural resources are anchored in Norwegian laws (and customs) more than a hundred years old, in addition to international agreements such as the UN’s resolution from 1962 concerning permanent sovereignty over natural resources and Article 1 of the International Convention of Civil and Political Rights (UN General Assembly, 1962; 1966). This was clarified in a supreme court decision from 2013, which stated that (wild)fisheries belong to the Norwegian people. For this reason the state has a responsibility to ensure that the people it represents get to enjoy the benefits of the value created from the resources that they own. In order to discover and produce these resources, as well as deliver them to market, the state often gives private business actors with expertise in the given sector (for example petroleum, fisheries, energy) permission to do it on their behalf. These companies receive in these situations a license (often called a “concession”) that ensures their access to use a limited amount of resources on behalf of the community of people who own them.

These licenses/concessions will naturally vary somewhat according to the resource’s characteristics. Some resources are renewable (e.g. waterfalls), while others are not (e.g. petroleum). Some resources are easy to recover, monitor, and control (e.g. aquaculture), while others are more volatile (e.g. wind and solar). Access to the more volatile resources like wind and solar can also be limited, something sailboat racers and sunbathers can attest to. As more and more of our common resources are transformed into market goods, it is important that the community asserts its rightful ownership of them before they are effectively privatized.

In order to attract relevant producers with the proper skills, the licenses/concessions must be generous enough to provide a basis for a healthy return on investment and labor. If they are sufficiently easy enough to obtain that they attract many producers in the market, the resulting (market) value of the licensed resource will be relatively low. This value, like the market value of anything else, is roughly determined by the supply of the resource available on the market, for any given level of demand. By limiting access to these resources the state is able to increase and stabilize their value, and in reality creates a monopoly situation. In this way even the harvesting of sea salt can secure a significant resource rent when the state restricts access [5]. Under such conditions where production is limited, the expected profit will be far higher than what is required to attract competent market actors. In other words, it is the licensing scheme that produces the “resource rent”, as George (1886, p.169) [6] simply described as, “the price of monopoly. It arises from individual ownership of the natural elements — which human exertion can neither produce nor increase.”

[5] Take for example Mahatma Gandhi’s salt march (Salt satyagraha) from 1930.

[6] George was of course not the only modern economist who was concerned with resource rents. He was also not the first (see, Anderson, 1777). He shared this interest with among others David Ricardo (1817), Nassau Senior (1850), and Karl Marx (1981 [1865], Vol 3, p. 882-813), but George was alone in making the taxation of land a central element in a political campaign for the redistribution of public wealth. See for example O’Donnell (2015).

Collection and Taxation

The second tool is used to secure the public a share of this resource rent, since it belongs to the community: “It is the taking by the community, for the use of the
community, of that value which is the creation of the community.” (George, 1886, p.431). To ensure that the licensed company is not left with the entire resource rent (which belongs to the community), the state must collect a portion of it [7]. This must be done in a way that undermines neither the incentive for private companies to do the job of extracting the resource (i.e., their profit), nor competitiveness in the international market. This can be done in several ways. One is to ensure that access to the limited resource (e.g. licenses) is evenly distributed across a number of small producers, and/or to require that local workers, technology, and subcontractors must be employed. Another way is to use purely economic means in the form of fees, royalties, and taxes.

Last, but not least, it is important that the size and structure of the instruments which secure the community’s portion of the resource rents can change over time. It is therefore important for political authorities to implement a licensing and taxation system that is flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances, and gives the possibility for updates (Moses and Letnes, 2017a, pp. 64-5). By spreading the awarding of licenses over time, and by giving shorter license periods (but long enough for investors to secure their legitimate returns and establish efficient production routines), the political authorities can ensure that the resource rents accrue to the community [8].

[7] This is especially important when the resource is non-renewable, as with petroleum. In these situations it is important to protect revenue from the sale of resources, and build up an alternative fortune when the one on the sea floor is reduced.

[8] Here we can give a little warning. Affected investors constantly insist that a resource rent tax threatens their ability to secure an acceptable return on their invested capital, hinders necessary investments, or provokes capital flight. See, for example, the statements from Geir Ove Ystmark, administrative director of Norwegian Seafood in Widerstrøm (2019). These threats, and active lobbying (see Kristiansen and Wiederstrøm 2019), reflect a general ignorance of the nature of resource rents and property rights (or a willingness to pull the wool over the public’s eyes). The authorities can secure a fair share of the resource rents in many different ways, and almost all of these are sensitive to the need to ensure investors and workers a fair return on labor, time and money, as the resource rent (by definition) comes on top of the normal return.

As we will see below, much of Norway’s success in the oil sector can be ascribed to a management regime that generated a resource rent, which has been taxed and used to finance the Norwegian welfare state. In contrast to many other countries, the Norwegian authorities recognize that the majority of (if not all) of the resource rents should return to the community, who own the underlying resource. (e.g.: Finansdepartementet, 2018a; see also NOU 2019:18, p. 9). What many are not clear about, is that the resource rent regime in the oil sector builds upon the licensing and taxation system from hydropower:

Norway’s petroleum resources are the Norwegian people’s property and shall be for the benefit of the whole society. This was the starting point for the management of petroleum resources over the last 50 years. The licensing legislation from 1909 concerns the regulation of hydropower, but has also been relevant for the oil business. The legislation provided for the right of restitution, emphasized that it is the Norwegian people who own the water resources, and that the resource rent should accrue to the community. The same principles have been followed in the management of petroleum resources. (OED, 2011, p. 5)

The politicians who developed this system over 100 years ago, relied on the American economist Henry George [9]. The acceptance for the collection/taxation of resource rents can weaken if the underlying understanding of natural resources as the property of the community is lost. In this respect it is noteworthy that the recent reports on the taxation of hydropower (NOU 2019: 16) and aquaculture (NOU 2019: 18) clearly did not have a mandate that included a reflection on the political and moral justifications for ensuring that the resource rents accrue to the community as a whole.

[9] It is not perfectly clear how large of an influence George had, since most of the discussion around the original licensing law concerned the right of restitution and to what degree it was in line with the constitution’s protection of private property rights, but we know that George’s works were translated by the prominent leftist Viggo Ullmann, and that Ullman was the first leader of the “Henry George movement” that published the magazine Retfærd. Tidsskrift for den norske Henry George bevegælse [Justice. Journal of the Norwegian Henry George movement]. Other well-known and influential people in this movement were Arne Garborg and Johan Castberg. For more about the Georgists’ impact on Norway’s hydro-power regime, see Thue (2003, chapter 3).

Method

We are interested in finding out to what degree politicians have tried to transfer the management regime in the petroleum sector to the bio-economy and renewable energy sectors. Given the success Norway has had with its petroleum management, and the explicit desire to finance future public spending with revenues from the bio-economy and renewable energy sectors, we should believe that the Norwegian authorities will want to use the most important instruments from the petroleum management system in the “New Oil” sectors. After all, it was exactly this which happened in the 1960’s and 70’s, when the fifty-year old licensing regime concerning hydropower was taken and used for the new petroleum sector.

We have chosen three cases studies from the bio-economy and renewable energy sector: aquaculture, hydro- and wind-power, and biotechnology. This does not mean that they are the only relevant cases, and we had initially thought to include a number of other sectors (such as agriculture, forestry, solar energy, and fisheries). We landed nevertheless on the above, not only because they are renewable, but because they have been emphasized by the authorities as especially important for Norway’s future, and because the growth potential of each of them is dependent on innovation in both technological and legal developments.

We compare and contrast the existing management regimes in these sectors with regards to the two tools for capturing resource rents that we described in the theoretical review above, namely ownership and collection/taxation. We look at four specific aspects of management:

  1. Is public ownership of the resource explicitly recognized?
  2. Do the authorities control access to the resource, and if so, how?
  3. Have they introduced tax rules that enable the collection of eventual resource rents?
  4. Have they actually collected any resource rents that have appeared?

Points three and four are not only important in sectors where it has already been established that resource rents exist, but also in sectors that today have relatively poor profitability. This is because it will give public officials the authority to collect (parts of) the resource rents if market conditions change such that these sectors also begin to generate disproportionately large profits (so-called “super-profit”). Our focus is therefore not on the current size of the resource rent, but on the state’s abilities to recognize a resource rent as it arises, and its right to reclaim it from private to public hands.

The analysis is supported by three kinds of sources. The information about the petroleum management sector is largely based on the authors’ prior research [10]. When it comes to the other sectors, we have relied on available literature and interviews with relevant private, public, and political actors in the autumn of 2019 [11]. In addition to collecting information such as we could use indirectly in our analysis of the management regimes, we used interviews (and follow-up conversations) to map out further relevant primary sources and documents within each sector (see the list of references). Next, we analyzed this documentation with regards to ownership and collection/taxation, in order to assess the regime’s potential for capturing resource rents. It soon became clear to us that there was a large amount of secondary literature around the regulatory processes, but that this literature for the most part dealt with the environmental (and sometimes moral)[12] consequences of the management regimes. Even though this literature is important, it is not directly relevant to our purpose, so to avoid diluting our argument we have not referred to this particular literature to any significant degree.

[10] See for example Pereira et al. (2020); Moses (2010 and 2020); Moses and Letnes (2017a and 2017b); and Edigheji et al. (2012).

[11] After conducting a literature review and acquainting ourselves with the relevant documents, articles, and books, we wished to collect information from key people in Norwegian natural resource management that could elaborate on what we found in this literature. We therefore created a list of 13 experts who had extensive experience and knowledge related to regime management in aquaculture, renewable energy, and bio-prospecting. This expertise was based on factors such as their official role, professional competence, education, or experience. From this pool of thirteen, six experts were ultimately interviewed (either personally, via video conference, and one person by e-mail). Thereafter we used the snowball method to include a larger cross-section of experts in each of the three sectors, which we contacted with less formal inquiries (see, e.g., Van Audenhove, 2007; Bogner et al., 2009; Meuser and Nagel, 2009). The information that was obtained was used to identify additional literature, and as a backdrop for understanding it. The interviewees were promised anonymity in accordance with permission from NSD, and we therefore do not quote them, and we have not seen the need to include anonymized statements. The formal NSD permit and interview guides are available, upon request, from the authors.

[12] See for example Sagelie et al. (2020).

Norway’s oil dependence

When it comes to the collection of resource rents, Norway’s petroleum management has not changed significantly over time [13]. The management regime is still based on a system of allocation of licenses for offshore exploration and production which is intended to limit the number of actors and the amount of oil and gas that is recovered from the seabed. In the early years, when the authorities were unsure whether they were even going to find any significant oil reserves, the government was eager to allocate many blocks and offered very lucrative terms (e.g., low taxes). The intention at the time was not to secure the resource rents (which were still quite uncertain), but to try to attract the necessary international expertise to find and recover any resources. At this time, most of the state’s oil revenues came from royalties (in addition to ordinary corporate taxes).

[13] This part builds upon Moses and Letnes (2017a) to a large degree.

After it became clear that there were significant amounts of oil and gas on the Norwegian continental shelf, the power relationship between the Norwegian authorities and the foreign oil companies changed. The authorities could now be more strategic and make greater demands with respect to the allocation of licenses. This resulted in, for example, fewer blocks being laid out at once, and the most promising licenses/concessions being given to Norwegian companies. In short, the conditions changed to benefit Norwegian producers, Norwegian authorities, and the Norwegian people. This was completely in line with Norway’s “10 oil commandments” (OED, 2011, p.8) that laid the foundation for the development of Norwegian oil expertise (and capital), and made possible the establishment of Statoil (now Equinor).

Today the petroleum management system is not as explicitly political, but it has retained a good deal of its original building blocks. In order to secure itself a part of the resource rents that are created within the licensing system, the authorities use a variety of taxes and fees, although the content and scope have changed significantly. Today the oil companies that operates in Norway must pay the ordinary corporate tax (which is 22%, but has a generous depreciation scheme to incentivize further development). Additionally, after a so-called “lift” is subtracted from income (as an incentive towards investment), the remaining tax base is subject to a petroleum resource rent tax of 56% (see Moses and Letnes, 2017a, p. 104; Deloitte, 2014, p.16). In reality the petroleum producers in Norway are effectively subject to a tax rate of 78% (OED, 2019). This high tax rate is used to ensure that the resource rent, which is a consequence of Norwegian petroleum management, is returned back to the community which owns the underlying resource [14]. Oil companies still receive a significant return on their investments; the oil workers are still able to secure favorable wages and safe working conditions; and the environment is still protected–but private companies are not allowed to retain the entire resource rent.

[14] While the majority of Norway’s oil revenue comes from these taxes, a significant portion (around 30-40%) come from direct (co-)ownership of licenses that have already been granted (so-called SDØE). For an overview of the sources of Norway’s petroleum revenues, see Moses and Letnes (2017a, p. 101, figure 5.4)

It is important to note that the Norwegian authorities have used the licensing system–the power to give certain chosen actors exclusive access to a limited resource–as a tool to achieve a variety of political goals. A few examples of such goals are requirements to use Norwegian workers and subcontractors, protections for the environment and workplace safety standards, investments in Norwegian research and development (R&D), as well as to ensure that portions of the resource rent from petroleum accrue to the Norwegian people. Over time many of these explicitly political goals have faded, among other reasons because Norwegian companies no longer need special conditions or protections in order to compete with larger international actors, but the way in which Norway collects resource rents from petroleum extraction has not changed significantly since the 1970’s.

The result is that Norway has become an affluent country, and much of the oil fortune stems directly from the tax on resource rents. Because this is affected by the global price of oil, it varies significantly from year to year. In a survey of Norway’s resource rents from petroleum extraction, Greaker and Lindholt (2019) estimate the resource rents for 2018 to be nearly 360 billion kroner [~38 billion USD], down from a peak of over 630 billion kroner [~67 billion USD] in 2008 (see figure 2).

Figure 2: Resource rent: Extraction of crude oil and natural gas. Millions of Norwegian Kroner, 2018. Source: based on Greaker and Lindholt (2019: 26, table A3)

Now, it is not the case that the entirety of the resource rent accrues to the state; some of it remains in private hands in the form of profits to the oil companies. The part that has accrued to the community, however, has been transferred to the GPFG [The Government Pension Fund, Global or Statens Pensjonsfond Utland], or the “oil fund” as it is commonly known. As we can see in Figure 3, the value of this fund has increased every year until 2017, both in terms of number of kroner and as a percent of GDP. We can also see that the fund began relatively modestly in 1996, and has since seen formidable growth, even in the middle of the financial crisis which began in 2008. The fund is now growing as much from returns on investments as it is from new receipts from petroleum activity in Norway (which are declining, but still large).

Figure 3: Value of the GPFG, 1996-2018. Source: NPD (2019b)

The GPFG is the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund. In 2017 the value increased to over 1 billion dollars USD (equivalent to 8,488 billion NOK in Figure 3) (NBIM, 2017), and the investments amount to approximately 1.3% of total investment in all the world’s listed companies (Moses and Letnes, 2017a, p.135). Before the Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19), it was estimated that the government’s total net cash flow from the petroleum industry would be approximately 238 billion NOK in 2019, increasing to 245 billion NOK in 2020 (OED, 2020).

Alternatives to Oil

In this part we compare and contrast resource management in three relevant sectors in the emerging fields of bio-economy and renewable energy: aquaculture, wind- and water-power, and bioprospecting. We wish to investigate to what degree the practices and principles of the petroleum resource management regime have been transferred to these sectors. In each sector we therefore consider:

a) forms of licensing/concessions
b) applicable means to tax the sector, and
c) potential resource rents (in 2018)

What we find is that the “new” natural resources are being managed in a manner different from the old ones, and that the new regimes do not aim to capture (nor even acknowledge the existence of) the resource rents that can arise as a result of the manner in which access to the natural resources are regulated. While the resource rents in some of these sectors are relatively modest (or even non-existent) as of today, they may grow and become significant in the future (which is what happened with petroleum).

Renewable Energy

Hydro-power has traditionally been an important source of renewable energy in Norway, while wind power both on land and offshore are still emerging. Norway’s licensing system in hydro-power was developed in the first years after the country’s independence from Sweden, and was originally designed to limit foreign ownership over Norwegian waterfalls, but quickly developed into an important method for ensuring public control over, and effective use over, resources. The most unique aspect of this licensing system was “hjemfallsretten,” the right of restitution, which built on the recognition that the Norwegian people give private individuals access to use natural resources (through a license) for a limited time period, and that “ownership” of the waterfalls and means of production should return to the state after e.g. 60 to 80 years [15].

In other words, private companies received permission to set up the necessary structures and equipment (such as dams and power stations) around waterfalls, but these would be turned over to the state in good condition once the license expires. There was an expectation that the companies would have good opportunities to cover their costs of investment over the course of the license period, in addition to securing a reasonable return on invested capital. This right of restitution ensured that the state could update the licensing terms in line with the varying resource rents, and eventually periodic updates to the terms of the license also ensured better technology and environmental protections. This general framework remains in place for regulating hydro-power production, even if the regulations have become more complex [16].

[15] For more on the development of the Norwegian power regime, see Thue (2003).

[16] Small hydro-power plants must seek a license in accordance with the Water Resources Act. Larger hydro-power plants (over 40 GWh) receive licenses in accordance with the Watercourse Regulation Act. Procurement of larger waterfalls requires a license under the Waterfall Rights Act. Electrical installations such as wind turbines, hydro-power generators, transformer stations and power lines all require a license in accordance with the Energy Act (NOU 2019: 16, p.33).

After a court challenge from the EFTA’s overseeing agency (ESA), the right of restitution for hydro-power has fallen away, but it has been replaced by an even stronger requirement for public ownership over these installations and resources.  [TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Norway is not part of the European Union, but is a member of the EFTA (the European Free Trade Association). Norway’s relationship to the EU is governed by the European Economic Agreement (EØS in Norwegian), between EFTA and EU member states]. In the legal process and following legislation, the Norwegian government clarified that public ownership of natural resources (especially petroleum and hydro-power) remains a central part of Norway’s resource management strategy. In response to changes in the Norwegian regulatory framework, which are necessitated by the ESA-challenge, the Storting [Norwegian Parliament]’s Energy- and Business committee highlighted:

The majority places emphasizes that resource politics, resource management, and public ownership of natural resources are not affected by the EØS-agreement, neither the petroleum nor the hydro-power sector, and that the main lines of the current licensing policy can be maintained (Energi- og industrikomiteen [Energy and Industry committee], 1992, p.6)

Today’s licensing awards are therefore still based on the Industrial Act of 1917 (NVE, 2010), and:

The basic gist of the law from 1917 is that a license is required from the authorities in order to acquire waterfalls or power plants. Furthermore, the law is based on a founding principle that hydropower resources are the property of the community, and therefore in principle ought to be publicly owned. To the extent private interests are given access to acquire waterfalls or power plants after section 2 of the Act, in these cases the law only allows the authorities to grant time-limited licenses with conditions of restitution to the state at the end of the licensing period. In this sense, the purpose of the law since the beginning has been to secure future public ownership. (OED, 2008, p. 13, emphasis ours)

Even if the concessions for wind power production are given by the same authorities (Norwegian Watercourse and Energy Directorate, or NVE) and deals with many of the same problems, the underlying licenses can still be very different. First of all, time limits are still used for wind power licenses, typically 25-30 years (NVE, 2019c). In wind power, “the area must be returned to the original state of nature as much as is possible” (NVE, 2019c) when the license period expires. The technical installations are not required to be returned to the state (in good condition), as with the restitution rules for hydro-power, but when the “tenancy” expires after the end of the licensing period, the installations must be removed and the area where the installations stand must be returned to the public sector “in good condition” (even if it is still too early to know how this will actually play out in practice). In addition, the regimes are different in that they use differing tax rules, and there is no explicit recognition of who actually owns the underlying wind-resource, even if the energy that is produced stems from wind, wind being a natural resource from the commons in the same way as waterfalls.

Licenses in wind power are chiefly regulated by two laws: the Energy Act (1990, no. 50) and the Planning and Building Act (2008, no. 71). The aim of the Energy Act is to “ensure that the production, transformation, transmission, turnover, distribution, and use of energy take place in a socially rational way, hereunder with regard to both public and private interests that are affected” (§ 2). In this law we find the legal basis for the state to grant licenses through a process dominated by NVE and the Oil-and Energy Department (OED) (Fauchald, 2018, p.1). The other legal basis concerns the planning of land use via the Planning and Building Act, which has as an explicit goal, “promoting sustainable development for the good of the individual, the community, and future generations”, to “coordinate national, regional, and municipal tasks and provide a basis for decisions about use and protection of resources”, along with “ensuring openness, predictability, and participation for all affected interests and authorities” (§ 1-1). None of these laws discuss or even recognize that the wind/air are a public resource, owned by the people. The resource is just there – apparently freely available for exploitation.

In other words, the authorities are chiefly concerned with making sure the licenses are awarded in a fair, safe, and “socially rational” way, in accordance with local laws and regulations, through which to minimize the danger of conflicts of interests (Saglie et al, 2020). In order to accomplish this, the authorities have subsidized wind power development via a certificate system. There is apparently a wish to encourage the production of renewable energy to cover society’s energy demand (and to provide exports), and an implicit recognition that the licenses can produce local revenues and jobs–but the idea that those who own the particular resource (the wind) should get back (a part of) the resource rents, is completely absent from the NVE report on “Licensing of Wind Power Development” (NVE, 2019b).

The rules for taxation of wind power are also very different from those that apply to hydro-power (and petroleum). In hydro-power there is an explicit understanding that the resource is owned by the people, and the taxation regime is designed to capture (the eventual) resource rent (see Table 1). Hydro-power is currently subject to a number of specific taxes which stem from the fact that the industry makes use of a natural resource from the commons. In addition to the usual corporation tax, an additional resource rent tax of 37% of net income is imposed, a licensing fee that is based on hydro-power’s maximum capacity, and a natural resource tax based on the amount of power produced. Furthermore, hydro-power plants must sell up to ten percent of maximum capacity at a reduced price to the municipalities they are located in, and the property tax includes–unlike in most other industries–a tax on production equipment (NOU 2019: 16, p. 10, 50, 60, 70, and 72) [17].

When it comes to wind-power, however, there is no recognition of public ownership in the underlying resource, and the resulting tax regime has no means of collecting all or even part of the resource rents if and when they should arise. Additionally, the tax burden on wind power is much lighter: it is not subject to special natural resource taxes, licensing powers, or licensing costs. Wind power companies pay only one corporate (income) tax, and a local property tax where applicable (NOU 2019: 16, p. 147). Nevertheless, this tax regime can be changed in the future as the public committee that looked at the taxation of hydro-power recommended that the government consider introducing a tax on the resource rents generated in wind power (NOU: 2019:16, p.155) [18].

[17] In 2018, a public committee was appointed to review the current tax regime for the hydro-power industry. The committee recommends (in NOU 2019:16, p. 154-55) to abolish the license fee and the sale of power at a reduced rate to counties, as well as removing the property tax on production equipment, as they believe these types of taxes can lead to lower investments in new production capacity. They further recommend keeping the natural resource tax, and increasing the tax on resource rents by two percent, to 39 percent of net income.

[18] It bears mentioning that the industry and the wind power municipalities prefer a natural resource tax rather than a resource rent tax. As with the taxation of aquaculture, there is controversy over the question of whether the tax revenue should go to the local or the national authorities. See LNVK (2018). In general, a resource rent tax should be profit-dependent, while a natural resource tax is profit-independent.

Even if the management regime for wind- and hydro-power are quite different, the resource rents from these renewable resources can be high. As we see in figure 4, the resource rents from hydro- and wind-power vary considerably over time, such that in some years there is zero or even negative resource rents (e.g. 1988 and 1994), while in other years (when energy prices are very high) they can be significant (whether it comes from wind or from water). When we look at these two sources of energy together, we see that highest resource rent to date was 30 billion NOK in 2018 [19].

The electrical power that comes from wind and waterfalls is in demand, and this makes them valuable resources, but it is the state’s issuance of (time-limited) licenses that creates the resource rent. In hydro-power most of these resources and resource rents remain in public hands due to Norway’s long-standing licensing regime. When it comes to wind, however, a large portion of the licenses are granted to companies with significant foreign ownership interests, and regardless of the resource rents generated by the licensing process, these remain in the hands of private companies [20].

Figure 4: (Water- and wind-) power production, resource rents, 1984-2018. Source: Greaker and Lindholdt (2019: 25, table A1)

[19] Figure 4 is reproduced from the data in the appendices of Greaker and Lindholt (2019), who are the first to estimate a measure of resource rents in the power sector that only includes wind and hydro-power (combined). “Previous SSB-studies of resource rents have published figures for the whole group ‘electricity-, gas-, and hot water supply’, but this is the first study that has separated power production (hydro-power and wind power)” (ibid., p.3). More specifically, they take basic value for hydro- and wind-power and deduct costs related to wages, capital, etc. See Greaker and Lindholt (2019) for details. It is not possible to distinguish between resource rents from hydro-power and from wind power in this figure, and we have also not been able to find any studies where this separation has been conducted.

[20] 93.3% of Norwegian hydro-power production is owned by the public (NOU 2019:16, p.32). In the wind power sector, by contrast, a majority of production (56.5%) lies in private hands, and 49.2% of the private share is owned by foreigners (NOU 2019:16, p.33).

Aquaculture

In Norway there are many places that are particularly suitable for fish farming, and several official reports boast of our unique conditions for aquaculture:

Norway has natural advantages for farming salmon and trout in the sea, and Norway is the world’s greatest producer and exporter of Atlantic salmon (Finance Department 2018b)

and

There are only a few places in the world where sea temperatures, currents, and more enable the efficient production of salmon at sea. Chile is the next largest producing nation, followed by Great Britain (NFD, 2015, p. 24)

These favorable conditions are found in Norwegian fjords and along the Norwegian coast, and are owned by the people and the community.

Fish farming is not open to just anyone. Permission for this is given by the Norwegian authorities, following input from a number of different government agencies. Compared with the other sectors the process is fairly easy, and it is described by the Directorate of Fisheries (2017a) as being “two-stepped”[21]. In the first step the directorate decides which applications are qualified to receive licenses. This step does not include permission to actually farm. Then comes the next step, where a number of government agencies headed by the county municipality makes the actual decision about locations, and which companies will receive access [22]. The resulting license gives a limit on production, measured in the form of the maximum permitted biomass (MPB) at two levels: the company level and the site level (NFD, 2015, p.29-30). In contrast to the licenses for petroleum and power production, there is no time limit on these licenses. Furthermore, a few are awarded at market price via auction (where pre-approved actors may participate), but most of them are awarded in a “neutral way” through a lottery system (see FKD, 2005, p.34). There is little recognition of public ownership over either the underlying resource, or the resource rent generated by the licensing process [23].

Figure 5: Aquaculture, resource rent, 1984-2018. Source: Greaker and Lindholt (2019: 25, table A2)

From figure 5 we can see that a significant resource rent has been created in aquaculture in the past few years. Because the government does not tax this resource rent, it remains in the hands of private individuals and companies, instead of being returned back to the authorities that have facilitated these extraordinary profits by restricting access to the exploitation of the underlying natural resource, and ultimately to the society who actually owns it [24]. Today, the aquaculture industry pays only an ordinary corporation tax on profits, even though so-called “floating farms” can fall under the local (municipal) property tax. They also pay a “market fee” and a “research fee” when the fish or the fish products are exported, but there is currently no attempt to collect any part of the resource rent.

[22] Actual commercial actors send an application to the Fishery Directorate’s regional office; these are afterwards sent out for closer handling and commentary by a number of agencies (The County Governor, the Norwegian Food Safety Authority, the Norwegian Coastal Administration, the County and NVE) and on the basis of this feedback, the application is either approved or rejected.

[23] The current system requires that existing license holders pay an application fee, while new applicants are included in an auction for licenses. Prior to 2002 the licenses were awarded free of charge, but from 2002 to 2012 the applicants had to pay “a relatively modest fee” (Ministry of Finance, 2018b). After 2016, it was decided that the tax revenues from the aquaculture industry should be distributed to counties and municipalities via the Aquaculture Fund. Of these funds 87.5% goes to the municipalities and 12.5% to the counties. Before 2016 the counties’ share was lower, and before 2013 nothing went to the municipality nor to the county.

[24] “Thus, the ground rent from aquaculture has mainly accrued to the owners of aquaculture permits. Over time the ownership in aquaculture licenses have been concentrated in fewer, larger, companies” (NOU 2019:18, p.9) and further: “Several companies have also a significant element of international funds on the owners’ side. The majority of the circa 100 Norwegian fish farming companies are, however, companies with majority Norwegian ownership with a few main shareholders. About 50 percent of the total production capacity is owned by four companies, which in turn are dominated by four ownership environments” (NOU 2019:18, p.10).

Bioprospecting

Bioprospecting can be defined as intentional and systematic exploration for components, bio-active compounds, or genes in organisms. The purpose is to discover components that can be used in products or processes with commercial or socially beneficial value, for example in medicine, food, or animal feed, as well as bio-fuel, oil and gas (FKD, 2009, p.8, 13). Bio-prospecting is an important building block of the new bio-economy that is now starting to emerge as the future’s alternative to today’s petroleum-based economy.

Norway is considered to have large and relatively unique biological resources, especially in marine regions in the north. While much of the bioprospecting until now has taken place in the temperate and tropical regions, we are now seeing a shift in focus over to biological components that can be found in cold, northern areas. Furthermore, especially high expectations are attached to both marine resources and to resources that can be found in undersea oil reserves in the north. The Norwegian government wishes therefore to focus on marine bioprospecting to lay the foundation for business development in the marine sector (especially in the northern regions) and a viable national economy “after oil” (FKD, 2009, p.14, 8).

The government sees marine bioprospecting as a central area for developing Norway in the direction of an important nation in bio-economy and a means of developing knowledge-based jobs related to the traditional sectors like aquaculture, agriculture, and forestry (FKD, 2009, p.14)

The management regime in bio-prospecting differs considerably from those in petroleum, hydro- and wind-power, as well as aquaculture, in that the Norwegian authorities are focusing on making the natural resources used in bio-prospecting as easily accessible as possible, for as many as possible. The only thing that is demanded of private actors who want to harvest biological material, is that they report this activity to the Directorate of Fisheries. The most significant part of this is that the authorities finance a system for harvesting, describing, and to some extent screening, of the biological organisms, and that the results are stored in public bio-banks. Norwegian and foreign researchers can thereafter access these descriptions virtually free of charge, in order to try to find scientific evidence for a desired effect. This entails relatively large costs for the public sector regarding, for example, research vessels, analysts, laboratory equipment, public education of researchers, etc. By providing the information free of charge to commercial actors, the authorities actually subsidize the industry, and the virtually free access can be seen as a form of non-monetary benefit sharing [25], with parallels to the “local content” policy which ensured the development of the Norwegian petroleum industry. Instead of introducing monetary benefit sharing by affirming the community’s ownership of the resource and obtaining a resource rent (as with petroleum), the authorities focus only on facilitating (subsidizing) value creation where all profits – including any resource rent – accrue to private business actors.

[25] This is a reference to the “benefit-sharing” mandates in the Convention on Biological Diversity (1994).

It was not a given that Norway would follow this management regime for bio-prospecting. Both the Biodiversity Act and the Marine Resources Act (both from 2009) confirm that genetic material from nature is a natural resource that belongs to the community at large and should be managed by the state (just like oil, waterfalls, wind, or coastal waters), and further emphasis is put on there being a rational and fair distribution of the benefits from the use of such material (KDF, 2009, p. 17). Furthermore, two very different “bio-prospecting regulations” have been sent out for consultation over the last six years. The first, which came in 2013, focused on the community’s ownership of biological resources, and provided for the taxation of any resource rent. After many critical inputs in the consultation round, there came a new proposal for regulations in 2017, where the desire for resource rent taxation had been completely abandoned. In this draft no spotlight is put on public ownership of the underlying natural resources (which is in line with the state of wind and aquaculture), but it is offered freely for private use. In hindsight the work on such a regulation has been put on ice, and the authorities are following an “open access”-line for the bio-prospecting industry.

It looks like the authorities think of this relatively new industry as a regular commercial industry, and not as one that belongs in the natural resource sector. Instead of emphasizing that the biological material (the underlying resource that is exploited via bioprospecting) belongs to the community, the government believes that “Commercialization of research results related to marine bio-prospecting does not differ significantly from commercialization of other research results. The breadth of market opportunities for the marine bioprospecting makes it appropriate to use general [regulatory] tools on the commercialization side” (FKD, 2009, p.8).

There are a number of characteristics of the bio-prospecting industry that may explain why the authorities, instead of restricting access to the natural resource through licenses and concessions, instead attempt to give as many people as possible access to it by subsidizing the harvesting, description, and (parts of) the analysis. First, only a few specimens of a species are required in order to describe the relevant compounds, enzymes, and genes that it contains. Once this description is available, the component can be reproduced synthetically, which is to say that one does not need further natural specimens in order to mass produce the gene or the enzyme. There is therefore neither a concern that the industry will deplete a limited resource (as in the petroleum industry) or degrade the environment through the extraction of the resource (as in hydro- and wind-power and aquaculture). Furthermore, no “monopoly” is created as a foundation for extraordinary profit by the authorities giving access to the resource only to a relatively small number of actors, while other actors are locked out. On the contrary, access to the resource is subsidized so that as many as possible will have access to it. In addition, the technology develops within the industry in such a way as to complicate both the collection of an eventual resource rent as well as the legal basis for sharing out the benefit (among other things, challenges regarding the digital description of the biological materials, traceability given that genes are one of many input factors, and foreign patents).

A challenge with this management regime is that the subsidization of bio-prospecting often does not lead to industrial jobs or income in Norway, because the lucrative research results are patented and sold to foreign companies that generate income and profits outside of the country. Once again, potentially great values are created through monopoly power, but the monopoly is created by patents based on the extraction of a common resource, and not by restricting access to the underlying resource. Since the market for products and processes built from bio-prospecting often are global, these patents are filed in the countries with the largest markets, and not where the original resource was found. In such cases the “people”, who own the original source of inspiration (nature), lose control of the subsequent usage of it, along with any resource rent.

As with wind power there is little recognition of the potential for resource rent. nature is made freely available for utilization in the hope that it will create jobs and revenue, while much of the income goes abroad. There is no target for resource rents here, because it arises as a result of patent rights, which are often registered abroad. Any resulting resource rent is privatized, and it is the Norwegian and foreign authorities’ issuance of patents that creates the monopoly, while the resource itself, which is the basis for the patent, is offered free of charge with no preconditions.

Conclusion

Norway’s current wealth is built on a management regime tradition that explicitly recognizes the public ownership and control over our natural resources and ensures that the resource rents they produce are returned to the community. When Norway tries to move to an economy based on biological resources and renewable energy, we could expect that these well-proven traditions will lay a foundation for the country’s future management of these resources. It is remarkable that this does not seem to be the case. It seems that today’s politicians and officials do not see natural resources as part of the community’s inheritance, but as a mere means of production that can almost be given away.

Of the natural resources we have discussed in this article, it is only in hydro-power and petroleum that the authorities have explicit control over the public resource, and therefore the ability to collect resource rents. There is surprisingly great variation in the way private actors gain access to use the various natural resources that are owned by the community. One would expect a more consistent approach that protects the public interest–as the resource management regime for petroleum does.

We are not aware of any calculations of resource rents in the field of bio-prospecting. This is a sensational fact in itself. When it comes to the other resources, the current resource rents in hydro- and wind-power and aquaculture are modest when compared to petroleum (see Figure 6). We can add that these ground rents may become considerably higher in the future as the bio-economy replaces the petroleum economy both nationally and globally.

Figure 6: Resource rents in various industries. Source: Greaker and Lindholt (2019, various pages)

The challenge is that the current management regimes do not give us the opportunity to ensure that the people will get a share of these resource rents (and future resource rents, if, when, and where they should arise). Instead private actors receive licenses that give them a disproportionately large return on their investments.

If Norway were to introduce consistent regimes inspired by hydro-power and petroleum, it would first have to recognize public ownership and establish a management regime that can capture the resource rent when it arises. When resource rents are secured, one can discuss how they should be shared out politically, economically, and geographically.

This is relatively easy with wind-power and aquaculture, but political will is lacking. Bio-prospecting is a more challenge case, so the authorities here must follow two parallel tracks. The first is to search for solutions for how the resource rent from the exploitation of our common biological building blocks can be returned to the Norwegian people. This may, for example, concern stricter requirements for registration when harvesting from nature and withdrawals from public bio-banks, and forming contracts that contain an obligation for the sharing of monetary benefits, and routines for tracking the path from biological inspiration to finished product (through description, screening, patenting, and commercialization). If this should be shown to be too complicated to handle in practice, it would become even more important to ensure that more of the bio-prospecting value chain (and revenue) remains domestic. This tracking would entail an expansion of the so-called “local content” policy such that in addition to encouraging Norwegian research and development in the early stages of industry, it would include to a much greater degree measures that contribute to Norwegian ownership, production, and commercialization of the results of bio-prospecting. In this way, the community can at least get some of the value creation that is based on our resources, through jobs and ordinary personal and corporate taxes.

We would like to thank Eirik Magnus Fuglestad, Espen Moe, Anders Skonhoft, and to anonymous colleagues for helpful comments.

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OED. (2011). En næring for framtida – om petroleumsvirksomheten. En næring for framtida – om petroleumsvirksomheten (Meld. St. 28 (2010 – 2011)). Oslo: Olje- og Energidepartementet. Online at: https://www.regjeringen.no/contentassets/19da7cee551741b28edae71cc9aae287/no/ pdfs/stm201020110028000dddpdfs.pdf

OED. (2019). Petroleumsskatt. Norsk Petroleum. Oppdatert 7. oktober. Online at: https://www. norskpetroleum.no/okonomi/petroleumsskatt/.

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Pereira, E., Spencer, R. and Moses, J. (Ed.) (2021). Experiences of Managing Wealth, CSR and Local Content Policy: Sustainable Development of Extractive Resources Industries. Sveits: Springer International.

Ricardo, D. (1817). The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, Vol. 1: Principles of Political Economy and Taxation. Online Library of Liberty. Online at: https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/ ricardo-the-works-and-correspondence-of-david-ricardo-11-vols-sraffa-ed.

Saglie, I.-L., Inderberg, T.H. and Rognstad, H. (2020). What shapes municipalities’ perceptions of fairness in windpower developments? Local Environment, 25(2), 147-61. DOI: 10.1080/13549839.2020.1712342 Senior, N. (1850). Political Economy. Third Edition. London og Glasgow: Richard Griffin and Company.

Skonhoft, A. (2020). Lønnsomhet og rente i oppdrettsnæringen. Samfunnsøkonomen, 1, 12-14. Online at: https://samfunnsokonomene.no/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Samfunnsokonomennr.-1.pdf Thue, L. (2003). For egen kraft: kraftkommunene og det norske kraftregimet 1887-2003. Oslo: Abstrakt.

UN General Assembly. (1962). UN Resolution on Permanent Sovereignty over Natural Resources. Online at: http://legal.un.org/avl/ha/ga_1803/ga_1803.html

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Van Audenhove, L. (2007). Expert interviews and interview techniques for policy analysis. Vrije University, Brussel. 9. mai utkast. Online at: https://www.ies.be/files/060313%20Interviews_ VanAudenhove.pdf.

Vormedal, I., Larsen, M.L. and Flåm, K.H. (2019). Grønn vekst i blå næring? Miljørettet innovasjon i norsk lakseoppdrett. FNI Report 3/2019. Fridtjof Nansens Institutt. Wiederstrøm, G. (2019, 1. november). Vil skatte storfiskane. Klassekampen, s. 12.

Every Bug is Shallow if One of Your Readers is an Entomologist

The Cathedral and the Bazaar is an essay/book about how Linus Torvalds threw all the normal rules of software out the window when he wrote the operating system Linux

Back in the day, people “knew” that the way to write good software was to assemble an elite team of expert coders and plan things out carefully from the very beginning. But instead of doing that, Linus just started working, put his code out on the internet, and took part-time help from whoever decided to drop by. Everyone was very surprised when this approach ended up putting out a solid operating system. The success has pretty much continued without stopping — Android is based on Linux, and over 90% of servers today run a Linux OS.

Before Linux, most people thought software had to be meticulously designed and implemented by a team of specialists, who could make sure all the parts came together properly, like a cathedral. But Linus showed that software could be created by inviting everyone to show up at roughly the same time and place and just letting them do their own thing, like an open-air market, a bazaar.

Let’s consider in particular Chapter 4, Release Early, Release Often. One really weird thing Linus did was he kept putting out new versions of the software all the time, sometimes more than once a day. New versions would go out with the paint still wet, no matter how much of a mess they were.

People found this confusing. They thought putting out early versions was bad policy, “because early versions are almost by definition buggy versions and you don’t want to wear out the patience of your users.” Why the hell would you put out software if it were still crawling with bugs? Well,

Linus was behaving as though he believed something like this:

> Given a large enough beta-tester and co-developer base, almost every problem will be characterized quickly and the fix obvious to someone.

Or, less formally, “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” I dub this: “Linus’s Law”.

This bottom-up method benefits from two key advantages: the Delphi Effect and self-selection.

More users find more bugs because adding more users adds more different ways of stressing the program. This effect is amplified when the users are co-developers. Each one approaches the task of bug characterization with a slightly different perceptual set and analytical toolkit, a different angle on the problem. The “Delphi effect” seems to work precisely because of this variation. In the specific context of debugging, the variation also tends to reduce duplication of effort.

So adding more beta-testers may not reduce the complexity of the current “deepest” bug from the developer’s point of view, but it increases the probability that someone’s toolkit will be matched to the problem in such a way that the bug is shallow to that person.

One special feature of the Linux situation that clearly helps along the Delphi effect is the fact that the contributors for any given project are self-selected. An early respondent pointed out that contributions are received not from a random sample, but from people who are interested enough to use the software, learn about how it works, attempt to find solutions to problems they encounter, and actually produce an apparently reasonable fix. Anyone who passes all these filters is highly likely to have something useful to contribute.

Linus’s Law can be rephrased as “Debugging is parallelizable”. Although debugging requires debuggers to communicate with some coordinating developer, it doesn’t require significant coordination between debuggers. Thus it doesn’t fall prey to the same quadratic complexity and management costs that make adding developers problematic.

In practice, the theoretical loss of efficiency due to duplication of work by debuggers almost never seems to be an issue in the Linux world. One effect of a “release early and often” policy is to minimize such duplication by propagating fed-back fixes quickly.

Research is difficult because reality is complex and many things are confusing or mysterious. But with enough eyeballs, all research bugs are shallow too.

Without a huge research budget and dozens of managers, you won’t be able to coordinate a ton of researchers. But the good news is, you didn’t really want to coordinate everyone anyways. You can just open the gates and let people get to work. It works fine for software!

The best way to have troubleshooting happen is to let it happen in parallel. And the only way to make that possible is for everyone to release early and release often. If you sit on your work, you’re only robbing yourself of the debugging you could be getting for free from every interested rando in the world. 

In the course of our obesity research, we’ve talked to water treatment engineers, social psychologists, software engineers, emeritus diabetes researchers, oncologists, biologists, someone who used to run a major primate lab, multiple economists, entrepreneurs, crypto enthusiasts, physicians from California, Germany, Austria, and Australia, an MD/PhD student, a retired anthropologist, a mouse neuroscientist, and a partridge in a pear tree a guy from Scotland

Some of them contributed a little; some of them contributed a lot! Every one had a slightly different toolkit, a different angle on the problem. Bugs that were invisible to us were immediate and obvious to them, and each of them pointed out different things about the problem.

For example, in our post recruiting for the potato diet community trial, we originally said that we weren’t sure how Andrew Taylor went a year without supplementing vitamin A, and speculated that maybe there was enough in the hot sauces he was using. But u/alraban on reddit noticed that Andrew included sweet potatoes in his diet, which are high in vitamin A. We totally missed this, and hadn’t realized that sweet potatoes are high in vitamin A. But now we recommend that people either eat some sweet potato or supplement vitamin A. We wouldn’t have caught this one without alraban.

In another discussion on reddit, u/evocomp challenged us to consider the Pima, a small ethnic group in the American southwest that were about 50% obese well before 1980, totally bucking the global trend. “What’s the chance that [this] population … [is] highly sensitive and equally exposed to Lithium, PFAS, or whatever contaminants are in SPAM or white bread?” evocomp asked. This led us to discover that the Pima in fact had been exposed to abnormal levels of lithium very early on, about 50x the median American exposure in the early 1970s. Before this, lithium had been just one hypothesis among many, but evocamp’s challenge and the resulting discoveries promoted it to the point where we now think it is the best explanation for the obesity epidemic. Good thing the community is helping us debug!

My original formulation was that every problem “will be transparent to somebody”. Linus demurred that the person who understands and fixes the problem is not necessarily or even usually the person who first characterizes it. “Somebody finds the problem,” he says, “and somebody else understands it. And I’ll go on record as saying that finding it is the bigger challenge.”

This is a classic in the history of science. One person notices something weird; then, 100 years later, someone else figures out what is going on. 

Brownian motion was first described by the botanist Robert Brown in 1827. He was looking at a bit of pollen in water and was startled to see it jumping all over the place, but he couldn’t figure out why it would do that. This bug sat unsolved for almost eighty years, until Einstein came up with a statistical explanation in 1905, in one of his four Annus Mirabilis papers. Bits of pollen jumping around in a glass of water doesn’t sound very interesting or mysterious, but this was a big deal because Einstein showed that Brownian motion is consistent with what would happen if the pollen was being bombarded from all sides by tiny water molecules. This was strong evidence for the idea that all matter is made up of tiny indivisible particles, which was not yet well-established in 1905!

Or consider DNA. DNA was first isolated from pus and salmon sperm by the Swiss biologist Friedrich Miescher in 1869, but it took until the 1950s before people figured out DNA’s structure. 

Complex multi-symptom errors also tend to have multiple trace paths from surface symptoms back to the actual bug. … each developer and tester samples a semi-random set of the program’s state space when looking for the etiology of a symptom. The more subtle and complex the bug, the less likely that skill will be able to guarantee the relevance of that sample.

For simple and easily reproducible bugs, then, the accent will be on the “semi” rather than the “random”; debugging skill and intimacy with the code and its architecture will matter a lot. But for complex bugs, the accent will be on the “random”. Under these circumstances many people running traces will be much more effective than a few people running traces sequentially—even if the few have a much higher average skill level.

This is making an important point: if you want to catch a lot of bugs, a bunch of experts isn’t enough — you want as many people as possible. You do want experts, but you gain an additional level of scrutiny from having the whole fuckin’ world look at it.

Simple bugs can be caught by experts. But complex or subtle bugs are more insane. For those bugs, the number of people looking at the problem is much more important than the average skill of the readers. This is a strong particular argument for putting things on the internet and making them super enjoyable and accessible, rather than putting them in places where only experts will see them.

Not that we need any more reasons, but this is also a strong argument for publishing your research on blogs and vlogs instead of in stuffy formal journals. If you notice something weird that you can’t figure out, you should get it in front of the scientifically-inclined public as soon as possible, because one of them has the best chance of spotting whatever you have missed. Back in the day, the fastest way to get an idea in front of the scientifically-inclined public was to send a manuscript to the closest guy with a printing press, who would put it in the next journal. (Or if possible, go to a conference and give a talk about it.)

But journals today only want complete packages. If you write to them about the tiny animals you found in your spit, they aren’t going to want to publish that. Times have changed. Now the fastest way to get out your findings is to use a blog, newsletter, twitter, etc.

Job Posting: Reddit Research Czar

Job postings are a kinda weird phenomenon. For one thing, they’re very modern. It used to be that most people either inherited a job (I’m a baker because my pa was a baker and our tiny hamlet needs a baker) or noticed an opportunity and ran with it (lots of hungry travelers cross that bridge every day, I bet I could make a living selling pancakes).

We’re talking about the second thing today, the opportunity just waiting for someone to snap it up. This is a job posting, but we’re not hiring. Reddit is hiring. Well, not REDDIT. The abstract spirit of reddit is hiring. The universe is hiring. 

hmmm yes

Let us try to explain.

Czar was originally a term for East and South Slavic monarchs, most notably the Russian emperor — it’s another spelling of Tsar and yet another corruption of the Roman title Caesar, just like Kaiser. But at some point in the middle of the 20th century it became a term in the US and UK for government officials “granted broad power to address a particular issue”. The Industry Czar is in charge of industry, the Milk Czar is in charge of milk, the Asian Carp Czar is in charge of Asian Carp (no, really), and so on and so forth.

Carp Czar Gone Wild

There are lots of problems in the world; some are covered, but there are many others where existing institutions have totally dropped the ball. Often, more research would help. But the academy just doesn’t move as fast as it used to. If you’ve ever looked at something and been like, “someone should do a study”, you know what we mean.

Reddit is a bizarre, amazing place. Literally millions of people have come together to this place on the internet and self-sorted into about 3.4 million communities, called subreddits. True, many subreddits are dedicated to very niche porn or insane crypto schemes. But if you want to build a desktop gaming rig, get male or female fashion advice, or discover long, plush horrors, there’s a subreddit for that. You can learn so much about any topic or hobby, maybe too much if you’re not careful (compare). 

We’d like to apologize to the ghost of Alan Turing

This means there are lots of special populations on reddit, people who have a condition or illness, maybe a rare one, who are extreme outliers (e.g. very tall and/or live in a submarine), or who have a burning obsession with some niche idea. Subreddits bring people together, to commiserate, to try to help each other solve a problem, or to post insane fanart.

These people are all very interested in their shared topic. They are all highly motivated. Many of them are ready to self-experiment, or are already self-experimenting. A lot of things count as self-experimentation. If you’re doing a diet, or trying to get more sunlight, or even just trying to drink more water, that’s self-experimentation too. So a subreddit for a given problem or topic is a powder keg of interest and motivation, just waiting for a spark. 

Because while subreddits are very motivated, they’re largely untapped for organized research. Even in subreddits with good leadership, it’s rare for the leadership to have a research background. Most communities lack someone with the methods skills to design a good study, and the statistical analysis skills to examine the data afterwards. 

If you have these skills, and you are familiar with reddit, you could show up and start helping people organize research. You could collaborate with people to help them solve their problems, or at least learn more about their problems, and you could start doing it tomorrow. 

Redditors could never be coordinated enough to pull off something as complex as scientific research!

Crowdsourcing research like this is under-explored. Almost no one has ever done studies organized like this, so in our opinion, there’s virtually guaranteed to be low-hanging fruit all over the place. Anything that isn’t sexy enough for a major journal or doesn’t sound serious enough for the NIH to spend their time on is ripe for the picking.

The current research world is very narrow-minded. Doctors and researchers are quick to blame a person’s behavior or hygiene and very slow to blame environmental contaminants. If you’re more creative or more open-minded, and you’re willing to consider other paradigms, you can just move faster. If doctors don’t take the pathogen paradigm for chronic disease and digestive disorders seriously, then by becoming the “Pathogenic Disease Czar”, you might be able to rack up discoveries really quickly.

There’s also the question of “why now”? Part of it is that the research world has slowed down. But another part is that the rest of the world has sped up. We’re more coordinated than ever. Today you can get 100 people reading your latest newsletter in 20 minutes. Today you can pop by a subreddit and consult with thousands of people in a matter of hours. Today you can cold-email an emeritus professor who worked on the problem in the 1970s and be on a Zoom call with them next week. 

Research tools are also opening up, getting more accessible every day. If you’re leading the reddit charge on some rare glandular disorder, it now takes only a couple hundred dollars per person for everyone involved to get their genome sequenced and it’s getting cheaper all the time. If there’s a genetic explanation, or genetics is involved in some way, it’s only recently gotten cheap enough that communities might able to find it on their own.

There are lots of interesting ideas where the only support for them is a single paper with 20 participants from 1994. If you can get a couple dozen volunteers together, boom, you’ve just advanced the state of the field, and discovered whether or not there was anything to that interesting idea.

One example is our own ongoing all-potato diet study, which we see as the first of what will hopefully be a long tradition of community trials and community RCTs (randomized controlled trials). We’ve mostly recruited from twitter for the potato diet, but we just as easily could have recruited from reddit. For reference, this was the response on one subreddit, and not even a subreddit directly related to dieting.

Sometimes just planting a flag in the sand is enough. People like to feel like a part of something and are excited to participate. One participant in the potato diet said:

How do we get stronger evidence [for the potato diet]? Well someone has to go out on a limb and run an experiment. This is a particularly important motivation for me. If this were not part of a larger study, I wouldn’t spend my energy on it (after all, it probably won’t work). But the fact that it might yield useful data makes it much more appealing.

Obesity and related issues (heart disease, diabetes, etc.) is just one example of a serious problem that people are invested in solving. It seems like there are lots of problems where we might be able to quickly learn a lot by rigorous self-experimentation and community research. 

Depression and anxiety are classic unsolved problems. Sure, we have some mildly effective treatments, but why don’t we have great ones? Why does a given treatment work for some people and not others? What about people with treatment-resistant depression? Why are things like exhaustion and brain fog symptoms of depression? Where does depression come from? There’s been a lot of discussion but our take is still “no one knows” or at least, “the jury’s still out”. We see that r/depression/ has over 800,000 members and a couple thousand are usually online at a given time. If you think you could help, they seem like they would be glad to have it. 

Crohn’s disease is debilitating and remains very poorly understood — Wikipedia, for example, says, “While the precise causes of Crohn’s disease (CD) are unknown, it is believed to be caused by a combination of environmental, immune, and bacterial factors in genetically susceptible individuals. …  While Crohn’s is an immune-related disease, it does not appear to be an autoimmune disease (in that the immune system is not being triggered by the body itself). The exact underlying immune problem is not clear; however, it may be an immunodeficiency state.” Sounds like more research is needed, and r/CrohnsDisease/ has 42,000 members.

If that’s not mysterious enough for your taste, there are all the really inexplicable digestive conditions, which go by names like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). These can really fuck you up, so people will be really motivated to try things and find a treatment. And there might be weird treatments out there that really work. You can drop by r/ibs/ with 74,000 members or r/GERD/ with 42,000 members and start putting out surveys, today if you want! (But talk to the mods first, don’t get kicked out for being a weirdo.)

But you won’t be the first researcher on the scene. We see that u/OrganicSquare made a post titled “Let’s use machine learning to help us find solutions to our reflux. I need this whole community to answer this survey for data!!!” on r/GERD about a year ago. We can’t find the results — maybe she’s still analyzing the data — but this is exactly the sort of thing we’re talking about. OrganicSquare, you are the hero reddit needs, let us know if you want to collaborate.

There are also some populations that will be interesting not because they are facing a problem they want to solve, but because they are special in some other way. Trans people would love to have better resources for transitioning, and you could certainly drop by to help them study that. But we think the real reason to drop by r/TransDIY/ and similar subreddits is because you have literally thousands of people conducting n = 1 endocrinology experiments.

There’s a good chance the next great endocrinologist will be trans, just because of their personal familiarity with the subject and ability to self-experiment. If you want to see what effect testosterone/estrogen/progesterone/estradiol has on mood/energy/digestion/attention/nerve growth/body temperature/whatever, this is one of your few and best chances to get experimental data. 

This is nowhere near a complete list. In fact, please drop other subreddits that might be excited to do more community research in the comments.

It’s more common than you might think

We call this a job posting because we think this could easily be a full-time job. If you help a community or two get closer to solving their problem, even if you just help them coordinate and give them HOPE that their problem is solvable, it would be pretty easy to convince lots of them to chip in. It’s hard for an individual to hire an expert, but some of these communities have tens or hundreds of thousands of members. For a community that size, hiring some full-time research muscle is easy.

You set up a Patreon or a newsletter (we recommend Ghost), and ask for support. If you can get 1000 people to give you $3 a month, that’s $36,000 a year, enough to start thinking about doing this full-time.

You don’t need to solve anything up front. You just need to convince 1000 people that you’re doing enough to justify them spending $3 a month on something they think is important, which is not a hard sell. And if you get 10,000 people on board for $1, you’re even better off. (Incidentally, here is our patreon.)

Crowdfunding is the best and noblest option, but it’s not the only route you can take. Some communities will have a millionaire or two in the ranks, and if you start doing good work, people will come out of the woodwork to help. There are lots of granting agencies out there looking for stunning projects to throw money at. Start coordinating reddit research for a few months, show that you’re serious, make a little progress, and it should be easy to make the case for some grants.

And actually, you might also be able to get funding from reddit, up to $50,000! Starting June 2022, reddit will start distributing one million dollars in community funding to different subreddits. If you can make the case to a subreddit that you can lead their community research for a year, they can apply for $40,000 to be your salary, and there’s a good chance they’ll get it. The article linked above says, “I can’t wait to see what wild project the r/WallStreetBets crew tries to get $50,000 to pull off.” Yeah holy shit.

Finally, if you are financially independent / have a good job that gives you lots of free time, then this is DEFINITELY a job suited for you. You already don’t have to worry about money; maybe you even have enough that you could pay for a statistician / the chemical analysis of samples / new air quality monitors / sundry other research expenses. You’re looking for something interesting to spend your time on, something that also makes the world a better place. If you have the skills and inclination, nothing could be a better fit!

It’s worth touching for a moment on the skills we think would be important. Any research on reddit would probably start with a lot of surveys, so someone with lots of experience with survey-based methods might have the advantage here. Possibly a sociologist or psychologist? But on the other hand, a lot of the problems reddit communities would be interested in solving are medical, so maybe someone with a medical background is the best person for the role. On the other other hand, a lot of the advantage here might be statistical, having the skill to work with big strange datasets, so maybe a data scientist.

Or form a cabal if you want:

Reddit Research Cabal

Anyways, if this is the job you want, and you think you have the skills to do it, there are two general ways to approach this…

Go Specific

If you are a person who is a member of one of these communities, who is inclined towards research and wants to rally people to solve the problem, going specific might be the approach for you.

There are a couple winning examples already, let’s take a look. These two don’t use reddit for the most part — they have communities elsewhere — but it’s not hard to imagine recreating some of their successes in a subreddit rather than on a blog or on twitter.

Scott Alexander is pretty much the research czar for rationalists, in his reader surveys (both back on SSC and now on ACX), and in some more specific work like the nootropics survey. Rationalists aren’t a community with a rare disease to cure, but they are united in their interest in specific topics, like AI, IQ, and birth order effects. And Scott, being a psychiatrist, has a special interest in things like SSRIs. We’re very interested in the small amount of work he’s done on air quality / ventilation, which we’ll note has included at least a little self-experimentation.

Whorelord and “mad social scientist” Aella is kind of de facto sex worker / sex research czar for the whole internet. She also does psychology and psychedelics research, which must be reasonably well-regarded because her twitter followers include some big names in psychology, like Paul Bloom and Uri Simonsohn (and see this interaction). But mostly it’s sex stuff, and the quality of her research puts the average social science publication to shame: 

Scott is a rationalist and Aella has lots of sex / is a (former) sex worker, so they’re perfectly positioned to be the research czars for their communities. We’d recommend that the “go narrow” approach be taken with communities you are a part of as well.

There are clear advantages to going narrow. First off, you can self-experiment. You can pilot-test studies on yourself, and you can show people that you would never ask them to do anything you aren’t willing to try first. You can specialize and learn a lot about this one area of research. And you’ll understand the topic better, because you’ve lived it.

There are also a couple of disadvantages. This has a smaller scope, but some of you might like that. It’s less exciting, and maybe harder to get support and raise money for projects. But it’s also more practical.

Go Broad

The other option is to try to become the Czar of all the Reddits.

In this approach, you try to work with lots of different subreddits, lots of different communities, and try to solve lots of different problems. Instead of focusing on just one mystery at a time, you go broad. 

If you are a generalist with good research chops, who spends a lot of time on reddit and knows how it works, who likes the idea of working with tons of different people, on dozens of projects, this might be the approach for you.

This approach has some clear advantages. If you work on more projects, you will be able to get funding from more quarters. As you try more and more things, you’ll learn a lot about the metascience of doing this new kind of community research. You can switch between projects when you’re waiting for results. If you hit a dead end on one question, you can take some time off and switch to something else. More things to work on means it’s more likely something will be a success.

There are also a few disadvantages. You’ll always risk getting spread too thin, and you will spend lots of time getting familiar with new topics, instead of going deep on just a few. You probably won’t share most of the problems you want to help solve. Since you don’t have these diseases/conditions/whatevers, you won’t be able to self-experiment, and self-experimentation is an important part of research. And some communities won’t want or appreciate help from an outsider.

To Sum Up

Reddit is a big place. There’s a lot of questions to answer, problems to solve, and communities to rally to the mad science crusade. 

Probably by 2030 there will be several major researchers on reddit, and two or three of them will be getting close to being household names. Some of them will be generalists who hop around different subreddits, consulting on different problems. Some of them will be specialists, organizing their communities against shared problems. Different research czars will work together to make bigger and better projects, and problems will get solved faster than anyone today thinks possible. 

But why wait to see other people do it? If you think you have what it takes (or half of what it takes; don’t be afraid to learn on the job), there’s nothing stopping you from doing this starting tomorrow. We’d be happy to consult on stats and methods — and if you do anything interesting, we might blog about it. If you declare yourself Czar of X and you make a big breakthrough, we will send you a crown (though it will not be this nice).

Links for April 2022

TABERNAC

Data visualization in R has officially gone too far.

Stephan Malina does a great book review on the work of polymath ​​scientist / inventor / psychologist Elmer R. Gates, one of the great scientists history pretty much forgot. Among other things, he talks about a “scientifically determined method of mentating”, genetic memory, and developing precise control of the body… if this guy wasn’t a huge influence on Frank Herbert’s Dune, we would be very surprised.

Remember stumbleupon? 

Interesting review on twitter of nutritional wisdom. Basically: your body knows what you need and directs you to eat things that give you those things. This makes sense to us, how else did people stay alive 10,000 years ago? 

Good news in PFAS remediation. You probably know that these terrible compounds are in your blood, where they bind to serum proteins; turns out you can get rid of them just by donating blood (h/t Lars Doucet). This makes perfect sense — the PFAS are bound to the blood, you get rid of the blood, you get rid of some PFAS, and your bones make fresh blood with no PFAS. Wait, did bloodletting maybe work? Like if you had a ton of lead in your body or something, would this get it out? There used to be lead in everything, we imagine if you swallowed some, came down with sweats and a fever, went to a doctor and they let your blood go, it might help with the lead poisoning. Compare also with “dilution of harmful factors in old blood” as a life extension technique. We might look into all of this a bit more when we get a chance.

Politics, Ho Ho Ho. No seriously, Santa Claus is running for US House Representative for Alaska. And we want to take a moment to say, he has the official Slime Mold Time Mold endorsement.

Rat On! is an album by R&B anti-hero Swamp Dogg. You must hear the reviews. Here’s one from ‘Denzel’: “This man has the greatest album covers of all time. Whether riding a giant rat or posing as some kind of hot-dog/man hybrid; Swamp Dogg never disappoints the senses whether audio, visual or otherwise.” Swamp Dogg do you want to collab?

“According to Waters, the hole had an unknown depth of at least 80,000 feet. He claimed to have measured its depth using fishing line and a weight, although he still had not hit bottom by the time 80,000 feet of line had been used. He also claimed that his neighbor’s dead dog had been seen alive sometime after it was thrown into the hole. According to Waters, the hole’s magical properties prompted US federal agents to seize the land and fund his relocation to Australia.”

Magnetic slime might be the next big thing in medicine. The twitter comments are about what you would expect. 

We haven’t seen much of new show “Winning Time”, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s review on Substack is worth reading for being a whole new level of articulate and cutting. Why didn’t anyone tell us he’s one of the greatest living writers? 

I Caught Covid And All I Got Was This Lousy Ambiguous Data

A Chinese math teacher is “one of Pornhub’s biggest stars” — for his calculus lectures. He keeps his clothes on. You might think this means you can create something unusual and special on any platform. No. You can only create something unusual and special on PornHub.

Where in Pi is Waldo? Not in the first billion digits, apparently. Or maybe he is, depending on how much you cheat.

Atoms vs Bits asks, who made the best predictions? Their candidate: Charles Darwin

”A mysterious leaden sarcophagus discovered in the bowels of Paris’ Notre-Dame cathedral after it was devastated by a fire will soon be opened and its secrets revealed.” DON’T OPEN IT 

Advertising firm Ogilvy will no longer work with influencers who edit their bodies or faces for ads. Very cyberpunk.

The Average Fourth Grader Is a Better Poet Than You (and Me Too). “Here are some lines written by students in grades 3rd-6th: … [Writing about a family member’s recent death:] ‘My brother went down / to the river and put dirt on.’” Related: 

Dynomight shares an interesting first-person account of being recruited to (probably) a cult.

The Guardian reports: The big idea: should we get rid of the scientific paper? YES

If you are facing a werewolf and want to cast your own silver bullets, it’s very hard but probably not impossible. (h/t Lars Doucet)

How do you defend your livestock from coyotes? Well obviously your farm just needs the coyote’s most terrible natural enemy (content warning: coyote slaughter):

On the use of StackOverflow and Cunningham’s Law.

Aella comes out as Wikipedia nerd. We always suspected.

Potato Diet Community Trial: Sign up Now, lol

In French, the word for potato is pomme de terre. This literally translates to apple of the earth. By this logic, potatoes are the lowest-hanging fruit of all.

More seriously: We keep getting more and more interested in the all-potato diet. This is a diet where you eat nothing but potatoes (and sometimes a bit of seasoning) for a few weeks to a few months. It sounds like a dumb gimmick that could never work, but there are a surprising number of people out there saying that they tried it, it worked for them, and they kept the weight off for months or even years after.

Anecdotes are limited in all sorts of ways, but there are a surprising number of very strong anecdotes about the all-potato diet causing huge amounts of easy, sustainable weight loss:

Again, anecdotes by themselves are limited. We don’t know how many people tried this diet and didn’t get such stunning weight loss. We don’t know how long the weight stays off for. And the sample size is really small. Someone should really do a study or something, and figure this thing out.

Well, ok, if you insist. But you all have to help! 

Tl;dr, we’re looking for people to volunteer to eat nothing but potatoes (and a small amount of oil & seasoning) for at least four weeks, and to share their data so we can do an analysis. You can sign up below.

Aren’t there already diets that work? Well, maybe, but we certainly don’t have any that work reliably. Reviews of meta-analyses say things like, “Numerous randomized trials comparing diets differing in macronutrient compositions (eg, low-carbohydrate, low-fat, Mediterranean) have demonstrated differences in weight loss and metabolic risk factors that are small (ie, a mean difference of <1 kg) and inconsistent.” And The Lancet says, “unlike other major causes of preventable death and disability, such as tobacco use, injuries, and infectious diseases, there are no exemplar populations in which the obesity epidemic has been reversed by public health measures.” We could go on like this all day — actually wait, we already did

There are all sorts of crazy fad diets out there that haven’t been formally tested, and many of them have anecdotes that sound at least this good. Some of you may have even tried one. So why are we so interested in this over all the others?

Most diets are unpleasant and require you to use a lot of willpower to eat the right stuff or avoid the wrong stuff. On most diets, people are hungry all the time and feel terrible and gain the weight back as soon as they stop dieting. But the potato diet, at least according to the anecdotes, isn’t unpleasant at all — it’s quite easy. This isn’t a willpower diet. If the diet works, and it’s as easy to stick to as they say, that would be an important finding.

Most diets are hard to follow in that the instructions are precise and/or complicated — you have to eat exactly the right ratio of stuff to other stuff, carefully weigh and measure all your portions, count calories, do a lot of math in your head, check all the ingredients in everything you buy, etc. In contrast, the all-potato diet is really simple. No complex principles. No weighing and measuring your food. No checking ingredients. Just potato.

Some diets claim they won’t work unless you do everything just right. If you don’t lose weight on one of these diets, fans of the diet can always fall back on saying, maybe you did it wrong. In comparison, potato diet is easy. We don’t think it really matters if you accidentally eat a chocolate bar, as long as you are eating mostly potatoes. If you eat mostly potatoes and you don’t lose weight, then the diet doesn’t work, no one will be saying “you did it wrong.”

The potato diet also appears to have a huge effect size — 20 lbs for Chris Voigt, 114 lbs for Andrew Taylor, etc. — which should make it easy to study. We’re not fiddling around with a diet that might make you lose 5 lbs. If most people lose as much weight as Chris and Andrew, that will be really obvious. And if it doesn’t work for most people, well, that’s an important finding too.

Finally, one of the most interesting things about the potato diet is that people seem to keep the weight off afterwards, which is basically unheard of for diets. If we can confirm that in a study, it will be a pretty big deal. 

So that’s why we want to study the potato diet in particular. It should be easy to get a straight answer about this diet. If it works, people will be able to use this diet to lose weight and gain energy, if that’s what they want. And if it works, it probably provides some kind of hint about why the obesity epidemic is happening in the first place. So let’s do a study.

Diet Design

To figure out how to run this study, we needed to figure out what kind of all-potato diet seems to work for weight loss. To do this, we took a close look at the case studies we mentioned above. Some of these accounts are pretty detailed, so we won’t bore you with it up front. If you want more detail, we give an overview of each case study in the appendices.

The overall picture looks pretty clear. The basis of the all-potato diet is, unsurprisingly, eating almost nothing but potatoes.

In the most extreme cases, like Penn Jillette and the Krocks, people appear to eat literally nothing but potatoes, with no seasonings, and drink nothing but water. This seems to work pretty well but sounds like it would be hard to stick to. It’s notable that both of these examples kept it up for only two weeks, though they did lose impressive amounts of weight.

In comparison, Andrew Taylor was able to stick to an all-potato diet for a full year. He let himself use spices and seasonings, drank things other than water, and he still lost more than 100 pounds. He just made sure to take a B12 vitamin and kept away from oil and dairy.

Chris Voigt lost the least weight, but he seems to have had a pretty easy time of it. He was able to lose 21 lbs while using all kinds of salt and seasonings and cooking his potatoes in oil, and he wasn’t even trying to lose weight at all. This suggests, to us at least, that stricter versions of the diet aren’t necessary to see the benefits.

Potatoes are indeed very nutritious (here’s the USDA page for russet potatoes). The official word is that they don’t contain any vitamin A and don’t contain any B12. We’re not sure about the vitamin A — Andrew Taylor went a year without supplementing vitamin A (he did take B12), but maybe he got all the vitamin A he needed from the sauces he used? In any case, a vitamin B12 supplement is appropriate, and a vitamin A supplement seems like a good idea. [EDIT: u/alraban on reddit points out that Andrew ate sweet potatoes, which are high in Vitamin A. This is a good point, so now our recommendation is that you should either include sweet potatoes or take a Vitamin A supplement.] If you take a normal multivitamin you should be totally covered — but again, none of the case studies seem to have needed it.

Based on these examples taken together, our version of the diet is: 

THE POTATO DIET

  • Drink mostly water. You can also have some other beverages. Chris Voigt had coffee, tea, and diet soda. Andrew Taylor sometimes had beer, even. Just don’t take them with cream or sugar and try not to get too many of your daily calories from your drinks. 
  • Eat potatoes. Buy organic if you can, and eat the peels whenever possible. Start with whole potatoes and cook them yourself when you can, but in a pinch you can eat potato chips or fries if you need to. You can calculate how many potatoes to eat (a potato is about 100 calories, so if you need 2000 kcal/day, eat about 20), but we think it’s better to eat the potatoes ad libitum — make a lot of potatoes and just eat as much as you want.
  • Perfect adherence isn’t necessary. If you can’t get potatoes, eat something else rather than go hungry, and pick up the potatoes again when you can. 
  • Seasonings are ok. Chris used seasonings like Tabasco sauce, chives fresh out of his garden, a Thai herb/pepper paste, and bouillon cubes in water for fake gravy. Andrew used seasonings like dried herbs, fat-free sweet chili, barbecue sauce, and soy milk (in mashed potatoes). Do what you can to keep yourself from getting bored.
  • Oil is ok. Chris used it, Andrew and Penn didn’t. You can go either way. In fact, it would be great for us if some of you use oil and others of you don’t, so we can see if there is any difference. If you do use oil, probably use olive oil, which seems to be what Chris used. Maybe consider imported olive oil from Europe, which we suspect contains fewer contaminants, in case the contamination theory is correct.
  • Take a daily B12 supplement, since potatoes don’t contain any. We like this version but use whatever you like. Take vitamin A if you’re not eating sweet potatoes. A multivitamin would also be fine as long as it contains B12. 
  • Everyone seems to agree: No dairy. Maybe this doesn’t matter, but on the off chance this is really important for some reason, please avoid all dairy products. 

If in doubt, pick one of the examples we describe in the appendices and follow their example. You can always ask yourself, what would Chris Voigt do? And then do that.

In the spirit of self-experimentation, and because we were curious, one of us decided to try the all-potato diet for ourselves. That author is currently on day 11 of the all-potato diet. In that author’s own words: 

I was originally going to do just one or two days of the potato diet to see what it was like, but it was so easy that I figured I should try to keep to it for a full week. But it was still easy at a week, and now I’m just curious how long I can keep going for.

I feel fine, totally normal. I don’t feel more energetic than normal, but I’m pretty energetic to begin with. My mood is a little better, and I’m maybe sleeping better. Exercise seems easier, or at least it’s not any harder, kind of surprising when all my protein comes from potatoes. I haven’t lost any weight but I’m not overweight so I didn’t have much to lose in the first place.

It doesn’t require any willpower. I don’t crave anything else, I’m not tempted to buy other food at the grocery store, I’m not jealous when people around me are eating pizza or chocolate. I’m happy to sit down to a pile of potatoes every meal. They still smell delicious. If anything, I like potatoes even more now. The hardest part is the logistics of preparing that many potatoes every single day. 

I’m using European olive oil, salt, spices, vinegar, and a couple of hot sauces to keep the potatoes interesting. I want to say that it would be much harder without them, but honestly, this is so much easier than I expected, I don’t know what to expect anymore. Maybe it would be just as easy without oil and hot sauce.

Here’s my advice based on my personal experience. You should get a wide variety of potatoes. When you’re eating nothing but potatoes, the differences between different varieties become very obvious. At first I was happy with yukon gold but after a few days I began to crave russet potatoes. Make a lot every time you cook, you will eat more than you expect. And make sure to drink lots of water, I keep finding it hard to remember and end up feeling dehydrated.

UPDATE DAY 13: For the last two days I tried nothing but baked potatoes with no oil and barely any spices. It was really easy, I feel super energetic, and I started losing weight. So if the diet isn’t having any effect for you, consider trying it with no oil.

Study Design

That’s the diet we’re thinking of. What about the study design? 

Official-sounding diet studies from like the NIH and stuff don’t always run all their subjects at the same time, so we won’t bother doing that either. We’ve made it so you can sign up and participate in this study at any time. Rolling admissions.

There’s no need for a control group because the spontaneous remission rate for obesity is so low. For example, if someone said they had invented a medicine that could re-grow lost limbs, we wouldn’t need a control group for that trial, because the spontaneous limb regrowth rate is almost exactly zero (in humans anyways). If anyone regrew their arms or legs, that would be pretty convincing evidence that the medicine works as promised. Similarly, people almost never spontaneously drop 20 pounds, so we don’t need a control group.

This is also a trap. We expect that some people will come back with “but there wasn’t a control group!” This is a sign that they didn’t actually read what we’ve written and are boneheads who don’t understand how research works.

We’re not worried about tight experimental control. Maybe this diet would work better in the lab, but what we are actually interested in is how it works when implemented by normal people in the comfort of their home. If it doesn’t work in those circumstances, we want to know that! If the potato diet can’t be used practically, we don’t really care if it works in the lab, we know which side our potato is buttered sprinkled with garlic salt on. If it doesn’t work with this design, it just doesn’t work. And if it does work at home, it would presumably work even better in the lab. 

We’re also interested in the huge effect size described in the anecdotes above. We’re not worried about tiny amounts of noise from things like what you’re wearing or what time of day you weigh yourself. If the experience of Chris Voigt is at all typical — if the average person loses about 20 lbs — these tiny differences won’t matter.

And we’re not all that worried about adherence. If the 100% potato diet works, the 90% potato diet probably works too. So while we prefer that anyone sending us their data tries to refrain from eating any delicious pickles during the diet, if you do eat a pickle, it probably doesn’t matter.

Sign up to Eat Potatoes for the Glory of Science

This looks pretty promising, so let’s try to go past the anecdotes and do this in something like a rigorous fashion. Who wants to eat some ‘taters? 

The only prerequisite for signing up is being willing to eat nothing but potatoes for at least four weeks, and being willing to share your weight data with us.

(And being an adult, having a scale, not being allergic to potatoes, etc. etc.)

One reason to sign up is that you hope this will help you lose weight, lower your blood pressure, make you less depressed, or see one of the other effects reported by people like Chris Voigt and Andrew Taylor. But another reason you might want to sign up is to help advance the state of nutritional science. In a small way, this study will tell us something about nutrition, weight loss, and obesity that we don’t currently know. If the diet works, it will give us a practical intervention that people can use to reduce their weight, which we don’t really have right now.

And beyond that, running a study like this through volunteers on the internet is a small step towards making science faster, smarter, and more democratic. Imagine a future where every time we’re like, “why is no one doing this?”, every time we’re like, “dietary scientists, what the hell?”, we get together and WE do it, and we get an answer. And if we get a half-answer, we iterate on the design and get closer and closer every time. 

That seems like a future worth dreaming of. If you sign up, you get us closer to that future. We hope that this is only the first of what will be a century full of community-run scientific trials on the internet. Maybe by 2030, the redditors will have found a way to triple your lifespan. But for the first study, let’s start with potato.

We understand that eating nothing but potatoes for four weeks sounds pretty daunting. But based on the case studies above, and our own experience, we want to reassure you that it will probably be much easier than you expect. In fact, here’s our suggestion: If you are at all interested in trying it, go ahead and sign up and start collecting your data. Try the first day or two and see how it feels.

If it’s really hard for you to stay on the diet and you just can’t continue, go ahead and stop, just send us an email and close out the diet as normal (see instructions below). We’re interested in the diet as a whole, and if 40% of people can’t stick to the diet for more than two days, that’s important information about how effective the diet is in a practical sense. We’d be happy to have that information. 

But based on our own experience, we suspect that most of you who try it for a couple days will be like, “wow this is so easy! I could do this for a couple weeks no problem.” If that’s how you feel, keep collecting your data and see if you can keep it up for four weeks. 

If you want to go for longer than four weeks, that’s great, we would be happy to have more data.

If at any point you get sick or begin having side-effects, stop the diet immediately. We can still use your data up to that point, and we don’t want anything to happen to you.

If you are taking potassium supplements, often given as blood pressure medications (like Losartan) please take this extra seriously. A diet of 20 potatoes a day will give you about 300% your recommended potassium. While this should be safe by itself, it might be a problem if you are already taking a potassium supplement. Don’t sign up if you have bad kidneys, kidney disease, or diabetes (you can check with your doctor). Be aware of the signs of hyperkalemia.

We are mostly interested in weight loss effects for people who are overweight (BMI 25+) or obese (BMI 30+), but the energy and mental health effects reported in some of the case studies are interesting too. If you are “normal weight” (BMI 20-25) you can also sign up, especially if you want to feel more energetic or you want to tackle depression and anxiety or something. 

And for everyone, please consult with your doctor before trying this or any other weight loss regimen. We are not doctors. We are 20 rats in a trenchcoat. eee! eee! eee!

Anyways, to sign up: 

  1. Fill out this google form, where you give us your basic demographics and contact info. You will assign yourself a subject number, which will keep your data anonymous in the future. [UPDATE: Signups are now closed, but we plan to do more potato diet studies in the future. If you’re interested in participating in a future potato diet study, you can give us your email at this link and we’ll let you know when we run the next study.]
  2. We will clone a version of this google sheet and share the clone with you. This will be your personal spreadsheet for recording your data over the course of the diet.
  3. On the first day, weigh yourself in the morning. If you’re a “morning pooper”, measure yourself “after your first void”; if not, don’t worry about it. We don’t care if you wear pajamas or what, just keep it consistent. Note down your weight and the other measures (mood, energy, etc.) on the google sheet. Then spend day 1 eating nothing but potatoes. On day 2, weigh yourself in the morning, note down data in the sheet, then spend day 2 eating nothing but potatoes. On day 3, etc.
  4. We prefer that you stick closely to the diet for at least four weeks. But if you do break the diet at some point, just note that down in the appropriate column and try to stick to the diet the next day. Again, we’re interested in how the diet works for normal people at home, and so imperfect adherence is ok. If you totally can’t stand the diet, just stop doing it and end the study per the next instructions.
  5. Whenever you are done with the diet (preferably four weeks, or longer if you want, we’re happy to have more data if you are enjoying the diet), weigh yourself and fill out one last morning’s data so we have an endpoint, then stop the diet.
  6. Then, send us an email with the subject line “[SUBJECT ID] Potato Diet Complete”. This will let us know to go grab your data. This is also your opportunity to tell us all about how the diet went for you. Please tell us all the data that doesn’t easily fit into the spreadsheet — how you felt on the diet, what brand of oil you used, what kind of potatoes you bought, where you got them from, what kind of cookware you used, before and after pictures (if you want), advice to other people trying the diet, etc. We think there’s a pretty good chance that this diet will work for some people and not for others, and if that happens, we will dig into these accounts to see if we can figure out why (e.g. maybe this works with olive oil but not with vegetable oil, or something).
  7. If we have our act together, we will send each of you a brief google form following up at 6 months and at 1 year, and maybe at future intervals (5 years?).

Assuming we get 20 or so people, we will write up our results and publish them on the blog. We would really like to get a couple hundred people, though, since at that point it becomes possible to do more complex statistical analyses. So if you think this is an interesting idea, please tell your friends. 

We’ll keep this updated with roughly how many people have signed up and stuff, until we get bored or decide the study is closed:

Signed Up: 220 [CLOSED]

Past the 4-Week Mark: 46

We’re pretty happy with this study design. In particular, we don’t think it’s a weakness that people are doing this at home, since those are the conditions that we actually want to understand the diet under. We want to know how it works when it’s applied like it would actually be applied.

That said, if you are a wealthy donor and you want to fund a more controlled version of this — maybe, send 30 overweight and obese volunteers to a campground in Colorado for a couple weeks and feed them nothing but potatoes while they’re there, and hire a nurse or two to check up on them every day — please contact us. It’d be cheap as far as nutrition research goes, and we’ll make you a mixtape of potato songs.

Appendix A: Super Basic Potato Preparation

Use whatever recipes you want, but here are two very simple ways to prepare them.

Here’s how to roast any kind of potato:

  1. Preheat oven to 425 F.
  2. Spread a thin layer of olive oil on a large cookie sheet.
  3. Wash potatoes and make sure they do not have any dirt or anything gross on them.
  4. Cut off any gross spots on the outside of the potatoes.
  5. Cut the potatoes into any of the following: large fries, slices about a quarter inch thick, or chunks a little bigger than a grape. Do the whole batch with the same method.
  6. If you find any other bad spots while you’re cutting up the potatoes, cut them off and throw them away.
  7. Put the cut potatoes in a large bowl and dress them with olive oil, salt, and whatever seasonings you want (salt, pepper, garlic powder, rosemary, etc.). Mix them so the oil and seasoning is all over the potatoes.
  8. Put the potatoes on the cookie sheet and make sure they are all well seasoned / well oiled.
  9. Put them in the oven for 20 minutes, then take them out and stir them with a wooden spoon or spatula. They will probably stick to the cookie sheet a bit, this is normal.
  10. Put them back in for another 20 minutes and then take them out again. Let one cool and try it, making sure not to burn your mouth. If it seems done and edible, turn off the oven, your potatoes are done. If it still seems a little raw, put them back in for another 10 minutes.
  11. When done, eat with your favorite no-calorie sauces and vinegars.

Here’s how to boil any kind of potato:

  1. Fill a pot with enough water to cover however many potatoes you’re making. Salt the water and set it on the stove on high to boil.
  2. Wash potatoes and make sure they do not have any dirt or anything gross on them.
  3. Cut off any gross spots on the outside of the potatoes.
  4. Cut the potatoes into small chunks. Any size is fine, but smaller chunks will cook faster.
  5. If you find any other bad spots while you’re cutting up the potatoes, cut them off and throw them away.
  6. When the water boils, put the potatoes in and turn the heat to medium.
  7. Every five minutes, pull out a potato chunk, let it cool, and taste it to see if it’s ready. 
  8. When they are done, turn off the heat and pour the potatoes out into a colander. 
  9. Dress the potatoes with spices and olive oil (you probably want to add salt) and eat with your favorite no-calorie sauces and vinegars.

Appendix B: Chris Voigt

The earliest example of an all-potato diet we’re aware of is a guy named Chris Voigt

Chris was the Executive Director of the Washington State Potatoes Commission, and he was tired of hearing all the myths about potatoes being unhealthy. He wanted to remind people about the amazing nutrients contained in this everyday vegetable. So as a demonstration of the power of potato, he decided to eat nothing but 20 potatoes a day, for 60 days straight:

Chris started his diet on October 1, 2010, and didn’t use any milk, butter or cheese toppings for mashing his potatoes. The only way he had them were fried, boiled, mashed, steamed, chipped or baked. His diet continued for 60 straight days and ended on November 29, 2010.

Also here’s an incredibly corny video if you prefer that format.

Chris wasn’t trying to lose weight. In an interview conducted years later, he said, “I was kind of hoping to be alive at the end of the 60 days… I wasn’t trying to lose weight.” He was 197 pounds at the start of his diet and he describes himself as “six foot one and a half”, so his starting BMI was about 26, just slightly overweight. He seems to have been eating a pretty healthy diet beforehand and he wasn’t seriously overweight, which is why he didn’t think he would lose weight. In fact, he based his daily potato consumption off of a calculation of how much he would need to eat to maintain his starting weight. In response to an early comment on his blog, he said, “I’m eating 20 potatoes a day because that’s how many I’ll have to eat to maintain my current weight.”

But despite his best efforts, by the end of the 60 days, he weighed 176 lbs, a loss of 21 lbs to a BMI of 23.2. His cholesterol also went from 214 to 147, and his glucose went from 104 to 94. In fact, seems like almost everything that could be measured improved: “My cholesterol went down 67 points, my blood sugar came down and all the other blood chemistry — the iron, the calcium, the protein — all of those either stayed the same or got better.” (Here’s a page where someone has compiled a bunch of these numbers.)

Chris did all this in consultation with his doctor, and he does suggest that you have to have a baseline level of health for this to be safe: 

Chris Voigt didn’t go on 20 potatoes and a diet blindly. He first carried out thorough consultations with his dietician and doctor to be sure that he could actually live on potatoes for 60 days straight. After all, you need hale and hearty kidneys for processing the excessive potassium provided by 20 potatoes every day. In addition, you should have also stored ample amounts of necessary nutrients that are lacking in potatoes, for instance vitamin A, for avoiding any harmful side effects.

Those were his results. What was the diet like? 

In the abstract, Chris describes his diet like this

Literally, I just ate potatoes and nothing else. There were a few seasonings, but no gravy, no butter, no sour cream, and just a little bit of oil for cooking. That was it.

That isn’t quite enough detail for our purposes. But older archives of Chris’s site have the blog, which gets a lot more specific. Read it for yourself for the full story, but here are some highlights, focusing on what kinds of potatoes he ate and how he prepared them:

Day 1 – So I had 5 baked red potatoes for breakfast, mashed potatoes with a little garlic seasoning for lunch, and while my family had all the fixing at the steakhouse celebrating my wife’s birthday, I had garlic mashed potatoes and an order of steak fries. The all potato diet wasn’t too bad today, but I did cringe a little when everyone had ice cream for dessert.

Day 2 –  I’m really struggling to eat enough calories. I had two baked potatoes this morning with a couple shots of Tabasco sauce, a serving of mashed potatoes sprinkled with a few BBQ potato chips for a change in texture, and another serving of mashed potatoes and 5 roasted small red potatoes. I didn’t hit the 2200 calories I was hoping for today. I didn’t realize how filling the potatoes would make me feel.

Day 4 – My wife made me 3 pounds of roasted red potatoes that were lightly coated in olive oil with some of her special seasonings. While I made two containers of russet mashed potatoes, one with chives fresh out of our garden and one with a Thai herb/pepper paste I’ve never had before. My wife tells me the paste goes a long way and be careful not to use too much.

Day 6 – I was in potato Nirvana tonight. My wife boiled a bouillon cube with potato starch to make me “psuedo gravy”. It was awesome! She smothered Yukon Gold and Purple potato slices in this gravy and baked it in the oven for an hour. Then cooked homemade yellow and purple chips with artifical sweetner and cinnamon for dessert. It was heaven for a flavor deprived husband. I would marry her all over again because of this!

Day 11 – So one thing people keep asking about is, “What about my weight?” I’ve been hesitant to talk about this because I don’t want people to think of this as a weight loss diet. It is not, and it’s not something I want people to replicate. … So let me step down from my nutrition soap box and talk about weight. I started this diet at 197 pounds. I’m six foot one and a half so according to my BMI, I was a little over weight. I should be in the 175-185 range. Right now, I’m at 189 pounds. Most of that weigh loss happened early, only because I was struggling to eat enough potatoes. I seemed full the whole time so it was hard to keep eating. But now, my weight loss has become more stable.

Day 15 – I feel good. Lot’s of energy, I’m dropping a few pounds which I needed to, and no weird side effects. And mentally, I think I’ve found my groove. Weekdays are pretty easy but weekends are a little tougher, still have desires for other foods but I think those a waning a bit as I get further into this diet.

Day 19 – So my family had potstickers last night while I had roasted red potatoes. For the potstickers, my wife made a dipping sauce that I tried on my red potato wedges. It was pretty good. The sauce was soy sauce, ginger, and some off the shelf dry asian seasoning. It was a nice change of pace. It added a flavor I haven’t had in a long time.

Day 22 – I had about a pound of hash browns this morning for breakfast, two pounds of mashed potatoes with black pepper for lunch, which means I have to eat close to 4 more pounds before bed. I’m leaning towards baked potatoes with balsamic vinegar for dinner but I’m not sure I’m ready for 4 pounds of it.

Day 24 – So here is a new one for you that my wife made up. Fake ice cream made from potatoes. She took 1/2 cup cocoa powder, 1/2 cup artificial sweetner, and a little water to make a chocolate sauce. Then mixed it with about 2 cups of “riced” potatoes and ice. Blended it and put in freezer. It was actually really good, ju…st a strange texture though. I love my wife! What a treat!

Day 26 – I brought my food for the day and stuffed it in the office fridge. Two pounds of purple mashed potatoes topped with garlic salt, 6 smalled baked red potatoes that I’ll probably put balsamic vinegar on, and about 10 oz of gnocchi made with riced potatoes and potato flour, then lightly fried. Can’t boil them because they fall apart since they don’t have the egg in them that you would normally use.

…  I drove to Spokane Sunday night and caught an early flight to Boise the next day. Must remember to prepare better! Nearly starved! I broke into a small emergency stash of instant potatoes I had with me for breakfast, had 3 small bags of …chips and 1 baked potato for lunch, and an order of fries at McD’s for dinner.

Day 28 – So here is what I had yesterday to eat. About 2 pounds of roasted red potatoes lightly seasoned and with a little olive oil, 3 pounds of purple mashed potatoes sprinkled with garlic salt, and about a pound and a half of “riced” potatoes that were fried up lightly. It was kind of like light fluffy hash browns. And a few handfuls of potato chips for a change in texture.

… think about how weird and unusual this diet is. Health professionals actually suggested I include some fries and chips prepared in healthy oils as part of my diet to make me more healthy during this diet. Doesn’t that sound so weird out loud or written in this blog? You have to remember that there is absolutely no fat in a potato, no fat in any of the seasonings or herbs I’m eating. But there are 2 fatty acids that are essential to bodily functions and are needed by your body. The healthy oils from the fries and chips are supplying me those fatty acids. Without them, I would not look or feel very good at the end of these 60 days. The take home message, you need those fatty acids to live but the reality for most people is that we eat too many of them. Live in moderation!

Day 33 – Got out of the house this morning without any seasonings for my spuds. So far, I’ve eaten 6 boiled, yellow flesh, plain potatoes. You know…I really think this is getting easier. I’m not having the intense cravings for other foods that I use to have. Maybe I’ve found my groove.

…  I thought I’d take a moment to answer a couple questions I always get from folks about the diet. One is, “Are you taking any supplements?” No. This diet is about nutrition, there are so many nutrients in potatoes that you could literally live off them for an extended period of time without any major impacts to your health. If I could take supplements, I think you could probably do this diet for a really long time! Also, I get asked about beverages. I drink mostly water, but can have things that don’t add calories or any major nutrients. I do drink some black coffee, plain black tea, or an occasional diet soda.

Day 45 – I just ate about a kilo of purple mashed potatoes for dinner tonight. But I think I added too much garlic salt. Probably shouldn’t do any major kissing tonight. 🙂

Day 50 – Just in case I’m subjected to a lie detector test at some point, I have to come clean on 3 incidents. There were 3 separate times in the previous 50 days where I was making my kids lunch, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and without thinking, it was more of a reflex move, I licked clean the peanut or jelly that had gotten on my fingers. Its been bugging me so I needed to share.

Day 60 – So here are most of the stats from my latest medical exam and how it compares to where I was prior to the start of the diet. Weight, started at 197, finished at 176. Cholesterol, started at borderline high of 214, finished at 147. Glucose, started at 104, dropped to 94. So improvements in each of those catagories. I don’t have a hard copy yet, will try to get that tomorrow and will post online. Me Happy!!

Day 61 – (Diet officially over) Its funny because I still have yet to eat something else besides potatoes. I’ve been a little busy this morning so I wasn’t able to pack a lunch or breakfast. But the fridge in our office still had a couple of my potato only dishes. So guess what I had for my first meal at the end of the diet. Potatoes! Hopefully that will change later today. And I bet there will still be potatoes tonight, but with something on them or with them!

… One more thing, a few new folks have joined our little community and have sent me questions about the diet. First, I took no other supplements. It literally was just potatoes, seasonings, and oil for cooking. Now there were a few things we did classify as seasonings since they didn’t really add any significant nutrients, such as Tabasco Sauce which is really just dried peppers and vinegar. Had balsalmic vinegar a few times, and an occasional bouillon cube that was used in mashed potatoes or mixed with potato starch to form something like gravy. THe cubes were 5 calories and really only added sodium to the diet, which we consider a seasoning. 

Day 63 – A big thank you to the Washington Beef, Dairy, and Apple producers. They, along with the Washington Potato Commission, hosted a dinner at the Moses Lake Head Start facility for all the kids and their parents. We did crafts and a short nutrition workshop on the importance of eating healthy, well balanced meals. Not just 20 potatoes a day 🙂 And a big thank you to the staff for all of their work on this and the wonderful Mr. Potato Head they gave me. We had lean beef strips for our tortillas, along with roasted onions, peppers, and potatoes, and apple slices and low fat milk. I sampled everything and wanted to chow down but my doctor has advised me to ease back slowly into other foods. So I’m still eating a lot of potatoes!

On the one hand, Chris took the potato diet very seriously. He really did get almost all his calories from potatoes for about 60 days. He stuck to the plan.

On the other hand, he didn’t take it too seriously. He used cooking oil, spices, and a bunch of different seasonings. He still had coffee, tea, and the “occasional diet soda”. But this didn’t ruin the diet — he still lost weight and gained energy.

The results do seem astounding. More energy, better sleep, lower cholesterol, etc. etc. And how was it subjectively? “I’m really struggling to eat enough calories. … I didn’t realize how filling the potatoes would make me feel. … I feel good.” 

The weight loss results aren’t that extreme, but Chris wasn’t very overweight to begin with. He went from a BMI of 26 to an “ideal” BMI of 23. He didn’t really have many more excess pounds to lose. So let’s take a look at a more extreme example. 

Appendix C: Andrew Taylor

Andrew Taylor is an Australian man who did an all-potato diet for a full year. He started at 334 pounds and he lost 117 pounds over the course of what he called his “Spud Fit Challenge.”

Here’s a video of Andrew before the diet, describing what he is about to attempt. Here’s a video of him 11 months in. And here are some descriptions of how it went

The physical benefits of Taylor’s Spud Fit Challenge remain, he says. “I’ve maintained the weight loss and I’m still free of the daily grind of battling with food addiction. I had a check up a few weeks ago and my doctor was very happy with the state of my health.”

Taylor says that he was clinically depressed and anxious before undertaking his all-potato diet, “which is no longer an issue for me,” he says. “My mental health is much better these days.”

During his challenge, Taylor ate all kinds of potatoes, including sweet potatoes. To add flavor to his meals, he used a sprinkle of dried herbs or fat-free sweet chili or barbecue sauce. If he made mashed potatoes, he only added oil-free soy milk.

He drank mostly water, with the occasional beer thrown in (proof that no man can resist a great brew). Because his diet completely lacked meat, he supplemented with a B12 vitamin.

He also didn’t restrict the amount he consumed. Instead, Taylor ate as many potatoes as he needed to satisfy his hunger. For the first month, he didn’t work out at all and still dropped 22 pounds, but then he added 90 minutes of exercise to his routine every day.

 “I feel amazing and incredible! I’m sleeping better, I no longer have joint pain from old football injuries, I’m full of energy, I have better mental clarity and focus,” he writes on his site.

Like Chris Voigt, Andrew made sure to get regular checkups

Taylor said has had medical supervision, including regular blood tests, throughout the year. His cholesterol has improved and his blood-sugar levels, blood pressure and other health indicators are good, he explained. He feels “totally amazing,” noting he no longer has problems with clinical depression and anxiety, sleeps better, feels more energetic and is physically stronger.

Andrew is now running spudfit.com. For the specifics of Andrew’s diet, the FAQ is pretty detailed: 

A combination of all kinds of potatoes, including sweet potatoes. I used minimal dried and fresh herbs, spices and fat-free sauces (such as sweet chilli, tomato sauce or barbecue sauce) for a bit of flavour. I also use some soy milk (no added oil) when I make mashed potatoes.

I drank only water and the occasional beer. I didn’t drink any tea or coffee but I’ve never liked them anyway. If you want to drink tea or coffee I think that would be fine as long as you use a low fat (no added oil) plant based milk.

For the first month I did no exercise and still lost 10kgs. After that I tried to do around 90 minutes of training every day. I DID NOT exercise for weight loss, I did it because for the first time in years I had excess energy to burn, enjoyed it and it made me feel good. I think that whatever the amount of exercise I did, my body adjusted my hunger levels to make sure I take in enough food. If I didn’t let myself go hungry then I was fine.

Rule 1: Do your own research and make educated decisions – don’t just do things because you saw some weird bloke on the internet doing it! Also get medical supervision to make sure everything is going well for you, especially if you are taking any medications.

Rule 2: Eat a combination of all kinds of potatoes, including sweet potatoes. I have minimal herbs, spices and fat-free sauces for a bit of flavour. I also use some soy (or other plant-based with no added oil) milk when I make mashed potatoes. Also take a B12 supplement if you plan on doing this for longer than a few months. Definitely no oil – of any kind – or anything fatty such as meats, cheeses, eggs or dairy products (even lean or low-fat versions).

Rule 3: DO NOT RESTRICT OR COUNT CALORIES. I eat as much as I like, as often as I like, I do not allow myself to go hungry if I can help it.

I used a non-stick granite pan and fry in water or salt reduced vegetable stock. When I used the oven I just put the potatoes straight on the tray. I also liked to cook potatoes in my pressure cooker and my air fryer.

I felt amazing and incredible and I still do! My sleep improved, joint pain from old football injuries went away, I gained energy and improved mental clarity and focus. Also I lost 52.3 kilograms (117 pounds) over the course of the year. By far the best part is that I no longer suffer with clinical depression and anxiety.

I tried to keep it as simple as possible. I didn’t own an air fryer or a pressure cooker or any other special gadgets. Most of what I ate was either boiled, baked or mashed potatoes. I would make a really big batch of one type and then eat it for a day or two until it was gone and then repeat.

(did you eat the skins?) I did but if you don’t want to that’s ok too.

This is the most surprising thing of all, I can’t explain why but I’m not at all bored of my potato meals.

Over the month of January, following the completion of my Spud Fit Challenge, I lost another 2kg (4lbs). This took my total weight loss to 55kg (121lbs) and meant I weighed the same as I did when I was 15 years old – 96kg (211lbs)! Since then I’ve stopped weighing myself so I can’t be sure of what I actually weigh, my new clothes still all fit though and I still feel good so I guess my weight is around the same (nearly 15 months later at the time of writing this).

This diet looks pretty similar to what Chris did. All potatoes but not wildly strict — he would have seasonings and sauces and even an occasional beer. The big difference is that Andrew studiously avoided added oils, and took a B12 supplement. 

The B12 seems like a good addition to us, especially since Andrew was doing this for a full year, because potatoes contain almost no B12. Hard to say if avoiding oil was important but using oil didn’t keep Chris Voigt from seeing a lot of benefits from potatoes. On the other hand, Andrew didn’t seem to miss it. 

Appendix D: Penn Jillette 

Penn Jillette, of the famous magician duo Penn & Teller, lost over 100 lbs, down from “probably over 340”, on a diet that started with a 2-week period of nothing but potatoes.

You can hear him describe his process in this video, but here are a few choice details: 

I didn’t mind not being energetic and stuff. But I started having blood pressure that was stupid high like, you know, like English voltage, like 220 even on blood pressure medicine.

If you take medical advice from a Las Vegas magician you are an idiot who deserves to die. You have to do this for yourself and with your proper medical professionals.

And one of the really good ways to do that that worked tremendously for me is what’s called the mono diet which is just what you think from the root, eating the exact same thing.

And I could have chosen anything. I could have chosen corn or beans or whatever. Not hot fudge but anything. And I chose potatoes because it’s a funny thing and a funny word.

For two weeks I ate potatoes, complete potatoes – skin and everything and nothing added, nothing subtracted. When I say nothing subtracted I mean no skin taken off but also no water. You can’t cut it up and make it chips in a microwave. Don’t take water out of it. 

Leave the potato completely – so that means baked or boiled and not at any mealtime. You don’t get up in the morning, eat a potato. You don’t eat it at lunch or dinner. Mealtimes are obliterated. When you really need to eat, eat a potato. And over that first two weeks I lost I believe 14 pounds. So already I’m a different person.

Then after that two weeks I went to, you know, bean stew and tomatoes and salads. But still no fruit and no nuts. Certainly no animal products. And I lost an average – these words are careful – an average of 0.9 pounds a day.  So I took off pretty much all the weight in three or four months, in a season, in a winter.

And that was 17 months ago. So I’ve kept the weight off for 17 months. Now two years is magic. Very few people keep it off for two years. I’ve got seven more months to go. I think I have a shot at it.

I feel better. I’m happier. I’m off most of my blood pressure meds. Not all of them, it takes a while for the vascular system to catch up with the weight loss. I have more fun. I believe I’m kinder.

All of that having been said now that I’m at target weight I also – this is important – I also didn’t exercise while I was losing the weight. Exercising is body building. It’s a different thing. Wait until you hit the target weight, then you exercise. Then it’s easy. Then it really does good. But while you’re losing weight make it winter. Sleep a little more. Get sluggish. Let your body just eat the fat that you’ve stored up just the way you should. Hibernate a little bit. Let it eat the fat. Be a little bit like a bear.

Again, a pretty impressive story. And, as of 2019, he seems to be keeping it off.  

Appendix E: Brian & Jessica Krock

Penn’s example inspired a similar attempt from the Krocks, a couple who have jointly lost over 220 lbs starting with two weeks of an all-potato diet

He was 35 when we started this journey and tipped the scales at 514 pounds. My own weight was approaching 300 pounds and my health was starting to suffer. High blood pressure, anxiety and acne were just the start of my issues. 

We picked a start date on the calendar (June 22, 2018 – which also happened to be the 11th anniversary of when we first started dating) and started doing research. The first book I read was Penn Jillette’s Presto!: How I Made Over 100 Pounds Disappear and Other Magical Tales. It was exactly what I needed to get into the right frame of mind for starting this journey. It wasn’t a book from a doctor or a nutritionist or someone telling me why eating the way I did was going to kill me. It was a book from someone who KNEW the real struggle we have dealt with for years. Someone who spend years overweight, LOVED food, and didn’t buy into the whole “eat in moderation” philosophy a lot of our past failed diets relied on.

The first day of potatoes sucked. I seriously contemplated quitting during the FIRST day. After eating my first round of potatoes, I literally walked from our apartment to a grocery store to look at the extra cheesy hot-and-ready pizza I thought I needed. I gazed at the pizza and walked around the store looking for something to eat. Luckily, I was able to keep it together and walk out of the store and back home to my pantry full of potatoes.

I’m not trying to be dramatic, but it was seriously one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life. It took more will power than I thought either of us had.

Even when we started the two weeks of potatoes, we still weren’t sure what the heck we were supposed to do after that. We knew it was vegan. We knew we wouldn’t be able to use added salt, sugar, oil, etc. But that was about it. So we did a lot of research during those two weeks of eating nothing but potatoes. From what I could tell, after the two weeks of potatoes, Penn Jillette followed a whole food, plant-based diet for the most part, so we decided to stick with that.

 We will never go back to eating the way we used to eat. As hokey as it might sound: This is not a diet – it is a lifestyle. We know if we go back to our old ways, we’ll gain the weight back again. The best part is… we don’t want to go back to how we ate before! We actually enjoy food more now than we did before. We have a better relationship with food. We feel like we eat MORE variety now. Eating a whole food, plant-based diet has opened our minds and palates to a new world of food that we would not have given a second thought to before.

They seem to have had a harder time than the other examples we looked at. But we also notice they are the heaviest people we’ve looked at so far, so it’s not hard to imagine that it might have been roughest for them. But even so, it seems to have worked. 

As far as we can tell, they are following Penn’s approach over what Chris and Andrew did — no oil or nothin’, just potatoes. Our sense is that this is probably more hardcore than what is necessary but like, more power to them. On the other hand, this may be part of what made it so difficult. Even Andrew used seasonings! Detailed instructions for how they prepare Taters appear in their videos.

The Krocks are still making videos, and if you look at their channel, they seem to have kept a lot of weight off.

Appendix F: Potato Hack

We are also going to talk about potato hack. This is not a case study per se but it is another all-potato approach, and one that has lots of very positive reviews on Amazon, for whatever that’s worth.

Per the website, “The Potato Hack (aka The Potato Diet) is an extremely effective method for losing weight without experiencing hunger.”

The Potato Hack Overview has this to say about the details: 

Red and yellow potatoes work the best, because after they are boiled they keep longer than Russet potatoes, which tend to get mushy quicker. However, Russet potatoes do work. Try all potato types.

Sweet potatoes are not potatoes. They can work for some people, but not nearly as well. If you can not handle nightshades, purple yams with white flesh can be a substitute. Weight loss is likely to be slower when you don’t use regular potatoes.

The only way to make the potato fattening is to process it and cook it in oil. So avoid fries and chips. For the potato hack to work the potatoes need to be cooked only in water. Boil, steam, or pressure cook.

When cooked potatoes are cooled overnight in the refrigerator they develop something called resistant starch. Resistant starch is beneficial to our gut flora, balances blood sugar, and other additional health benefits. These resistant starches are not digested in the same manner as regular calories, so they have the effect of reducing the calories of potatoes.

Refrigerating cooked potatoes overnight will reduce the calories by about 17%. The potatoes can be reheated before eating without losing any of the resistant starch.

The potato hack will still work if you don’t refrigerate the potatoes, so although this step is encouraged, it is optional.

Eat the potatoes plain. Salt if you must. You can add a splash of malt or red wine vinegar if a blood sugar spike is a concern, although cooling the potatoes will reduce the glycemic response.

To get the full benefit of the potato hack, it is strongly advised to eat the potatoes plain. You are teaching your brain how to get full without flavor. This is the opposite approach taken in dieting where one continues to get flavorful food but in a restrictive manner.

With the potato diet, do not walk away from the table hungry. Eat until full.

This is a little more finicky (what potatoes to use, how to store them, etc.) but overall looks a lot like the other examples we’ve considered. 

The hack also links to some testimonies, including this one guy’s particular approach. We’ll include it here because it gives an unusual amount of detail about purchasing and preparation:  

If your time is valuable to purchase organic, because you will not need to peel the potatoes, plus they have more nutrition. If you want to save money, purchase non-organic. I cycle between both options.

The three most common options for potatoes are going to be red, yellow, and russet. 98% of the time I will purchase red or yellow. They hold up much better structurally when you take them in and out of the refrigerator over a day or two.

Russet potatoes get mushy quickly. The only time I get Russet is if I get a really good price and I know I’m doing a strict potato hack, so I’m not using those potatoes two days later.

I’ve boiled so many potatoes in the last two years, my hands have developed muscle memory as if I were driving a manual car. Here is how I’ve optimized my potato preparation.

1. Peel directly into colander if the potatoes are not organic.

2. Place the potato directly into the cleaned and dried storage container.

3. Fill the storage container. When I first started hacking, I would weigh the potatoes. Once I figured out my container could hold 5.5 pounds, then I put my scale away.

4. Remove each potato. If it is small, place it in a stockpot, otherwise chop it into parts. For me, a medium potato is 2 or 3 parts. A large potato will be more. My goal is to have approximately equal size potato parts. I want them to boil at the same rate.

5. Once that is complete, I rinse the potatoes in the stockpot.

6. Refill stockpot with clean water and boil.

7. While the potatoes are boiling, empty peels in a compost bin.

8. Boil until done to your liking. I tend to cook mine a little longer than Tim Steele describes in his book The Potato Hack, but whatever you like is the right answer. Experiment.

9. Drain and let potatoes cool. The reason I want the potatoes to cool is that if I don’t, the steam will collect on the roof of the storage container and drain down onto the potatoes, making them mushy more quickly. If I want the potatoes to cool fast, I will spread them on a cookie sheet and place them outside (provided outside is cooler than inside).

10 Put the cooled potatoes in the storage bin and refrigerate.

That is my optimized path. I’m sure you’ll find your own.

Peer Review: Obesity II – Establishing Causal Links Between Chemical Exposures and Obesity

A new paper, called Obesity II: Establishing Causal Links Between Chemical Exposures and Obesity, was just published in the journal Biochemical Pharmacology (available online as of 5 April 2022). Authors include some obesity bigwigs like Robert H. Lustig, and it’s really long, so we figured it might be important. 

The title isn’t some weird Walden II reference — there’s a Part I and Part III as well. Part I reviews the obesity epidemic (in case you’re not already familiar?) and argues that obesity “likely has origins in utero.”

“The obesity epidemic is Kurt Cobain’s fault” is an unexpected but refreshing hypothesis

Part III basically argues that we should move away from doing obesity research with cells isolated in test tubes (probably a good idea TBH) and move towards “model organisms such as Drosophila, C. elegans, zebrafish, and medaka.” Sounds fishy to us but whatever, you’re the doctor.

This paper, Part II, makes the case that environmental contaminants “play a vital role in” the obesity epidemic, and presents the evidence in favor of a long list of candidate contaminants. We’re going to stick with Part II today because that’s what we’re really interested in.

For some reason the editors of this journal have hidden away the peer reviews instead of publishing them alongside the paper, like any reasonable person would. After all, who could possibly evaluate a piece of research without knowing what three anonymous faculty members said about it? The editors must have just forgotten to add them. But that’s ok — WE are these people’s peers as well, so we would be happy to fill the gap. Consider this our peer review:

This is an ok paper. They cite some good references. And they do cite a lot of references (740 to be exact), which definitely took some poor grad students a long time and should probably count for something. But the only way to express how we really feel is:

Seriously, 43 authors from 33 different institutions coming together to tell you that “ubiquitous environmental chemicals called obesogens play a vital role in the obesity pandemic”? We could have told you that a year ago, on a budget of $0. 

This wasted months, maybe years of their lives, and millions of taxpayer dollars making this paper that is just like, really boring and not very good. Meanwhile we wrote the first draft of A Chemical Hunger in a month (pretty much straight through in October 2020) and the only reason you didn’t see it sooner was because we were sending drafts around to specialists to make sure there wasn’t anything major that we overlooked (there wasn’t).

We don’t want to pick on the actual authors because, frankly, we’re sure this paper must have been a nightmare to work on. Most of the authors are passengers of this trainwreck — involved, but not responsible. We blame the system they work under.

We hope this doesn’t seem like a priority dispute. We don’t claim priority for the contamination hypothesis — here are four papers from 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2014, way before our work on the subject, all arguing in favor of the idea that contaminants cause obesity. If the contamination hypothesis turns out to be right, give David B. Allison the credit, or maybe someone even earlier. We just think we did an exceptionally good job making the case for the hypothesis. Our only original contributions (so far) are arguing that the obesity epidemic is 100% (ok, >90%) caused by contaminants, and suggesting lithium as a likely candidate. 

So we’re not trying to say that these authors are a bunch of johnny-come-latelies (though they kind of are, you see the papers up there from e.g. 2008?). The authors are victims here of a vicious system that has put them in such a bad spot that, for all their gifts, they can now only produce rubbish papers, and we think they know this in their hearts. It’s no wonder grad students are so depressed! 

So to us, this paper looks like a serious condemnation of the current academic system, and of the medical research system in particular. And while we don’t want to criticize the researchers, we do want to criticize the paper for being an indecisive snoozefest.

Long Paper is Long

The best part of this paper is that comes out so strongly against “traditional wisdom” about the obesity epidemic:  

The prevailing view is that obesity results from an imbalance between energy intake and expenditure caused by overeating and insufficient exercise. We describe another environmental element that can alter the balance between energy intake and energy expenditure: obesogens. … Obesogens can determine how much food is needed to maintain homeostasis and thereby increase the susceptibility to obesity. 

In particular we like how they point out how, from the contaminant perspective, measures of how much people eat are just not that interesting. If chemicals in your carpet raise your set point, you may need to eat more just to maintain homeostasis, and you might get fat. This means that more consumption, of calories or anything else you want to measure, is consistent with contaminants causing obesity. We made the same point in Interlude A. Anyways, don’t come at us about CICO unless you’ve done your homework. 

We also think the paper’s heart is in the right place in terms of treatment: 

The focus in the obesity field has been to reduce obesity via medicines, surgery, or diets. These interventions have not been efficacious as most people fail to lose weight, and even those who successfully lose substantial amounts of weight regain it. A better approach would be to prevent obesity from occurring in the first place. … A significant advantage of the obesogen hypothesis is that obesity results from an endocrine disorder and is thus amenable to a focus on prevention. 

So for this we say: preach, brothers and sisters.

The rest of the paper is boring to read and inconclusive. If you think we’re being unfair about how boring it is, we encourage you to go try to read it yourself.

Specific Contaminants

The paper doesn’t even do a good job assessing the evidence for the contaminants it lists. For example, glyphosate. Here is their entire review:

Glyphosate is the most used herbicide globally, focusing on corn, soy and canola [649]. Glyphosate was negative in 3T3-L1 adipogenic assays [650], [651]. Interestingly, three different formulations of commercial glyphosate, in addition to glyphosate itself, inhibited adipocyte proliferation and differentiation from 3T3-L1 cells [651]. There are also no animal studies focusing on developmental exposure and weight gain in the offspring. An intriguing study exposed pregnant rats to 25mg/kg/day during days 8-14 of gestation [652]. The offspring were then bred within the lineage to generate F2 offspring and bread to generate the F3 progeny. About 40% of the males and females of the F2 and F3 had abdominal obesity and increased adipocyte size revealing transgenerational inheritance. Interestingly, the F1 offspring did not show these effects. These results need verification before glyphosate can be designated as an obesogen.

For comparison, here’s our review of glyphosate. We try to, you know, come to a conclusion. We spend more than a paragraph on it. We cite more than four sources.

We cite their [652] as well, but we like, ya know, evaluate it critically and in the context of other exposure to the same compound. We take a close look at our sources, and we tell the reader we don’t think glyphosate is a major contributor to the obesity epidemic because the evidence doesn’t look very strong to us. This is bare-bones due diligence stuff. Take a look: 

The best evidence for glyphosate causing weight gain that we could find was from a 2019 study in rats. In this study, they exposed female rats (the original generation, F0) to 25 mg/kg body weight glyphosate daily, during days 8 to 14 of gestation. There was essentially no effect of glyphosate exposure on these rats, or in their children (F1), but there was a significant increase in the rates of obesity in their grandchildren (F2) and great-grandchildren (F3). There are some multiple comparison issues, but the differences are relatively robust, and are present in both male and female descendants, so we’re inclined to think that there’s something here. 

There are a few problems with extending these results to humans, however, and we don’t just mean that the study subjects are all rats. The dose they give is pretty high, 25 mg/kg/day, in comparison to (again) farmers working directly with the stuff getting a dose closer to 0.004 mg/kg.

The timeline also doesn’t seem to line up. If we take this finding and apply it to humans at face value, glyphosate would only make you obese if your grandmother or great-grandmother was exposed during gestation. But glyphosate wasn’t brought to market until 1974 and didn’t see much use until the 1990s. There are some grandparents today who could have been exposed when they were pregnant, but obesity began rising in the 1980s. If glyphosate had been invented in the 1920s, this would be much more concerning, but it wasn’t.

Frankly, if they aren’t going to put in the work to engage with studies at this level, they shouldn’t have put them in this review. 

If this were a team of three people or something, that would be one thing. But this is 43 specialists working on this problem for what we assume was several months. We wrote our glyphosate post in maybe a week?

Some of the reviews are better than this — their review of BPA goes into more detail and cites a lot more studies. But the average review is pretty cruddy. For example, here’s the whole review for MSG:

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavor enhancer used worldwide. Multiple animal studies provided causal and mechanistic evidence that parenteral MSG intake caused increased abdominal fat, dyslipidemia, total body weight gain, hyperphagia and T2D by affecting the hypothalamic feeding center [622], [623], [624]. MSG increased glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) secretion from the pGIP/neo: STC-1 cell line indicating a possible action on the gastrointestinal (GI) tract in addition to its effects on the brain [625]. It is challenging to show similar results in humans because there is no control population due to the ubiquitous presence of MSG in foods. MSG is an obesogen.

Seems kind of extreme to unequivocally declare “MSG is an obesogen” on the basis of just four papers. On the basis of results that seem to be in mice, rats, mice, and cells in a test tube, as far as we can tell (two of the citations are review articles, which makes it hard for us to know what studies they specifically had in mind). Somehow this is enough to declare MSG a “Class I Obesogen” — Animal evidence: Strong. In vitro evidence: Strong. Regulatory action: to be banned. Really? 

Instead, we support the idea of — thinking about it for five minutes. For example, MSG occurs naturally in many foods. If MSG were a serious obesogen, tomatoes and dashi broth would both make you obese. Why are Italy and Japan not more obese? The Japanese first purified MSG and they love it so much, they have a factory tour for the stuff that is practically a theme park — “there is a 360-degree immersive movie experience, a diorama and museum of factory history, a peek inside the fermentation tanks (yum!), and finally, an opportunity to make and taste your own MSG seasoning.” Yet Japan is one of the leanest countries in the world.

As far as we can tell, Asia in general consumes way more MSG than any other part of the world. “Mainland China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Taiwan are the major producing countries in Asia.” Why are these countries not more obese? MSG first went on the market in 1909. Why didn’t the obesity epidemic start then? We just don’t think it adds up. 

(Also kind of weird to put this seasoning invented in Asia, and most popular in Asia, under your section on “Western diet.”)

Adapted from Fig. 3

Let’s also look at their section on DDT. This one, at least, is several paragraphs long, so we won’t quote it in full. But here’s the summary: 

A 2017 systematic review of in vitro, animal and epidemiological data on DDT exposures and obesity concluded the evidence indicated that DDT was “presumed” to be obesogenic for humans [461]. The in vitro and animal data strongly support DDT as an obesogen. Based on the number of positive prospective human studies, DDT is highly likely to be a human obesogen. Animal and human studies showed obesogenic transmission across generations. Thus, a POP banned almost 50 years ago is still playing a role in the current obesity pandemic, which indicates the need for caution with other chemical exposures that can cause multigenerational effects.

We’re open to being convinced otherwise, but again, this doesn’t really seem to add up. DDT was gradually banned across different countries and was eventually banned worldwide. Why do we not see reversals or lags in the growth of obesity in those countries those years? They mention that DDT is still used in India and Africa, sometimes in defiance of the ban. So why are obesity rates in India and Africa so low? We’d love to know what they think of this and see it contextualized more in terms of things like occupation and human exposure timeline.

Review Paper

With a long list of chemicals given only the briefest examination, it’s hard not to see this paper as overly inclusive to the point of being useless. It makes the paper feel like a cheap land grab to stake a claim to being correct in the future if any of the chemicals on the list pan out.

Maybe their goal is just to list and categorize every study that has ever been conducted that might be relevant. We can sort of understand this but — why no critical approach to the material? Which of these studies are ruined by obvious confounders? How many of them have been p-hacked to hell? Seems like the kind of thing you would want to know! 

You can’t just list papers and assume that it will get you closer to understanding. In medicine, the reference for this problem is Ioannidis’s Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. WMPRFAF was published in 2005, you don’t have an excuse for not thinking critically about your sources.

Despite this, they don’t even mention lithium, which seems like an oversight. 

Oh right, Kurt Cobain IS responsible for the obesity epidemic

We wish the paper tried to provide a useful conclusion. It would have been great to read them making their best case for pretty much anything. Contaminants are responsible for 50% of the epidemic. Contaminants are responsible for no more than 10% of the epidemic. Contaminants are responsible for more than 90% of the epidemic. We think phthalates are the biggest cause. We think DDT is the biggest cause. We think it’s air pollution and atrazine. Make a case for something. That would be cool.

What is not cool is showing up being like: Hey we have a big paper! The obesity epidemic is caused by chemicals, perhaps, in what might possibly be your food and water, or at work, though if it’s not, they aren’t. This is a huge deal if this is what caused the epidemic, possibly, unless it didn’t. The epidemic is caused by any of these several dozen compounds, unless it’s just one, or maybe none of them. What percentage of the epidemic is caused by these compounds? It’s impossible to say. But if we had to guess, somewhere between zero and one hundred percent. Unless it isn’t. 

Effect Size

The paper spends almost no time talking about effect size, which we think is 1) a weird choice and 2) the wrong approach for this question. 

We don’t just care about which contaminants make you gain weight. We care about which contaminants make you gain a concerning amount of weight. We want to know which contaminants have led to the ~40 lbs gain in average body weight since 1970, not which of them can cause 0.1 lbs of weight gain if you’re inhaling them every day at work. These differences are more than just important, they’re the question we’re actually interested in!

For comparison: coffee and airplane travel are both carcinogens, but they increase your risk of cancer by such a small degree that it’s not even worth thinking about, unless you’re a pilot with an espresso addiction. When the paper says “Chemical ABC is an obesogen”, it would be great to see some analysis of whether it’s an obesogen like how getting 10 minutes of sunshine is a carcinogen, or whether it’s an obesogen like how spending a day at the Chernobyl plant is a carcinogen. Otherwise we’re on to “bananas are radioactive” levels of science reporting — technically true, but useless and kind of misleading.

The huge number of contaminants they list does seem like a mark in favor of a “the obesity epidemic is massively multi-causal” hypothesis (which we discussed a bit in this interview), but again it’s hard to tell without seeing a better attempt to estimate effect sizes. The closest thing to an estimate that we saw was this line: “Population attributable risk of obesity from maternal smoking was estimated at 5.5% in the US and up to 10% in areas with higher smoking rates”.

Stress Testing

Their conclusion is especially lacking. It’s one thing to point out that what we’re studying is hard, but it’s another thing to deny the possibility of victory. Let’s look at a few quotes:

“A persistent key question is what percent of obesity is due to genetics, stress, overnutrition, lack of exercise, viruses, drugs or obesogens? It is virtually impossible to answer that question for any contributing factors… it is difficult to determine the exact effects of obesogens on obesity because each chemical is different, people are different, and exposures vary regionally and globally.”

Imagine going to an oncology conference and the keynote speaker gets up and says, “it is difficult to determine the exact effects of radiation on cancer because each radiation source is different, people are different, and exposures vary regionally and globally”. While much of this is true, oncologists don’t say this sort of thing (we hope?) because they understand that while the problem is indeed hard, it’s important, and hold out hope that solving that problem is not “virtually impossible”. Indeed, we’re pretty sure it’s not. 

They’re pretty pessimistic about future research options:

“We cannot run actual ‘clinical trials’ where exposure to obesogens and their effects are monitored over time. Thus, we focus on assessing the strength of the data for each obesogen.”

Assessing the strength of the data is a good idea, but this is leaving a lot on the table. Natural experiments are happening all the time, and you don’t need clinical trials to infer causality. We’d like to chastise this paper with the following words:

[Before] we set about instructing our colleagues in other fields, it will be proper to consider a problem fundamental to our own. How in the first place do we detect these relationships between sickness, injury and conditions of work? How do we determine what are physical, chemical and psychological hazards of occupation, and in particular those that are rare and not easily recognized?

There are, of course, instances in which we can reasonably answer these questions from the general body of medical knowledge. A particular, and perhaps extreme, physical environment cannot fail to be harmful; a particular chemical is known to be toxic to man and therefore suspect on the factory floor. Sometimes, alternatively, we may be able to consider what might a particular environment do to man, and then see whether such consequences are indeed to be found. But more often than not we have no such guidance, no such means of proceeding; more often than not we are dependent upon our observation and enumeration of defined events for which we then seek antecedents.

… However, before deducing ‘causation’ and taking action we shall not invariably have to sit around awaiting the results of the research. The whole chain may have to be unraveled or a few links may suffice. It will depend upon circumstances.

Sir Austin Bradford Hill said that, and we’d say he knows a little more about clinical trials than you do, pal, because HE INVENTED THEM. And then he perfected them so that no living physician could best him in the Ring of Honor– 

So we think the “no clinical trials” thing is a non-issue. Sir Austin Bradford Hill and colleagues were able to discover the connection between cigarette smoking and lung cancer without forcing people to smoke more than they were already smoking. You really can do medical research without clinical trials.

They did not do this

But even so, the paper is just wrong. We can run clinical trials. People do occasionally lose weight, sometimes huge amounts of weight. So we can try removing potential obesogens from the environment and seeing if that leads to weight loss. If we do it in a controlled manner, we can get some pretty strong evidence about whether or not specific contaminants are causing obesity.

Defeatism

Our final and biggest problem with this paper is that it is so tragically defeatist. It leaves you totally unsure as to what would be informative additional research. It doesn’t show a clear path forward. It’s pessimistic. And it’s tedious as hell. All of this is bad for morale. 

The paper’s suggestions seem like a list of good ways to spend forever on this problem and win as many grants as possible. This seems “good” for the scientists in the narrow sense that it will help them keep their tedious desk jobs, jobs which we think they all secretly hate. It’s “good” in that it lets you keep playing what Erik Hoel describes as “the Science Game” for as long as possible:

When you have a lab, you need grant money. Not just for yourself, but for the postdoctoral researchers and PhDs who depend on you for their livelihoods. … much of what goes on in academia is really the Science Game™. … varying some variable with infinite degrees of freedom and then throwing statistics at it until you get that reportable p-value and write up a narrative short story around it.

Think of it like grasping a dial, and each time you turn it slightly you produce a unique scientific publication. Such repeatable mechanisms for scientific papers are the dials everyone wants. Playing the Science Game™ means asking a question with a slightly different methodology each time, maybe throwing in a slightly different statistical analysis. When you’re done with all those variations, just go back and vary the original question a little bit. Publications galore.

If this is your MO, then “more research is needed” is the happiest sound in the world. Actually solving a problem, on the other hand, is kind of terrifying. You would need to find a new thing to investigate! It’s much safer to do inconclusive work on the same problem for decades.

This is part of why we find the suggestion to move towards research with “model organisms such as Drosophila, C. elegans, zebrafish, and medaka” so suspicious. Will this solve the obesity epidemic? Probably not, and certainly not any time this decade. Will it allow you to generate a lot of different papers on exposing Drosophila, C. elegans, zebrafish, and medaka to slightly different amounts of every chemical imaginable? Absolutely.

(As Paul Graham describes, “research must be substantial– and awkward systems yield meatier papers, because you can write about the obstacles you have to overcome in order to get things done. Nothing yields meaty problems like starting with the wrong assumptions.’”)

With all due respect to this approach, we do NOT want to work on obesity for the rest of our lives. We want to solve obesity in the next few years and move on to something else. We think that this is what you want to happen too! Wouldn’t it be nice to at least consider that we might make immediate progress on serious problems? What ever happened to that? 

Political Scientist Adolph Reed Jr. once wrote that modern liberalism has no particular place it wants to go. “Its métier,” he said, “is bearing witness, demonstrating solidarity, and the event or the gesture. Its reflex is to ‘send messages’ to those in power, to make statements, and to stand with or for the oppressed. This dilettantish politics is partly the heritage of a generation of defeat and marginalization, of decades without any possibility of challenging power or influencing policy.“

In this paper, we encounter a scientific tradition that no longer has any place it wants to go (“curing obesity? what’s that?”), that makes stands but has a hard time imagining taking action, that is the heir to a generation of defeat and marginalization. All that remains is a reflex of bearing witness to suffering. 

We think research can be better than this. That it can be active and optimistic. That it can dare to dream. That it can make an effort to be interesting. 

Why do we keep complaining about this paper being boring? Why does it matter? It matters because when the paper is boring, it suggests that the idea that obesity is caused by contaminants isn’t important enough to bother spending time on the writing. It suggests people won’t be interested to read the paper, that no one cares, that no care should be taken in the discussion. That nothing can be gained by thinking clearly about these ideas. It suggests that the prospect of curing obesity isn’t exciting. But we think that the prospect of curing obesity is very exciting, and we hope you do too!

DISCO ELYSIUM BREAKS THE LOOMS OF RPGs

[This essay contains several major spoilers for the game Disco Elysium. Also, if you haven’t played Disco Elysium, this essay will make almost no sense, so probably just skip it. Special thanks to Erik Hoel for reading a draft of this post.]

BREAKING THE LOOMS OF RPGs

Computer Role Playing Games have a strange inheritance.

CRPGs are descended from pen & paper RPGs. The promise of a pen & paper RPG is simple: absolute freedom. Be anyone you want to be! Do anything you want to do!

The rules guide you, but you are constrained only by your imagination. You can always fail; but anything may be attempted.

“That’s why people like role-playing games. You can be whoever you want to be. You can try again. Still, there’s something inherently violent even about dice-rolls.”

This kind of freedom isn’t possible in a CRPG. We just don’t have the technology to offer the kinds of infinite choices made possible by a pen & paper format. In a CRPG, every dialogue tree must be planned, scripted out entirely in advance. No amount of preparation can make a CRPG unlimited. Ten dialogue choices is always several fewer than infinite choices.

“‘Fortress Accident SCA produces revolutionary interactive call-in radio games’ — that’s what the catalogue says.”

This is the paradox that kills most CRPGs. If you promise infinite choice, and don’t deliver, the game feels comically restrained. Why can’t I bribe this guard? Why can’t I climb through this huge, open window? Why can’t I just attack these thieves instead of playing along with their stupid riddle game? These questions quickly pile up, and lots of games drown in them.

While Disco Elysium does offer more dialogue choices than the average CRPG, it is still bounded. Most dialogue trees have only 4 or 5 options.

UNPRECEDENTED FREEDOM OF CHOICE

In the promotional materials, Disco Elysium promises unprecedented freedom of choice. Somehow, they deliver. How did they manage to do this?

IT’S A ROLE PLAYING GAME

A thing that people often seem to forget about RPGs is that they are ROLE PLAYING GAMES; they are games where you get to play a role. Where you get to have the experience of being someone else.

Different types of games have different strengths. Pen & paper RPGs do allow infinite choice, and good designs will take advantage of that strength. But you shouldn’t play to strengths that you don’t have.

CRPGs can’t offer you infinite choices. But CRPGs have strengths all their own.

After you wake up in the Whirling-in-Rags, you immediately start making choices about what sort of person you want to be. What’s important to you. How you want to interact with others. How you behave towards yourself. Are you the kind of cop who talks to his necktie?

You encounter different political philosophies. You consider them. You hear stories about what sort of a cop you are, what sort of person you are. You defend, reject, or apologize for your behavior. You balk, or you double down. Maybe you should get a drink. Some speed? Think about it.

And yet… there is something strange, lurking behind all these choices.

“YOUR BODY BETRAYS YOUR DEGENERACY.”

You can be a sorry mess. You can be a naïve optimist. A fascist or a communist. You can be a drug-addled superstar. You can reject your own name. You can be kind or you can be cruel to those around you.

But you can never not be the kind of guy who wakes up from a three-day bender, naked, lying on the floor of a trashed hostel room.

You are that kind of guy from the first moments of the game. It is inevitable.

Here it is. Hard facts from the man you are. You once jerked off in the locker room and were caught. You held a young woman by the arm and kept her in your apartment for 20 minutes against her will. That’s right, these are not flights of fancy. These are *real deeds*, Harry, emerging from the darkness of your past. You tried shooting a fleeing suspect in the foot but hit him in the pelvis, crippling him for life. And above all, you let life defeat you.

Be as violent and unhinged as you want, but you can never take your gun and start threatening civilians for money. The game doesn’t give you that option. Harry has it in him to be a beggar, sure, and to be a woman-hating fascist, but threatening civilians for money is something he will never, ever do. It’s just not in him.

Not trying to defend Harry here; he’s pretty lousy. Maybe you think it would be reasonable to help clean up the hostel room that you trashed? Turns out this is another thing that you can’t do. It’s not clear if this is something that Harry would refuse, or if it’s just the sort of thing that would never occur to him on his own. But either way, the game never offers the option. These simple acts of decency are also beyond you, one way or another.

(Although somehow Harry does have it in him to shoot a child — if only barely.)

Abstain from alcohol and drugs; be pure and above it all; try to live the life of the mind. You can only change so much. Whatever you do, you will still be the kind of cop who notices a bit of congealed rum in a cafeteria bar and considers licking it off the counter.

There are things that Harry will never consider, and there are voices that will always be speaking in the back of his head. There is no truce with the Furies.

There is no way to open the supply depot door. Accept it. You cannot open all the doors. You have to integrate this into your character. Some doors will forever remain closed. Even if every single other door will open at one time or another, maybe to a key, or maybe to some sort of tool meant for opening doors… But this one will never accede to such commands. A realization crucial to personal growth. Crucial.

This is how Disco Elysium makes choice work. You can’t choose to be just anyone. You are stuck with yourself. Not only the circumstances of your birth; you are stuck with the consequences of every bad decision you have ever made. All you can do is choose what to do with the situation you’re in.

This is much more meaningful. Making these limited choices is all the power any of us have. The game gives you the chance to become someone else, experience his confusion, carry his weight. You can’t choose just anything, but you can feel what it is like for Harry to make these choices.

The promise was unprecedented choice, not unlimited choice.

“I think this racist is better than the last — but the next racist will be the really good one.”

Race is, strangely enough, a mainstay of traditional RPGs. Making a new character involves a couple big choices, and along with class, race is usually one of them. Do you want to be an elf? A dwarf? A bird-person?

Race is also a mainstay in Disco Elysium, but here, it is very different. You have no control over the race of your character — you will always be a ham sandwich, just like you’ll probably always be in thrall to *AL GUL*. You are given no choice in the matter.

This may be why racism is such a central theme, and it may be why Kim Kitsuragi, your constant companion, is Seolite.

Disco Elysium turns the normal logic of RPGs on its head. You can choose how to deal with racists as you encounter them around Martinaise. You can choose how to respond to how they treat Kim. But you will never actually be in Kim’s position. You will never actually know what it is like for him.

You make choices, and the choices you make are important. How you act will affect how Kim feels, and how he feels about you. But in the big ways, your hands are bound.


“She said she’s heard of you from Jamrock. That you’re a human can-opener. That you play suspects against each other. Open them up, like cans.”

There is something pathological about you, detective—as if you weren’t aware.

“He can talk human beings into telling him anything. And he doesn’t stop. In all the time I’ve spent with him, he has not once stopped working on the case. He is tireless. Madly driven.”

The final lesson of choice is about something that Harrier Du Bois cannot control. You are an addict, and not just in the obvious ways. You can never stop solving crimes. You have no choice in the matter.

“*He* is the infernal engine. He never stops. He only gets worse.”

The logic of the game enforces this. As far as I can tell, if you keep going around trying dialogue options, and you don’t die, sooner or later you will solve the case. It is inevitable.

I’m not even sure you can be fired. No matter what I tried, the 41st ended up taking Harry back in the end. Drugs, racism, fascism, nothing would dissuade them. HDB will keep detecting until he dies.

“I don’t know why I do the things I do, lieutenant Kitsuragi.”

GASPINGLY YOU PARTAKE OF A SHIFTING IDENTITY NEVER YOUR OWN

Decades ago on the D&D forums, a common topic of discussion among DMs was: How do you play a character who is smarter than you are?

A smart DM might have a real-world intelligence of 14 or so, maybe 16 if they’re very gifted. But characters in D&D can easily have an intelligence of 18, and some monsters have intelligence scores that are even higher. It’s easy to act within your own abilities, pretending to be less intelligent than you really are. But how can you pretend to be someone smarter?

Infinite choice is one of the great strengths of pen & paper RPGs. This problem is one of their great weaknesses. You’re given the promise of being anything you can imagine. But how can you choose to experience being something that is beyond your abilities?

Disco Elysium makes full use of the CRPG medium to offer an UNPRECIDENTED ANSWER to this question.

The key is passive skill checks. Rolling passive checks in a pen & paper RPG quickly becomes tedious. Often, you forget to make the check at all. And how could the DM manage have an appropriate insight ready at every possible juncture?

Letting the computer keep track of all the checks, and having all the insights be pre-scripted, solves these problems neatly. The result is that you get the experience of having skills that you may not have in real life.

Want to play a character who’s smarter than you are? Max out those intellect skills. Watch as Logic and Encyclopedia breezily analyze the world, while Rhetoric and Drama feed you lines to run circles around your inferiors.

Rhetoric urges you to debate, make intellectual discourse, nitpick – and win. It enables you to break down arguments and hear what people are really saying. You’ll spot fallacies as soon as they’re used – what exactly did the waiter leave out of their testimony? What was the dancer trying to divert you from? Was that double entendre intended, or did you just get an accidental lead?

Smart enough, but social skills never that strong? Pour your heart into Empathy, Esprit de Corps, and Drama. Pick up on the thoughts and feelings of friends and strangers in a way you never imagined. Experience the thrill, the pain, the regret of your actions. Learn what you can carelessly do to people. It’s like seeing a new color.

Empathy breaks into the soul of others and forces you to feel what’s inside. It enables you to notice social cues other may miss: perhaps a hidden sadness you could coax out a little more, a strange joy from someone who should be bereaved, or a hidden resentment that could return to harm you later.

This cuts both ways. Never had much trouble with self-control? Don’t know what it’s like to live in fear of what you might do? Dump Volition and Composure, to constantly lose your cool. Overinvest in Authority, Hand-Eye Coordination, and Reaction Speed. Be appalled at the things they make you say and do.

At high levels, Hand/Eye Coordination makes you deadly – supposing you’ve a weapon in your hand. But once you do, Hand/Eye Coordination will compel you to take the shot – even if it’s not the best approach.

A few times in my first playthrough, I figured out part of the mystery before Detective Du Bois did. That was ok. I realized that I was smarter than he was in that playthrough, and it didn’t break the story. I wasn’t mad that the developers had kept me from acting on my flash of understanding, because I understood that Harry wasn’t there yet. He had to work it out on his own, and eventually, he did.

I have decent enough social skills, but in my first playthrough, Empathy would still occasionally surprise me with cutting insights about characters, obvious in hindsight, but which I had entirely missed. Even though they were only small mistakes, it was humbling. Now I see that there are levels of empathy I can still aspire to.

Empathy. This is the power of a good RPG, to experience a life totally unlike your own. It’s a rare thing, and never before has simple technology been so skillfully leveraged to make it happen.

A GOD DAMNED TRAGEDY

Time for some Coppo Del’Arte. What genre is Disco Elysium?

Most RPGs are adventures. Go on a quest. Slay the monster. Get the treasure. Confront an ancient evil.

Clearly this game is different; the best treasure often ends up being a piece of clothing you found in a barrel. Quests are things like, “find your other shoe.”

Sure, Disco Elysium is billed as “A Detective RPG”. And sure, there are some detectives involved. But the story isn’t exactly about the crime, or even about solving the crime. Crypotzoology takes up almost as much of the plot. In fact, if the game’s attitude towards Dick Mullen is anything to judge by, this game hates detective fiction.

Dick Mullen is stupid — and not even real. You’re real. Your brain is real. Your real real brain is inside the hat.

There’s only one thing it can possibly be:

Disco Elysium is a Greek Tragedy. The game is practically dripping with it—the original title was No Truce With the Furies, and Disco Elysium isn’t all that subtle either. The Furies are essential to Greek tragedy; it is their address.

Today we tend to be more familiar with Shakespearian tragedies. In Shakespearian tragedies, the main characters die. Macbeth dies in Macbeth. Romeo and Juliet both die in Romeo and Juliet. Julius Caesar barely makes it to Act 3 of his own play. In Hamlet, there are almost no surviors period. Being the title character in a Shakespearian tragedy is pretty much a death sentence.

Greek tragedies aren’t like that. Other characters die, but Oedipus survives to the end of Oedipus Rex. Orestes survives the Oresteia, pursued by the Furies. Antigone dies in Antigone, but Creon is the one who has made all the mistakes in that play, and he’s the one who survives to deal with the consequences.

Curses to the man whoever it was, that man who had saved me from the wild hooks on my feet, who had saved me from the wilderness, from those grazing lands, from death, only to give me this detestable end. Had I died then, I would be no burden of melancholy, now, neither to me nor to my friends.

Some of these plays are even more hardcore. In Medea, Medea not only lives, she kills most of the other characters in the play, including both of her sons. Then she goes to start a new life in Athens.

It’s not that the hero or the main character never dies in these plays; sometimes they do. It’s that death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. In Greek tragedies, you have to keep on living. That’s usually the worst part. At the end of Oedipus Rex, the chorus says, “Call no man happy until he is dead.”

This is Disco Elysium. Other people die. Terrible things happen. Harry Du Bois has to go on living.

“He can’t go. Not before the case is solved.”

The game is even structured like a Greek tragedy. A Greek tragedy happens in just one place; Disco Elysium is confined to the narrow streets of Martinaise, hardly big enough to fit on a single postcard.

A Greek tragedy always involves a chorus, critical for interpreting and commenting on the plot for the benefit of the audience. Fifteen was a usual number. There are twenty-four voices in your head in Disco Elysium, but not all of them are active at the same time, and sometimes the chorus in a tragedy could number up to fifty men…

Most of the action in a Greek tragedy happens offstage, the actors commenting upon it later, as they learn of it. Often the worst of the tragedy happens before the play begins, and is recounted on stage by the actors or the chorus. Oedipus Rex opens years after Oedipus has killed his father and married his mother. That isn’t the plot. The action of the play is all about what happens as Oedipus and everyone else learn of these horrible crimes, and how they react to it.

“God, I don’t know…” He thinks. “Six years ago? She was way before my time.”

Disco Elysium opens six years after Harry’s ex-something left him, and the action of the game concerns what happens as he learns of the things he has done, and how he chooses to handle it.

SIX years?”

A reasonable assumption would be that Harry’s total amnesia is there to help out with exposition. The player doesn’t know anything about the world of Revachol either, so making Harry a total amnesiac lets the player get exposition in a way that doesn’t confuse the narrative. Harry can ask the stupid questions that the player is thinking, and given his circumstances, it makes sense for him to do so.

But another perspective is that he is an amnesiac to allow for anagnorisis.

What if you didn’t lose your memory? What if something in Martinaise came and stored it all away. For you to slowly open one box at a time. So you can choose which parts to keep. Keep almost none of it. Only the flowers on the windowsill. Only the distant sound of a radio. Lose all the actors, the dark shadows, leave only the still lifes, the blissful distant wash of waves. If everybody knew — you never did. She’ll be coming soon. That is all.

Anagnorisis is the moment of recognition in a play, when a character sees their own true nature, or another character’s true nature, for the first time. In Oedipus Rex, it occurs when Oedipus learns for the first time of his true parentage. Most of us don’t have these kinds of secrets lurking in our past. But if you forget who you are…

Harrier Du Bois is the ideal tragic hero. He knows nothing of himself. Everything he learns, everything he does, all the voices in his head, yield terrible recognition of his past. And yet he just keeps going. He has to.

“I could’ve eaten it for all I know. I don’t remember anything. This world, this city. Nothing.”

WHAT KIND OF LITERATURE IS A VIDEO GAMES?

Why model a video game on Greek tragedy?

“Does it have anything to do with disco?”

No.

“‘Officer’ is my stage name, right? I can see myself as a middling disco artist called ‘The Officer.'”

Did you know that the original term for “actor” in English was “player”?

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

Book Review: A Square Meal – Part II: Politics

The book is still A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression, recommended to us by reader Phil Wagner, and Part I of the review is here.

Condescension, Means Testing, and Infinite Busybodies

The other big thing we learned from A Square Meal, besides the fact that food in the 1920s was bonkers, is that the Great Depression brought out the absolute worst in the American political machine: the tendency for condescension to the unfortunate, constant means testing to make sure the needy are really as needy as they say, and infinite busybodies of every stripe.

Some of this was just standard government condescension. In WWI, the United States Food Administration tried to convince Americans that dried peas were a fine substitute for beefcake, and that “Wheatless, Eggless, Butterless, Milkless, Sugarless Cake” was a food substance at all. Sure.

When the Great Depression hit, things got steadily worse. Homemakers were encouraged to turn anything and everything into casseroles, which had the benefit of making their contents indistinguishable under a layer of white sauce and bread crumbs. The housewife could serve unappetizing food or leftovers over and over again without her family catching on, or at least that was the idea. Among other things this gives us this unusual early example of the overuse of the term “epic”:

Whatever the answer, [the casserole] is bound to be an epic if mother is up to the minute on the art of turning homely foods into culinary triumphs

Some people in government seemed to be confused — they seemed to think that the food issues facing the nation were a matter of presentation, that food just didn’t look appetizing enough. It’s hard to interpret some of these suggestions in any other light, like the idea that good advice for Americans in the Depression could be, “to impart a touch of elegance to a bowl of split pea soup, why not float a thin slice of lemon on top and sprinkle it with some bright red paprika and finely chopped parsley.” Or the suggestion that beans could be fried in croquettes to make them more appealing. Authorities trotted out “reassuring” announcements like: 

The fact that a really good cook can serve better meals on a small budget than a poor cook can serve on the fat of the land suggests that the fault may be not in the food material itself but in the manner in which the food is prepared and served, and therein lays a tale!

But what really grinds our gears isn’t the condescension, it’s the means testing. The second half of the book is mostly depressing stories about the government refusing to provide basic aid to starving families, or screwing up one relief program after another with means testing, or other things along these lines.

American society at the time was firmly anti-charity. People thought that everyone on the breadline could be divided into the “deserving poor” and the “undeserving poor”, and it was their job to search out which was which. They seemed to believe that even one whiff of assistance would immediately turn any hardworking, self-respecting American into a total layabout. 

People in the 1930s are always saying things like, “if a man keeps beating a path to the welfare office to get a grocery order he will gradually learn the way and it will be pretty hard to get him off that path.” They really seemed to believe in the corrupting power of government support, to the point where they were often afraid to even use the word “charity”.

Before the Great Depression, there was very little history of big-picture welfare. The support that society did provide was administered locally, and not very well administered at all:

The poor laws combined guarded concern for needy Americans with suspicions that they were complicit in their own misfortune. Under the poor laws, the chronically jobless were removed from society and dispatched to county poorhouses, catchall institutions that were also home to the old, infirm, and mentally ill. Those who could ordinarily shift for themselves but were temporarily jobless applied to public officials, men with no special welfare training, for what was known as outdoor or home relief, assistance generally given in the form of food and coal. To discourage idlers, the welfare experience was made as unpleasant as possible. Before applying for help, the poor were made to wait until utterly penniless, and then declare it publicly. When granting relief, officers followed the old rule of thumb that families living “on the town” must never reach the comfort level of the poorest independent family. The weekly food allowance was a meager four dollars a week—and less in some areas—regardless of how many people it was supposed to feed. Finally, it was customary to give food and coal on alternate weeks, providing minimal nourishment and warmth, but never both at the same time.

Journalists called people who received government assistance “tax eaters”. When support from the town was forthcoming, it looked like this: 

…the board made all relief applicants fill out a detailed form with questions like: Do you own a radio? Do you own a car? Do you spend any money for movies and entertainment? Did you plant a garden? How many bushels of potatoes do you have? The board gave aid in the form of scrip, which now could only be used to purchase the “necessities of life” at local stores: “flour, potatoes, navy beans, corn meal, oatmeal, coffee, tea, sugar, rice, yeast cakes, baking soda, pepper, matches, butter, lard, canned milk, laundry soap, prunes, syrup, tomatoes, canned peas, salmon, salt, vinegar, eggs, kerosene.”

The Manhattan breadline is emblematic of the Great Depression, so we were sort of surprised at just how much people at the time hated them, even very mainstream sources. You’d think that giving out bread to the starving would be one of the more defensible forms of charity, but people loathed it. And none more than the city’s social workers, described as the breadlines’ “harshest critics”:

Welfare professionals with a long-standing aversion to food charity, social workers condemned the breadlines as relief of the most haphazard and temporary variety, not much different from standing on a street corner and handing out nickels. The people who ran the breadlines, moreover, made no attempt to learn the first thing about the men they were trying to help, or to offer any form of “service” or counseling. The cause of more harm than good, the breadlines were humiliating and demoralizing and encouraged dependence, depriving able-bodied men of the impulse to fend for themselves. Social workers were adamant. Breadlines were the work of fumbling amateurs and “should be abolished entirely; if necessary by legal enactment.”

As the Depression dragged on and things became worse, more relief did come. But when it came, the relief was invasive. Housewives were told not only what to cook, but where to shop. Some women had to venture far outside their own neighborhoods to use food tickets. Social workers dropped in on schools to criticize the work of teachers, in particular the tendency of teachers to be overly “sentimental” or “solicitous”. They feared that schoolteachers lacked the “well-honed detective skills” required to distinguish between whining and genuine tales of woe. 

To ascertain that applicants were truly destitute, officials subjected them to a round of interviews. Candor was not assumed. Rather, all claims were verified through interviews with relatives and former employers, which was not only embarrassing but could hurt a man’s chances for employment in the future. More demeaning, however, were the home visits by TERA investigators to make sure the family’s situation was sufficiently desperate. Investigators came once a month, unannounced, anxious to catch welfare abusers. Any sign that the family’s finances had improved—a suspiciously new-looking dress or fresh set of window curtains—was grounds for cross-examination. If the man of the house was not at home—a suggestion that he might be out earning money—investigators asked for his whereabouts, collecting names and addresses for later verification. Finally, though instructed otherwise, investigators were known to reprimand women for becoming pregnant while on relief, the ultimate intrusion.

Families lived in dread of these monthly visits, terrified they would be cut off if it was discovered that one of the kids had a paper route or some similar infraction.

In some areas, including New York City, “pantry snoopers” accompanied women to the market to confirm that all parties (both shopper and shopkeeper) were complying with TERA’s marketing guidelines. More prying took place in the kitchen itself, where investigators lifted pot covers and peered into iceboxes on the lookout for dietary violations.

Relief was often inadequate. Public officials were sometimes able to set relief levels at whatever amount they saw fit, regardless of state or federal guidance. Some of them assumed that poor families would be able to provide their own farm goods, but often this was not the case. In some places officials reasoned that poor workers would be easier to push around, and kept food allowances low to keep them in line. There was also just straight-up racism: 

Six Eyetalians will live like kings for two weeks if you send in twenty pounds of spaghetti, six cans of tomato paste and a dozen loaves of three-foot-long bread. But give them a food order like this [$13.50, state minimum for six persons for half a month], and they will still live like kings and put five bucks in the bank. Now you ought to give a colored boy more. He likes his pork chops and half a fried chicken. Needs them, too, to keep up his strength. Let him have a chicken now and then and maybe he’ll go out and find himself a job. But a good meal of meat would kill an Eyetalian on account of he ain’t used to it.

Families on relief who asked for seasonings on their food, like vinegar or mustard, were refused on the grounds that they might “begin to feel too much like other families”. Officials who were afraid that cash handouts to the poor might encourage dependence instead used that money to hire a resident home economist to help the poor make better use of what little they had.

As with modern means testing, this seems heart-breakingly callous. All these “supervisory” jobs intended to keep poor people from getting too much relief look suspiciously like a method for taking money that’s meant to help starving families and using it to pay the middle class to snoop on their less fortunate neighbors. Everyone loves giving middle-class busybodies jobs in “charity” work, no one seems to worry all that much about getting food to malnourished children. 

To be fair, no one expected that the relief would have to go on for years. Everyone thought that the panic was temporary, that it would all be over in a couple of months. This doesn’t make it much better, but it does explain some of the reluctance.

Another surprising villain in all this is, of all things, the American Red Cross. Over and over again, the Red Cross either refused to provide aid or gave only the smallest amounts, even when people were literally starving to death. They sent officials to areas stricken by drought and flood, who reported back that there was not “evidence of malnutrition more than exists in normal times” or brought back stories about an old man complaining that the Red Cross was feeding him too well. Meanwhile, actual Red Cross workers were reporting circumstances like this, from Kentucky: 

We have filled up the poor farm. We have carted our children to orphanages for the sake of feeding them. There is no more room. Our people in the country are starving and freezing.

The Red Cross’s reasoning was the same as everyone else in government: “If people get it into their heads that when they have made a little cotton crop and tried to make a corn crop and failed and then expected charity to feed them for five months, then the Red Cross had defeated the very thing that it should have promoted, self-reliance and initiative.” Actually this statement is on the friendlier side of things; another Red Cross official, after touring Kentucky, wrote: “There is a feeling among the better farmers in Boyd County that the drought is providential; that God intended the dumb ones should be wiped out; and that it is a mistake to feed them.”

Was Hoover the Villain? 

This brings us to a major question — namely, was Herbert Hoover the real villain of the Great Depression? 

At first glance it certainly looks that way. Hoover consistently blocked relief bills in Congress. He had a clear no-relief policy, and he stuck to it throughout his time as president. And he did send the US Army to drive a bunch of poor veterans out of DC

(He also lived in incredible opulence during his time in the White House. Always black tie dinners, always a table awash in gold, always fancy gourmet foreign food, always a row of butlers all exactly the same height. As they say, “not a good look”.)

But when you start looking at things in more detail, it becomes more complicated. It may seem naïve, but Hoover really thought that Americans would come together and take care of each other without the need for government assistance. He seemed to oppose relief because he thought that the federal government stepping in would make things worse. In one speech, he promised that “no man, woman or child shall go hungry or unsheltered through the coming winter” and emphasized that voluntary relief organizations would make sure that everyone was taken care of. He might have been wrong, but this doesn’t look villainous. (He also said, “This is, I trust, the last winter of this great calamity.” It was 1932.)

In a pretty bizarre state of affairs, he also seems to have been thwarted by the Red Cross at every turn, especially its chairman John Barton Payne. It makes sense that Hoover approved of the Red Cross, since it was one of the voluntary generous organizations he liked so much. What’s strange is how frequently the Red Cross just didn’t do jack, even when asked.

For example: In 1930, Hoover pressured the Red Cross to help out with drought relief in the Mississippi delta. The Red Cross agreed to give out $5 million in aid, but by the end of the year they had spent less than $500,000, mostly on handing out seed to farmers. 

Another time, Hoover went to the Red Cross to help provide relief to striking miners. This time the Red Cross refused, though again they offered seed to the miners (it’s unclear if there was even arable land near the mine). So Hoover went to a Quaker relief organization instead, and the Quakers agreed to help feed hungry children in the mining areas. Hoover struck a deal where the Red Cross would provide $200,000 to help the Quakers out. The Quakers waited two months before the Red Cross refused again. So the Quakers went ahead without them.

Somehow Hoover never turned his back on the Red Cross. Maybe he just liked the idea of aid organizations too much to realize that this one kept undermining him in times of crisis. 

But the other thing to understand about Hoover is that, despite his gruff no-handouts exterior, inside he was a bit of a softie. He stuck to his guns on the subject of cash relief, but he usually found a way to help without breaking his own rules. When the Red Cross refused to help the Quakers, Hoover rooted around and found $225,000 in an idle account belonging to a World War I relief organization, and sent that instead. In the flood of 1927 (when he was secretary of commerce), he refused to allocate federal funds directly, but he did have the U.S. Army distribute rations, tents, and blankets, organized local governments to rebuild roads and bridges, and got the Red Cross to distribute seeds and farm implements (the only thing they seem comfortable with). This was a huge success, and a big part of what won him the 1928 presidential election!  

The reason Hoover believed in the no-relief approach was simple — he had used it many times before, and it had always worked. He had a long track record of dealing with this kind of crisis. Before he was president, his nickname was “The Great Humanitarian” for the relief work he had done in Europe during World War I. People saw him as an omnicompetent engineering genius, and the reputation is at least partially deserved. It’s hard to overstate just how popular he was before the Depression: He won the election of 1928 with 444 electoral votes to 87, a total landslide.

Hoover thinks that attitude is the key to fighting financial panics, because this is exactly what he saw in 1921. There was a big stock market panic, which Hoover recognized was at least partially psychological. So he put out a bunch of reassuring press releases, told everyone that the panic was over, and sure enough, the market recovered.

So when the same thing happens in 1929, he figures the same approach will work. He does everything he can to project confidence and a sense of business as usual, and tries not to do anything that will start a bigger panic. This includes no federal relief — because if the federal government starts handing out money, that must mean things are REALLY bad. It makes a certain amount of sense, it did work for him in the past, but for some reason, it doesn’t work this time around. Maybe blame the Red Cross. 

FDR definitely jumped in to take advantage of the confusion. As then-governor of New York, he started implementing the kind of relief plans that Hoover refused to consider. He gave direct food relief. He used the word “charity”. And when he ran for president, he made it very clear that he thought the federal government should cover what the states could not, and make sure that no one would starve.

This did win him the election. But afterwards, he started looking a lot more like Hoover and some of his cronies. In his 1935 state of the union address, he said, “continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. It is inimical to the dictates of sound policy. It is in violation of the traditions of America.” We’re right back to where we started. 

FDR rolls out the Works Progress Administration, another program that ties relief to a person’s work. But this isn’t administered much better than the Red Cross. Many workers couldn’t live on the low wages they offered. Even when they could, the jobs lasted only as long as the projects did, so workers often went months without jobs between different programs. 

The Civilian Conservation Corps was for a long time the most popular of these programs, but in 1936, Roosevelt decided to focus on balancing the budget instead. He slashed the program from 300,000 people to about 1,400. Over time, most of the relief burden fell back on state and city governments, many of which descended back into cronyism.

Some of the programs, for migrants and “transients”, were worse, nearly Orwellian:

Before the New Deal, transients were the last group to receive relief under the old poor laws. Now the FTP funded a separate system of transient centers guided by federal regulations meant to guard against local governments’ ingrained cultural biases against drifters and migrant job seekers. In rural areas, transients would be gathered into federal “concentration camps” (a term that had not yet gained its ominous connotations) designed for long-term stays.

As waves of agricultural migrants spread across the United States, by 1940 the FSA had opened 56 camps around the country, 18 of them in California, each accommodating up to 350 families. Administrators nevertheless continued to keep costs as low as possible, following the “rehabilitation rather than relief” rule handed down by President Roosevelt. Rather than give migrants food, the camps taught home economics–style classes on nutrition and food budgeting.

By 1937 everything seems to have fallen apart again, and the authors suggest that the second half of the 1930s was as bad or worse than the first half. In 1938, Roosevelt refused to give any further direct food relief from the WPA coffers. The stories from 1939 are kind of harrowing. 

By 1939, the problems of unemployment and what to do with millions of jobless Americans seemed intractable. The economy continued to sputter along; real prosperity remained an elusive goal; and Americans were losing compassion for the destitute and hungry.  

A Houston, Texas, reporter lived for a week on the city’s $1.20 weekly food handout, eating mostly oatmeal, potatoes, stewed tomatoes, and cabbage, and lost nearly ten pounds. In Chicago, a family of four received $36.50 a month, meant to cover food, clothing, fuel, rent, and everything else. But fuel in the cold Chicago winters was expensive; families had no choice but to cut back on food. In Ohio, the governor again refused to give aid to Cleveland, which ran out of money for nearly a month—called the “Hunger Weeks”—at the end of 1939. The city was reduced to feeding its poor with flour and apples as desperate families combed garbage bins for anything edible. Adults lost as much as fifteen pounds, while children had to stay home, too weak from hunger to attend school. Doctors saw a jump in cases of pneumonia, influenza, pleurisy, tuberculosis, heart disease, suicide attempts, and mental breakdowns.

So whatever Hoover did wrong, he doesn’t deserve all the blame, and the WPA certainly did not end the Great Depression.