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Thursday, January 8, 2015

Farm Ain't A Thing, Farm Is A Verb

Apologies to John Mayer for the allusion to a lyric from his great song, "Love Is A verb."  Like "love," "farm" can certainly be used as a noun, but in both cases, their essence is best captured in the verb - in the activity.  I bring this up as a continuation of an interesting discussion that has been going on for the last few
days since my last post about why it is possible for so few people to feed the rest of us.  Historian Rachel Laudan raised key questions on her blog about why farming is still mostly a family endeavor and why that matters to us.  Jayson Lusk (an ag economist) responded with a good point that although corporate farms represent a small number of entities, they are disproportionately significant in terms of production.   We might also consider the fact that a great many farms tracked by the USDA are very small, part time operations that contribute very little to overall production.

I think one of the things that complicates the whole discussion around food and farming, is that when we use the word "farm" as a noun, we could be talking about such a huge range of entities. Below I'll try to capture at least one measure of that diversity.

One Measure of the Diversity in Farming


The graph above is about the range of per-area value of crops in North America (using data from FAOStats).  You can see the vast area of relatively low farm-gate value row crops (corn, soy, canola,wheat...) in the $500-3000/hectare range ($200-$1,200/acre).  Then there is another set of crops in the $7-$30,000/hectare range that includes various "specialty crops" like fruits and vegetables.  This does not even capture big differences within a given crop (e.g. irrigated and non-irrigated row crops, berries for fresh market vs freezing...).  There are obviously major differences between the sorts of farms represented here beyond just the value of the crop.

The diversity gets even crazier when we look at agriculture globally where the value is spread over what looks like a tri-modal distribution with a 100+-fold difference in per area value. I'm not sure these stats even capture the super high value/area protected culture industry (shade houses to greenhouses) which is a rapidly growing segment around the world.

To make the discussion even more complicated, these graphs do not even touch on animal agriculture which is not only diverse in terms of species, but also scale.  It includes everything from very small-scale cow/calf operations to large-scale feedlots or laying houses and everything in between. 

"Farm" as a verb


This brings me back (finally) to my title: "Farm ain't a thing, farm is a verb."  When we use farm as a noun we we might be talking about entities which are not even very similar. But I believe that there is an essential commonality about farming when we think of it as a verb.

As incredibly diverse as as farming may be in terms of value or even of the details of what the work involves, there is a certain universal thread.  It is essentially about harnessing the amazing potential of biology to produce things we really need and/or want.  For most of the people doing that, it is in the context of an environment that can only partially be controlled (as opposed to someone harnessing biology to use biology to produce something in a fermentation vat, and even that is tricky). Perhaps that is why there is some sort of commonality between the "farmers" who actualize the verb in so many different ways.

In my long career, I have had the chance to meet a very diverse set of people who farm.  My introduction to agriculture was via the super high-value wine grape industry in California.  These growers run some intensive operations.  On the other extreme, I've spent quite a bit of time talking with dry-land wheat farmers in Western North Dakota who must use a super low-input approach (I asked one such farmer cooperator to apply our experimental biocontrol agent for Canada Thistle with a 40 gallon/are spray.  He said, calmly: "Son, out here we call that an irrigation.")  Lately, on the speaking circuit, I've had some exposure to dairy and fish farming which is mostly new to me. 

My experience is still only with a small slice of what it means to farm, but I can honestly say that whether I am talking with one of those wheat farmers, or with a manager for a 60,000 acre almond operation, it feels like they have the same basic orientation.  They are all people who need to understand the dynamics of their particular biological system and what options they have to try to achieve their goals.  That is true for both organic and conventional farmers, or the common case of farmers who do both. 

So I guess the point of this post is not to discourage discussions of farming because they can so easily get confused by the diversity.  I really do believe that there is a common thread in the verb form of "farm" and we food consumers who don't do the verb might do well to listen to the incredibly diverse set of actors that do.

As always you are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com

Graphs are mine based on FAOStat data.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Feeling Detached From The Production Of Your Food? Blame Jethro Tull



Many consumers today feel out of touch with how their food is produced and are disturbed by a lot of what they hear about it through their social networks or other sources of information.    If it is necessary to assign fault for this phenomenon, I think we could blame Jethro Tull.    

Jethro Tull!? 


Ian Anderson and Martin Barre of the more modern Jethro Tull

No, I don’t mean the 70s rock band led by flautist Ian Anderson and guitarist Martin Barre, I mean the early 18th century agronomist and inventor named Jethro Tull  (the two Jethros did; however, have similar hair styles).  

The original Jethro Tull



In the early 1700s, Tull introduced planting equipment that allowed farmers to grow their crops in rows and cultivating equipment for hoeing the weeds that grew between them.  This innovation dramatically increased the amount of land that one farmer could tend. For thousands of years the production of food was the full time occupation of all but a small, elite proportion of the population.  Starting with Tull’s innovations, Western civilization was on a track towards an agriculture system that required less and less hand labor.  Since then there has been a steady stream of innovation that has further enhanced the productivity and efficiency of farmers thus freeing up the rest of the population to do other things.




Tull's Seeding Device





In the graph below, you can see that between 1790 and 1890, the number of farmers in the US rose from less than 5 million to 30 million (red line).  It was during that time that the vast prairies of the Midwest were converted to farming with the support of the Federal government via the Homestead Act.  Interestingly, even during that period of rapid farmland expansion, the percent of the total US population doing the farming steadily declined (green line).  When the US became an independent nation at the end of the 18th century, 9 out of 10 Americans farmed.  Today that number is less than two in one hundred.   Mechanization made this possible.






A similar trajectory can be seen for our neighbors to the north, even in its most agrarian provinces. Throughout that history, Americans and Canadians have remained well fed as a whole with any incidents of hunger stemming from issues of wealth distribution rather than a problem of overall supply.  In fact the tiny proportion of North Americans who farm also help to feed other populations around the world..



























Campbell Gibson, who has retired from the US Census bureau, has published fascinating statistics about historic trends in the vocations of Americans.  He got the data from IPUMS.  In the chart below you can see that as the number of farmers, farm laborors and domestic laborors decreased, the number of professionals, service and clerical workers increased. Without the increasing productivity in the farm sector, most Americans and Canadians would not have been able to pursue these other careers. 



In modern societies we tend to romanticize the lifestyle of our more agrarian past.  An example of that would be the image below of people hand harvesting wheat on the bag for some bread I recently bought at Trader Joes.  I’m quite sure that is not how the wheat for that loaf was harvested.  



Chances are good that the flour for that loaf originated on a farm in a place like North Dakota or Alberta where high quality hard red spring wheat is grown by farmers who quite commonly tend one, two or even ten thousand acres of land.  In a typical “food movement” narrative that would be disparagingly described as "big-" or industrial agriculture.”  Some would assume that this was a product originating on a “corporate farm.”  Those common conceptions are completely wrong and farmers find the terminology quite annoying.

Because it takes so few people to farm, and because so few people have any interaction with farmers,  the terms "big", "industrial' and "corporate" seem reasonable to describe a multi-thousand acre farm.  I’ve had the opportunity to visit scores of such farms over the years as part of my consulting work.  Whether the farmer I visited took care of several hundred or even several thousand acres of land,  the “office” in which I met them for an interview was either at the kitchen table or sometimes a desk tucked in the back corner of the machine shed.  These farmers reflect the objective reality that 96% of American and 97% of Canadian farms are still family owned and operated.   If they are incorporated it is only for the purposes of estate planning.  I’ve also always found farmers to be extremely pleasant people with the same basic values as the rest of society,  particularly when it comes to stewardship of the environment.  What they do for a living entails far more economic uncertainty than most of us could handle and a workload well beyond the norm.  However, almost inexplicably, these farmers tend to have a high level of job satisfaction and remain in the business more based on life-style values than economic returns.  It is a sort of cruel irony that the tremendous efficiency of the tiny, remaining farming population leads to the believability of false narrative like “big Ag.”  Yes, we are a rich population far removed from the production of our food, but that is not something to blame on the farmers.  They deserve our respect and appreciation – not the sort of dismissive criticism that is so common today.

Most people won’t get to go out and meet farmers as I have been priviledged to do. You can, however, get to know them through some of their blogs as a way to overcome the typical false narratives that so many urbanites are digesting. I can tell you that the farming community is deeply troubled by the way that they are typically portrayed.  Individually and through their various organizations farmers are trying to better tell their stories. Below are listed some blog links. If you still feel the need to blame someone for your remoteness from this critical human activity, direct that at Jethro Tull, not a farming family.

Some good examples of farm and farm relative blogs:

What Farming Is
HawaiiFarmersDaughter
The Farmer's Life
Ask the Farmers
Nurse Loves Farmer
The Farmer's Daughter USA
The Foodie Farmer
Janice Person has posted a great list of farm blogs
As has Michele Payn-Knoper
Family Farmer.org

As always you are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com

If you don't know about Jethro Tull the rock group, here is a link to a sample





Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Misplaced Concern About An Apple



Apples growing in British Columbia
As a consumer and as an agricultural scientist, I’m looking forward to the introduction of the Arctic® apple. It is possibly nearing approval by regulators in the US and Canada which could mean that supplies might finally be available in a few more years.  These apples could give consumers the possibility of buying apples that maintain their flavor, appearance and vitamin content after cutting, and which can also be used to make beautiful dried apple slices without the need for sulfites (something that can be a problem for some people).  This is an excellent example of how plant biotechnology can provide direct consumer benefits.


Arctic apple (right)
The Arctic® apple “works” through a mechanism called “RNAi.” That is a way to "turn off" a gene – in this case the genes for the enzymes that cause apples to brown when cut.  RNAi is a common, natural means of genetic regulation in plants, animals, insects and many other groups, but opponents of biotechnology are trying to portray it as something worrisome.  






In a recent post on LiveScience, Margaret Mellon (previously of the Union of Concerned Scientists, currently a consultant for Center for Food Safety) tries to make the case that this and other uses of "RNAi" are something new and potentially dangerous. I’d like to explain why her critique is misleading at best, and why the bigger concern is that it will be believed.   


To begin with, in what seems like an appeal to anti-corporate feelings, Dr. Mellon describes the Arctic® apple as having been developed "by a Canadian Corporation." In fact, the developer is Okanagan Specialty Fruit (OSF), a tiny, grower-centered organization with fewer than 8 employees. The Union of Concerned Scientists is a vastly larger and better funded organization (see page 9). OSF has been slowly and patiently navigating the technical and regulatory obstacle course that is required to bring a biotech crop product to the market - something I never imagined would be possible by such a small company.  


The other misleading part of Dr. Mellon's article is her assertion that the RNAi in a product like the Arctic® apple represents some new element of risk in the food supply.  This is wrong on several levels.  First of all this class of technology is not new in the sense that there are already several commercial, biotech crops which employ the RNAi mechanism. The virus resistant papaya that saved the industry in Hawaii and a virus resistant squash that has been on the market for 15 years are existing examples.  Soybeans with improved oil content have also recently been commercialized and those traits were accomplished using RNAi.  There are many other promising traits that can be accomplished using the RNAi approach.


But as I explained above, RNAi is definitely not new to the food supply because it is a natural mechanism which exists across all sorts of different plants and animals.  It is one of the important ways that genes are regulated in the process of development and in the different functions performed by different tissues throughout an organism.  When we eat foods based on plants or animals, we are eating a huge number of different RNA molecules that function by the process we call RNAi.  Just to be really clear, if you eat an organic, heirloom, locally grown fruit or vegetable or a range-fed or wild-caught animal, you are consuming small RNAs similar to those that happen to be involved in the non-browning apple.  Your pre-historic ancestors were eating them as well.  There is no reason to believe that an RNA that interacts with a gene for a browning enzyme would be somehow different so that it would represent a greater risk than the thousands of other small RNAs in our diets.


This RNAi mechanism which is so widespread in nature does have the capability of extremely specific gene regulation, and this fact has attracted plenty of positive attention from the pharmaceutical industry. They have considered RNAi approaches as a possible way to treat genetic disorders, cancers or pathogens.  The thing is that even in such cases where Pharma has wanted very much wants to use RNAi as a medicine, they have not been very successful. That is for the same reasons that RNAi is not a health risk in our diet or via plant biotechnology.


RNA is functionally a relatively short-lived chemical when it is serving its function in a cell of translating the message of a gene in the DNA to the protein that gene encodes.  It is definitely not "designed" to last long anywhere else.  Scientists who work with RNA in the lab have to become almost obsessive about all their glassware and other equipment because just a touch from someone's fingers can add enough of an RNA-destroying enzyme to compromise their experiments.  


When we eat a food, the RNA that might be in it is exposed to the acidic conditions of our stomach and to the intense enzymatic environment of our intestines. Most is quickly reduced to its component bases, which are to us, simply food.  Any RNA that escaped that fate is subject to further enzymatic breakdown while passing through the cells of the gut, and then once in the bloodstream, there are again plenty of RNA-crunching enzymes.  Add the further digestion that could occur on the way into any other cell in the body, and it is not surprising that even when scientists want to use RNAi as a drug therapy - it just does not work without some robust mechanism to protect the RNA. Without that, little if any ever gets to the target.  


That reality is why regulatory scientists have concluded that the use of this technology in crops presents no significant risk.  There is nothing about the small RNAs in the biotech crops that means they won't function just like all the thousands of other RNAs we eat every day.  There is an excellent example of the careful thinking process by global regulatory agencies published by Food Safety Authority Australia/New Zealand with lots of references to the relevant scientific literature.


I consider myself to be a “concerned scientist” when it comes to the safety and quality of the food supply. However, my concern about the Arctic® apple is that Dr. Mellon and others will succeed in unnecessarily alarming consumers about this good product and about apples in general.  If they are successful in that endeavor, that would be a great disservice to the public.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com

Monday, October 13, 2014

This Is Not My Grandpa's Organic


When Grandpa retired he gardened even more.
Thats about when I started helping


I’ve been interfacing with Organic for 50 years. It’s a little scary to say you have been thinking about anything for half a century, but I did first learn about Organic from my grandfather about 50 years ago.  He was a WWI vet who became an avid “victory gardener.” By the time I was eight or ten I would help him tend his vegetables or turn his compost pile.  This was in the early 60s, and my grandpa subscribed to “Organic Gardening Magazine” published by the Rodale Institute.  The organic growing system he explained to me was focused on the importance of building and maintaining a healthy soil.  He did this by incorporating manure and composted kitchen scraps.  As I grew older it also became my job to mow his lawn, always saving the clippings to use as mulch around the tomatoes, squash or sweet corn. 

Since I had no farming roots on either side of my family, I’m convinced that those happy times in the garden with my beloved grandpa served as seed for my eventual interest in agriculture.  It certainly inspired my own passion for gardening, which I have been doing since high school.  
Some produce from my current garden near San Diego



In Davis, where I went to pursue graduate work studying plant diseases, my wife and I gardened with another couple. Our friend Greg had a B.S. in agronomy and was working with a farm consulting company.  He was also one of the early pioneers of Organic farming and sold his produce at the weekly farmer’s market and to the local food coop. 

The Organic that Greg explained to me was just a more detailed version of what I had heard from Grandpa, focusing on the importance of building soil health. In the 35+ years of work in agricultural technology, the importance of soil-building for sustainable farming has been confirmed many times.  The agricultural community has learned newer and more scalable ways to increase soil quality, but I believe that the original organic movement deserves the credit for providing the fundamental insight. 

Although I started with these positive associations with the organic movement, during this half century of experience I’ve seen a fundamental change in what “organic” has come to mean.  I’m not talking about its evolution from a gardening method to a commercial farming enterprise, but about its essence.  Rather than a positively framed approach, it is now defined by what it is not. Organic is now primarily defined as crops grown with no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, no genetically engineered plants, etc.  As such, Organic fits within our broader rich-world ethos of buying food for what it is not: "fat free," "zero cholesterol," "gluten free," "no HFCS," etc.  



The "Final Rule" issued by the USDA
 in 2002 codified what organic is not
The government sanctioned rules and certification system are also primarily focused on enforcing the embargo aspects of organic - the "nots."  Much of the advocacy around organic emphasizes what it is not and is critical of non-organic farming because it includes those features.


Ironically, by shifting the focus to what organic is not, farmers following the organic rules are unable to adopt many new options that would actually be better for the environment or safer for consumers.  In major row crops, millions of acres are now being farmed under “continuous no-till.”  This is a way to build soil quality without importing tons of compost per acre, which is how organic typically achieves that goal.  Without synthetic chemicals, no-till is impractical for organic growers on any significant scale because they have almost no herbicide options. 

Drip irrigation is a much more efficient way to water crops, and is also a way to deliver fertilizers at the varying levels that the crop needs throughout the growing season.  That means more efficient use and far less water pollution potential.  Organic farmers can drip irrigate, but to buy soluble organic fertilizers to go through the drip is very expensive.  Plants absorb the same chemical forms on the nutrients no matter what form they are in to start.  

Modern synthetic pesticides are commonly as safe or safer than the much more limited list of “natural” pesticides that are allowed for use in organic.  The organic rules are negatively defined as non-synthetic rather than by anything to do with relative safety.

My grandpa was born in 1899 and lived until 1982.  He witnessed dramatic technological changes throughout his life.  He embraced and enjoyed those changes much the way he embraced the positive innovation that was Organic in the middle of the last century.  The positive to negative shift I have observed over 50 years with organic does not help the farmer, improve the crop or protect the public.  It is certainly not my grandpa’s Organic.

p.s.  I still garden and I love being able to use it as a way to teach my grand daughter a little bit about where food comes from.  I pay attention to building/maintaining the quality of my garden soil just as my grandpa did.  I don’t worry about trying to follow the modern Organic rules.  

Monday, September 22, 2014

Don't Believe What Dr Oz Is Saying About An Agricultural Herbicide


Television personality Dr Oz has released a video which talks about an agricultural product called Enlist Duo.  Virtually nothing in this video is presented accurately.  It is a prime example of fear-mongering around the issues of "GMOs" and pesticides.  I'd like to respond, point by point, to what it says that is not true or misleading.  Dr Oz's statements/image descriptions will be in red:

"The EPA is on the brink of approving a brand new toxic pesticide you don't know about."

The product in question, Enlist Duo is a combination of two very old herbicide products:  2,4-D and glyphosate. A great many consumers do know about these materials because they have been approved for homeowner use for decades and are common ingredients in products available at any neighborhood gardening center.  These chemicals are still approved for use in more than 70 countries around the world and for use in high exposure settings like lawns, parks, sports fields and gardens. They are still used this way because after multiple rounds of increasingly sophisticated scrutiny by regulators, they have been confirmed to be quite low in toxicity to humans and to the environment. This product is neither "brand new" nor is it notably "toxic."

These products are for new GMO corn and soy crops that "survive even stronger pesticides."

What does "stronger pesticide" mean?  The need for this mixture is that some weeds have evolved resistance to glyphosate. There is nothing unique about that associated with a biotech crop. Weeds have evolved resistance to all manner of control methods including mechanical tillage (some weeds like bindweed or Canada thistle are very well adapted to being chopped up and spread around a field by equipment).  The issue isn't about something "stronger" but about something that is a mixture of two distinct "modes of action" which makes it harder for the weeds to adapt around the control.  The term "stronger" that Oz uses implies something about being more toxic or dangerous. That is not the case here.

This product includes "2,4-D  a chemical used in Agent Orange which the government banned during the Vietnam War."  

As I have written before, this Agent Orange allusion is a callous exploitation of a real human tragedy.  The horrible health effects of that material were eventually found to have been caused by an unrecognized dioxin contaminant in one component of the herbicide mix, 2,4,5-T. It never was associated with the 2,4-D.  As you can imagine, while all of this was being sorted out, 2,4-D was intensively scrutinized.  The fact that it remains so widely approved around the world is only because its safety was confirmed in all these regulatory reviews.

These GMO crops (resistant to both herbicides) are "ushering in a pesticide arms race and the health of your brain could be the casualty."

Again, the people who have been growing food for millennia have been fighting weeds and their ability to adapt to whatever methods we use to control them. Unless Dr Oz has some alternative suggestion, perhaps he should leave the topic of weed control to people who actually do this for a living and for our benefit.  Now as for the "health of your brain..."

"More than 1/2 million people wrote to the EPA" about this pesticide approval "including a letter signed by 35 prominent doctors, scientists and researchers" who raised concerns about "non-hodgkins lymphoma, Alzheimers and Parkinson's disease"

When a regulatory agency like the EPA or USDA has an open comment period about a pending decision, what they are looking for are relevant issues from a science point of view.  Its not about numbers of comments or whether the submitters are "prominent."  The "35 prominent" signatories Oz describes are well known, perennial anti-GMO advocates.  If they had raised real health issues, the agency would have responded, but repeated and detailed risk analysis has never established a connection between these herbicides and human health issues.  

"How concerned should you be about this product that could come to a farm near you?"

The image during this part of the video is of bell peppers and other such crops which have never been contemplated for the use of this technology. Throughout the video the images are mostly of crops and foods that have nothing to do with this product. The crops in question (as Oz himself says earlier) are corn and soybeans - crops mainly grown in regions far removed from Dr. Oz's viewer-base. Even so, the "crops" nearest most of this audience would be their own lawns or their neighbor's lawns, or the neighborhood park or sports field. These chemicals have been used there for decades. This is in no way a new threat in the context of the average American life.

"70-80% of the food we eat today contain GMOs."

"GMO" is a meaningless term because essentially all crops have been "genetically modified" in some way throughout human history. That is why most of them are suitable for human consumption. There are ingredients in something like 70% of processed foods which originate from crops that have been improved via biotechnology.  There is nothing in those ingredients that is dangerous and in most cases there is not even anything related to the one or two genes that were different in the source plant.  Animals around the world have been eating these crops for feed for nearly two decades without any ill effects. Oz clearly makes this statement to sound ominous - but there is no basis for such a concern.

If this product is approved, "70 to 100 million pounds of additional, highly toxic pesticides will be used"

OK, lets put this in a little perspective. Between corn and soybeans there are more than 150 million acres in the US, so the number Oz throws out represents less than a pound per acre. Herbicides were used on these crops long before biotech so this use isn't really "additional." Also, the term "highly toxic" simply does not apply to these materials from a human perspective.

At the end of this video clip, Oz speaks with a "concerned mom" who gives an anecdote about the improved health of her children after she switched to a "GMO-free diet" and "organic to avoid pesticides."

First of all, one could find any number of anecdotal examples of families (like mine) that never made such a dietary choice, yet who never experienced the sort of health issues this mother described.  Second, by choosing organic she was not avoiding pesticides at all.  There are pesticides legally used on organic crops and there are often residues of other pesticides there as well.  Abundant data demonstrates the fact that most Americans would be best off to eat more fruits and vegetables because the benefits vastly outweigh any potential risks associated with pesticides.

Dr Oz may be an entertainer, but he is also in the fear business and in the supplement business - either directly or based on the sponsorship he gets because he can find an audience for these messages.  Oz normally gets by with this; however, he has been called on the carpet by Congress for some of the magical claims he has supported for certain weight reduction supplements.  I'm sure that Oz will have successfully frightened a huge number of people with this video.  I'm sure that will help drive his viewership and thus his sponsorship income. Unfortunately, society as a whole is worse off for the spread of this sort of disinformation.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com

Oz image from Wikipedia













Monday, August 11, 2014

Why Biotech Should Be Employed For Crop Disease Resistance

Glassy-Winged Sharpshooter - Vector of Pierce's Disease of Grapes

Most of the “GMO Crops” that have been commercialized are either insect resistant or herbicide tolerant.  Biotechnology can also be used to generate crops that are resistant to plant diseases.  So far, there are only two examples of disease resistance available to farmers: the papayas resistant to ringspot virus and squash resistant to zucchini yellow mosaic and watermelon mosaic viruses.  That narrow offering is not for a lack of need or technical potential.  In fact, biotech approaches could uniquely address some of the most significant disease issues in global agriculture.  The limitation mainly reflects the success of the anti-GMO movement in creating controversy.  This has induced brand-sensitive food system players to use their leverage to prevent the development or introduction of “GMO” disease resistant versions of crops where they would make the most sense.

If we let ourselves imagine what could be, there are three important categories of plant disease of particular interest for the use of genetic engineering:
  1. Systemic diseases spread by insect vectors
  2. Diseases of crops for which conventional breeding is far too slow and/or disruptive to key quality attributes
  3. Crop diseases which are not amenable to safe and effective chemical control

 Systemic diseases spread by insect vectors

Fungi cause most plant diseases, but plants can also be infected by viruses and bacteria.  In most of these cases, specific insects spread the pathogens from plant to plant in much the same way that the Aedes aegypti mosquito spreads a human disease like Yellow Fever.  For plants, the vector insects are the ones that use specialized mouthparts to penetrate plant cells to suck out nutrients – things like aphids, thrips, mealy bugs and psyllids.  The viruses or bacteria have specific associations that allow them to be picked up from an infected plant on the mouthparts of the “bug” and then released inside of the next plant.  Those infections can severely damage the plant and even kill it.  In many cases, the only way such diseases can be controlled is to use insecticides to kill the vectors.  Often it requires nearly complete insect control to adequately protect the crop.  That means intensive insecticide use in some cases, but in other cases it isn’t feasible to stop the spread of the disease.  That was the case with papaya ringspot virus which was seriously compromising production Hawaii in the early 1990s - the farmers were fighting a losing battle to save their plantings.  The introduction of transgenic virus resistance in 1998 saved the papaya industry.  Currently there is a new, deadly, bacterial disease of citrus which is threatening the orange industry in Florida.  Insecticide programs have only slowed the progress of the disease, and without something like a transgenic solution, that industry will soon collapse.  Another bacterium is threatening the California wine industry because of the introduction of a more problematic vector in the late 1980s.  Insecticide programs and quarantine programs are limiting the issue to Southern California for now, but it would be much more desirable to have a resistance option to deploy to protect the key production areas to the North.  Laurel Wilt disease of avocado is another similar challenge.

Diseases of crops for which conventional breeding is far too slow and/or disruptive to key quality attributes


One of the main ways that plant diseases are managed is through conventional breeding programs.  This can be quite effective, particularly for annual grains or vegetables for which breeding programs can progress fairly quickly.  For a crop like potatoes, breeding is difficult and slow because the plants don’t normally make any seeds.  That is why the 100+ year-old Russett Burbank is still a major commercial cultivar. There is a severe disease called Potato Late Blight which caused the infamous Potato Famine and which requires very frequent fungicide applications today.  There are genes for resistance in wild or semi-wild ancestral potatoes in the Andes, and using biotechnology, such genes have been moved into the potatoes we now grow, at least on an experimental basis.  This trait involves a potato gene in a potato.



Coffee also has a major rust disease that is causing increasing problems in the high quality, “Arabica” coffee production areas of Central and South America.  There are resistance genes in various other coffee species around the world, but to move those traits into high quality lines requires things like chromosome doubling and decades of back-crossing.  If the genes were moved via genetic engineering methods, the end result would be a coffee-based resistance gene in a coffee variety with a well-characterized quality background.

Bananas are an extreme case where genetic engineering would allow moving a resistance trait from some non-commercial, seeded banana, into the seedless banana of commerce which is threatened by Panama Wilt and other diseases. Similarly, genetic engineering may be a way to deal with something like Frosty Pod in cacao without compromising quality attributes.

Even with a crop like wheat, there are so many different types for different uses around the world that it would be helpful to speed up the breeding process for the new, UG99 Wheat Stem Rust threat, which is moving around the world.  A desirable gene found in one category of wheat (e.g. Hard Red Spring) could be moved to elite breeding lines for other types like Durum or Soft White Winter.

Diseases that are not amenable to safe, effective chemical control

There are many crop/disease combinations that can be effectively controlled using fungicide treatments with low mammalian toxicity and low environmental impact.  However, there are some diseases that are not amenable to that sort of control.  A disease of tomatoes, called Bacterial Leaf Spot, is a big issue in wetter growing regions like Florida.  It is currently managed with a combination of biological agents and copper-based products, but coppers are not as safe as most modern pesticides.  Foliar bacterial diseases do not comprise a large enough global market to justify the investment of >$200MM that it takes to develop a new synthetic pesticide.  There is a very effective resistance gene for this disease in peppers, but although they are related to tomatoes they are too distant for conventional cross-breeding.  That pepper gene has been moved to tomato and the plants performed well in field tests.   Fusarium Head Blight of wheat is a serious disease risk that limits the feasibility of adding wheat to Midwestern corn/soy rotations.  That disease is difficult to control with fungicides, but there was once a nearly commercialized trait for resistance.  

There are a number of crops including field corn that can be infected by the opportunistic fungal pathogen, Aspergillus flavus, when there has been drought stress and/or insect damage.  Fungicides are not very effective against this problem, and the aflatoxin that the fungus can produce renders the grain unsuitable for normal feed or food uses.  Indeed, aflatoxin is one of the leading causes of death in the developing world where it can contaminate important food crops like maize or peanuts.  There are several ideas for how to address that issue with biotechnology.


Biotech crops have been planted on hundreds of millions of acres of land each year since 1996.  Many generations of animals have been raised on these crops both in the countries where “GMO” crops are grown, and also in the EU, Japan, China and many other importing regions.  The arguments against this basic technology have not proven to be of actual concern.  At some point, we should be able to start applying these well-tested technologies to the prevention of problematic diseases that affect crops. 

Glassy-Winged Sharpshooter image from California Department of Food and Agriculture
Corn infected by Aspergillus image from Iowa State University

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com.  I may not be answering comments quickly as I'm on vacation in Colorado :)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Do GMO Crops Foster Monoculture?



Do GMO crops "foster monoculture?" This is a frequent criticism of modern agriculture. I have three with problems it:

  1. "Monoculture" isn't the right term to use to describe the relevant issues - its really about a limited crop rotation
  2. History and economics are the drivers behind this phenomenon, not crop biotechnology
  3. The solutions - to the extent that they are needed - are not what most critics seem to imagine

The Corn Belt of the Midwestern US, is a multi-million acre farming region almost entirely dominated by just two crops - corn and soybeans.  This phenomenon is often termed "monoculture,"  but monoculture is merely the practical approach of growing a single crop in a given field.  The opposite of monoculture is "polyculture" and it is entirely impractical for even minimally mechanized farming.

The Corn Belt is more accurately described as an example of a "limited crop rotation." The typical pattern is an alternation between corn and soybeans in each field.  There are also some fields where the growers plant continuous corn or continuous soybeans. There are many reasons that a more "diverse crop rotation" could be a good idea.  Mixing up crop types over time can help build soil quality because of different rooting patterns or residue characteristics. Some plant pests can be more easily managed if their life cycles are disrupted by cropping changes.  All of this is well known, but for a variety of reasons that I'll discuss below, the less diverse rotation persists.  

Corn and soybeans happen to be crops which involve widespread use of biotech crop options, but there are many other farming areas with a narrow crop rotation where "GMO" options have never been available. There are areas in Northern Europe where "continuous wheat" is the norm and many premium wine regions where essentially only grapes are grown. If farmers somewhere are not using a diverse crop rotation - there is a rational explanation involving history, economics, and risk management.

The Heart of the Corn Belt



Let's start by looking at Iowa, which sits in the very heart of the "Corn Belt." As you can see from the graph to the left, corn has been the dominant Iowa crop for a very long time, because Iowa is just about the ideal place to grow that crop.  Most farmland in that part of the Midwest is "rain-fed" rather than irrigated. The amount of rain that typically falls in Iowa is sufficient to produce a good corn crop without limiting yield by the number of cloudy days.




The rainfall in Central Iowa is usually "just right" for corn


The growing season is long enough and warm enough, but usually does not involve the yield-limiting heat that is typical further south.  Corn is heavily planted because it typically returns the highest net profit with the least risk.  The income potential from corn is what drives the cost of land for purchase or rent. As the farming population shrank and farm size increased over the last century, the remaining growers have expanded somewhat through land purchases, and more commonly through rentals.  For a farmer to keep up with a mortgage or lease typically requires growing a lot of corn.

Back in the 1930s, the main crop that was rotated with corn was oats - ironically much of that to be used as a "transportation biofuel" for horses.  Starting in the 1940s, soybeans began to evolve into the favored rotational crop - mostly as an animal feed with a co-product of oil for human consumption. Soybeans have much lower yield than corn, but they are able to generate their own nitrogen fertilizer (with microbial help) and don't require many other inputs. Thus, soy has also been a reliable way to generate enough profit to cover land and operating costs. All other crops have only ever had niche status in Iowa. When biotech crops arrived they were simply sold into that pre-existing market.



Illinois and Indiana have also been mostly two crop states ever since soybeans filled in for declining oat demand in the 50s and 60s.  There has alway been a small, but significant wheat sector in both of these states, part of a "double cropping" system in which corn is followed by winter wheat and then soy, producing three cash crop harvests in two years.  Indiana now has a small alfalfa segment - a case of crop diversification "fostered by a GMO crop."



The Northern Edge of the Corn Belt - Minnesota and North Dakota



Minnesota had a more diverse agriculture than its neighbors to the south, but like them, it replaced oats with soybeans long before the biotech era. The expansion of soybeans has continued in the biotech era, partially because of the attractiveness of Roundup Ready Soy, but also because cultivars better adapted to colder springs have also been introduced through conventional breeding. Barley, rye and flax have declined in the biotech era as has wheat to some degree.





The recent decline of wheat is even more pronounced in North Dakota as it went from approximately 50% of all plantings to about 30%. As in Minnesota, the rapid increase in soybeans came from a combination of  more cold tolerant lines and the herbicide tolerance trait. Corn plant-ings have also increased in the biotech era. For both crops the expansion is mostly in the wetter Red River Valley portion of the state.   The expansion of corn and soy at the expense of cereals like wheat, barley and rye may seem like a case where biotech is reducing rotational diversity, but the story is a bit more complex.

There is a disease of wheat and barley called Fusarium Head Blight, which has been an increasing issue in all five of these states since the 1980s (and again in 2014).  Corn, and particularly the crop residue in no-till corn, serves as a source of spores which can then infect the wheat or barley during their bloom period.  Head blight is difficult to control and it can lead to significant yield losses.  Infection can also lead to contamination of the grain with a mycotoxin called DON- or more colorfully, "vomitoxin."  Throughout the Midwest, wheat does not tend to have as much profit potential as corn or soy even in good years, but the risk of severe yield or quality loss from Head Blight is really what makes wheat much less attractive.  Biotech had the potential to help wheat keep a place in the Corn Belt rotation, but that solution was thwarted by anti-GMO campaigning.
Fusarium infected wheat (right)

There was a "GMO wheat" in advanced development around 2002 which was much more resistant to Fusarium Head Scab. This product had the potential to reduce the risk of growing wheat, both in the historic wheat growing states like ND and MN, but also in the "I States." Unfortunately, the trait was never commercialized. Major wheat importing companies in Europe and Japan put pressure on the US and Canadian wheat grower organizations, threatening to boycott all North American wheat if any biotech wheat was commercialized.  This was not because of any safety concern, but rather the fact that food companies in those countries didn't want to have to label wheat-based products as "GMO." Reluctantly the growers asked Syngenta to stop the development of their disease resistant wheat. Ironically, this is a case where a GMO opposition "fostered monoculture," when biotechnology could have enhanced rotational diversity.  The wheat growers of the US, Canada and Australia have pledged to do a simultaneous release of biotech wheat in the future so that they can avoid this sort of extra-regulatory blockage.

How Could The Corn Belt Rotation Be Diversified?

First of all, the corn/soy rotation in the corn belt is a highly successful production system.  It also includes enough genetic diversity within those species to continue to perform.  That said, some additional diversity would be a good thing. Scab-resistant wheat would both reduce risk and increase private investment in that very important and highly traded crop while simultaneously diversifying the rotation.  Another excellent way to get the soil quality benefits of rotation is to add a winter cover crop (see Midwest Cover Crops Council).  It is actually best for the soil to have something growing as much of the year as possible, and cover crops can also include a legume to make nitrogen for the next season or a grass to scavenge any excess fertilizer when that is an issue.

Probably the best way to facilitate more rotational diversity would be through education of the absentee landlord community.  Much of the land in the Midwest is held in trusts for the families who have long since migrated to the cities.  Typically all they do is collect the rent checks through a farm management company.  If those families could be educated about sustainable cropping practices, they might be willing to engage in re-designed leases designed around medium to long-term economics rather than the typical annual, cash lease.  What is needed is a way to give the grower/renters the incentive to implement the practices that might not optimize income for each year, but which lead to improved soil quality over time which in turn leads to higher income potential and more protection from drought (e.g. no-till, cover cropping, controlled wheel traffic and more diverse rotations).  The very real benefits of such a system would flow to the land-owner - increasing the value of the asset.  It would be far more constructive to find creative ways to share that value between farmers and landowners rather than to worry about "monocultures."

Corn harvest image from the United Soybean Board
Planting graphs based on data from USDA-NASS Quick Stats
Rainfall distribution graph based on NOAA National Climatic Data Center information
Fusarium image from Wikipedia