Corn Commentary

It’s Time to Speak Up!

Today, Corn Commentary shares a post from CommonGround Wisconsin volunteer Kim Bremmer. To find more posts on a wide variety of subjects authored by CommonGround volunteers, click here.

It’s Time to Speak Up!

Kim BremmerOne of my favorite ways to start the day is at the counter of my favorite coffee place, ordering a grande triple shot caramel macchiato and a spinach and feta breakfast wrap. But I ALWAYS ask them to use regular eggs instead of cage-free eggs.

I am usually met with looks of question, not only from the barista but also from all the people in line with me. The response is always a disappointed, “I’m sorry, we can’t do that, ma’am.”  I then smile and ask them to please pass on my message to the corporate office that I would like the choice.

But the best part is that I then have a captive audience for the next 20 seconds or so.

I use that time to explain that I prefer eggs from chickens grown in cages. I used to raise chickens outside, and I know how much they like to eat things out of the dirt, including bugs, grubs and more. I also have friends who have some really nice chicken barns, where they raise very healthy, happy birds in cages.

It’s time to speak up.

With less than two percent of the population actually farming today in the United States, we have opportunities every day to talk to about food production with a very large audience that has never actually “been there and done that.”

We now live in a time when the opinions of journalists and marketing that plays on emotions trump solid peer-reviewed science every single day.

All of this well-funded creative marketing wants consumers to buy the latest and greatest trend: organic, natural, GMO-free, rBST-free, cage-free, hormone-free, antibiotic-free, humanely raised, responsibly produced and the list could go on and on. Consumers are led to believe that the latest buzzword must be good and conventional food production must be bad. But, all of these strategically worded labels come at the expense of consumers’ trust in agriculture.  The story of agriculture is being told by people selling stories, not by those actually involved in agriculture every day.

Well, it’s time for us to sell our story.

Another one of my favorite things to do is go to the grocery store either on Friday afternoons at 5:00 or Sunday mornings right after church. Some of my very best conversations about farming and food happen then!

It is so easy to strike up a conversation with someone comparing labels in the dairy aisle or meat counter and ask if they have any questions. I tell them I am simply a mom who understands the importance of feeding my family the healthiest food.

I also tell them I get the great opportunity to work on different farms every day. I can share my perspective on the different food-production practices because I work with all of them. The real tragedy is how truly scared people have become of food, even though we are producing the safest food in history, using fewer resources than ever before. My mission at every visit to the grocery store is to give people permission to not fear their food.

It’s time to speak up.

I am proud of conventional agriculture and not afraid to feed my family conventional food. I see how the animals are raised every day and how the land is cared for. I have friends who are organic farmers, but I would never pay more for the food they produce.

The biggest misconception is that a label means something is safer or healthier. A great example of this is the fact that added steroids and hormones aren’t even allowed in poultry production in the United States, yet consumers continually pay a premium for “hormone-free” chicken in the grocery store.

I believe that it doesn’t matter which production method a farmer uses because it is really the human element that makes all the difference. I always encourage people who have questions about agriculture to visit a farm instead of just “Googling” it.

Or ask a farmer by contacting a farmer-volunteer at www.findourcommonground.com. I could take you to visit a beautiful 35-cow dairy or a beautiful 3,500-cow dairy. Both use very different management practices, but both provide safe, high-quality food. If the farmers I see every day choose to do their job by responsibly using antibiotics, GMOs, rBST, cages and barns, I feel they should be able to.  I don’t ever want to be forced to pay more for food with a fancy label when I understand the safety of conventionally raised food and get to see how it’s produced every day.

I am proud of agriculture today. You should be, too. Share the real story.

It’s time to speak up.

The Yeast Dynamics of Ethanol Plants

cutc-14-dupontDuPont Industrial Biosciences is looking into understanding the yeast metabolism and dynamics associated with various stresses in the fuel ethanol fermentation process.

“Those stresses could be putting in too much enzyme, or not enough enzyme,” said Dr. Donald Cannon, who presented at the Corn Utilization and Technology Conference. “So, we’ve identified succinate as a marker for nitrogen stress and what we’re using that for is to help in protease trials.”

Cannon says they believe these metabolite insights will be helpful as ethanol plant technology diversifies. “Increasing efficiency and taking care of process upsets,” he explained. “What we want to be able to do is help plants identify those upsets.”

Listen to my interview with Joe here: Interview with Donald Cannon, DuPont

2014 CUTC Photo Album

If the Corn Fact Doesn’t Fit, Those Still Reading Should Quit

In a world where it can be hard to cut through the media morass, Bloomberg Businessweek made it even more difficult to get to the heart of the GMO-labeling issue with an article on the differing political stances taken by Ben and Jerry’s and their parent company, Unilever. Noting the opinion of food activists who already openly take sides without consulting with market or industry analysts, the diatribe draws heavily on self-interested opinion to conclude Unilever faces financial repercussions for taking this course of action. The logic makes about as much sense as calling Chubby Hubby health food.

Ignoring the more studied statements of an actual analysts, who suggests Unilever would not want to risk potential PR-backlash should it shush the ice cream icons, the journalist pushes the prophecies Marion Nestle. While certainly a well-credentialed professor of nutrition and public health, her expertise in the realm of market realities does not engender the type of trust which the story’s author so willingly provides – and expects reader to also bestow.

In addition to the lose logic, an infographic on the benefits of biotech crops accompanies the stories. While one might also call it confusing at best, the picture tutorial draws some curious conclusions about corn. At first, it seems to imply GMO-varieties improved the yield of the average U.S. acre to 26 bushels of corn between 2001 and 2010. As anyone who follows agricultural statistics would automatically know, this does not hold even an iota of truth as the average yield per acre in 2010 published by USDA was 158.2. Upon further examination, the increase in average yield over that period does not even come out to 26 bushels as the 2001 data details an average acre yielded 138.2 bushels of corn. Thus, the infographic clearly demonstrates only the lack of informed data contained in the article it accompanies.

Everyone is entitled to have their own point of view but, if one seeks credibility, said point of view should be well informed. If Ben and Jerry’s wishes to adhere to a costly and confusing patchwork of state-level labels, so be it. As there is no guarantee of what each actually will mean in terms of standards or how it will appear on the product, it can choose to chase the next hip idea without reasoning how it might impact cost and logistics without offering additional actual information. Unilever, while allowing a wayward child to learn a lesson for itself, has the right to look at the potential impacts of disjointed, confusing regulations and come to another logical stance. That does make sense.

What does not make sense is the portrayal of the GMO-labeling free-for-all as some sort of greater moral battle. Food labels should be based upon factual, scientific information relevant to the health of consumers. Yet, as Bloomberg Businessweek could not get even the basic facts right, it makes sense that logic could not come from misinformation and misplaced credence.

Are Farmers Scapegoat in Fish Fix?

With only one percent of the population still farming, it can seem politically expedient to propose faux-fixes to odd or unique problems that impact the farming minority.  Yesterday, The Washington Post joined in the fracas with a piece on intersex fish. The story, heavy with aqua-explicit imagery and short on hard numbers, noted several sources of possible chemical contributors but failed to suggest any fix larger than moving piles of poo.

Polishing that strategy into a gem that makes the masses feel better without taking responsibility for the role they may play makes something akin to shinola.

Hormones naturally present in animal excrement do not hold up so long in nature as those made by humans to prevent unwanted little humans. Do I propose getting rid of birth control? Absolutely not. Do I propose considering its environmental impact instead of taking the easy way out? Absolutely.

If we as a people consider the intersex fish phenomenon to be of importance, we should treat it with equal respect. Consider the sources in a more measured manure. Document what might and might not have the impact scientifically significant enough to move the needle. Weigh the impact of those actions on our fellow persons. Simply, act like we are less mentally confused than those fish are physically.

Washington in general needs to expect more of Americans. We are up for the tough conversations. We don’t want to take meaningless stabs that impact the fewest people so that we can rest better at night. We want to actually solve the real problems.

Farmers, like the rest of the country, want to be part of the solution. First though, let’s make sure the solution makes sense.

Fabric Innovations in Corn Wet Milling

cutc-14-sefar-rechinSefar is a precision weaving company out of Switzerland that provides fabrics for industrial uses, including corn milling and ethanol production.

Speaking at the Corn Utilization and Technology Conference, David Rechin of Sefar talked about fabric innovations that could help wet mills. “What we’re looking to do is reduce the amount of filtrate solids that get reintroduced into the system, which results in processing the same material twice and adding costs,” he said. “We’re trying to increased the longevity of the belts and we’re trying to lower the moisture content in the gluten to reduce utility costs at the drying end. Wherever we can help them reduce costs or increase throughput, that’s the goal.” Interview with David Rechin, Sefar

2014 CUTC Photo Album

Chuck Norris: Stick With What You Know

Chuck_NorrisLet’s all admit it. Chuck Norris jokes are still funny. The idea that he is an unparalleled butt kicking machine elicits a fond memory and a good chuckle. He holds a soft spot in many hearts. My dear grandmother lusted after Walker Texas Ranger until her dying day. He holds a special spot in our nation’s popular culture.

So, it may sound blasphemous to some and dangerous to state to others, but Chuck Norris’s mental prowess does not equal his physical.

Like many elevated to celebrity by their appearance or a physical or artistic talent, Norris assumed the role of political activist this week. Blasting GMO’s in an op-ed published in a variety of newspapers and online, Norris sprayed clichés and echoed hollow arguments in an attempt to persuade his fellow countrymen to roundhouse kick ag biotechnology in the ballot box.

Spouting unconnected factoids like karate chops, the martial artist slays logic with a series of numbers and statements with clear sources and zero context. Referencing hard facts such as the number of biotech acres, he attempts to put his “deep knowledge” on display. It’s about as convincing as a guy at the bar asking if you like the “gun show.”

Norris belies the baseless nature of his beliefs in his inability to explain anything further than those factoids. He confuses discussions over regulatory controls for products with expiring patents with the idea that there would be no regulatory or approval process. Whether he does so due to lack of information or lack of verbal acumen is anyone’s guess.

He goes on to draw additional erroneous conclusions. Clearly, Norris does not understand the difference between the approval process for biotech traits in the United States and that used in Europe. In America, products are approved using only scientific criteria following a long and detailed rigorous scientific testing process. In Europe, biotech faces not only scientific hurdles when seeking approval but also political. Basically, one is based in real, factual information and one places a greater value on fear-based conjecture almost completely devoid of factual basis. Thus, while biotech events may have been approved under the Obama administration, Norris’s attempt to link a president which he opposes with the bureaucratic approvals of products which have been in development more than a decade makes little sense on this side of the Atlantic. Assuming the EU somehow gets labeling “right” just because they eschew science when confronted with emotionally-charged propaganda seems a bit less than brilliant too.

Yet, it makes perfect sense that Norris would draw such inaccurate conclusions given his utter confusion over the scientific facts important to this argument. No, “almost all genetically engineered foods” have not been “engineered for one purpose: to tolerate higher levels of pesticides.” Actually, one currently available trait has been developed to tolerate a pesticide. Why? Because the herbicide to which hea actually means to refer is less intense and spends a shorter time in the environment than its predecessors. In short, it is better for the environment.

Ridiculous rants about Monsanto and black helicopter conspiracy theories aside, Norris advocates for consumers to demand labeling without any reasonable argument as to why. He does not site a credible study showing a risk to human health. No such study exists. He does not cite additional information about nutritional content or allergenicity such a label would provide. As these are the two criteria used to determine mandatory labeling information in the United States, he would need to show the real benefit to consumers. He can’t.

Instead, he argues that all battles be fought in the arena of public opinion. He fears GMOs because he does not understand their safety or their benefits to the environment and human health. He wants a label that would create fear without increasing knowledge. Why? Because he is Chuck Norris, and Chuck Norris gets what Chuck Norris wants.

Humorous adages about Norris’s omnipotence aside, Americans need to tell Norris to either stay in the gym or do some serious academic conditioning. Using his celebrity to push poorly conceived policy makes U.S. consumers and family farmers into Chuck’s proverbial punching bag. Science-based policies benefit our water, our soil, our air, our health and our pocketbooks. Don’t get blindsided by the hit we will all take if we get in Norris’s corner.

Ethanol is World’s Lowest Cost Motor Fuel

corn-pumpDespite claims by detractors that ethanol makes the price of fuel more expensive, a new analysis released by the Renewable Fuels Association shows that over the past four years, ethanol has been the most economically competitive motor fuel and octane source in the world.

The ABF Economics study
found that even after accounting for transportation costs to the reference markets of Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, ethanol came out far cheaper than gasoline blend stock, according to RFA Senior Vice President Geoff Cooper. “The average over the past four years has been a 30-40 cent per gallon discount, and that’s been as high as a dollar in some cases,” he said.

Cooper says the study also found U.S. ethanol has been more cost competitive than Brazilian ethanol which has particular relevance in the California market. “Over the past four years, U.S. based ethanol has been 80 cents per gallon less expensive than ethanol imported from Brazil,” said Cooper, noting that Brazilian ethanol gets a lower carbon intensity score under California’s low carbon fuel standard. “So consumers in the California market place are bearing that cost,” he added.

Cooper adds that bigger corn crops and more efficient use of corn in making cellulosic ethanol will also contribute to lowering the cost of production.

Listen to Geoff explain the findings of the analysis here:
Geoff Cooper, Renewable Fuels Association

In the Drone Debate, Watch What You Wish For

Grist published another gripping piece today on the important role drones can play in the “fight against Big Ag.” The post, based on a blaring inaccuracy at its core, posited that “If you were privy to everything that went on inside a factory farm, you might never want to eat again.” Then, it proposed drones were the answer to getting behind those “closed doors.”

Putting aside the note that gates would create a more accurate analogy, let’s look at the base issues.

Gates paint a more accurate picture not only because they are what actually encompass most farms. They are also more similar in that you can see through them.

Farmers and ranchers across the country ARE opening their farms to show how they grow and raise our food. A wide array of groups, including programs like CommonGround, organize farm tours where bloggers, dietitians and just regular families can visit a wide array of farm and ranches to see ag in action. Simply pushing these efforts aside seems cynical or intentionally obtuse.

Next, the basic reasoning that agenda-driven cynics have a right to enter private property to see exactly what is “going on” makes little sense. In implying that anyone denying them immediate, complete access to the place where they not only work but also live, the author sets up a standard to which I doubt she would hold herself.

Simply, Samantha, do you ever write from home? As you work at home and I am skeptical of what may be “going on” there, may I come on over? Take a look around? I think people want to know if your work area creates mental confusion that comes through in your writing. Personally, I like to look through people’s medicine cabinets to get a clearer picture.

Better yet! Why not just have drones hover outside of your windows looking in at all times? That is what you propose for farmers and ranchers. Constant surveillance.

Farmers and ranchers do want to have a dialogue with the public about how food is grown and raised. They don’t want to invite people ideologically opposed to modern agriculture into the very place that they live. It isn’t because they have something to hide; it is because they know that their open, honest efforts are often met with closed minds and a blatant refusal to consider the validity of their statements.

Unless anti-ag activists feel perfectly comfortable being under constant drone surveillance themselves, it is radically hypocritical to promote doing so to someone else. And, for those who take this side of the argument, there is another question. How long until someone turns the drones on you?

Random thoughts from Corn Congress and Washington DC

Today, Corn Commentary features a guest post from Kansas Grains blogger and Kansas Corn Growers Association Director of Communications Sue Schulte. In this post, Schulte provides insight into the experience of attending Corn Congress. Don’t miss intern Paige McFarland’s post from the State and National Communications Summit last month too!

Random thoughts from Corn Congress and Washington DC

I was in Washington DC last week for the National Corn Growers Corn Congress. I extended my stay to do some sightseeing with my grown son, so I ended up spending 6 days in DC, which is way too long. I’ve been smiling nonstop since I returned home, just happy to be here, somewhere normal! It’s not my first trip to DC, but I did accumulate a lot of random observations.

I spent most of my time with farmers from Kansas and many other states. Words that describe my farmer friends include the following: kind, intelligent, polite, funny, sophisticated, outspoken, focused, professional, friendly, well-rounded, honest, informed. Our farmers sat through long committee meetings, two delegate sessions and visited every member of our Congressional Delegation. All the while, they were also using their smart phones and tablets to keep track of the markets, check email, and kept in contact with their families at home who were running the farm in their absence.

With Senator Robers

With Senator Roberts

With Congresswoman Jenkins

With Congresswoman Jenkins

There were many farewell speeches at Corn Congress this year with NCGA Exec Rick Tolman retiring, as well as Nebraska Corn’s Don Hutchens, Monsanto’s Marsha Stanton and John Deere’s Don Borgman. Our own Jere White was honored at the March Corn Congress session for his retirement. New leaders will rise to take their places, but those are some big shoes to fill.

Speaking of leaders, I was so impressed with the members of the DuPont New Leaders Program offered through NCGA. Farm couples are encouraged to go through the program together. This cultivated two new leaders from Kansas: Tom and Sandy Tibbits of Minneapolis. The program’s final session was held around the Corn Congress event. We were happy to have them along on our Hill Visits and Tom was able to help Kansas Corn by serving as a delegate. Tom is already on the KCGA board and we have plans to use make use of Sandy’s skills as well as an advocate for agriculture.

Speaking of Hill Visits, many of the Congressional offices have offered Russell Stover candies to their visitors for years. With the new Mars candy factory in Topeka, many of our offices have candy bowls with Peanut M&Ms and Snickers bars as well! And Cheezits. Did you know all Cheezits are made in Kansas?

I serve on the Corn Farmers Coalition steering committee, an image program that aims to educate and inform Washington DC decision makers about corn farmers. This year’s campaign has just begun and I saw our full page ad in The Hill newspaper, as well as ads online and intheMetro trains. This year’s ads have an innovation and technology theme because the focus groups we used when planning this year’s campaign were fascinated by the use of technology on our farms. I remember one focus group participant saying, “It’s kind of neat to think that those farmers are using the same iPad as me.” It is not always easy to overcome the stereotypes about farmers that many people have. On one hand, they are surprised to learn that 98 percent of all corn farms are family farms–many folks think that our farms are owned by big corporations. On the other hand, they think farmers look and work on the farms just like they did 50 years ago. When we talk to these people about GPS guidance and mapping, precision agriculture, they get really excited.

This Metro passenger was extremely interested in our CFC ad!

This Metro passenger was extremely interested in our CFC ad!

There is some corn planted in front of USDA. And the US Botanic Gardens is featuring a wheat display called Amber Waves of Grain.

I saw a lot of advertising in DC. I saw an excellent ad in a Metro train placed byHumane Watch. It explained that HSUS, the Humane Society of the United States, only gives 1 percent of its funding to local humane shelters and encourages people to donate to local humane society shelters instead.

On the Metro, we sat next to a woman holding a takeout bag from Chipotle. Over the years, I’ve discouraged my kids from eating at Chipotle for various reasons (primarily because it’s danged expensive!), but also because of how the corporate burrito company bashes farmers who grow the food. Sitting next to my son, who is a devout capitalist, I pointed to the bag in the woman’s lap and told him to read it. This quote is from Chipotle’s “Cultivating Thought” Author Series.

If no one must work, who will make the burritos?

If no one must work, who will make the burritos?

I’m all for love and peace, but just sitting around feeling love for one another might get a little boring after a while.  More importantly, Chipotle, if no one works, where will all that free food come from? Who will make the burritos? I’m for free speech and an open exchange of ideas, and I enjoyed reading the bag that held a nine dollar burrito. But I do have the right to disagree. My capitalist son, who in the past has been disturbed by Chipotle’s anti-farmer statements but still ate the corporate burritos, was even more disturbed by that quote.

Norman Borlaug is the new guy in Statuary Hall at the Capitol.

Norman Borlaug is the new guy in Statuary Hall at the Capitol.

We saw the new statue of Norman Borlaug, the Father of the Green Revolution, during our tour of the Capitol. That an Iowa plant breeder is honored in this way Statuary Hall in the Capitol is significant. His work which created a high-yielding, disease resistant wheat is credited for saving a billion lives. Borlaug was a strong supporter of the promise of biotechnology and urged people to stand up to the anti-science crowd.

A corn capital at the Capitol

A corn capital at the Capitol

I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone has ever counted up the number of Greek columns in DC? It made me remember the Architecture Appreciation class I took at K-State where we learned about Doric, Corinthian and Ionic columns. Speaking of art and architecture, if you are a corn grower, look around in DC–there are many depictions of corn in the Capitol and many other places. In fact, the photo here shows a corn capital in the Capitol. A capital is the top of a column. According to the Architect of the Capitol: Carved by Giuseppe Franzoni from Aquia Creek sandstone, these columns were installed in the Hall of Columns of the U.S. Capitol in 1809. The fluting of a conventional shaft was recalled by bundled corn stalks. On the capital, husks were folded back to reveal the cob and kernels of corn.

I was struck by the friendliness of the people in DC on this trip. I think this was influenced by the unusually cool weather. One cab driver told us that the cooler weather was a disaster for cabbies because everyone wanted to walk instead of taking a cab. He joked that he would have to charge us double. Judging by his meandering route to our destination, I don’t think he was kidding.

 

 

Corn Growers Have Busy Week in DC

2014-corn-congressMembers of the National Corn Growers Association had a busy week in the nation’s capital last week – hearing from and meeting with administration officials and lawmakers, saying goodbye to retiring industry leaders, and inspiring new young leaders.

I talked with NCGA president Martin Barbre today about what all they did last week and we only scratched the surface. One of the highlights was an update from EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe on the proposed Waters of the United States rule. “NCGA is taking the position that yes, we are opposed to the interpretive rule and yes, we think the rule itself needs to be changed immensely, but we want to work with EPA and see if we can’t put our stamp on that to make it better for farmers and still work for the environment,” said Barbre.

NCGA members also wanted to know when they might hear from EPA on a final rule for 2014 volume obligations under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS). “The number needs to be out,” Barbre said. “Hopefully it will be good for us when it comes down to it.”

ncga-zimmermanThe week in DC also included updates from NCGA action teams and committees on a variety of topics, such as ethanol, biotechnology, government regulation and trade. Delegates also re-elected four board members and elected one new one last week. Re-elected were Bob Bowman of Iowa, Lynn Chrisp of Nebraska, Kevin Skunes of North Dakota and Paul Taylor of Illinois and new to the board is Jim Zimmerman of Wisconsin. Jim is no relation to this Zimmerman, but I did interview him last October at the Truth About Trade and Technology (TATT) Global Farmer Roundtable.

There were quite a few good-byes said to corn industry members who are retiring this year, including Don Hutchens of the Nebraska Corn Board, Marsha Stanton of Monsanto, and Don Borgman with John Deere – as well as NCGA CEO Rick Tolman, who received a special tribute.

NCGA members also spent some time on the Hill talking with their lawmakers about important issues and Barbre presented NCGA’s 2014 President’s Award to Representative John Shimkus (R-IL).

Finally, last week graduated the inaugural class of the NCGA DuPont New Leaders Program, which Barbre says included some enthusiastic new young people for the future of the industry.

Listen to my interview with Martin here: Interview with NCGA president Martin Barbre

Check out pictures from the event in the NCGA Flickr photo album.



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