Corn Commentary

Look Overseas to See What You Have at Home

It is only human nature to take the freedoms that we have for granted.  Likewise, freedom taken for granted is often taken away.  Though this may seem like rambling waxing of the philosophical, today it applies to something vital to life in the United States and around the world – food.

In the U.S., we take affordable, plentiful food for granted.  Most of the population isn’t familiar with where their food came from before the local market or how it was grown or raised.  Instead, they happily enjoy the bounty produced by American farmers.

These farmers, along with all of modern agricultural, are under attack.  Anti-agriculture groups fire off unsubstantiated accusations against the biotechnologically enhanced crops that make large harvests, key to keeping food affordable and providing enough to sustain growing populations, possible.

In Italy, one man is fighting back. Giorgio Fidenato is risking both criminal prosecution and large fines in order to highlight the importance of approving biotech crops for use in Italy.

Like much of the European Union, Italians do not have the freedom to determine the crops that they will grow.  They cannot grow biotech crops, like the 12 acres of corn Fidenato planted, without risking imprisonment.

This leaves two big “why’s”?  Why can’t they choose what they grow? And why would Fidenato, a farmer, risk becoming an avid supporter and protestor given the consequences?

As in Germany and France, a vocal fringe group took control of the conversation about food early in the game.  They did not hold themselves to scientific standards when claiming that genetically engineered foods were harmful or undesirable.  Instead, they relied on the weak, we just think that they could be argument and scare tactics to bully an unknowing public onto their side.  This may provide food for thought while reading food propaganda state-side.

Why would Fidenato take this risk?  Because he, like many others who understand the science behind and importance of modern agriculture, knows that it is essential to maintaining the world food supply.

He understands that these crops preserve the environment while raising yields.  Technology allows growers to produce more grain per acre, growing more bushels of corn for the amount of pesticides and fertilizer used, and doing so more affordably with less disturbance of the environment.

He also understands that the end product is safe.  Biotech crops are among the most thoroughly tested, following accepted international, scientific standards.  Thirty-one regulatory agencies plus international scientific authorities have stated biotech crops are as safe as conventional crops.

It is easy to believe sensational claims.  They can be scary and intimidate people into believing them “just to be safe.”  But Fidenato knows what we lose if we allow the anti-ag in our country to dominate the national discussion.  Instead of giving up our freedom to determine what crops we will grow and purchase, let’s make the rational decision.  Take action now to let your views be known before anti-ag groups manage to raise the stakes.

Getting More Crop Per Drop

One of the sponsors for this year’s Corn Utilization and Technology Conference was Monsanto. Besides sponsoring and exhibiting, Monsanto also had Dr. Robert Reiter, Vice President of Breeding Technology, on the program. His presentation focused on improving the efficiency of corn.

Monsanto has a goal of helping corn growers double their yield by 2030. Reiter says their biotechnology pipeline is helping make this a reality. His team is working on improving corn water use or as he puts it, “getting more crop per drop.” He says the amount of money being invested in these technologies is unprecedented.

You can download (mp3) and listen to my interview with Dr. Reiter here:

Sorry Grandma But We Have A Better Way

Call me radical but I don’t want to eat like my grandmother, even though journalist/food activist Michael Pollan says I should.  Nor do I want to “Know Your Farmer” as USDA says I should.  I love farmers and have worked with them my entire life. They are some of the coolest people I know.

But I really don’t need to have a personal friendship with the specific farmer that grew the radish on my salad or the steak on my grill.  I sleep well at night knowing there are thousands of family farmers and ranchers across the nation toiling to feed the masses and committed to providing abundant and safe food. And we have federal agencies as an insurance policy to make sure the system works.

I like access to all kinds of food offerings – healthy and otherwise – even when things are out of season in my part of the world. And I don’t know what Mr. Pollan’s grandma was like but mine did indeed eat lots of vegetables from the garden in season and those she canned during the long winter months. But that old sweetheart also thought starch and lard were food groups.

She also built every meal around a large slab of meat because people labored hard then and the protein was crucial to getting through the day. Society spent more time lifting, bending and swinging heavy objects than we do in today’s computer-dominated society.

 So I have spent a lot of time in recent months contemplating what is driving the small but growing niche markets in our food system operating under various names like organic, local, and even slow food movements. I have finally figured out that just assuming “slow food” is for bad hunters may not be a good strategy.

Almost astonishingly, the San Francisco Chronicle offered up a really nice article discussing the trend and how it is moving across the nation. It has a number of great quotes in it that I won’t spoil here.

Although I have a personal preference for Kansas rancher Chris Wilson, president of American Agri-Women, condemning documentaries like “Food, Inc.” and “King Corn,” as “pastoral fantasies.” My guess is Chris could take Michael two out of three falls because she really works for a living.

Seriously though, it is concerning when an anti-biotech advocate, like Michael Pollan is listed as one of the top “Thinkers” of 2010 on Time Magazine’s top 100 list.  In the Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc. and in his books Food Rules and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan, 55, does indeed tell complex stories in an engaging voice.

He has “pollanized” thousands into believing that local and organic is better, as Time states, without noting the potential pitfalls in execution, seasonality, and little things like plummeting yields.

At the end of the day this cultural evolution of food should be about consumer choice, consistency of supply and safety, and maybe even a little deference to Grandma.

An old farmer once told me “passion is good. It gets your blood moving, generates discussion, and gets you up in the morning. It also gives you a yardstick for finding a functional truth.” I guess what he meant is that if you investigate the extremes you will likely find the truth somewhere in the middle.

Report Finds Biotech Crop Benefits

A new report out this week finds that biotech crops are good for both farmers and the earth.

According to the report released Tuesday by the National Research Council, “farmers who grow genetically engineered (GE) crops are realizing substantial economic and environmental benefits -such as lower production costs, fewer pest problems, reduced use of pesticides, and better yields - compared with conventional crops.” The report also noted that “The proprietary terms under which private-sector firms supply GE seeds to the market has not adversely effected the economic welfare of farmers who adopt GE crops.” In other words, farmers are still making more money from BT crops, even though the seed costs more and they are legally unable to save it from one season to the next.

On the environmental side, the report concludes that improvements in water quality could prove to be the largest single benefit of GE crops. “Insecticide use has declined since GE crops were introduced, and farmers who grow GE crops use fewer insecticides and herbicides that linger in soil and waterways. In addition, farmers who grow herbicide-resistant crops till less often to control weeds and are more likely to practice conservation tillage, which improves soil quality and water filtration and reduces erosion.”

The only bad news in the report was that weeds are becoming resistant to the Roundup herbicide glyphosate - which is genetically bred into a large percentage of the soybeans, corn, and cotton grown in the United States. “Farmers who grow GE herbicide-resistant crops should not rely exclusively on glyphosate and need to incorporate a range of weed management practices, including using other herbicide mixes,” the report suggests. “Federal and state government agencies, technology developers, universities, and other stakeholders should collaborate to document weed resistance problems and develop cost-effective ways to control weeds in current GE crops and new types of GE herbicide-resistant plants now under development.”

The industry is well aware of this issue and has already been taking exactly those steps to address it for several years now. It’s interesting, although not surprising, that the vast majority of news stories about this report have chosen to focus on this negative finding, rather than the environmental and economic benefits attributed to biotech crops. That is mainly due to groups like the Center for Food Safety calling attention to it and making statements not backed up with any facts, such as this: “The leading independent study demonstrates that Roundup Ready crops and resistant weeds have increased use of herbicides (weed-killing pesticides) by 383 million lbs. over what would otherwise have been used in the 13 years from 1996 to 2008. Resistant weeds also trigger greater use of soil-eroding tillage, and in some cases manual hoeing to remove weeds, as well as higher production costs.”

Biotech crops are still relatively young, having only just come on the market 14 years ago - still just a teenager. Maybe they are just going through that rebellious teenage phase. But since the studies indicate more benefits than drawbacks to their use at this point and we have a growing world population to feed it seems like best to focus on the upside potential.

Less Resistance to GMO Crops?

We may be seeing less resistance to genetically-modified crops developing among the sustainability conscious.

Discover Magazine has a little pictorial on “Frankenfoods That Could Feed the World” which include golden rice with vitamin A, purple tomatoes with an antioxidant punch, and multi-vitamin corn on the cob (image from National Academy of Sciences).

Maggie Romuld, who “studies rivers, teaches Earth Sciences at a local college, and writes for a sustainability magazine,” picked up on that little story and wrote about it here on IndyPosted. “While the developed world has the luxury of debating the ethics of GM food, recent crises in Africa have drawn attention to the use of GM food as emergency food aid, and in other countries millions of hungry people wait anxiously for field trials to be approved,” she writes.

She suggests a couple of sources for those who might “need help deciding whether you are for, or against, GM food.” One is, a website dedicated to “Exploring whether Genetically Modified Foods and Organisms are safe for human and animal consumption or if they are a real and present danger to human beings, animals, plant life and the environment.” It’s only a one page website with no information about the authors, but it appears to be pretty objective on the issue - albeit with articles that are a little dated.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is taking an active role in the evaluation of GMO foods “on the grounds that public health could benefit enormously from the potential of biotechnology, for example, from an increase in the nutrient content of foods, decreased allergenicity and more efficient food production.” WHO offers some objective answers to 20 questions on GMOs that indicate a desire to get some global consensus on the safety of biotech foods.

With the global population explosion, governments that have actively opposed GMOs may find themselves forced to accept crops that are engineered to be more productive, more nutritious and even offering pharmaceutical benefits. The evolution of less resistance to GMOs may be underway.

Agricultural Progress Must Be Considered in Climate Talks

In what is being reported to be the busiest day to date at the UN Climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) President Darrin Ihnen had a private meeting with US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. The time was spent discussing NCGA’s perspective on climate change and several other pressing issues.

Key to the visit was NCGA’s reiterating the fact that there are serious concerns among our members with the cap-and-trade proposal in Congress. Ihnen noted that if significant progress for agriculture is not achieved in the legislation, we will come under increased pressure to oppose the bill outright. 

NCGA continues to be a part of the debate and development of climate legislation in order to make it as farmer-friendly as possible but Ihnen, a farmer from South Dakota, pointed out it’s difficult to convince farmers that a new “green” economy will be good for them when the renewable fuel that we already produce comes under such regular attacks from the environmental community. (more…)

Let’s Hear a Cheer for the Guys in the Lab Coats!

corn genome scientistsI want to see Oprah wax poetic about the nobility of science and the implications of the full exposure of the corn genome. Instead of Martha Stewart prattling on about the merits of a vegetarian Thanksgiving, and what is wrong with the family farms producing our food, I am waiting for a provocative look at what this understanding of our largest crop means for mankind.

The announcement today that a team of scientists led by The Genome Center at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis has completed the corn genome is nothing short of monumental. But in this man bites dog world we live in the story will likely miss the evening news and the front page of your local paper.

While the glass half full crowd runs about blathering about how we can’t grow enough corn for all uses we are already doing it and the record crops grown in recent years is just a hint of things to come. (Anybody have any more clichés I can stick in this blog?)

The corn genome is a hodgepodge of some 32,000 genes crammed into just 10 chromosomes. In comparison, humans have 20,000 genes dispersed among 23 chromosomes. That officially makes a corn plant more complex than some people I know, but I digress.

This $29.5 million maize sequencing project utilized the collective expertise of 150 scientists and resulted in a road map scientists will explore for many more years to come. In these waning days of petroleum predominance this is welcome news.

Virtually anything made from oil can be made from corn today. Understanding the intricacies of the genome will allow us to make these emerging corn based products more efficiently and economically. Oh, and there is also that feeding the whole world thing. That’s a good idea too.

Think Tank Supports GM Crops

A California free-market think tank report finds that genetically modified (GM) crop regulations are often based on fear, and encourages evaluating GM crops by comparing their net benefits to current conventional alternative.

The Pacific Research Institute (PRI) released a new report examining the environmental and health concerns associated with genetically modified (GM) crops, called “The Way in Which We Produce Our Food,” by Amy Kaleita, Ph.D. The report concludes that, “Over-regulation of GM crops has little to no environmental benefit, and instead discourages genetic diversity, encourages corporate monopoly, and limits opportunities for farmers on the margins.”

“Increased regulation of genetically modified crops does not have significant environmental or health benefits, and indeed, has a number of negative impacts on both,” said Dr. Kaleita. “The goal is to ensure an adequate and stable food supply, and GM crops can be a means to that end.”

Read a pdf of the study here.

Turkey Lays an Egg

Just in time for Thanksgiving, the country of Turkey dropped a big, fat egg on grain imports.

The U.S. Grains Council reports that last week, Turkey placed an unexpected ban on imports of biotech crops.

Turkey, the 27th largest export market for all U.S. goods, issued a new regulation on Oct. 26, 2009, placing additional requirements on all food and feed products containing genetically enhanced components. This new regulation essentially came without warning, according to U.S. Grains Council Regional Director in the Middle East and Subcontinent Joe O’Brien. “This ban came at us pretty much out of the blue,” he said. “This regulation impacts everything from a bag of potato chips to grains and co-products.”

The Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) reported on its Web site that this signifies approval of the fourth draft of a National Biosafety Law and is similar in nature to the draft reviewed last year. O’Brien said the potential impact is substantial to U.S. coarse grains and producers. For example, Turkey is the largest buyer of U.S. corn gluten feed (GCF) and the third-largest buyer of U.S. distiller’s dried grains with solubles (DDGS). Turkey imported 435,378 metric tons of CGF in 2008 and 202,422 tons in the first six months of 2009. Turkey imported 465,212 tons of U.S. DDGS in 2008 and 199,173 tons from January through August of this year. USTR reports the U.S. goods trade surplus with Turkey was $5.8 billion in 2008, an increase of $3.8 billion from 2007. USTR also notes the total value of U.S. “transgenic” crop exports to Turkey exceeded $1 billion in 2007, which are endangered depending on how this new regulation is implemented. O’Brien said one issue currently “up in the air” is the fate of the vessels currently on the water loaded with U.S. goods.

There is a good chance the regulation will be reviewed and possible reversed, but immediately after it was issued last week there was a big holiday in the country, which effectively shut down all government operations (it was Turkey Independence Day). USGC is working with USTR to get the decision changed.

Improved Corn Varieties Reduce Poverty in Africa

As the battle for biotech crops continues in many countries, including Africa, a recent study finds that improved corn varieties have made a significant impact on reducing poverty.

According to an article published in Agricultural Economics, a multi-country study documents the significant role international maize research plays in reducing poverty. It finds that since the mid-1990s, more than one million people per year have escaped poverty through the adoption of new maize varieties.

Key economic benefits from maize research are primarily the result of the productivity gains farmers experience after adopting modern varieties. While notably scant prior to the 1980s, the percentage of MVs found in a maize area grew from 5 % in the 1970s to 60% in 2005. The study results suggest that without research to maintain or increase maize yields, poverty in the region would be substantially worse.

Googling around for more information on African maize production, I found this story on the Alliance for a Green Revolution in African (AGRA) website that tells the story of Able Traore, a West African farmer who started using modern seed varieties on his small farm two years ago that have increased his yields by 50 percent. “If I had known what I know now, I would not have left the country for any other place. I wish that all my kids become farmers. Farming is the most pleasant job you can do in Mali,” Traore says. How true is that?

Of course, it’s not just better, higher yielding varieties that will continue to help Africans feed themselves. It is also access to more modern farming methods, fertilizer and inputs. As the AGRA website states: “We know that through dramatic improvements to agriculture, prosperity can replace poverty. In most modern economies, no lasting success has been achieved without first building a strong agricultural foundation.” True again.

No doubt that much of the credit for the improvement over the past 30 years in Africa must be given to the late Dr. Norman Borlaug. In 1986, Borlaug began working with the Sasakawa Africa Association, which aims to defeat malnutrition and poverty in Africa. At a memorial for Borlaug earlier this month, Yohei Sasakawa promised to carry on Borlaug’s dream that African children would someday not have to go to bed hungry. “You cultivated a dream that would empower the farmers, you planted the seeds of hope, you watered them with enthusiasm, you gave them sunshine, you inspired with your passion, you harvested confidence in the hearts of African farmers,” he said. Amen.

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