Genetically Engineered Sustainability

In Biotechnology, Environmental, Sustainability by Cindy

GMO CropsThis photo from the image library of the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows crops or products that have either already been genetically engineered or are involved in ongoing or planned transgenic studies.

Biotechnology and genetic engineering are often a source of controversy because of fears that modifying crops genetically could impact human health or biodiversity or something. But a recent study indicates that genetically modified crops might actually help contribute to increased productivity in sustainable agriculture.

The study published in the June 8 issue of the journal Science, analyzes for the first time environmental impact data from field experiments all over the world, involving corn and cotton plants with a Bt gene inserted for its insecticidal properties.

In an analysis of 42 field experiments, scientists found that this particular modification, which causes the plant to produce an insecticide internally, can have an environmental benefit because large-scale insecticide spraying can be avoided. Organisms such as ladybird beetles, earthworms, and bees in locales with “Bt crops” fared better in field trials than those within locales treated with chemical insecticides.

Read more from ScienceDaily.

What is kind of ironic about the whole genetic engineering/biotech controversy is that the same people who have problems with genetically modified crops often have no problem with the concept of manufacturing embryos to use their stem cells for research to find “cures” for diseases or conditions - which is essentially genetic engineering on a human level. California is a good example of that kind of thinking, where they want to ban farmers from planting GM strawberries, while at the same time provide taxpayer dollars for embryonic stem cell research.

Shannon Brown is Corn Fed

In General by Chuck

Shannon BrownWhen we think of the term “corn fed” we often think of some fine U. S. beef. Well now you can think music, as in, Shannon Brown’s new album and title track. Shannon is an Iowa native and Nashville artist who performed last week at the opening of the VeraSun Charles City, IA ethanol plant.

Here in this picture she’s performing for the video of the song, “Corn Fed.” You can watch that video on her website. The video takes place in a corn field and John Deere is going to be happy to see their green equipment featured as well.

Shannon has put lyrics and music to a theme you’ll hear time and time again from farmers—their love of life in rural America, their love of country and a pride in being part of agriculture.

Colorado Ag Groups Defend Corn Prices

In Current News, Ethanol, Food vs Fuel by Chuck

After hearing national media coverage citing ethanol as the reason for higher grocery costs, Colorado Corn Growers, Colorado Farm Bureau and Ag Commissioner John Stulp decided to take a stand. Several Denver media outlets featured the story. You can see their coverage using the following links!

“Farmers Defend Themselves Amid Growing Prices” - This is a KCNC News 4 story by Mike Hooker. In the story he writes, “Colorado agricultural leaders say the special interest groups, who want to put the ethanol business out to pasture, are misleading the public.

“They want the American public to think that they’re going to have to decide between food or fuel,” Troy Brendenkamp with the Colorado Agricultural Council said.

Fighting back, Colorado ag leaders called a news conference Thursday. They praised U.S. farmers and said corn growers aren’t getting a windfall from ethanol when production cost increases like labor and, particularly, the spike in fuel costs are considered.”

“Colorado corn growers address grocery prices”
- This is a story by TaRhonda Thomas. In the story she writes, “”The national media would have you believe the increased demand for corn… is responsible for increases in everything from apples to zucchini,” said Mark Sponsler, executive director of the Colorado Corn Growers Association. “The real impact of the corn for fuel industry is much less significant than some would have you believe.”

“They ignore the impact of petroleum and higher energy costs on production, manufacturing, transportation, packaging, utilities and the fact that wages account for more than sixty percent of every dollar spent at the grocery store,” said Sponsler.”

Project Phin Update

In Activism, Ethanol by Cindy

The first phase of Project Phin: Clean My Ride, Flex My Fuel is over and according to organizers it has become a “pop culture icon” in just a few short weeks.

Project Phin had the honor of being the very first post on Corn Commentary and one of the videos was also featured on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno when Matt Damon appeared as a guest. That’s because Damon is one of the featured celebrities in Phin’s videos. As Matt told Jay, “I demeaned myself to promote flex fuels.”

Project Phin organizers report the videos have been viewed 200,000 times (not counting the Tonight Show audience) and more than 20,000 letters have been sent to Congress through the Clean My Ride website.

Be sure to check out the “Concerned About Corn” page on the website. Some good points there for those who have problems with corn ethanol. Among them:
1. Ethanol produced from corn is only one near-term solution to our dependence on oil.
2. Putting Ben Affleck into a corn suit is just plain funny. (see video)
3. While we already know how to produce corn ethanol, scientists are still figuring out the best ways to produce affordable cellulosic ethanol.
4. Our aim in these videos was not to single out corn ethanol as “the answer” to our dependence on oil. We simply intended to start a discussion and increase awareness about alternative low carbon fuels, and to have a little fun in the process. After all, it is harder to dress up as agricultural waste than an ear of corn.

Not the Gummy Bears! And Beer too?

In Food vs Fuel, General by Cindy

The latest food industries to blame ethanol for rising prices are German beer brewers and gummy bear makers, according to this article from Spiegel International.

Iowa State University’s Center for Agriculture and Rural Development (CARD) asks the question, Do Biofuels Mean Inexpensive Food Is a Thing of the Past?

To answer that, CARD says knowing how U.S. consumers spend their food dollars and how higher commodity prices influence food prices will give us a better understanding of whether we’ll be spending more or less on food in the future.

One indicator of a nation’s standard of living is the proportion of income that its citizens spend on food. Typically, this share is measured using after-tax or disposable income. This share in the United States has fallen from 20 percent in the early 1950s to about 10 percent today. In contrast, Canadians today spend an average of about 14 percent of their disposable income on food, and Mexicans spend 26 percent. It would be even less than 10 percent if we didn’t spend about HALF of our food dollar dining out, and the main reason food prices have risen more slowly than other prices over the years is “rapid productivity growth on the farm and all along the food chain.”

Okay, so what happens when the price of corn goes up? According to CARD, as an example, “if a $1.00 can of soda contains 2¢ worth of corn that is contained in high-fructose corn sweetener, then a doubling in the price of corn would increase the cost of producing the soda by at most 2¢.” But, corn makes up a smaller share of the final price for all foods consumed AWAY from home than food consumed at home because of additional labor costs.

In a recent study, CARD researchers estimated that a 30 percent increase in the price of corn, and associated increases in the prices of wheat and soybeans, would increase egg prices by 8.1 percent, poultry prices by 5.1 percent, pork prices by 4.5 percent, beef prices by 4.1 percent, and milk prices by 2.7 percent. For all food consumed at home, average prices would increase by 1.3 percent. For food consumed away from home, average prices were estimated to increase by 0.9 percent. So, across all food consumed, 30 percent higher corn prices increase all average food prices by 1.1 percent, according to our estimates.

Ethanol may be a convenient scapegoat for food companies and others to blame for higher prices, but there are too many other factors that may be having a much larger impact. CARD uses milk as an example, saying that “the primary cause of high milk prices is that international demand for dairy products has outstripped international supply.”

Not sure if that is the case with beer and gummy bears, but ethanol does give those folks a good reason to increase their prices and lay the blame elsewhere while they make more money.

Conservation Critical for Corn

In Environmental, General by Cindy

“Conventional tillage is no longer conventional,” says Kyle Nickel with the Conservation Technology Information Center. “It’s a thing of the past.”

That’s a quote in this week’s American Farm Bureau Federation editorial by Anne Keller, AFBF Director of Issues Management. She writes:

In fact, a county-by-county crop residue management survey by the CTIC shows only about 33 percent of all cropland acres in the U.S. are still planted using traditional methods such as disking and moldboard plowing.

This is important because of concerns about what increased corn plantings could mean for future soil quality. According to CTIC, newer methods of “conservation tillage” planting that keep the soil and its moisture and nutrients largely in place, rather than turning over each spring, may make corn-corn rotations conceivable.

Meanwhile, the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) has just completed an analysis of data from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and other sources that indicates U.S. corn growers reduced soil erosion by approximately 44 percent over a 20-year period through a combination of conservation tillage and other soil-saving practices.

“The study shows we can sustain production without losing soil and nutrients,” said Bill Chase, chairman of NCGA’s Production and Stewardship Action Team.

Year of Corn

In Ethanol, General by Cindy

The theme of the 2007 Indiana State Fair is “The Year of Corn” and the Indianapolis Star agrees, according to today’s editorial.

“More than a grain of truth carried in corn bandwagon” is the headline and it reads in part:

Visitors to the Indiana State Fair are getting no end of visual, audible, tactile and gustatory reminders of the importance of corn to the Hoosier economy and culture….

From the White House to the Indiana Statehouse, the message has been heard — and is being relayed — that corn-based ethanol can make a significant contribution to America’s motor-fuel supply and, as part of an array of alternatives, lessen the dependency on foreign oil that leaves the nation vulnerable to the whims of cartels and terror-sponsoring governments…..

…..the future looks a lot like the Fairgrounds — golden from fencerow to fencerow. Government and business need to move decisively yet carefully to realize the promise, and disappoint the barons of black gold.

Corn Blogs

In General by Chuck

Now that Corn Commentary is up and running I thought it might be interesting to Google around for other corn blogs. I found some interesting sites including some with corn in the name but not about the kind of corn we’re talking about here.

Here’s a few you might be interested in:

Velma’s Wicked Delicious Kettle Corn
(self explanatory)

UseCorn (published by USECORN.COM, L.L.C.)

Corn Nation (all about Nebraska Corn Huskers)

BIOConversion Blog (Scott Miller writes about his favorite topic)

Rhapsody in Green (POET blogger Nathan Schock)

If you know of any more we might want to point people to then leave a comment with the link and we’ll check it out.

Consumer Federation Report Gets Little Attention

In Ethanol, General by Cindy

At the end of last month, the Consumer Federation of America came out with a report that basically says oil companies are holding up the expansion of ethanol.

However, “Big Oil vs Ethanol” has received virtually no press coverage. Interesting. CFA is an advocacy, research, education, and service organization that has been around since 1968 and is credible enough that the media has been known to use its opinions on other matters - but not in this case.

CFAThe conclusion of the CFA report written by Mark Cooper, CFA’s director of research, reads:

Big Oil has reacted aggressively against the expansion of ethanol production, suggesting that it perceives the growth of biofuels as an independent, competitive threat to its market power in refining and gasoline marketing. This paper explored the market fundamentals that underlay Big Oil’s reaction to policies to expand ethanol production. We find that, at the critical margins of spare capacity, the expansion of ethanol capacity could pose a real threat to the tight market situation that Big Oil has created by steadily underinvesting in refining capacity. The vigorously competitive ethanol sector is set to undergo a dramatic expansion, which could alter the extremely tight supply-demand balance that has afflicted gasoline consumers for the past seven years. While there are many other aspects of the expansion of ethanol that deserve close attention – such as non-food feed stocks and land management issues – on the market structural potential for ethanol to be a game changer,
consumers have a large stake in the outcome of the war being waged by Big Oil against ethanol. Supporting increased competition in the automobile fuels market will help discipline a market dominated by a handful of multinational oil companies that are extracting monopoly profits from US gasoline consumers.

Is the media as threatened by ethanol as Big Oil seems to be?

Popcorn Poppycock

In Current News, Ethanol, Food vs Fuel, General, State Groups by Cindy

Iowa PopcornI know Chuck already did a post on the Iowa “Popcorn Propaganda” event, but here are my thoughts to add, along with another picture.

This is Iowa Corn Promotion Board intern Paul Brees with the fruits of his six hours of labor - 38.5 pounds of popcorn. The purpose of Paul’s popping project was to point out to the press and the public that pinning popcorn prices on ethanol production is pure poppycock.

The Iowa photo-op did generate some publicity. The Associated Press story headline reads, “Ethanol Makers Join Food vs. Fuel Debate.” The story was good, the facts were right, the ending comments from the Jolly Time popcorn people fell pretty flat, but the headline was all wrong. It makes it sound like all of the sudden the corn and ethanol industries woke up and decided to defend themselves. The media just hasn’t been listening.

Here is a link to the popcorn facts sheet from the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association that provides some points for the media to ponder. Among them … that tub of popcorn at the movie theater contains .15 pounds, or 2.4 ounces, of popcorn kernels prior to popping. And that five dollars worth of popcorn from the farmer filling all those trash bags would translate to about $1280 at the movie theater.

By the way, in case you were wondering what happened to all that popcorn, Mindy Williamson with Iowa Corn says they donated it to local daycares and two homeless shelters. Not bad for a $5 investment!