Tuesday, 19 June 2018

You Just Knew This Woudn't End Well

For all the bombast of Donald Trump on the evils of Canada's supply management system, it was refreshing to hear U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue defy his boss and speak a little truth about what's going on. Perdue came to Lawrence MacAulay's farm in Midgell, PEI to do a little fence mending after the G7 fiasco a couple of weeks ago.  Perdue said Canada can keep supply management, it's the pricing of a new class of milk in Canada (class 7) that has him worried.  It's a cheaper product that allows Canadian farmers to compete with low cost U.S. diafiltered milk imports used to make cheese. In effect dairy farmers here makes it unnecessary for Canadian dairies to import the U.S. product because they can get it for the same price here in Canada. And today Saputo boss (a large Montreal based dairy with processing interests around the world) Lino Saputo Jr. essentially agreed with Perdue.  Saputo has some history with this problem, and it's not surprising that he would break ranks, because his company started the problem in the first place. 

I had first written about this almost 2 years ago, and you could sense it wouldn't end well.

December 2015

A Shortage of Butter: Not Good News for Dairy Farmers

This is a classic case of a loophole, big business capitalizing on any chance to improve the bottom line, and serious unintended consequences.  The impact of what appeared to be a minor bureaucratic decision  is being felt in Canadian kitchens, food processing plants,  and disturbingly, could do serious economic damage to Canada’s dairy farmers.

A few years ago Federal officials were trying to decide where so called “protein isolates” would fit into the stiff tariff schedule that limits imports of cheaper dairy products like yogurt and cheese. These high tariffs maintain the integrity of Canada’s supply management system that tailors milk supply to Canadian demand using quotas, while assuring farmers a fair price.  Protein isolates are essentially raw protein, like the whey protein used as a dietary supplement. Think of whole milk with the fat and minerals stripped out.  The bureaucrats decided the isolates are a protein “substitute”, not necessarily a dairy product, so they come into Canada tariff-free.  No one paid too much attention then,  but  slowly, over time, a trickle of cheaper protein isolates, almost all from the United States,  has become a tidal wave.  Now Canada’s largest dairy processors like  Parmalat, Saputo,  and Agropur, are helping their bottom line by using the cheaper protein in their cheeses and other dairy products. But there’s a  wrinkle, the processors still need the fat from whole milk to mix with the raw imported protein to produce their cheeses.   This is happening at the same time that dieticians and doctors are telling Canadians it’s OK to eat butter again.  So over the last year  butter, and butterfat, are again in big demand, and for some, short supply.  Farmers nationally have stepped up production by more than 7% on a butterfat basis to meet the shortfall, but because there’s no additional demand for the protein in the whole milk  (usually made into skim milk powder), farmers aren’t paid the full cost of production price for this additional milk, and a lot of the surplus skim milk is being dumped or fed to livestock.

That’s unfortunate, but the more serious impact I think is that it’s given the business media a fresh opportunity to attack supply management.  “Supply management falls butter-side down”  in the Globe and Mail,  and  “Supply management is expensive, irrational — and doomed” in i-Politics amongst others.   What especially irritates me about these articles is that they blame dairy farmers (and always the articles are  accompanied by shots of Holsteins) for lobbying to protect a “broken” system, when it’s large multi-national dairy processors that have created the problem. There’s no benefit flowing back to dairy farmers from  the importation of this cheap protein (other than Quebec farmer-owned Agropur, shame on it.  Parmalat is owned by a large Italian dairy, and Saputo by a Montreal family).

Here’s some better news. As Islanders, we can celebrate the fact that PEI’s dairies, ADL and Purity, do not use this imported protein.  And let’s also enjoy the world recognition ADL cheeses have received recently:  ADL, using a recipe from Cows, produces the Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar that won SuperGold at the World Cheese Awards in England  in late November. And ADL’s own labeled cheddars won several awards at the British Empire Cheese Show in Ontario in mid-November.  I’m not an expert, but maybe the fact that only PEI whole milk, rather than a tasteless imported protein isolate, is used to make these cheeses had something to do with these successes.  

One more thing for consumers to watch for. There is a symbol:

 that says 100% Canadian milk.  That’s your guarantee too that there’s no imported protein in the dairy products. 

Unfortunately for farmers  the trade in protein isolates won’t end quickly. The U.S. dairy industry would launch a trade investigation before the ink was dry on any new government regulation trying to control it.  The big multi-national dairies themselves are playing a game of economic chicken saying they’ll stop only if the others do.  As well they’re getting ready for more competition from cheaper European cheeses if the big EU trade agreement is ever ratified.   So consumers will have to step up if there’s going to be any solution. On PEI at least that’s easily done.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Things that Matter

The more I write about that complex interaction between farm practices, the food marketplace, the environment, politics, I realize that at the heart of it all is the soil. It sounds a little simplistic, but there it is. When there were reports on  long term research on PEI looking at soil health it gave me a chance to try to get some of these ideas down on paper.  So the first is from a column in the Island Farmer.

And the second piece is from an excellent article in the Atlantic by a very smart science writer Charles C. Mann. Bill McKibbon says Mann has captured the very essence of the environmental debate.  See what you think.

From the Island Farmer

Soil: Something Worth Fighting For

Soil and the near-shore waters around our coast are the cornerstones of PEI’s economic life. They not only feed us, but give work to almost all the trades and professions from food processors,  mechanics and machinists,  to lawyers and accountants. But our soil is fragile, easily blown away, and washed into ditches and waterways,  eventually doing damage to productive shellfish beds.  It can happen dramatically in a winter without snow,   a heavy summer downpour, or slowly over decades.  We can’t continue to let this happen.

The results from  a continuing survey of the health of PEI’s soils is not surprising but certainly discouraging.  For eighteen years provincial and federal soil scientists have been measuring organic matter levels (a good indicator of soil health) at 600 sites around the province, a third of them each year.   It’s certainly not every field, but the overall trend is decreasing organic matter levels since the survey began in 1998.   Potato and grain production are causing the biggest decreases from about 3 and half percent in 1998 (just marginal) to less than 2% now.  Soybean production did better but also reduced organic matter levels to just under 3%. Corn, especially when all the crop residue is left behind, held or increased organic matter. Corn is also frequently grown on dairy farms with good sources of manure, and the need for forages, hay and straw.  The corn fields in the survey were at more than 5 and a half  percent in 1998, climbing to over 6% now.  On fields growing forages  there was an increase in organic matter from 3 to almost 4%.  

The more troubling finding for me was that even the traditional 3 year rotation used by potato growers, potatoes followed by grain (often barley) under seeded to forage, and then the forage allowed to grow and mature in the third year isn’t preventing organic matter loss over time. The scientists say there simply isn’t enough organic matter in the clover/grass mix in the third year, especially if the hay and straw is baled and removed,  to make up for the losses from growing potatoes and grain.  What’s even more worrying is that too many farmers, trying to survive on the tiny to non-existent margins in the processing sector, are growing cash crops (especially soybean) in the second and third year to make ends meet, and eliminating forages.  This is added to the collapse of the livestock industry over the last two decades,  and the obvious loss of manure, and even the need to grow hay.

All this matters.  Healthy soils are critical to the proper breakdown of pesticides, utilization of chemical fertilizers, and maintaining moisture during dry summers.  As soils become lifeless and compacted, with little oxygen or organic matter, then pesticides persist, nitrates easily wash out.  It’s a vicious circle.

I’m trying not to be Captain Obvious here.  The deterioration of soils is happening world wide, wherever commercial farming takes place.  Canada’s senate produced a landmark study (the Sparrow report,  “Soil at Risk: Canada’s Eroding Future”) 30 years ago.  PEI’s Roundtable on Resource Management laid out the risks of poor crop rotations more than 20 years ago.  None of this is confusing or unknown.

So what ’s needed? More carrots? More sticks?  I hate to see farmers (and fishermen)  treated like children who have to be disciplined and controlled.  There is the Agricultural Crop Rotation Act, but it’s had little impact.  It hasn’t been well enforced, and sends mixed messages. What are called regulated crops can’t be grown more than once every 3 years, while grains and forages are excluded.  Both corn and soybean are considered grain-like crops and are not regulated like potatoes, so can legally be grown continuously.  There is no requirement for legumes or grasses which are considered the best way to increase organic matter.  

Back in 1996 the Roundtable proposed not just a mandatory 3 year rotation, but also continual monitoring of organic matter levels on every farm. This is complicated but getting closer to a solution, especially if that information is then used to determine crop insurance premiums, and other financial support farmers now receive. If levels are stable or improving then farmers are rewarded. If levels fall, farmers pay a price.  It would level the playing field, not have some farmers feel their neighbours are gaining benefits from short rotations, while they do what’s right. 

Even better, ditch the regulations altogether, and simply use organic matter as a benchmark and let farmers determine the rotations needed to hit the mark.  The goal has to be to maintain and improve soil quality over time.

There are some hopeful signs. Professional publications on commercial potato production now routinely write about improving soils, crop rotations. The Potato Board is behind important research on crop rotations with Agriculture Canada. The livestock industry is growing again which will mean more manure available.

One more thought.  Maybe if it wasn’t called “organic” matter this problem wouldn’t be so easily marginalized by some.  This isn’t some tree-hugging conspiracy trying to tie the hands of farmers.  Soil is the stuff of life. We can’t watch it disappear  without a fight.

Ulises Fariñas

Can Planet Earth Feed 10 Billion People?

Humanity has 30 years to find out.

by Charles C. Mann
All parents remember the moment when they first held their children — the tiny crumpled face, an entire new person, emerging from the hospital blanket. I extended my hands and took my daughter in my arms. I was so overwhelmed that I could hardly think.
Afterward I wandered outside so that mother and child could rest. It was three in the morning, late February in New England. There was ice on the sidewalk and a cold drizzle in the air. As I stepped from the curb, a thought popped into my head: When my daughter is my age, almost 10 billion people will be walking the Earth. I stopped midstride. I thought, How is that going to work?
In 1970, when I was in high school, about one out of every four people was hungry — “undernourished,” to use the term preferred today by the United Nations. Today the proportion has fallen to roughly one out of 10. In those four-plus decades, the global average life span has, astoundingly, risen by more than 11 years; most of the increase occurred in poor places. Hundreds of millions of people in Asia, Latin America, and Africa have lifted themselves from destitution into something like the middle class. This enrichment has not occurred evenly or equitably: Millions upon millions are not prosperous. Still, nothing like this surge of well-being has ever happened before. No one knows whether the rise can continue, or whether our current affluence can be sustained.
Today the world has about 7.6 billion inhabitants. Most demographers believe that by about 2050, that number will reach 10 billion or a bit less. Around this time, our population will probably begin to level off. As a species, we will be at about “replacement level”: On average, each couple will have just enough children to replace themselves. All the while, economists say, the world’s development should continue, however unevenly. The implication is that when my daughter is my age, a sizable percentage of the world’s 10 billion people will be middle-class.
Like other parents, I want my children to be comfortable in their adult lives. But in the hospital parking lot, this suddenly seemed unlikely. Ten billion mouths, I thought. Three billion more middle-class appetites. How can they possibly be satisfied? But that is only part of the question. The full question is: How can we provide for everyone without making the planet uninhabitable?

Bitter Rivals

While my children were growing up, I took advantage of journalistic assignments to speak about these questions, from time to time, with experts in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. As the conversations accumulated, the responses seemed to fall into two broad categories, each associated (at least in my mind) with one of two people, both of them Americans who lived in the 20th century. The two people were barely acquainted and had little regard for each other’s work. But they were largely responsible for the creation of the basic intellectual blueprints that institutions around the world use today for understanding our environmental dilemmas. Unfortunately, their blueprints offer radically different answers to the question of survival.
The two people were William Vogt and Norman Borlaug.
Vogt, born in 1902, laid out the basic ideas for the modern environmental movement. In particular, he founded what the Hampshire College population researcher Betsy Hartmann has called “apocalyptic environmentalism” — the belief that unless humankind drastically reduces consumption and limits population, it will ravage global ecosystems. In best-selling books and powerful speeches, Vogt argued that affluence is not our greatest achievement but our biggest problem. If we continue taking more than the Earth can give, he said, the unavoidable result will be devastation on a global scale. Cut back! Cut back! was his mantra.
Borlaug, born 12 years after Vogt, has become the emblem of “techno-optimism” — the view that science and technology, properly applied, will let us produce a way out of our predicament. He was the best-known figure in the research that in the 1960s created the Green Revolution, the combination of high-yielding crop varieties and agronomic techniques that increased grain harvests around the world, helping to avert tens of millions of deaths from hunger. To Borlaug, affluence was not the problem but the solution. Only by getting richer and more knowledgeable can humankind create the science that will resolve our environmental dilemmas. Innovate! Innovate! was his cry.
Both men thought of themselves as using new scientific knowledge to face a planetary crisis. But that is where the similarity ends. For Borlaug, human ingenuity was the solution to our problems. One example: By using the advanced methods of the Green Revolution to increase per-acre yields, he argued, farmers would not have to plant as many acres, an idea researchers now call the “Borlaug hypothesis.” Vogt’s views were the opposite: The solution, he said, was to use ecological knowledge to get smaller. Rather than grow more grain to produce more meat, humankind should, as his followers say, “eat lower on the food chain,” to lighten the burden on Earth’s ecosystems. This is where Vogt differed from his predecessor, Robert Malthus, who famously predicted that societies would inevitably run out of food because they would always have too many children. Vogt, shifting the argument, said that we may be able to grow enough food, but at the cost of wrecking the world’s ecosystems.
I think of the adherents of these two perspectives as “Wizards” and “Prophets.” Wizards, following Borlaug’s model, unveil technological fixes; Prophets, looking to Vogt, decry the consequences of our heedlessness.
Borlaug and Vogt traveled in the same orbit for decades, but rarely acknowledged each other. Their first and only meeting, in the mid-1940s, led to disagreement — immediately afterward, Vogt tried to get Borlaug’s work shut down. So far as I know, they never spoke afterward. Each referred to the other’s ideas in public addresses, but never attached a name. Instead, Vogt rebuked the anonymous “deluded” scientists who were actually aggravating our problems. Borlaug branded his opponents “Luddites.”
Ulises Fariñas
Both men are dead now, but the dispute between their disciples has only become more vehement. Wizards view the Prophets’ emphasis on cutting back as intellectually dishonest, indifferent to the poor, even racist (because most of the world’s hungry are non-Caucasian). Following Vogt, they say, is a path toward regression, narrowness, poverty, and hunger — toward a world where billions live in misery despite the scientific knowledge that could free them. Prophets sneer that the Wizards’ faith in human resourcefulness is unthinking, ignorant, even driven by greed (because refusing to push beyond ecological limits will cut into corporate profits). High-intensity, Borlaug-style industrial farming, Prophets say, may pay off in the short run, but in the long run will make the day of ecological reckoning hit harder. The ruination of soil and water by heedless overuse will lead to environmental collapse, which will in turn create worldwide social convulsion. Wizards reply: That’s exactly the global humanitarian crisis we’re preventing! As the finger-pointing has escalated, conversations about the environment have turned into dueling monologues, each side unwilling to engage with the other.
Which might be all right, if we weren’t discussing the fate of our children.

The Roads to Hell

Vogt entered history in 1948, when he published Road to Survival, the first modern we’re-all-going-to-hell book. It contained the foundational argument of today’s environmental movement: carrying capacity. Often called by other names — “ecological limits,” “planetary boundaries” — carrying capacity posits that every ecosystem has a limit to what it can produce. Exceed that limit for too long and the ecosystem will be ruined. As human numbers increase, Road to Survival said, our demands for food will exceed the Earth’s carrying capacity. The results will be catastrophic: erosion, desertification, soil exhaustion, species extinction, and water contamination that will, sooner or later, lead to massive famines. Embraced by writers like Rachel Carson (the author of Silent Spring and one of Vogt’s friends) and Paul Ehrlich (the author of The Population Bomb), Vogt’s arguments about exceeding limits became the wellspring of today’s globe-spanning environmental movement — the only enduring ideology to emerge from the past century.
When Road to Survival appeared, Borlaug was a young plant pathologist working in a faltering program to improve Mexican agriculture. Sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, the project focused on helping the nation’s poor corn farmers. Borlaug was in Mexico for a small side project that involved wheat — or rather, black stem rust, a fungus that is wheat’s oldest and worst predator (the Romans made sacrifices to propitiate the god of stem rust). Cold usually killed stem rust in the United States, but it was constantly present in warmer Mexico, and every spring winds drove it across the border to reinfect U.S. wheat fields.
The sole Rockefeller researcher working on wheat, Borlaug was given so little money that he had to sleep in sheds and fields for months on end. But he succeeded by the mid-’50s in breeding wheat that was resistant to many strains of rust. Not only that, he then created wheat that was much shorter than usual — what became known as “semi-dwarf” wheat. In the past, when wheat was heavily fertilized, it had grown so fast that its stalks became spindly and fell over in the wind. The plants, unable to pull themselves erect, had rotted and died. Borlaug’s shorter, stouter wheat could absorb large doses of fertilizer and channel the extra growth into grain rather than roots or stalk. In early tests, farmers sometimes harvested literally 10 times as much grain from their fields. Yields climbed at such a rate that in 1968 a USAID official called the rise the Green Revolution, thus naming the phenomenon that would come to define the 20th century.
The Green Revolution had its most dramatic effects in Asia, where in 1962 the Rockefeller Foundation and the Ford Foundation opened the International Rice Research Institute (irri) in the Philippines. At the time, at least half of Asia lived in hunger and want; farm yields in many places were stagnant or falling. Governments that had only recently thrown off colonialism were battling communist insurgencies, most notably in Vietnam. U.S. leaders believed the appeal of communism lay in its promise of a better future. Washington wanted to demonstrate that development occurred best under capitalism. irri’s hope was that top research teams would transform Asia by rapidly introducing modern rice agriculture — “a Manhattan Project for food,” in the historian Nick Cullather’s phrase.
Following Borlaug’s lead, irri researchers developed new, high-yielding rice varieties. These swept through Asia in the ’70s and ’80s, nearly tripling rice harvests. More than 80 percent of the rice grown in Asia today originated at irri. Even though the continent’s population has soared, Asian men, women, and children consume an average of 30 percent more calories than they did when irriwas founded. Seoul and Shanghai, Jaipur and Jakarta; shining skyscrapers, pricey hotels, traffic-jammed streets ablaze with neon — all were built atop a foundation of laboratory-bred rice.
Were the Prophets disproved? Was carrying capacity a chimera? No. As Vogt had predicted, the enormous jump in productivity led to enormous environmental damage: drained aquifers, fertilizer runoff, aquatic dead zones, and degraded and waterlogged soils. Worse in a human sense, the rapid increase in productivity made rural land more valuable. Suddenly it was worth stealing — and rural elites in many places did just that, throwing poor farmers off their land. The Prophets argued that the Green Revolution would merely postpone the hunger crisis; it was a one-time lucky break, rather than a permanent solution. And our rising numbers and wealth mean that, just as the Prophets said, our harvests will have to jump again — a second Green Revolution, the Wizards add.
Even though the global population in 2050 will be just 25 percent higher than it is now, typical projections claim that farmers will have to boost food output by 50 to 100 percent. The main reason is that increased affluence has always multiplied the demand for animal products such as cheese, dairy, fish, and especially meat — and growing feed for animals requires much more land, water, and energy than producing food simply by growing and eating plants. Exactly how much more meat tomorrow’s billions will want to consume is unpredictable, but if they are anywhere near as carnivorous as today’s Westerners, the task will be huge. And, Prophets warn, so will the planetary disasters that will come of trying to satisfy the world’s desire for burgers and bacon: ravaged landscapes, struggles over water, and land grabs that leave millions of farmers in poor countries with no means of survival.
What to do? Some of the strategies that were available during the first Green Revolution aren’t anymore. Farmers can’t plant much more land, because almost every accessible acre of arable soil is already in use. Nor can the use of fertilizer be increased; it is already being overused everywhere except some parts of Africa, and the runoff is polluting rivers, lakes, and oceans. Irrigation, too, cannot be greatly expanded — most land that can be irrigated already is. Wizards think the best course is to use genetic modification to create more-productive crops. Prophets see that as a route to further overwhelming the planet’s carrying capacity. We must go in the opposite direction, they say: use less land, waste less water, stop pouring chemicals into both.
It is as if humankind were packed into a bus racing through an impenetrable fog. Somewhere ahead is a cliff: a calamitous reversal of humanity’s fortunes. Nobody can see exactly where it is, but everyone knows that at some point the bus will have to turn. Problem is, Wizards and Prophets disagree about which way to yank the wheel. Each is certain that following the other’s ideas will send the bus over the cliff. As they squabble, the number of passengers keeps rising.

The Story of Nitrogen

Almost everybody eats every day, but too few of us give any thought to how that happens. If agricultural history were required in schools, more people would know the name of Justus von Liebig, who in the mid-19th century established that the amount of nitrogen in the soil controls the rate of plant growth. Historians of science have charged Liebig with faking his data and stealing others’ ideas — accurately, so far as I can tell. But he was also a visionary who profoundly changed the human species’ relationship with nature. Smarmy but farsighted, Liebig imagined a new kind of agriculture: farming as a branch of chemistry and physics. Soil was just a base with the physical attributes necessary to hold roots. Pour in nitrogen-containing compounds — factory-made fertilizer — and gigantic harvests would automatically follow. In today’s terms, Liebig was taking the first steps toward chemically regulated industrial agriculture — an early version of Wizardly thought.
But there was no obvious way to manufacture the nitrogenous substances that feed plants. That technology was provided before and during the First World War by two German chemists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch. Their subsequent Nobel Prizes were richly deserved: The Haber-Bosch process, as it is called, was arguably the most consequential technological innovation of the 20th century. Today the Haber-Bosch process is responsible for almost all of the world’s synthetic fertilizer. A little more than 1 percent of the world’s industrial energy is devoted to it. “That 1 percent,” the futurist Ramez Naam has noted, “roughly doubles the amount of food the world can grow.” The environmental scientist Vaclav Smil has estimated that nitrogen fertilizer from the Haber-Bosch process accounts for “the prevailing diets of nearly 45% of the world’s population.” More than 3 billion men, women, and children — an incomprehensibly vast cloud of hopes, fears, memories, and dreams — owe their existence to two obscure German chemists.
Hard on the heels of the gains came the losses. About 40 percent of the fertilizer applied in the past 60 years was not absorbed by plants. Instead, it washed away into rivers or seeped into the air in the form of nitrous oxides. Fertilizer flushed into water still fertilizes: It boosts the growth of algae, weeds, and other aquatic organisms. When these die, they fall to the floor of the river, lake, or ocean, where microbes consume their remains. So rapidly do the microbes grow on the manna of dead algae and weeds that their respiration drains oxygen from the lower depths, killing off most other life. Nitrogen from Midwestern farms flows down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico every summer, creating an oxygen desert that in 2016 covered almost 7,000 square miles. The next year a still larger dead zone — 23,000 square miles — was mapped in the Bay of Bengal, off the east coast of India.
Rising into the air, nitrous oxides from fertilizers is a major cause of pollution. High in the stratosphere, it combines with and neutralizes the planet’s ozone, which guards life on the surface by blocking cancer-causing ultraviolet rays. Were it not for climate change, suggests the science writer Oliver Morton, the spread of nitrogen’s empire would probably be our biggest ecological worry.
Passionate resistance to that empire sprang up even before Haber and Bosch became Nobel laureates. Its leader was an English farm boy named Albert Howard (1873–1947), who spent most of his career as British India’s official imperial economic botanist. Individually and together, Howard and his wife, Gabrielle, a Cambridge-educated plant physiologist, spent their time in India breeding new varieties of wheat and tobacco, developing novel types of plows, and testing the results of providing oxen with a superhealthy diet. By the end of the First World War, they were convinced that soil was not simply a base for chemical additives. It was an intricate living system that required a wildly complex mix of nutrients in plant and animal waste: harvest leftovers, manure. The Howards summed up their ideas in what they called the Law of Return: “the faithful return to the soil of all available vegetable, animal, and human wastes.” We depend on plants, plants depend on soil, and soil depends on us. Howard’s 1943 Agricultural Testament became the founding document of the organic movement.
Wizards attacked Howard and Jerome I. Rodale — a hardscrabble New York–born entrepreneur, publisher, playwright, gardening theorist, and food experimenter who publicized Howard’s ideas through books and magazines — as charlatans and crackpots. It is true that their zeal was inspired by a near-religious faith in a limit-bound natural order. But when Howard lauded the living nature of the soil, he was referring to the community of soil organisms, the dynamic relations between plant roots and the earth around them, and the physical structure of humus, which stickily binds together soil particles into airy crumbs that hold water instead of letting it run through. All of this was very real, and all of it was unknown when Liebig shaped the basic ideas behind chemical agriculture. The claim Howard made in his many books and speeches that industrial farming was depopulating the countryside and disrupting an older way of life was accurate, too, though his opponents disagreed with him about whether this was a bad thing. Nowadays the Prophets’ fears about industrial agriculture’s exhausting the soil seem prescient: A landmark 2011 study from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization concluded that up to a third of the world’s cropland is degraded.
Ulises Fariñas
At first, reconciling the two points of view might have been possible. One can imagine Borlaugian Wizards considering manure and other natural soil inputs, and Vogtian Prophets willing to use chemicals as a supplement to good soil practice. But that didn’t happen. Hurling insults, the two sides moved further apart. They set in motion a battle that has continued into the 21st century — and become ever more intense with the ubiquity of genetically modified crops. That battle is not just between two philosophies, two approaches to technology, two ways of thinking how best to increase the food supply for a growing population. It is about whether the tools we choose will ensure the survival of the planet or hasten its destruction.

“Not One of Evolution’s Finest Efforts”

All the while that Wizards were championing synthetic fertilizer and Prophets were denouncing it, they were united in ignorance: Nobody knew why plants were so dependent on nitrogen. Only after the Second World War did scientists discover that plants need nitrogen chiefly to make a protein called rubisco, a prima donna in the dance of interactions that is photosynthesis.
In photosynthesis, as children learn in school, plants use energy from the sun to tear apart carbon dioxide and water, blending their constituents into the compounds necessary to make roots, stems, leaves, and seeds. Rubisco is an enzyme that plays a key role in the process. Enzymes are biological catalysts. Like jaywalking pedestrians who cause automobile accidents but escape untouched, enzymes cause biochemical reactions to occur but are unchanged by those reactions. Rubisco takes carbon dioxide from the air, inserts it into the maelstrom of photosynthesis, then goes back for more. Because these movements are central to the process, photosynthesis walks at the speed of rubisco.
Alas, rubisco is, by biological standards, a sluggard, a lazybones, a couch potato. Whereas typical enzyme molecules catalyze thousands of reactions a second, rubisco molecules deign to involve themselves with just two or three a second. Worse, rubisco is inept. As many as two out of every five times, rubisco fumblingly picks up oxygen instead of carbon dioxide, causing the chain of reactions in photosynthesis to break down and have to restart, wasting energy and water. Years ago I talked with biologists about photosynthesis for a magazine article. Not one had a good word to say about rubisco. “Nearly the world’s worst, most incompetent enzyme,” said one researcher. “Not one of evolution’s finest efforts,” said another. To overcome rubisco’s lassitude and maladroitness, plants make a lot of it, requiring a lot of nitrogen to do so. As much as half of the protein in many plant leaves, by weight, is rubisco — it is often said to be the world’s most abundant protein. One estimate is that plants and microorganisms contain more than 11 pounds of rubisco for every person on Earth.
Evolution, one would think, should have improved rubisco. No such luck. But it did produce a work-around: C4 photosynthesis (C4 refers to a four-carbon molecule involved in the scheme). At once a biochemical kludge and a clever mechanism for turbocharging plant growth, C4 photosynthesis consists of a wholesale reorganization of leaf anatomy.
When carbon dioxide comes into a C4 leaf, it is initially grabbed not by rubisco but by a different enzyme that uses it to form a compound that is then pumped into special, rubisco-filled cells deep in the leaf. These cells have almost no oxygen, so rubisco can’t bumblingly grab the wrong molecule. The end result is exactly the same sugars, starches, and cellulose that ordinary photosynthesis produces, except much faster. C4 plants need less water and fertilizer than ordinary plants, because they don’t waste water on rubisco’s mistakes. In the sort of convergence that makes biologists snap to attention, C4 photosynthesis has arisen independently more than 60 times. Corn, tumbleweed, crabgrass, sugarcane, and Bermuda grass — all of these very different plants evolved C4 photosynthesis.
In the botanical equivalent of a moonshot, scientists from around the world are trying to convert rice into a C4 plant — one that would grow faster, require less water and fertilizer, and produce more grain. The scope and audacity of the project are hard to overstate. Rice is the world’s most important foodstuff, the staple crop for more than half the global population, a food so embedded in Asian culture that the words rice and meal are variants of each other in both Chinese and Japanese. Nobody can predict with confidence how much more rice farmers will need to grow by 2050, but estimates range up to a 40 percent rise, driven by both increasing population numbers and increasing affluence, which permits formerly poor people to switch to rice from less prestigious staples such as millet and sweet potato. Meanwhile, the land available to plant rice is shrinking as cities expand into the countryside, thirsty people drain rivers, farmers switch to more-profitable crops, and climate change creates deserts from farmland. Running short of rice would be a human catastrophe with consequences that would ripple around the world.
The C4 Rice Consortium is an attempt to ensure that that never happens. Funded largely by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the consortium is the world’s most ambitious genetic-engineering project. But the term genetic engineering does not capture the project’s scope. The genetic engineering that appears in news reports typically involves big companies sticking individual packets of genetic material, usually from a foreign species, into a crop. The paradigmatic example is Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybean, which contains a snippet of DNA from a bacterium that was found in a Louisiana waste pond. That snippet makes the plant assemble a chemical compound in its leaves and stems that blocks the effects of Roundup, Monsanto’s widely used herbicide. The foreign gene lets farmers spray Roundup on their soy fields, killing weeds but leaving the crop unharmed. Except for making a single tasteless, odorless, nontoxic protein, Roundup Ready soybeans are otherwise identical to ordinary soybeans.
What the C4 Rice Consortium is trying to do with rice bears the same resemblance to typical genetically modified crops as a Boeing 787 does to a paper airplane. Rather than tinker with individual genes in order to monetize seeds, the scientists are trying to refashion photosynthesis, one of the most fundamental processes of life. Because C4 has evolved in so many different species, scientists believe that most plants must have precursor C4 genes. The hope is that rice is one of these, and that the consortium can identify and awaken its dormant C4 genes — following a path evolution has taken many times before. Ideally, researchers would switch on sleeping chunks of genetic material already in rice (or use very similar genes from related species that are close cousins but easier to work with) to create, in effect, a new and more productive species. Common rice, Oryza sativa, will become something else: Oryza nova, say. No company will profit from the result; the International Rice Research Institute, where much of the research takes place, will give away seeds for the modified grain, as it did with Green Revolution rice.
When I visited irri, 35 miles southeast of downtown Manila, scores of people were doing what science does best: breaking a problem into individual pieces, then attacking the pieces. Some were sprouting rice in petri dishes. Others were trying to find chance variations in existing rice strains that might be helpful. Still others were studying a model organism, a C4 species of grass called Setaria viridis. Fast-growing and able to be grown in soil, not paddies, Setaria is easier to work with in the lab than rice. There were experiments to measure differences in photosynthetic chemicals, in the rates of growth of different varieties, in the transmission of biochemical markers. Half a dozen people in white coats were sorting seeds on a big table, grain by grain. More were in fields outside, tending experimental rice paddies. All of the appurtenances of contemporary biology were in evidence: flatscreen monitors, humming refrigerators and freezers, tables full of beakers of recombinant goo, Dilbert and XKCD cartoons taped to whiteboards, a United Nations of graduate students a-gossip in the cafeteria, air conditioners whooshing in a row outside the windows.
Directing the C4 Rice Consortium is Jane Langdale, a molecular geneticist at Oxford’s Department of Plant Sciences. Initial research, she told me, suggests that about a dozen genes play a major part in leaf structure, and perhaps another 10 genes have an equivalent role in the biochemistry. All must be activated in a way that does not affect the plant’s existing, desirable qualities and that allows the genes to coordinate their actions. The next, equally arduous step would be breeding rice varieties that can channel the extra growth provided by C4 photosynthesis into additional grains, rather than roots or stalk. All the while, varieties must be disease-resistant, easy to grow, and palatable for their intended audience, in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
“I think it can all happen, but it might not,” Langdale said. She was quick to point out that even if C4 rice runs into insurmountable obstacles, it is not the only biological moonshot. Self-fertilizing maize, wheat that can grow in salt water, enhanced soil-microbial ecosystems — all are being researched. The odds that any one of these projects will succeed may be small, the idea goes, but the odds that all of them will fail are equally small. The Wizardly process begun by Borlaug is, in Langdale’s view, still going strong.

The Luddites’ Moonshot

For as long as Wizards and Prophets have been arguing about feeding the world, Wizards have charged that Prophet-style agriculture simply cannot produce enough food for tomorrow. In the past 20 years, scores of research teams have appraised the relative contributions of industrial and organic agriculture. These inquiries in turn have been gathered together and assessed, a procedure that is fraught with difficulty: Researchers use different definitions of organic, compare different kinds of farms, and include different costs in their analyses. Nonetheless, every attempt to combine and compare data that I know of has shown that Prophet-style farms yield fewer calories per acre than do Wizard-style farms — sometimes by a little, sometimes by quite a lot. The implications are obvious, Wizards say. If farmers must grow twice as much food to feed the 10 billion, following the ecosystem-conserving rules of Sir Albert Howard ties their hands.
Prophets smite their brows at this logic. To their minds, evaluating farm systems wholly in terms of calories per acre is folly. It doesn’t include the sort of costs identified by Vogt: fertilizer runoff, watershed degradation, soil erosion and compaction, and pesticide and antibiotic overuse. It doesn’t account for the destruction of rural communities. It doesn’t consider whether the food is tasty and nutritious.
Wizards respond that C4 rice will use less fertilizer and water to produce every calorie — it will be better for the environment than conventional crops. That’s like trying to put out fires you started by dousing them with less gasoline! the Prophets say. Just eat less meat! To Wizards, the idea of making farms diverse in a way that mimics natural ecosystems is hooey: only hyperintensive, industrial-scale agriculture using superproductive genetically modified crops can feed tomorrow’s world.
Productivity? the Prophets reply. We have moonshots of our own! And in fact, they do.
Wheat, rice, maize, oats, barley, rye, and the other common cereals are annuals, which need to be planted anew every year. By contrast, the wild grasses that used to fill the prairie are perennials: plants that come back summer after summer, for as long as a decade. Because perennial grasses build up root systems that reach deep into the ground, they hold on to soil better and are less dependent on surface rainwater and nutrients — that is, irrigation and artificial fertilizer — than annual grasses. Many of them are also more disease-resistant. Not needing to build up new roots every spring, perennials emerge from the soil earlier and faster than annuals. And because they don’t die in the winter, they keep photosynthesizing in the fall, when annuals stop. Effectively, they have a longer growing season. They produce food year after year with much less plowing-caused erosion. They could be just as productive as Green Revolution–style grain, Prophets say, but without ruining land, sucking up scarce water, or requiring heavy doses of polluting, energy-intensive fertilizer.
Echoing Borlaug’s program in Mexico, the Rodale Institute, the country’s oldest organization that researches organic agriculture, gathered 250 samples of intermediate wheatgrass (Thinopyrum intermedium) in the late 1980s. A perennial cousin to bread wheat, wheatgrass was introduced to the Western Hemisphere from Asia in the 1930s as fodder for farm animals. Working with U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers, the Rodale Institute’s Peggy Wagoner, a pioneering plant breeder and agricultural researcher, planted samples, measured their yields, and crossbred the best performers in an attempt to make a commercially viable perennial. Wagoner and the Rodale Institute passed the baton in 2002 to the Land Institute, in Salina, Kansas, a nonprofit agricultural-research center dedicated to replacing conventional agriculture with processes akin to those that occur in natural ecosystems. The Land Institute, collaborating with other researchers, has been developing wheatgrass ever since. It has even given its new variety of intermediate wheatgrass a trade name: Kernza.
Like C4 rice, wheatgrass may not fulfill its originators’ hopes. Wheatgrass kernels are one-quarter the size of wheat kernels, sometimes smaller, and have a thicker layer of bran. Unlike wheat, wheatgrass grows into a dark, dense mass of foliage that covers the field; the thick layer of vegetation protects the soil and keeps out weeds, but it also reduces the amount of grain that the plant produces. To make wheatgrass useful to farmers, breeders will have to increase kernel size, alter the plant’s architecture, and improve its bread-making qualities. The work has been slow. Because wheatgrass is a perennial, it must be evaluated over years, rather than a single season. The Land Institute hopes to have field-ready, bread-worthy wheatgrass with kernels that are twice their current size (if still half the size of wheat’s) in the 2020s, though nothing is guaranteed.
Domesticating wheatgrass is the long game. Other plant breeders have been trying for a shortcut: creating a hybrid of bread wheat and wheatgrass, hoping to marry the former’s large, plentiful grain and the latter’s disease resistance and perennial life cycle. The two species produce viable offspring just often enough that biologists in North America, Germany, and the Soviet Union tried unsuccessfully for decades in the mid-1900s to breed useful hybrids. Bolstered by developments in biology, the Land Institute, together with researchers in the Pacific Northwest and Australia, began anew at the turn of this century. When I visited Stephen S. Jones of Washington State University, he and his colleagues had just suggested a scientific name for the newly developed and tested hybrid: Tritipyrum aaseae (the species name honors the pioneering cereal geneticist Hannah Aase). Much work remains; Jones told me that he hoped bread from T. aaseae would be ready for my daughter’s children.
African and Latin American researchers scratch their heads when they hear about these projects. Breeding perennial grains is the hard way for Prophets to raise harvests, says Edwige Botoni, a researcher at the Permanent Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel, in Burkina Faso. Botoni gave a lot of thought to the problem of feeding people from low-quality land while traveling along the edge of the Sahara. One part of the answer, she told me, would be to emulate the farms that flourish in tropical places such as Nigeria and Brazil. Whereas farmers in the temperate zones focus on cereals, tropical growers focus on tubers and trees, both of which are generally more productive than cereals.
Consider cassava, a big tuber also known as manioc, mogo, and yuca. The 11th-most-important crop in the world in terms of production, it is grown in wide swathes of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The edible part grows underground; no matter how big the tuber, the plant will never fall over. On a per-acre basis, cassava harvests far outstrip those of wheat and other cereals. The comparison is unfair, because cassava tubers contain more water than wheat kernels. But even when this is taken into account, cassava produces many more calories per acre than wheat. (The potato is a northern equivalent. The average 2016 U.S. potato yield was 43,700 pounds per acre, more than 10 times the equivalent figure for wheat.) “I don’t know why this alternative is not considered,” Botoni said. Although cassava is unfamiliar to many cultures, introducing it “seems easier than breeding entirely new species.”
Much the same is true for tree crops. A mature McIntosh apple tree might grow 350 to 550 pounds of apples a year. Orchard growers commonly plant 200 to 250 trees per acre. In good years this can work out to 35 to 65 tons of fruit per acre. The equivalent figure for wheat, by contrast, is about a ton and a half. As with cassava and potatoes, apples contain more water than wheat does — but the caloric yield per acre is still higher. Even papayas and bananas are more productive than wheat. So are some nuts, like chestnuts. Apples, chestnuts, and papayas cannot make crusty baguettes, crunchy tortillas, or cloud-light chiffon cakes, but most grain today is destined for highly processed substances like animal feed, breakfast cereal, sweet syrups, and ethanol — and tree and tuber crops can be readily deployed for those.
Am I arguing that farmers around the world should replace their plots of wheat, rice, and maize with fields of cassava, potato, and sweet potato and orchards of bananas, apples, and chestnuts? No. The argument is rather that Prophets have multiple ways to meet tomorrow’s needs. These alternative paths are difficult, but so is the Wizards’ path exemplified in C4 rice. The greatest obstacle for Prophets is something else: labor.
Ulises Fariñas

The Right Way to Live

Since the end of the second world war, most national governments have intentionally directed labor away from agriculture (Communist China was long an exception). The goal was to consolidate and mechanize farms, which would increase harvests and reduce costs, especially for labor. Farmworkers, no longer needed, would move to the cities, where they could get better-paying jobs in factories. In the Borlaugian ideal, both the remaining farm owners and the factory workers would earn more, the former by growing more and better crops, the latter by obtaining better-paying jobs in industry. The nation as a whole would benefit: increased exports from industry and agriculture, cheaper food in the cities, a plentiful labor supply.
There were downsides: Cities in developing nations acquired entire slums full of displaced families. And in many areas, including most of the developed world, the countryside was emptied — exactly what Borlaugians intended, as part of the goal of freeing agriculture workers to pursue their dreams. In the United States, the proportion of the workforce employed in agriculture went from 21.5 percent in 1930 to 1.9 percent in 2000; the number of farms fell by almost two-thirds. The average size of the surviving farms increased to compensate for the smaller number. Meanwhile, states around the world established networks of tax incentives, loan plans, training programs, and direct subsidies to help big farmers acquire large-scale farm machinery, stock up on chemicals, and grow certain government-favored crops for export. Because these systems remain in effect, Vogtian farmers are swimming against the tide.
To Vogtians, the best agriculture takes care of the soil first and foremost, a goal that entails smaller patches of multiple crops — difficult to accomplish when concentrating on the mass production of a single crop. Truly extending agriculture that does this would require bringing back at least some of the people whose parents and grandparents left the countryside. Providing these workers with a decent living would drive up costs. Some labor-sparing mechanization is possible, but no small farmer I have spoken with thinks that it would be possible to shrink the labor force to the level seen in big industrial operations. The whole system can grow only with a wall-to-wall rewrite of the legal system that encourages the use of labor. Such large shifts in social arrangements are not easily accomplished.
And here is the origin of the decades-long dispute between Wizards and Prophets. Although the argument is couched in terms of calories per acre and ecosystem conservation, the disagreement at bottom is about the nature of agriculture — and, with it, the best form of society. To Borlaugians, farming is a kind of useful drudgery that should be eased and reduced as much as possible to maximize individual liberty. To Vogtians, agriculture is about maintaining a set of communities, ecological and human, that have cradled life since the first agricultural revolution, 10,000-plus years ago. It can be drudgery, but it is also work that reinforces the human connection to the Earth. The two arguments are like skew lines, not on the same plane.
My daughter is 19 now, a sophomore in college. In 2050, she will be middle-aged. It will be up to her generation to set up the institutions, laws, and customs that will provide for basic human needs in the world of 10 billion. Every generation decides the future, but the choices made by my children’s generation will resonate for as long as demographers can foresee. Wizard or Prophet? The choice will be less about what this generation thinks is feasible than what it thinks is good.

This article is adapted from Charles C. Mann’s most recent book, The Wizard and the Prophet.

Monday, 25 December 2017

Price vs Value.. An example of the difference

 The Toronto Star, a generally progressive newspaper, has jumped on the anti supply management bandwagon.  Here's their take and a recent column I wrote for the Island farmer. This is one fight I won't give up, and gives me another chance to take a swipe at Walmart.

Angry about bread prices? Save some for supply management

This costs the average Canadian consumer a lot. In 2014 the Conference Board of Canada estimated that higher prices for dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt and so on) alone cost the average family $276 a year.
Another study in the journal Canadian Public Policy put the cost of all supply management policies at an average of $444 per family per year. That adds up to an awful lot. The OECD at one point estimated that supply management cost Canadian consumers a staggering $2.6 billion a year.
All these figures, of course, are sharply contested by the dairy and poultry industries, which profit hugely from existing policies. And it’s perfectly reasonable to defend supply management if you value keeping dairy and poultry farmers prosperous and stable and don’t mind putting the cost of that onto consumers.
Others argue that Canada should value “food security” over having the lowest possible consumer prices. And, even with supply management in place, food is cheaper in this country relative to average earnings than almost anywhere else in the world.
What’s harder to argue is that collusion on the price of some bread products on a scale that can be compensated for by a $25 gift card merits special public outrage while official policy dictates that Canadian consumers must pay far, far more than they need to for other basic foodstuffs.
To be clear, price-fixing on bread is illegal and wrong. But anyone angered by those revelations should bottle that feeling and direct it where it would count a lot more: against Canada’s consumer-unfriendly policies that hike the prices families must pay for milk, cheese, chicken and eggs.

From the Island Farmer

Unintended Consequences

We live in a time when most of us have easy access to endless amounts of information. We have to be smart about what to believe, but anyone with an even remote interest in economics and trade must remember the role our pals at Walmart played to shift production of consumer products from the United States to China during the 1980’s.  I haven’t read one word in the media about this drive to ensure low prices for consumers being at the heart of the huge trade imbalance  between the two countries, close to $350 Billion last year.  President Trump says China outsmarted the U.S., and he’s going to change that.  I’d argue the U.S. went into this relationship with its eyes wide open.

Walmart has done a lot of good work recently to upgrade its own environmental standards and those of its suppliers including companies in China.  However that doesn’t take away from Walmart’s direct involvement in U.S. job losses over the last twenty years, jobs President Trump says he’s going to get back. Good luck with that. 

This started with Sam Walton’s insistence on the lowest possible price for consumers, always.   Even when the company went on a well publicized “Buy American” campaign in the 1990’s (and set-up a wholly owned buying agent to continue overseas purchases)  it wanted U.S. producers to match Chinese prices, forcing even more out of business.  Sam Walton himself wrote in 1992 "We're not interested in charity here, we don't believe in subsidizing substandard work or inefficiency…"   Of course other big retailers followed suit, and the results are predictable.   A recent report  (http://www.epi.org/publication/the-wal-mart-effect/ )  pegs job losses caused by Walmart on its own at 400,000 between 2001-2013.   Throw in other retailers and the numbers climb.  According to the article: “The growing goods trade deficit with China displaced 3.2 million U.S. jobs in the United States between 2001 and 2013, and it has been a prime contributor to the crisis in manufacturing employment over the past 15 years.”    These displaced workers  were a big reason Trump was elected a year ago with his promise to “Make America Great Again.” 

I’m not on an anti-globalization rant here.  I accept that trade between countries with structural or climate differences can benefit buyers and sellers, and lift people out of poverty.  I’m trying to get back to the origins of the unintended consequences of this particular trade mis-match: Sam Walton’s determination that nothing else matters but delivering the cheapest goods to consumers. 

You can see where this is going.   Did you see these recent headlines:  “Supply Management is literally driving tens of thousands of Canadians into poverty” in the Financial Post, or “You’re Paying Too Much for Milk” in the Walrus, and there were many more.   After calling for an end to supply management what follows is advice like this from the usually very smart journalist David Akin  “… done right it would make dairy farmers even more prosperous because they could sell their wonderful product to the world.”

Well yes they could if there were markets in a world awash with surplus milk and dairy products, and more importantly willing to sell at the “world” price.  What Akin and others refuse to understand, much like Sam Walton, are the unintended consequences of always chasing cheaper.  When it comes to farming it goes beyond lost jobs to its severe  impact on the environment.  Just last week the Economist, hardly a radical publication, had this headline “Dairy Farming Polluting New Zealand Water.”   It outlines what happens as dairy farmers there try to produce milk at the low price needed to keep New Zealand an export powerhouse, the competition Canada would run into at every turn.  Intensive dairy farming has led to groundwater polluted with nitrates, and waterways full of algae and dangerous bacteria. From the article  “In Canterbury, one of the most polluted areas, expectant mothers are told to test tap water to avoid “blue baby syndrome”, a potentially fatal ailment thought to be caused by nitrates. The poisonous blooms have killed dogs.”

I can remember doing a  story on a dairy farm next to the Hillsborough River. The farmer worked with Ducks Unlimited to build a pond full of cattails to capture run-off from fields and the milk house before they get to the river. The farmer said the steady income he had from supply management allowed him to do this.  It reminds me now of the importance of the old Oscar Wilde quote:  “What is a cynic. Someone who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”  Let’s stop being cynical about supply management, and recognize its value.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Time to Talk About Debt

This is from a column I wrote for the Island Farmer.

Debt is something most Canadians now accept as almost essential to getting by.  Many economists worry that record levels of household debt will be unsustainable as interest rates rise,  as expected.  What about farmers?  They’re clearly on the same path.  A recent headline  “Canadian Farmers Held Record Amount of Debt in 2016” received virtually no attention.  I think it matters.

I’m no puritan when it comes to debt. I’ve never forgotten reading John Kenneth Galbraith at university on the Great Depression. He wrote that there were excellent carpenters who needed work,  lumber, hammers and nails, people who desperately needed homes. What was missing was the capital required to finance building, and governments and banks were just too  stubborn to make it available.  Galbraith says the misery and suffering caused by this was unforgiveable.   Galbraith’s professional career took him to a number of top economic and diplomatic posts in the United States, but his roots gave him, in my opinion, an extraordinary amount of common sense.  He grew up on a farm in Iona Station, Ontario, and often said the long days and hard work of farming made everything else seem easy.

So let’s try to bring some common sense to farm debt.  The amount of money is one thing, $90.8 Billion nationally in 2016  (not including household debt like home mortgages and car loans), up 7.5% from the year before.  What’s more troubling  is that collectively debt levels continue to rise year after year.  Put differently, debt has not been paid down since 1993, despite what Statistics Canada has reported as some very good years for farmers.   On PEI some debt was paid down in 2012, but since then debt levels have gone up by $150 Million to more than it’s ever been,  $783 Million in 2016.  Loans from provincial agencies are also at record levels, up to almost $48 Million. What’s more worrying here was the increase last year in what’s called “trade credit’, up 16%.  Farmers use it when they can’t borrow any more from traditional lenders like banks. It can sometimes come from friends or family, but most often from suppliers or buyers.   The down side for farmers is that they lose control over where they’ll sell their crop,  and at what price. It’s virtually pledged to whoever supplied the credit, and dealers and processors can take advantage of this.  It keeps farmers in financial trouble in business for one more year,  one more roll of the dice, but a price is paid by the loss of control.   

Debt obviously isn’t always bad.  Money can be borrowed to buy more land or farm machinery, construct new buildings,  all can make a farm more productive. What I’ve seen over the years however is that farmers are continually chasing the market, which is always demanding lower prices, even as costs go up.  If the margins keep shrinking  then more volume can look like a solution. Until it isn’t, especially if other farmers are on the same track and markets become over supplied.  So yes borrowing can make a farm more efficient but not necessarily more profitable. What we do know is that the pressure on farmers to be more productive is relentless.

I’m certainly not saying that every farm is losing money every year. The smartest thing I was ever told about farm finances is that one third of farmers are making money, and another third are losing, all because of good luck and market conditions elsewhere. It’s the middle third you have to pay attention to. I’ve called them the solid family farmers, the ones who don’t brag or complain.  What I do hear from those willing to share  is that they’re treading water at best, or slowly eating into their equity year by year at worst, not enough to alarm their creditors,  but enough that the future looks uncertain. 

Equity is the final piece of the debt puzzle that looks worrying. Land and building values have been going up steadily,  10.9%  a year nationally for the last 4 years, but Farm Credit  is predicting just 4% growth this year, and 1% next.  PEI farmers have benefited (or been hurt if a farmer is looking to buy land) by farm purchases by Taiwanese monks, and Amish families from Ontario. 

Then there’s this.   A Farm Credit  economist  Craig Klemmer uses something he calls liquidity to measure the financial health of farmers. It’s the ratio of current assets to liabilities, and it determines the ability of farms to weather setbacks like poor harvests, or very low prices.  Grain, oilseed and poultry operations have the best liquidity numbers. The worst? Potatoes and dairy, two of the most important commodities on PEI.  Klemmer says the low number for dairy isn’t a problem because of “continuous production and predictable cash flows.”    He indicates about a third of potato producers nationally are on very poor footing financially, and that’s clearly not good for PEI.  I do worry many potato producers here feel boxed in by debt.    

But perhaps John Kenneth Galbraith can cheer us up a bit with one of his famous comments:  “The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.”  Maybe everything will work out. Maybe.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Monsanto Creating Its Own Myths

Monsanto calls  it myth busting.  I think there's another term for it.  Here's what the company says:

Busting 3 Common Myths About Weed Resistance
Weed control has always been a critical challenge for farmers, and herbicides are an important weed control tool. However, changes can occur in response to herbicide use and other management decisions. Changes in weed populations begin when a small number of plants within a species, called a "biotype," have a distinct genetic makeup that allows them to tolerate a particular herbicide application. Multiple weed biotypes can exist in a single field.
This myth-busting list debunks three common misconceptions about herbicide resistance.
MYTH 1: Overuse of glyphosate causes weed resistance.
BUSTED: According to the Weed Science Society of America (WSSA), the first reports of weed resistance occurred back in the 1950s. To date, there has been no evidence of glyphosate (or any other active ingredient) causing herbicide-induced mutation in any plant species. That is to say herbicides did not and do not cause resistance. Herbicide resistance is actually the plant's naturally inherited ability to survive and reproduce after exposure to what is considered to be a lethal dose of chemicals.
As a farmer continues to use a particular herbicide without any other herbicide modes of action, or doesn't use any other cultural practices (tillage, crop rotation, etc.), the resistant biotypes continues to survive and produce seed. Subsequent populations of the resistant biotype will continue to increase until they are the dominant weed in the field.
Common factors that are often present in areas where glyphosate resistance has developed are:
    •    Limited or no crop rotation
    •    Limited or no tillage practices
    •    Use of glyphosate alone or limited use of other actives
    •    Reduced or “cut” rates of glyphosate
Particular weed characteristics that can facilitate development of herbicide resistance include:
    •    Large amount of seeds produced per plant
    •    High level of germination of those seeds
    •    Several weed flushes per season
    •    High frequency of resistant genes

The best way to keep glyphosate powerful is to use it effectively. That mean including an effective tank-mix partner once per growing season and using a diverse crop rotation on your farm.

MYTH 2: Harsh residual chemicals are being used to control glyphosate resistant weeds.
BUSTED: All herbicides have to undergo the same testing and must meet the same health, safety and environmental standards.
Many farmers have grown accustomed to the convenience and effectiveness of using glyphosate alone. The best way to preserve its long-term effectiveness on weeds is to bring in other herbicide modes of action to support it. These complementary herbicides used with glyphosate are not “harsher”; they simply interact with the target weeds differently. They have met the same regulatory standards and have been through the same thorough health, safety and environmental evaluations as glyphosate.
MYTH 3: Herbicides are the solution to all our weed control problems.
BUSTED: Spraying alone is not enough – experts agree that herbicides are important, but other practices should also be implemented.
A successful Integrated Weed Management strategy includes agronomic best practices to limit the introduction and spread of weeds, including:
    •    Crop rotations
    •    Periodic tillage
    •    Seeding rates to promote crop competition
    •    Planting certified seed
    •    Cleaning equipment to minimize spread of weeds
Benefits of residuals:
Tank mixing with a herbicide that offers lasting residual effects is an added benefit of keeping fields cleaner, longer. Products like Monsanto’s Roundup Ready 2 Xtend™ soybeans are tolerant to both glyphosate and dicamba, allowing for the use of multiple modes of action and residual weed control.
Herbicides by the numbers
    •    Herbicide modes of action found to date: 20
    •    Most recent discovery of new herbicide: 80’s
    •    Anticipated time until discovery of new herbicide: 10+ years

Weed Science Society of America. Weed Myths. (verified 04/12/14) http://wssa.net/
Ross, M. Childs, D. Herbicide Mode-of-Action Summary. Department of Botany and Plant Pathology. Purdue University Cooperative Extension Services. (verified 04/12/14)https://www.extension.purdue.edu/

No one that I've read who's been critical of Monsanto's profitable adventures selling both "Round-up Ready" seeds (soybean, corn, etc.), and glyphosate herbicide (Round-up), has ever implied that glyphosate on its own has created resistance in weeds. It's HOW it's used, and simple biology that's led to resistant weeds. 

Developing commercial GMO "Round-up Ready" crops that can survive glyphosate allows farmers to blanket spray tens of millions of acres every season, vastly increasing the biological certainty  of  "a small number of plants within a species, called a "biotype," have a distinct genetic makeup that allows them to tolerate a particular herbicide".   In other words it's the combination of the two (GMO seeds, and use of Round-up, both profit centres for Monsanto)  that's created the problem.  Rolling dice a hundred times and the chance of snake-eyes is slim. Roll them millions of times and the chances get much better.

Some of the most critical comments have come from scientists not worried  about the use or safety of glyphosate, but that it's usefulness will disappear because of  widespread use of Round-up Ready crops. That's on top of the growing concern about glyphosate's possible link to cancer.

There's lots to worry about and question when it comes to glyphosate, but this issue of weed resistance is the most serious legal and technical issue. Monsanto is very clear in its submissions to have Round-up Ready crops approved that resistance wouldn't be a problem. It is.  If the cancer lawsuits weren't underway I suspect this would be the basis of more legal action.

Then there's the question of the newer herbicides needed  to replace glyphosate. One is called dicamba. A recent article in the Washington Post reported that spray drift from dicamba onto crops that have no resistance is a serious and growing problem. 

The genie is out of the bottle I know, but let's at least speak honestly about these things.


This miracle weed killer was supposed to save farms. Instead, it’s devastating them.

Lyle Hadden, a soybean farmer, walks through a field he's planted that shows signs of being affected by the herbicide dicamba. Photo by: Andrea Morales/For The Washington Post

Clay Mayes slams on the brakes of his Chevy Silverado and jumps out with the engine running, yelling at a dogwood by the side of the dirt road as if it had said something insulting.
Its leaves curl downward and in on themselves like tiny, broken umbrellas. It’s the telltale mark of inadvertent exposure to a controversial herbicide called dicamba.
“This is crazy. Crazy!” shouts Mayes, a farm manager, gesticulating toward the shriveled canopy off Highway 61. “I just think if this keeps going on . . .”
“Everything’ll be dead,” says Brian Smith, his passenger.
The damage here in northeast Arkansas and across the Midwest — sickly soybeans, trees and other crops — has become emblematic of a deepening crisis in American agriculture.
Farmers are locked in an arms race between ever-stronger weeds and ever-stronger weed killers.
The dicamba system, approved for use for the first time this spring, was supposed to break the cycle and guarantee weed control in soybeans and cotton. The herbicide — used in combination with a genetically modified dicamba-resistant soybean — promises better control of unwanted plants such as pigweed, which has become resistant to common weed killers.
The problem, farmers and weed scientists say, is that dicamba has drifted from the fields where it was sprayed, damaging millions of acres of unprotected soybeans and other crops in what some are calling a man-made disaster. Critics say that the herbicide was approved by federal officials without enough data, particularly on the critical question of whether it could drift off target.
Government officials and manufacturers Monsanto and BASF deny the charge, saying the system worked as Congress designed it.
Leaves and a stalk from a soybean plant showing signs of being affected by dicamba. Photo by: Andrea Morales/For The Washington Post
The backlash against dicamba has spurred lawsuits, state and federal investigations, and one argument that ended in a farmer’s shooting death and related murder charges.
“This should be a wake-up call,” said David Mortensen, a weed scientist at Pennsylvania State University.
Herbicide-resistant weeds are thought to cost U.S. agriculture millions of dollars per year in lost crops.
After the Environmental Protection Agency approved the updated formulation of the herbicide for use this spring and summer, farmers across the country planted more than 20 million acres of dicamba-resistant soybeans, according to Monsanto.
But as dicamba use has increased, so too have reports that it “volatilizes,” or re-vaporizes and travels to other fields. That harms nearby trees, such as the dogwood outside Blytheville, as well as nonresistant soybeans, fruits and vegetables, and plants used as habitats by bees and other pollinators.
According to a 2004 assessment, dicamba is 75 to 400 times more dangerous to off-target plants than the common weed killer glyphosate, even at very low doses. It is particularly toxic to soybeans — the very crop it was designed to protect — that haven’t been modified for resistance.
Kevin Bradley, a University of Missouri researcher, estimates that more than 3.1 million acres of soybeans have been damaged by dicamba in at least 16 states, including major producers such as Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota. That figure is probably low, according to researchers, and it represents almost 4 percent of all U.S. soybean acres.
“It’s really hard to get a handle on how widespread the damage is,” said Bob Hartzler, a professor of agronomy at Iowa State University. “But I’ve come to the conclusion that [dicamba] is not manageable.”
The dicamba crisis comes on top of lower-than-forecast soybean prices and 14 straight quarters of declining farm income. The pressures on farmers are intense.
One Arkansas man is facing murder charges after he shot a farmer who had come to confront him about dicamba drift, according to law enforcement officials.
Thirty minutes down the road, Arkansas farmer Wally Smith is unsure how much more he can take.
Smith’s farm employs five people — including his son, Hughes, his nephew, Brian, and the farm manager, Mayes. None of the men are quite sure what else they’d do for work in this corner of Mississippi County.
Dicamba has hit the Blytheville — pronounced “Bly-vul” — region hard. For miles in any direction out of town, the soybeans that stretch from the road to the distant tree line are curled and stunted. A nearby organic farm suspended its summer sales after finding dicamba contamination in its produce.
Eddie Dunigan, Photo by: center

At the Smiths’ farm, several thousand acres of soybeans are growing too slowly because of dicamba, representing losses on a $2 million investment.
“This is a fact,” the elder Smith said. “If the yield goes down, we’ll be out of business.”
The new formulations of dicamba were approved on the promise that they were less risky and volatile than earlier versions.
Critics say that the approval process proceeded without adequate data and under enormous pressure from state agriculture departments, industry groups and farmers associations. Those groups said that farmers desperately needed the new herbicide to control glyphosate-resistant weeds, which can take over fields and deprive soybeans of sunlight and nutrients.
Such weeds have grown stronger and more numerous over the past 20 years — a result of herbicide overuse. By spraying so much glyphosate, farmers inadvertently caused weeds to evolve resistant traits more quickly.
The new dicamba formulations were supposed to attack those resistant weeds without floating to other fields.
But during a July 29 call with EPA officials, a dozen state weed scientists expressed unanimous concern that dicamba is more volatile than manufacturers have indicated, according to several scientists on the call. Field tests by researchers at the Universities of Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas have since found that the new dicamba herbicides can volatilize and float to other fields as long as 72 hours after application.
Regulators did not have access to much of this data. Although Monsanto and BASF submitted hundreds of studies to the EPA, only a handful of reports considered volatility in a real-world field setting, as opposed to a greenhouse or a lab, according to regulatory filings. Under EPA rules, manufacturers are responsible for funding and conducting the safety tests the agency uses to evaluate products.
Pigweed, a highly competitive plant that grows in cotton and soybean fields and has developed resistance to some pesticides, grows tall over soybean fields weakened by nearby dicamba use. Photo by: Andrea Morales/For The Washington Post

And although pesticide-makers often supply new products to university researchers to conduct field tests in varied environments, Monsanto acknowledged it did not allow that testing on its commercialized dicamba because it did not want to delay registration, and scientists said BASF limited it.
Frustrated scientists say that allowed chemical companies to cherry-pick the data available to regulators.
“Monsanto in particular did very little volatility field work,” said Jason Norsworthy, an agronomy professor at the University of Arkansas who was denied access to test the volatility of Monsanto’s product.
The EPA and chemical manufacturers deny that there was anything amiss in the dicamba approval process.
“The applicant for registration is required to submit the required data to support registration,” the agency said in a statement. “Congress placed this obligation on the pesticide manufacturer rather than requiring others to develop and fund such data development.”
Manufacturers say that volatility is not to blame. In a statement, BASF spokeswoman Odessa Patricia Hines said the company brought its dicamba product to market “after years of research, farm trials and reviews by universities and regulatory authorities.”
Scott Partridge, Monsanto’s vice president of global strategy, thinks some farmers have illegally sprayed older, more volatile dicamba formulations or used the herbicide with the wrong equipment.
The company, which last year approved $1 billion investment in its dicamba production plant over the next three years, has deployed a fleet of agronomists and climate scientists to figure out what went wrong.
“We’re visiting every grower and every field,” Partridge said. “If there are improvements that can be made to this product, we’re going to do it.”
Regulators in the most-affected states are also taking action. In July, Arkansas banned spraying for the remainder of the season and raised the penalties on illegal applications.
Missouri and Tennessee have tightened their rules on dicamba use, while nearly a dozen states have complained to the EPA.
The agency signaled in early August that it might consider taking the new dicamba herbicides off the market, according to several scientists who spoke to regulators.
The agency would not comment directly on its plans. “EPA is very concerned about the recent reports of crop damage related to the use of dicamba in Arkansas and elsewhere,” an agency representative said.
Meanwhile, a class-action lawsuit alleges that dicamba manufacturers misrepresented the risk of their products. The Smiths are considering signing up. Monsanto says the suit is baseless.
There are also early indications that dicamba may not work for long. Researchers have shown that pigweed can develop dicamba resistance within as few as three years. Suspected instances of dicamba-resistant pigweed have been found in Tennessee and Arkansas.
A spokeswoman for Monsanto said the company was “not aware of any confirmed instances of pigweed resistance” to dicamba.
Soybean farmer Brad Rose's truck kicks up dust while heading down a road near his farm. Photo by: Andrea Morales/For The Washington Post

Some critics of chemical-intensive agriculture have begun to see the crisis as a parable — and a prediction — for the future of farming in the United States. Scott Faber, a vice president at the Environmental Working Group, said farmers have become “trapped on a chemical treadmill” driven by the biotech industry. Many farmers say they think they could not continue farming without new herbicide technology.
“We’re on a road to nowhere,” said Nathan Donley, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The next story is resistance to a third chemical, and then a fourth chemical — you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see where that will end.
“The real issue here is that people are using ever-more complicated combinations of poisons on crops, with ever-more complex consequences.”
In Blytheville, at least, one consequence is increasingly obvious: It’s a short, scraggly plant with cupped green leaves and a few empty pods hanging near its stem. At this time of year, this plant should have more pods and be eight inches taller, Mayes said.
“This is what we’re dealing with here,” he said, before shaking his head and turning back to his truck. “We go to work every day wondering if next year we’re still going to have a job.”