Thursday, December 31, 2009

Kudos to Monsanto: Forbes Company of the Year

Monsanto, a pioneer in sustainable food production technology, is named Company of the Year by Forbes magazine.

Excerpts:

"It is like computers in the 1960s," says Robert T. Fraley, Monsanto's chief technology officer. "We are just at the beginning of the explosion of technology we are going to see." Adds Grant: "Our pipeline is richer and deeper than it has ever been." A new corn variety that includes eight genes for pest resistance and herbicide tolerance could become the company's next big product. It is due out this spring. Also in testing are drought-tolerant corn, corn that needs less fertilizer and higher-yielding biotech soybeans and corn."

"Even some organic farmers are clamoring for genetically modified crops. Don J. Cameron grows both organic and conventional cotton on his farm in Helm, Calif. The organic fields cost $500 per acre to weed by hand, versus only $30 an acre for glyphosate-immune fields. Lately he can't even sell organic cotton because the stuff coming out of India, Syria and Uganda is so cheap. "I feel the organic industry has painted itself in a corner saying that all genetically modified organisms are bad. Eventually they're going to have to allow it," Cameron says."

"But the effect on the environment is just the opposite. GM seeds lower pesticide use or, in the case of Roundup resistance, may reduce soil erosion by making low-till farming more practical. "We have to feed people in a less destructive way," says uc, Davis plant biologist Pamela Ronald, author of the pro-biotech book Tomorrow's Table. "Genetically engineered crops can be useful for that."

"Farmers vote one spring at a time. You get invited back if you do a good job," Grant says.


Read the entire article in Forbes (link)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Climategate and the Politization of Science

A very well balanced take on climategate can be found in a recent edition of the Los Angeles Times:

Climate change e-mail scandal underscores myth of pure science

"The idea that pure, disinterested science should decide political disputes was a staple of Democratic politics during the George W. Bush administration. Now it's payback time, as Republicans gloat over an alleged "smoking gun" of scientific misconduct provided by recently released e-mails from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit. After decrying the "Republican war on science," Democrats are hard-pressed to explain the discovery of their own partisans in the scientific trenches."

"Science, in other words, is replete with the same human failings that mark all other social activities."

"Thus, we write neither to attack nor to defend the East Anglia scientists, but to make clear that the ideal of pure science as a source of truth that can cut through politics is false. "

"The real scandal illustrated by the e-mails is not that scientists tried to undermine peer review, fudge and conceal data, and torpedo competitors, but that scientists and advocates on both sides of the climate debate continue to claim political authority derived from a false ideal of pure science. This charade is a disservice to both science and democracy. To science, because the reality cannot live up to the myth; to democracy, because the difficult political choices created by the genuine but also uncertain threat of climate change are concealed by the scientific debate."

I have recently commented on Climategate (link), but my comments related to how it may or may not impact the actual consensus, and the direction policymakers should take from here.

The LA Times article takes another approach and gives yet another reason, as I mentioned in 'Politics and Science' that "It is naive to think that democracy, or an election that replaces one set of politicians and bureaucrats with another will usher in a new age of enlightenment."

Reference:

Climate change e-mail scandal underscores myth of pure science
LA Times
By Daniel Sarewitz and Samuel Thernstrom
December 16, 2009

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Soft Drink Video: Insulting Our Intelligence

Many may have seen the video from New York City regarding soft drinks and fat:

( link)

While it is true that the excessive consumption of calories and lack of exercise could result in weight gain, this campaign fails to specify these qualifications. It makes a mockery of science, and is insulting to consumer intelligence.

It is surprising that anyone would stake so much on a campaign with such little support from the literature. Research from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition finds no link to obesity and soft drink consumption.

"We showed no association between sugar-sweetened
beverage consumption, juice consumption, and adolescent weight
gain over a 5-y period. A direct association between diet beverages
and weight gain appeared to be explained by dieting practices.
Adolescents who consumed little or no white milk gained significantly
more weight than their peers who consumed white milk. Future
research that examines beverage habits and weight among adolescents
should address portion sizes, adolescent maturation, and dieting behaviors."


This corroborates previous findings from the journal Nutrition:

"Our analysis shows no evidence for an association between SSB consumption at age 5 or 7 y and fat mass at age 9 y in this cohort of British children"

A recent blog post (link) gets close to accurately reporting the issue of high fructose corn syrup- a sweetener chemically identical to table sugar found in soft drinks:

"Fructose and high-fructose corn syrup aren't the same. It appears that the writer, Lois Rogers, conflated the two and jumped to all kinds of incorrect conclusions. For example, that the research had anything at all to do with "the obesity epidemic." It didn't."

"The environmental site Grist tends to see everything through an ideological lens, and so is always on the hunt for evidence that high-fructose corn syrup is somehow more harmful than common sugar"


But then the article starts to get off track in stating:

"It is cheap (high fructose corn syrup) in large part because of farm subsidies. As a result, it is ubiquitous and is making a lot of people fat, diabetic, and prone to heart disease."

Research taking the claim of a connection between obesity and farm policy in a more direct fashion can be found here( from UC Davis).

"'The culprit here is not corn subsidies; rather,it is sugar policy that has restricted imports, driven up the U.S. price of sugar, and encouraged the replacement of sugar with alternative caloric sweeteners...Given that consumers generally show limited responses to retail food price changes, eliminating the corn subsidy would reduce corn-based food consumption by at most 0.2 percent.""

Similarly, this weak response of consumers to food prices undermines policies that advocate taxing soft drinks to reduce consumption and obesity. Research ( from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University) indicates that the taxes required to have any real affect on obesity would be in the 1200 percent range, and even if taxes eliminated ( in this case soda) consumption, the impact on obesity would be very small. The study concludes that "the sensitivity of individuals to changes in relative food prices is not sufficient to make “fat taxes” a viable tool to lower obesity."

These campaigns are nothing more than emotional appeals designed to solicit support for new taxes and regulations that ultimately undermine the agriculture industry and family farms.

References:

Media Gets Stuck in High-Fructose Corn Syrup
Dan MItchell
Daily Bread, The Business of Food Blog
The Big Money by Slate

Am J Clin Nutr doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.27573
Adolescent beverage habits and changes in weight over time:
findings from Project EAT1–3
Michelle S Vanselow, Mark A Pereira, Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, and Susan K Raatz

Nutrition July-August 2007, Volume 23, Issues 7-8, Pages 557-563
"Is sugar-sweetened beverage consumption associated with increased fatness in children?"

Taxing Sins: Are Excise Taxes Efficient
The Mercatus Center
George Mason University

Farm Subsidies and Obesity in the United States
Julian M. Alston, Daniel A. Sumner, and Stephen A. Vosti
Agricultural and Resource Economics Update
University of California
V. 11 no. • Nov/Dec 007

Family Farmers Stand Up Against Elites

Farmers are starting to speak out against the attacks from point of view journalism, celebrity authors, and novelty film makers that have cleverly crafted arguments against 'industrial' farms, while stealthily undermining the practices of most family farmers.

The Omnivore’s Delusion: Against the Agri-intellectuals

By Blake Hurst- The American July 30 2009

"He quieted and asked me what kind of farming I do. I told him, and when he asked if I used organic farming, I said no, and left it at that. I didn’t answer with the first thought that came to mind, which is simply this: I deal in the real world, not superstitions, and unless the consumer absolutely forces my hand, I am about as likely to adopt organic methods as the Wall Street Journal is to publish their next edition by setting the type by hand. He was a businessman, and I’m sure spends his days with spreadsheets, projections, and marketing studies. He hasn’t used a slide rule in his career and wouldn’t make projections with tea leaves or soothsayers. He does not blame witchcraft for a bad quarter, or expect the factory that makes his product to use steam power instead of electricity, or horses and wagons to deliver his products instead of trucks and trains. But he expects me to farm like my grandfather, and not incidentally, I suppose, to live like him as well. He thinks farmers are too stupid to farm sustainably, too cruel to treat their animals well, and too careless to worry about their communities, their health, and their families...The most delicious irony is this: the parts of farming that are the most “industrial” are the most likely to be owned by the kind of family farmers that elicit such a positive response from the consumer. Corn farms are almost all owned and managed by small family farmers. "

Farm official: Elitists’ efforts would mean more hungry people
Saturday, December 12, 2009
Agrinews Online

“The elitists have been able to put in place zealots who are causing proposed regulations to come down the pike that will affect production agriculture more than ever,” he said. “They are trying to carry out their concepts, their ideas, of what needs to be done to forge what they perceive as a lifestyle that everybody should participate in.”

Attacks on the toolboxes that help farmers increase productivity are at the top of the list. A new review of atrazine — just reviewed in 2006 — the banning of carbamates, nutrient application rules and proposed spray drift controls are some of the attempts by elitists to impose their will on the nation’s food producers.The controversial issues of global warming and climate change and international indirect land use are issues on which elitists are focusing as a way of imposing more regulations on production agriculture.

“Tools that production agriculture has used are being removed from our toolbox,” Weinzierl said.

Food, Inc., discussion draws 50 in Fergus Falls

Agrinews- Dec 10,2009

"It's not telling the whole story," said the crop consultant and former farmer. "I think it was quite biased. I am an advocate for agriculture and I support all of agriculture. But this isn't telling the whole story."

Farmer Cynthia Johnson agreed.

"I substitute teach in the school and ag is not painted a beautiful picture in any of the textbooks," she said.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Rush is Right- No Rush to Innovate in this Climate

On my way to a late lunch yesterday I got a chance to catch a bit fromt he Rush Limbaugh show. He was talking about a story from CNN Money entitled "Recession's latest victim: U.S. innovation." The concern was that the recession was leading to a decrease in patents being filed which could lead to less innovation and fewer job and opportunities.

The article calls for patent reform to help speed up the process, but seems to miss a bigger point. Despite the costly process of applying for a patent, and the huge costs associated with defending them, there are also the costs involved in the R&D that went into developing whatever innovation you are filing for. All of this eats into profits, which lately have been thin and held under strict scrutiny. All the while businesses are blamed both for taking job creating risks and for excessive profits when they succeed. My ears perked up when I heard Rush say:

"when you are on the verge of passing legislation that will destroy the private sector, raise taxes, and punish achievement… and have a pay czar out there. If you succeed too much, the pay czar is going to be knocking on your door and telling you how much you can pay yourself and your other employees. It is not the recession killing innovation. In fact, innovation is largely key coming out of recessions"

Not only did this seem consistent with basic economics, but it reminded me of an old essay I read from a pamphlet I got from my high school history teacher. It was taken from John Chamberlain's book 'Enterprising Americans'.

One central theme behind Roosevelt's stimulus policies, like today, was that business was sitting on thier hands and the government had to tax and spend to get things going and regulate to keep them going and prevent the next downturn. Things never got going under the New Deal. It wasn't until after WWII that we began to see any change at all. But as Chamberlain pointed out:

"the magnitude of the response of U.S. business to the war is in itself refutation of the thesis that in the thirties businessmen simply sat on thier hands"

and had business simply reached a point of stagnation that only government spending could revitalize

"it simply would not have been able to produce the new type of goods when the war button was pressed"

While it was true that total investment was low, investment opportunities were proliferant. He points out the infinite number of industries ready to bust out with thier innovations, including such leaders as du Pont, Dow Chemical, American Cyanamid, and Monsanto that many in the ag industry would be familiar with. During this time GE was ready to go with flourescent lighting and Kodak with color photography and commercial air travel was in the making.

But these great ideas were suppressed and kept on the back burner under the massive interventions of Roosevelt's expanding government.

"Businessmen came to ask themseleves whether Roosevelt really understood a system where the hope of profit sparks expansion and investment. Or did he believe simply in centralizing decision and authority in boards and "planners" along the Patomac?"

With the pay czars, government takeovers, bailouts, and numerous other talked about interventions in the economy this certainly reads true for today. Just substitute the word "czars" for "planners."


Reference:

The Enterprising Americans:
A Business History of
the United States
BY JOHN CHAMBERLAIN
INSTITUTE FOR CHRISTIAN ECONOMICS
TYLER, TEXAS

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Real Farmville

This video (courtesy of the Animal Agriculture Alliance), makes the obvious point that modern agriculture isn't like the Facebook game 'Farmville', and it is quite a bit different than how we produced food 100 years ago. Implicit in this statement is the fact that 98% of all farms are family farms and account for 96% of output while improved management, production methods , biotech, and pharmaceutical technologies have allowed us to achieve an unprecedented balance between increased output and decreased environmental impact ( improving overall biodiversity as well as the diversity of crops planted) .


* The U.S. dairy industry produced 8.3 billion more gallons of milk than in 1944 (vs. 2007), but due to improved productivity, the carbon footprint of the entire dairy farm industry dropped 41% during the same time period. Geenhouse gas emissions per gallon of milk produced are 63% lower.

*Roundup Ready technology has allowed for glyphosate herbicide to substitute for 7.2 million pounds of other chemicals that are more toxic and persistent in the environment. Overall Biotech crops have reduced pesticide spraying 125%.

*Between 1987 and 2007 energy use per unit of output is down in corn, soybeans and cotton production by nearly 40% . Irrigated water use per unit of output decreased by 20% while carbon emissions per unit of output have dropped by 33% in the three crops.

*Grain feeding combined with growth promotants results in a 40% reduction in greenhouse gases per pound of beef compared to grass finishing, with growth promotants accounting for 25% of the reduction.

More Information:
--------------------

Structure and Finances of U.S. Farms: Family Farm Report, 2007 USDA ERS

Capper, J. L., Cady, R. A., Bauman, D. E. The environmental impact of dairy production: 1944 compared with 2007. Journal of Animal Science, 2009; 87 (6): 2160 DOI: 10.2527/jas.2009-1781

GM crops: global socio-economic
and environmental impacts 1996-
2007 Graham Brookes & Peter Barfoot
PG Economics Ltd, UK
Dorchester, UK

The Environmental Safety and Benefits of Growth Enhancing Pharmaceutical Technologies in Beef Production
By Alex Avery and Dennis Avery, Hudson Institute, Centre for Global Food Issues.

‘‘Diversity of United States Hybrid Maize Germplasm as Revealed by
Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphisms.’’ Crop Science 32: 598–604

A Meta-Analysis of Effects of Bt Cotton and Maize on Nontarget Invertebrates
Michelle Marvier, Chanel McCreedy, James Regetz, Peter Kareiva
Science 8 June 2007:
Vol. 316. no. 5830, pp. 1475 - 1477

Agricultural Outlook ERS/USDA Aug 2006.