Wednesday, December 11, 2013

What does the farmer say...about seed choices? (Channeling Hayek)

I recently came across the following article in the Huffington post: Do Farmers Have Choices? by Jenny Dewey Rohrich who also has a very nice blog replete with some very good ag photography. The article discusses seed and hybrid selection issues based on actual responses from real producers. The responses are what I expected, of course they have a choice and its a tough one!

I've seen the concern out there that many people think big agribusiness and biotech companies have a gun (figuratively) to growers heads when it comes to seed choices and that justifies government interventions like labeling, more regulation, or bans on GMOs . As this article states, seed choice is a very complicated decision that involves many variables and traits. From the article, one producer describes their decision process that involves comparisons of hundreds of varieties from hundreds of corporations and mom and pop seed companies:

"First we go through the list of potential seed candidates every year comparing conventional, GM, and hybrids. Then we compare yields, cost per acre to keep plants alive, and then we throw in the variables: drought, flood, extreme heat or cold, early frosts, and untimely rains during harvest."

 The choice of what crops we should grow, how they should be produced in terms of management practices and technology, and ultimately the variety of foods we choose to consume is an example of what economists refer to as the knowledge problem. While it might be possible to patent a given trait or hybrid, no one company can get too firm a grasp on this knowledge problem, regardless of their market share in the seed industry today. (not to mention, no government agency would have sufficient knowledge either). Given the vast array of considerations in seed choice and management practices, there is always going to be an incentive for some supplier to cater to the unique needs of individual producers, as advances in genomics and technology drive production not farm by farm or acre by acre but inch by inch. That's also why the market has driven companies to treat hybrid selection like a 'big data' problem and they are developing multivariate recommender systems as tools to assist in this (like ACRES and FieldScripts). The market's response to each individual producer's unique circumstances of time and place also ensures continued diversity of crop genetics planted. Referring to the great article Blake Hurst recently wrote in The American, the synergy between genomics, big data, and modern technology in agriculture is amazing!

Another great comment from a seed dealer in the article states "Seed companies, including ours, bring to market those varieties and traits that farmers want to buy" and the author's statement "Farmers drive the demand for the seed that is researched, bought, and sold" pins down exactly how agricultural markets in the seed industry function as they should by solving the knowledge problem related seed choices and technology. That is truly the social function of markets and prices, as imperfect as they may be when we compare them to unrealistic and idealistic standards. The concerns related to monoculture and monopoly in the seed industry are largely overrated when these factors and trade offs are considered.

The comments made in the Huffington post article are based on a survey of farmers. Its likely not scientific, and my comments above are based on my own industry knowledge and personal experiences from past years working as a crop consultant as well as a few producers I know. I'd be curious to know what the mindset of a larger number of producers is on this issue.

See also my previous posts:  Big Ag Meets Big Data Part1 & Part 2 and  Monsanto Antitrust Case

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