Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Stacking Technology In Stockers Adds Up To More Pounds | Stocker/Backgrounders content from BEEF Magazine

This equates to a lower carbon footprint and improved sustainability. All market driven. Good for the environment, the producer,and the consumer. 

"Cattle receiving an ionophore either gain more on the same amount of feed or gain the same on less feed," Sawyer explains. "Generally speaking, with stocker calves on pastures of reasonable quality, we expect an increased rate of gain of 8%-12%, so maybe an extra 20-25 lbs. in a typical turn of stocker calves."

Monday, December 22, 2014

Big Data + Genomics ≠ Your Grandparent's Monoculture

Recently there was a really nice article in the NYT about how big data is being leveraged in the ag industry, Working the Land and the Data. There were some really great observations made in the article:

“we’ve got sensors on the combine, GPS data from satellites, cellular modems on self-driving tractors, apps for irrigation on iPhones...Tom Farms has genetically modified crops, cloud-computing systems and possibly soon drones, if Mr. Tom does not go with lasers on low-orbit satellites. All of these items will be sending their data for analysis on the cloud-computing systems that Tom Farms rented from Monsanto and other companies...Brent Schipper takes data readings from his combine every three seconds”

This certainly illustrates the volume, variety, and velocity of  big data I have previously discussed at my data analytics blog EconometricSense. And utilization of this data appears to have a payoff:

"better uses of data analysis have raised his return on investment to 21.2 percent, from 14 percent"

But there was some brief commentary contained in that article that I think could use some additional reflection:

"And there is another risk. There is an incentive to grow single crops to maximize the effectiveness of technology by growing them at the largest possible scale. Farmers with diverse crops and livestock would need many different systems. Smaller farmers without technology could also grow one crop, but they would not capture most of the gains."

This basically sounds like raising a concern about incentives for what some refer to as 'monoculture', or raising large acreages planted to single crops. Some are concerned about this because its like putting all of your eggs in one basket, for instance if there are environmental, pest, or pathological stresses that affect a single variety, then losses would be much greater than you might experience in a more diversified operation. There has always been a concern about market incentives reducing diversity in agricultural production, however, as I have mentioned before these concerns (about market incentives) may be somewhat exaggerated. In fact market forces can tend to be a driver of key aspects of diversity in agriculture.

In addition, one of the primary reasons that companies like John Deere and Monsanto are so interested in Big Data, is that there is money to be made in crop diversification. As I have mentioned before (See Agritalk Discussion of the impact of big data, biotechnology, and genomics on seed choice):

"the disruptions of new technology, big data and genomics (applications like FieldScripts, ACRES, MyJohnDeere or the new concept Kinze planters that switch hybrids on the go etc.) will require the market to continue to offer a range of choices in seeds and genetics to tailor to each producer's circumstances of time and place. There are numerous margins that growers look at when optimizing their seed choices and it will require a number of firms and seed choices to meet these needs as the industry's focus moves from the farm and field level to the data gathered by the row foot with each pass over the field."

(see also: What does the farmer say about seed choices)

"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."

The point is, as big data drives more diversity into every seed planted in every acre across every field, we may possibly begin to mitigate some of the risks and concerns traditionally associated with monoculture. So it is true, when you look across row after row and see only corn, you might technically call it 'monoculture' but its not your grandparent's monoculture.

See also:

Big Ag Meets Big Data (Part 1 & Part 2)
Big Data- Causality and Local Expertise are Key in Agronomic Applications
Big Ag and Big Data-Marc Bellemare
Other Big Data and Agricultural related Application Posts at EconometricSense

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Untested Unlabeled Genes in Your Food: It's Your Right to Know

The article linked below gives some interesting context that helps us to understand partly why the scientific consensus on GMO foods is that the insertion of specific genes into a plant pose no substantially differential risk to human health. We know that genomic disruptions from biotechnology are dwarfed by those caused by the millions of unknown and uncharacterized genes introduced into conventional and organic foods by hybridization, and crossing with wild relatives. (Or even through the use of radiation or mutagenic chemicals used in accordance with USDA organic standards). The numerous toxins whose genes are hidden betwixt sequences of thousands of DNA  base pairs have all along been much more of a threat than the very few and specific well known Bt and glyphosate resistant genes we have inserted in the staple crops we eat every day. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Antarctic Melt And Calls For Action | On Point with Tom Ashbrook

Ashbrook asks, if the market were the answer and not a carbon tax, then why aren't we seeing anything from the market? And that is the issue, we could have said the same thing about mail and parcel delivery before email and UPS, and who saw google, Wikipedia, and Netflix on the horizon? The hybrid cars, wind farms, and solar seem like obvious solutions that the government has poured lots of money into. But the market's solution will not be so blatant and obvious as a government tax or subsidy, and Ashbrook's question will never have an obvious answer. Modern hybrid corn with no subsidy or tax for instance has done more to combat climate change than hybrid cars in the US.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

The Oregon GMO Ban: Who is really harming who?

“Was the government to prescribe to us our medicine and diet, our bodies would be in such keeping as our souls are now” - Thomas Jefferson Notes on the State of Virginia

This past May two counties in Oregon voted to ban the production of GMO crops. Was this good policy?

For a moment let’s sidestep the fact that modern molecular applications of crop improvement are just as safe if not safer than conventional and organic methods.  Let’s also forget that using a democratic process to override other people’s choices may not be the optimal strategy for making the most of imperfect information and limited resources.

Often, this law is discussed in the context of property rights, and rightly so:

“This local effort is important because it’s a way for local growers to protect their property rights from genetically engineered pollen contaminating their seed crops.”
-Ivan Maluski, Friends of Family Farmers

The assignment and protection of property rights is an important role of government, and definitely serves a key function in dealing with what economists refer to as negative externalities, and what most people would think of when they think of nuisances or environmental pollution.  However, the GMO bans represent a very narrow and restrictive assignment of property rights.

Property Rights and Externalities

Basically a negative externality occurs when  a second party is harmed from an activity without their consent or compensation. In the context of the Oregon law, we might view genetic contamination as a negative externality.  In these cases, the principle of polluter pays is often the basis used to require polluters to either stop their activity, pay a fine, or perhaps levy a tax related to the level of pollution.  However, in 1960 economist Ronald Coase brought new insight in his Journal of Law and Economics paper “The Problem of Social Cost.”  Coase stated that in many cases, the issue of pollution or negative externalities was in fact reciprocal.  This can easily be understood in the context of the Oregon case. While banning GMOs certainly protects organic and conventional producers from the harms of cross-pollination it reciprocally imposes significant harm on most family farmers by limiting their ability to grow food in a way that is both profitable and sustainable.  The question becomes, who may harm who?

Put another way, who should get the right to grow the kind of crops they want? The answer is that the right should be assigned to the party that values it the most. According to what has come to be known as the Coase Theorem, the initial assignment of rights does not matter. With clearly defined property rights, the optimal level of GMO vs. non-GMO crops planted as well as optimal levels of cross-pollination can be determined through cooperative processes.  Of course in this case, we may not be assigning physical rights to property so much as we are assigning liability.

 If liability goes to the organic producers, and they want to restrict the planting of GMO crops, then they have to find a way to compensate GMO growers to reduce planting . If liability falls on GMO growers and the economic and environmental benefits of growing GMO crops exceeds the value that organic producers place on uncontaminated crops, then GMO growers can pay for damages (or buy insurance for such purposes), or compensate organic producers for shifting their crops to another location. They may also alter their GMO planting decisions in highly susceptible areas.

The assignment of property rights and the potential for bargaining results in behavior that is changed or altered to account for the negative impact our choices have on others, regardless of who holds the rights. This is the essence of what is known as the ‘Coase Theorem and sets a standard of morality and efficiency that the Oregon law falls tragically short of meeting and in fact egregiously preempts.

Positive Externalities

Positive externalities occur when one or more parties engage in some activity and actually benefit another party without getting compensated for it.  An example of a positive externality is the concept of herd immunity that can occur when most people are vaccinated for things like measles.  Government funding of vaccination programs is often justified on the grounds of positive externalities. An unintended side effect of the Oregon law banning GMOs is the elimination of positive externalities associated with the planting of GMO crops. Research has shown that genetically modified crops have improved the genetic diversity of beneficial pest populations and have provided external pest protection benefits to non-gmo crops worth billions of dollars annually. In addition, biotechnology has contributed to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and reduced the use of toxic chemicals and pesticides.  The Oregon laws eliminate all of these positive externalities associated with GMO crops in effect harming organic producers and all consumers.

Are these options practical or realistic? Nothing I could put in print likely would be. Policy makers and economists are not in a situation to know exactly all of the margins that individuals consider in their decision making and the options available, which is another flaw in the Oregon laws which make this assumption.  Some assignment of property rights or liability that accommodates a cooperative space for individuals to live their lives would be superior to both no law at all, or one as draconian as the two counties in Oregon have adopted.


The Problem of Social Cost. R. H. Coase. Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 3 (Oct., 1960), pp. 1-44

Areawide Suppression of European Corn Borer with Bt Maize Reaps Savings to Non-Bt Maize Growers. Science 8 October 2010:Vol. 330. no. 6001, pp. 222 - 225 DOI: 10.1126/science.1190242W. D. Hutchison,1,* E. C. Burkness,1 P. D. Mitchell,2 R. D. Moon,1 T. W. Leslie,3 S. J. Fleischer,4 M. Abrahamson,5 K. L. Hamilton,6 K. L. Steffey,7, M. E. Gray,7 R. L. Hellmich,8 L. V. Kaster,9 T. E. Hunt,10 R. J. Wright,11 K. Pecinovsky,12 T. L. Rabaey,13 B. R. Flood,14 E. S. Raun15

Communal Benefits of Transgenic Corn. Bruce E. Tabashnik  Science 8 October 2010:Vol. 330. no. 6001, pp. 189 - 190DOI: 10.1126/science.1196864

Genetically Engineered Crops: Has Adoption Reduced Pesticide Use? Agricultural Outlook ERS/USDA Aug 2000

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"Why Spurning Biotech Food Has Become a Liability.'' Miller, Henry I, Conko, Gregory, & Drew L. Kershe. Nature Biotechnology Volume 24 Number 9 September 2006.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

LETTERS: Farm Bureau speaks for farmers everywhere | Opinion | The Free Lance-Star | December 23rd, 2013

This farmer may not have ever read "The Use of Knowledge in Society" but they get it: 

"I know my farm much better than a bureaucrat trying to apply blanket solutions to thousands of farms that vary greatly in size, type, soil capacity and a hundred other ways. Voluntary practices, encouraged by some cost share and technical assistance have proved effective in reducing runoff from farms. Now much of that effort will be wasted in forms, paperwork, deciphering regulations and similar nonsense that fulfills some bureaucratic goal but doesn't help the bay at all."