Category: Agriculture

The Future of Biotechnology in Farming

There is a great deal of controversy over genetically modified crops; some countries have banned their growth entirely, while others have placed strict regulatory restrictions on production. As the world’s population continues to grow (it is projected to reach 9.1 billion by 2050), global food production will have to increase by 70 percent in order to meet demand.

Scientists have discovered ways to improve crops by manipulating plant DNA, creating a product that better resists insects and stands up to herbicides, allowing farmers to grow crops using fewer pesticides. For example, biotechnology company Monsanto created a crop known as Bollgard Bt cotton — a strain of cotton injected with the Bacillus thuringinesis bacterium which produces its own insecticide, reducing the need for additional pesticide. The product was introduced in India in 2002, and its benefits became evident:

  • Yields improved with the use of Bt cotton. One particular cotton farm increased its yield by 7,625.7 pounds per hectare while simultaneously reducing costs by $143.32 per hectare (due to decreased use of pesticides).
  • With more money in their pockets, Indian farmers have been able to upgrade their machinery, advancing the country’s agricultural economy.

Brazil is currently experimenting with biotechnology and sugarcane. While Brazil produces 588 million tons of sugarcane per year (half the world’s output), it could double that production; half of its potential crop is currently lost to pests, weeds and drought.

Biotechnology offers the potential to combat world hunger by greatly increasing crop yields and producing hardier plants that can withstand pests, drought and more. But because many countries do not allow the production or importation of biotech crops, the ability of these crops to feed the globe is limited.

Nationwide Survey Shows Dramatic Improvement in Honeybee Health

During the last week, there has been a great deal of attention to a study claiming pesticides are responsible for an increase in honeybee hive death. Known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), beekeepers and scientists have been working to find out what is to blame for the trend.

What has been ignored, however, is recent good news about CCD. A recent study by Bee Informed, a nationwide survey of beekeepers, the percentage of hives that died over winter fell from 30.5 percent in 2012-13 to 23.2 percent last winter, a 25 percent reduction in hive mortality.

The survey is extremely robust, covering an estimated 20 percent of all hives in the country.

This undermines the claim that pesticides are to blame for CCD. Unless pesticide use dramatically declined last year, which I am certain it didn’t, it is hard to cite pesticide use as the cause of the reduction in the first place. The most likely explanation for the improvement is that beekeepers are managing other risks, like varroa mites, that contribute to CCD. Such a significant decline in winter mortality indicates beekeepers are effectively changing their management techniques in response to losing hives.

It also shows how hyperbole about honeybees is harming thoughtful discussion about the causes of CCD. The Discover Magazine blog about the pesticide study concludes with this ominous paragraph:

CCD threatens not only bees but entire economies and the world food supply. Honeybees pollinate about a third of crops worldwide and, according to some estimates, as much as 80 percent of U.S. crops.

This is pure hyperbole. Total honeybee populations in the United States are actually increasing. A reduction in hive mortality will help this trend. Beekeepers are responding to CCD by increasing breeding. For example, one of my two hives died over the winter, but I will have four hives this year because I am buying newly bred bees and splitting one of my hives into two. Others are doing the same, which is actually increasing the number of pollinators.

Additionally, noting that farmers rely on honeybees is evidence that farmers are careful about using pesticides. Many who blame pesticides for CCD claim farmers are glibly using pesticides that harm the very honeybees they rely on for pollination. The supposed villains of the pesticide narrative, carless farmers, are the ones with the most to lose.

There will, undoubtedly, be calls for politicians to do “something” about CCD. This national study, however, shows that beekeepers are better at finding effective techniques to keep their hives alive and their honeybees pollinating our crops and flowers. Not to mention making honey.

Agricultural Education – A Growing Field

Since 1928, the United States has housed an organization that connects a home life in farming to the classes students take in high school. The Future Farmers of America (FFA) immerses students in programs to learn where our food comes from and to appreciate how important agriculture is to the world.

From 2007 to 2012, the number of farms in the U.S. dropped by 100,000, while the FFA enrolled an additional 60,000 students, opened new chapters and propelled the organization to its highest number of students. 580,000 students receiving agricultural education is a monumental achievement, one that many people did not see coming. In Nebraska, this is particularly difficult as they are seeing the highest number of students interested in agriculture programs ever. In response to the need, the Nebraska Farm Bureau is creating a scholarship program to help schools find more agriculture teachers. The scholarship is directed by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s agriculture education program, and will pay $1,200 during a semester of student teaching. There is also a program to pay off loans for current teachers starting at $500 dollars and increasing for each school year. Meanwhile, other states are fighting to keep their programs running.

Ag. Top 10 States

California has experienced extraordinary difficulties in years past, and they are reaching a peak as the state faces one of the worst droughts in history. Agricultural education is needed more than ever, yet law makers are attempting to cut the Agriculture Education Incentive Grant Program (AEIGP). The AEIGP supports 315 agricultural programs that currently enroll over 75,000 high school students statewide. Free markets and privatization are critical in any growing industry, but high school boosters have struggled in years past to keep up with the growing demand that agriculture places on society. The reason the government places incentives on agriculture is because of how important it is to the continuation of society.

States recognize the importance of agriculture and the benefits that they receive from investing in education. Their return is substantial as those students not only go on to learn about agriculture, but a majority will also take jobs in the agriculture industry and assist states in the production of food. As new techniques are developed, the way food is grown constantly changes. Agricultural education is needed to keep up with those growing changes.

Drones Strike the Farms

Technology advances in the United States as quickly as it can be researched and one of the oldest professions is still seeing accelerating growth. The most recent achievement is the use of drones in agricultural surveillance. Also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), drones gained fame during the Iraq-Afghanistan conflict as a safer way to attack targets. Their original intention has been lost recently as companies such as Amazon and UPS are researching ways to use drones to deliver packages to your front doors.

While it may sound like drones will be taking jobs away from Americans it is in fact the opposite. One report details that once the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) establishes guidelines for commercial use, the drone industry could expect to create more than 100,000 jobs and nearly half a billion in tax revenue to be generated collectively by 2025, and most of that is just agriculture.

The agriculture industry represents over 16 million jobs in the United States and nearly 1.1% of all Gross Domestic Product (GDP). With numbers like that it is no wonder that drone surveillance is such an emerging technology for farmers. There are even colleges in the Midwest that are incorporating learning drone technology for farming. However, while there are significant benefits with utilizing drones, there are consequences to the technology.

Right to privacy is a huge factor and how do nearby farmers know that the drones are not watching their land? This could create huge advantages for local farms that are looking to receive an advantage from using highly advanced surveillance techniques. This year alone nearly 36 states, including Iowa, are attempting to implement legislation that would put numerous restrictions on drone use.

The possibility of drones depends wildly on the users definitions of privacy. Citizens in some states may care more than others, thus it may allow one state to have a high level of drone use while another may choose to not allow them. Whatever the decision is, it is my prediction that the use of drones for commercial purposes may make its way up for the Supreme Court to decide. There is too much controversy around the technology to take off immediately; there are several hurdles that the technology will have to jump before it becomes mainstay in society.

Chipotle’s Assault on Farms

Chipotle has recently come into the news as the creator of a new TV series, ‘Farmed and Dangerous’. The series sets out to portray a satirical look at industrialized agriculture, but when the satire is created by a corporation set on organic foods it creates more harm than good. Declaring war on “big farms” is a misguided agenda that can only serve to hurt small farms more than hurt big farms. According to a previous blog post that explored the USDA Census of Agriculture, a survey stated that 75% of farms in the U.S. are still operating under 50k a year.

Farm Size

‘Farmed and Dangerous’ is beyond misleading in that what it attempts as satire is actually misguided facts about industrial agriculture. The series takes the smallest portion of the industry and distorts it to relay a message. Chipotle makes attempts to bring in customers by advocating for local farming. Since the majority of farms are still small and local, it is hurting them more than helping them. The only winner in this scenario is chipotle, as the marketing plan is not about eating responsibly — but to eat at Chipotle.

While it is important to utilize sustainable agriculture and conservative techniques, it is also important to gain truth based on facts and information. In the U.S., there is a good chance that you are eating locally grown food, so keep on eating. Just remember that you are already helping out the local farmer without having to buy at Chipotle.

Eliminate Agricultural Subsidies, Charge More to Use Water

Recent heavy rains have not stopped California’s multi-year drought. As growth continues in other western states such as Arizona and Colorado, water will become even more precious. Instead of pleading for California residents to conserve water, Governor Jerry Brown and state officials should consider several agricultural policy changes that allow the market to encourage conservation.

Despite its favorable soil and warm weather, California is a less than ideal agricultural climate. Growing crops in sunny, high-temperature, low-humidity conditions requires up to six times as much water as growing the same crops in slightly cooler more humid conditions.

California needs to price its water correctly to decrease waste. While agriculture uses 80% of all California water, it accounts for only 2% of economic activity. Worse, by one calculation farmers have only paid 15% of the cost of the federal irrigation system that delivers water. While food production is important, the state should take several steps to preserve water. It should create a binding study group of agricultural and environmental experts, not politicians, to determine how much water farmers actually need. It is crucial that this group be non-governmental to reduce the political impulse to favor the agricultural crop with the strongest lobbyists over another crop.

Once it determines how much water farmers need, the state should stop providing discounts to agricultural users. It should charge commercial water users in the same manner that it charges residential users. Farmers should pay a flat rate per gallon for the amount of water needed to grow a basic crop such as carrots. But just as homeowners pay more for non-basic uses such as swimming pools, farmers should pay more for using extra water for luxury crops such as pistachios.

California should also consider short-term subsidies for crops that California has the comparative advantage in growing and increased rates for other crops. For example, carrots and olives use average to below average amounts of water to grow. And few places in the country other than California can grow carrots and olives. However, growing wheat and oats uses above average amounts of water. And many locations throughout the country can grow wheat and oats. Once California begins pricing water correctly the market should eliminate most of the problems. But to speed the transition, the state should offer short-term subsidies (five years at the most) to continue producing carrots and short-term penalties to discourage wheat production.

The 2012 Agricultural Census

Every 5 years the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) compiles a census of all farms in the United States. This data helps analyze trends and growth of not only prices, but number of farms as well. The numbers the USDA published are important for not only their emphasis on the effects of subsidies, but how our local agricultural economy is slowly becoming purely industrial. From the census we can draw several important distinctions.

Fund the Farms! Crowdfunding’s Quiet Success

Agri Crowdfunding

The United States has seen a rise in small businesses since the beginnings of the internet. Fears of mom and pop stores going out of business to global dominators such as Walmart has curbed significantly in years past. Now, any person with a website and credit card account can receive payments and create virtual marketplaces. Recently crowd funding has become a new form of micro finance in that individuals are able to invest into companies and people that they believe in. The world is taking the power from big banks and investment firms to instead invest amongst one another.

The 2014 Farm/Food Stamp Bill

After passing both the House and the Senate, the farm bill has now been signed by President Obama. The $950 billion legislation is being lauded as a $23 billion cut, but Michael Tanner at National Review has reported that this “cut” is nothing more than lawmakers spending less than they were expected to spend (a typical Washington accounting gimmick). In fact, it’s a spending increase. Compared to the last farm bill, this one costs $258 billion more after adjusting for inflation.

Death to Direct Payments

For years congress has tried to dismantle Direct Payments to farmers. These payments are subsidies that occur every year despite whether the farmers need them or not. This creates a void in case of disaster, and that’s where crop insurance will step in. From now on farmers will only be paid in case of a loss, at which point the government will help pay a percentage of that insurance. This means billions of dollars of savings for the taxpayers, and creates a system that is both different and intelligent.