To follow by Email (RSS Feed)

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Why The Current Round Of Ag-Chem Consolidations Worries This Agricultural Scientist

This no-till field is good for the environment and the food supply.
Such innovations involve many expert contributions

I am concerned that we may be on the verge of a major loss of knowledge and experience in the agricultural sector. In the 40 years I have worked with agricultural technology companies I have witnessed many changes. There was a major round of consolidation in the late 1990s and that is happening again today. There are reasons that these trends can make business sense and can be good for shareholders. There can also be problematic aspects of consolidation. Many expressed concerns with antitrust issues in the Monsanto-Syngenta connection, which didn't end up happening, and now with the Dupont-Dow merger, which looks like it will.

That isn't what worries me -- it will still be a competitive sector. I'm concerned about a likely loss of expert knowledge about agriculture.

When companies merge there is a seemingly irresistible financial incentive to get the most experienced (and thus highly paid) employees to take early retirement as a way to deal with "redundancies." Perhaps this won't be as much of an issue with Syngenta, a chemical discovery and biotech company that agreed Wednesday to be bought by ChemChina, a generics player. However, if the retirement strategy is employed in this or the rest of the current wave of consolidations, it will lead to a loss of deep knowledge and experience that could not come at a worse juncture in the history of the food supply.  (Let me be clear that I have no insider information about any of the pending deals or corporate employment plans.  I have consulted across the industry since 1996, but at the mid-level technology level, not in corporate strategy or financial circles).
Between 1960 and 2010, agricultural output increased mainly through higher yields.
That required a great deal of technical and farmer innovation driven by knowledge
(based on FAOStats data)

Global agriculture is a diverse and complex phenomenon that involves unique challenges and unpredictable risks. The extraordinary success of this industry in meeting food demand while improving sustainability relies on a combination of business understanding and technical knowledge that is not easily learned. People with decades of experience on either the business or science side (or often both) are critical to negotiating the threats and opportunities before us. It will be far from trivial to meet the food demand of the growing population and the consumption desires of the expanding middle classes in previously poor regions. To do this without needing to expand the base of farmed land will require talent and expertise. This increased demand is happening with the added uncertainty of climate change and the spread of "exotic" pests in an ever more connected world. A major wave of retirements could seriously compromise our resources of skill, experience and wisdom needed to meet these challenges.

This likely retirement scenario is even more concerning because of the lack of new, skilled talent coming into the agricultural industry. Ag technology companies have been having an extraordinarily difficult time finding qualified new hires because very few young people today are interested in the scientific fields that are critical for agriculture (entomology, agronomy, soil science, plant pathology, plant breeding...).  I don't know the reasons, but I suspect that the widespread demonization of "industrial agriculture" has much to do with this phenomenon. As it is, companies are having to hire people with other degrees (e.g. environmental sciences or even the humanities) and train them from scratch. That isn't impossible with bright and willing people, but if many of their best potential mentors are departing, it becomes far more difficult.

I don't want to imply that the sky is falling. There are still a great many talented people who will be involved in advancing agricultural technology.  However, I do think that the industry and/or society needs to consider some creative ways to allow continued access to the collective experience of those who may soon "retire".  Consulting or some sort of part time "emeritus" status might be possibilities, but those can have tax and retirement income problems. For many industries we would be wise to fix our system so we don't dis-incentivize a graceful wind-down of careers. Perhaps some of the retirees can be hired by other AgChem companies who need their expertise. With modern life expectancies, retirement in one's 60s can easily mean 20 years of lost contribution potential.  It's not that I begrudge my slightly older colleagues a well deserved rest or the chance to start a new chapter in their lives. I just don't want society to lose the unique aspects of what they know.

Your thoughts and comments are welcome here and/or via email (savage.sd@gmail.com)

Inconvenient Truth: There Are Pesticide Residues On Organic


(Originally posted on Forbes 2/8/16)

A recent review article in the scientific journal Nature Plants makes the claim that organic produces "foods that contain less (or no) pesticide residues, compared with conventional farming."  That's not what the latest USDA-PDP (Pesticide Data Program) information about pesticide residues says. What that transparent source of tax payer-supported research indicates is that 40 different synthetic pesticide residues were detected on organic food samples at levels similar to what was seen for the comparable conventional food samples. In both cases the amounts are too small to be a health/safety concern, but this certainly does not fit the standard organic narrative.
Commodity breakdown of the food samples used
for pesticide residue testing in 2014
For the 2014 survey, USDA scientists collected just over 10,000 samples of 15 crops taken from ordinary retail food channels.  The scientists then used extremely sensitive laboratory methods to check for traces of hundreds of different chemicals.  409 of the samples were labeled as organic, and residues were detected in 87 of them.  Thus 21% of the organic samples had detectable residues representing 142 detections in 78 crop/chemical combinations.  That detection percent is lower than for conventional, but the PDP testing does not have the capacity to detect several of the most commonly used, organic-approved pesticides like sulfur, copper compounds, mineral oils or Bt.  Those materials can't be measured with the same technology used for the other chemicals, so the USDA has chosen not to test for them. If they did, the detection percentage for organic would be much higher.  One organic-approved pesticide that is measured by the USDA is called Spinosad, and it was detected on 13 organic crops as expected.  However, the other 40 of the 41 different pesticides detected on the organic foods were synthetic chemicals that are not approved for use on organic.

Finding synthetic pesticide residues on organic is not unprecedented.  Earlier, larger surveys of organic conducted by the USDA and by Canadian Food Inspection Agency found un-approved residues in at least 40% of samples.  The normal explanation of this is that it represents inadvertent spray drift or cross-contamination in harvesting bins etc.  Many of the detections are at such low levels they fit those scenarios, but interestingly when I looked at the conventional detections for the same 78 chemical/crop combinations, the organic detections were only significantly lower in 26 cases, and the organic detections were equal to or higher than those in conventional for 30 cases (see chart below).

Note how for many chemical/crop combinations the level
detected in organic was similar to or greater than
that in conventional samples

For organic advocates and organic marketers this sort of information leaves one of two possibilities.  They can agree with the EPA and other responsible agencies that consumers need not be concerned about the low-level pesticide residues found in either conventional and organic food.  Alternatively they could choose not to believe those authorities and be forced to conclude that organic food is unsafe.  For consumers the logical take-home message is that between our rigorous regulatory regime and our responsible farming communities, we can enjoy a safe, healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables without having to believe that safety is only available at a price premium.
There are several ways that you can review this information for yourself.  The USDA published a "what consumers need to know" document, a fact sheet, and a 230 page summary.  They also make the raw data available for download (as long as you are up for processing a 2.2 million row, 98MB table).  I like to take advantage of all that detailed, transparent data, and I will be publishing a more complete, independent analysis soon.
Twenty-three percent of the detections in organic were of old organochlorine or organophosphate insecticides or their metabolites (e.g. DDT, monocrotophos...). These are persistent environmental contaminants (they have been banned for decades). These chemicals are found in both organic and conventional samples at levels in the low part per billion range. This is an unfortunate artifact of pre-EPA history, but fortunately not a current health threat.  Three point five percent of the organic detections were for currently-used carbamate and organophosphate insecticides (Oxamyl, Carbaryl and Chlorpyrifos and Dimethoate), but all at levels well below current safety tolerances.  Seven point seven percent of detections were of neonicitinoid insecticides, and 9% were synthetic pyrethroids.  Other insecticides made up 3.5% of the detections.  Fifteen different fungicides represent 25% of the detections. There were detections of two different herbicides, 2 of a miticide and 3 of an insecticide synergist. Again, these detections are, for both organic and conventional, at levels too low to be of concern.  Indeed, what the the data demonstrates is how far below.
The reason that the USDA has been conducting its Pesticide Detection Program since 1991 is to monitor how well the system is working to insure that farmers can control damaging pests and still supply food that is safe for consumers.  What the data has consistently shown is that these goals are being met and that consumers can confidently enjoy a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
However, an organization called the Environmental Working Group has severely mis-used these data year after year to construct what they call their "dirty dozen list."  They are funded by many of the big players in the organic market (Organic Valley, Stonyfield Farms, Earthbound Farms, Applegate, Klean Kanteen, Dr. Bronner Soaps, Beauty Counter, Juice Beauty, Brown Advisory, Nature’s Path, Annie’s), and their goal is to frighten consumers away from conventional food and towards organic. The problem is that their non-scientific approach of simply counting detections regardless of the level or identity of the chemical would classify organic as "dirty" as well.  Consumers should simply ignore the disinformation that comes from EWG and consider not supporting the companies that fund them.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A New Gig For Bees: Start-up in Canada Enlists Bees To Deliver Pest Control Agents

A honey bee visits and apple blossom.  It may someday
be protecting that flower from a bacterial infection
(This post originally appeared on Forbes on 2/1/16)

Bees and other pollinator insects are critical for the production of 15-30% of the crops on which we depend. Honey bees also supply us with delicious honey. There is yet another service that we may soon be getting through the agency of this hard-working category of insects. There is a start-up company in Ontario, Canada called BVT (Bee Vectoring Technology), which is enlisting bees in the control of crop pests. This idea has been explored for some time, but BVT is hammering out the practical and regulatory steps needed to make it a commercial reality working with both honeybees and bumble bees. I’ll explain the logic behind this approach below.
Apple trees damaged by fire blight, a bacterial
disease that enters through flowers (photo 
PlantDoctor)

Because bees selectively and efficiently visit the flowers on a crop, they are ideal candidates to deliver biological agents or chemicals to manage several important plant diseases whose infective strategy involves flowers. One example would be Fire blight of apples and pears, caused by a bacterium that only infects through flowers (Erwinia amylovora). An antibiotic or biological control agent delivered by bees would be an elegant solution. There is also a group fungal pathogens which colonize the petals and other portions of the flowers after they decline (various species of BotrytisSclerotinia and Monilinia).These fungi use the energy-base of the dead flower parts in order to grow their way into the green, growing portions of the plant.  They cause serious diseases of sunflowersCanolaalmondsstrawberries, and stone fruits. Once again, bees can be a targeted agent to get fungicides or biocontrol agents in place on the flowers to then deny that foothold to the pathogens.
Brown rot of stone fruits may eventually
destroy the fruit, but the infection of flowers
is a key stage of the disease (
Photo APS)

When bee-delivered, control can be more effective than general, foliar sprays because they can arrive at each flower as it opens, something that happens over a period of time. Bee-delivered products use ~95% less material because they are not being applied to anything in the orchard or field other than the flowers. Obviously the pest control agents have to be safe for the bees themselves and pass all the other regulatory screens for human and environmental safety, but there are many promising options that can meet those hurdles. There may even be agents that the bees can move back into their hives to control some of their own pests.
Note the red Varroa mite on this honey bee.  That serious
parasite also spread virus diseases of bees
BVT’s work is based on 20 years of research initiated at the University of Guelph by entomologist John Sutton, plant pathologist Peter Kevan and agronomist Todd Mason. They have developed a tray of powder placed at the hive door so that the bees pick up some material to spread to flowers. Field trials conducted with Les Shipp of Agriculture Canada have been very encouraging and BVT, is working with bee specialists like Sydney Cameron of the University of Illinois to insure bee safety. The CEO, Michael Collinson, is confident that BVT will be able to make a major contribution to Integrated Pest Management systems and to do so in a way which is good for both farmers and bees.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com

Friday, January 8, 2016

How Satellite Technology Can Help California's Water Woes


(This post originally appeared on Forbes on 1/7/16)
It's raining hard here in Southern California for the second day in a row. After four years of drought it's a welcome change, but it's also causing problems. Again today my cell phone sounded an alarm for flash flooding, and the areas affected by previous fires are in real danger of mudslides. We are predicted to get a substantial amount of precipitation from one of the strongest El Nino events in a very long time. Still, the experts tell us that this one season will be unlikely to overcome our water woes.
For a very long time, California has been able to provide water for her cities and farms even though generally there is no rain for a long period between late spring and fall. The Mediterranean climate is not only enjoyable, it makes the growing of crops easier because they only get the water we want them to have during the growing season. Unfortunately, our municipal and agricultural systems have depended heavily on being able to store a great deal of water in the form of snow in the high Sierra mountains. When that snow-pack does not develop, we don't have the reservoir capacity to store enough to cover our needs through the dry season.

Over the past several years there have been cut-backs on water deliveries to irrigation districts in order to have some supply left for cities and for environmental needs in terms of at least some minimal stream flows.  The farmers have cut back on planting of annual crops so that much land is left fallow.  However, a great many California crops are perennial trees and vines that have to be watered to keep them alive.  Increasingly, farmers have been tapping into ground water using existing or new wells.  This can only be a temporary solution because the aquifers are being drawn down making pumping costs higher and risking salt water intrusions.
In the past, ground water has not been regulated to any great degree here in California. As the recent drought intensified, it has become obvious that some system needs to be implemented to make sure that our groundwater can be managed in a way that is equitable and sustainable. But that requires knowing a lot more about what is happening down below, and as the saying goes,  "you can't manage what you can't measure."  We are lacking the historical data to guide such a system. Fortunately, there is a program being piloted in our state by a diverse set of public and private forces which uses state-of-the-art technology to track groundwater in a way that was never before possible.
A couple of months ago I had a chance to interview Carl Ganter from the foundation-funded non-profit, Circle of Blue which has been active in the water arena for some time. They have teamed up with the folks at NASA’s GRACE program (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) which monitors small gravitational variations in the Earth from space. These are indicators of things like changes in ground water and allow us to "see" what is going on. Scientists at the University of California, Irvine are also part of that effort. Twitter is getting actively involved in providing “ground truth” such as data about pumping depths that are being experienced. The Columbia University Water Center and the Pacific Institute are also involved more from a policy perspective. Qlik, a company with data dashboard and business intelligence experience, is combining all this input and working out a way to make it comprehensible for all the stakeholders like government regulators, farmers and municipal water districts. This is another great example of a public/private, for-profit/non-profit partnership seeking to accomplish something none of the entities could do alone.
The hope is to have this “dashboard” of information specific to California live within a year or so. Then, the plan is to move on to other key regions like the Ogallala Aquifer and to the Southeastern US. Then the experience will be used to better visualize other critical aquifer issues throughout the rest of the world.
Being able to visualize our ground water won’t in and of itself solve our California water situation.  The experts warn that it will take more than one wet winter to recharge our aquifers.  We need to be doing some serious work on how to balance our water needs for the cities, the farms, and for environmental needs. These are contentious topics, but hopefully better data on the ground water aspect can help to inform a constructive approach.
You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com

Monday, November 9, 2015

Is There Arsenic In Your Rice?

Brown Rice (image via Wikipedia)

Over the past several years there has been an active discussion about whether the arsenic that is found in various crops is of significant health concern.  Arsenic occurs naturally in many soils, and it is taken up particularly by rice.  In the US the FDA is still conducting a full-blown risk assessment; in the mean time they have issued a few cautious guidelines .  To the extent that arsenic is a concern (and I believe the jury is still out), it is not something that differs between conventional and organic.  There are some differences by the type of rice (basmati, jasmine etc), and probably by geography (but the FDA is not yet prepared to make generalizations about that).

There has also been rice/arsenic research going on in Europe and a progress report about that has just been published in Horizon - the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.  I've recently agreed to an article sharing arrangement with Horizon in which I will highlight and link to agriculture related articles that are of potential interest to the readers of Applied Mythology.  From time to time they may also do the same for articles I write that involve EU research.

The Horizon article describes four areas of research touching on the arsenic and rice question.  The first is an evaluation of arsenic levels in various samples of rice and rice-based foods in the UK.  This is in anticipation of an upcoming change in EU regulations that will set 0.1 ppm as the maximum allowable level of inorganic arsenic in foods.   Many samples were above that new threshold which is 1/2 of the prior CODEX (International standard) threshold.  The basis for the new level was a risk assessment which relied heavily on assumptions about the ratio of dangerous inorganic arsenic relative to organic forms.

Horizon also covers research in Spain, on how cultural practices, regarding water and fertilizer management, can make significant differences in the final arsenic levels.  Perhaps in time this will help farmers achieve the new, low standards.  Another research program is investigating the processes of bio-methylation and bio-volatilization which are currently poorly understood, but which may someday offer ways to minimize final arsenic levels.

The other research studies how cooking methods influence arsenic levels.  For instance cooking in excess water and draining (as is common with pasta) can remove quite a bit of arsenic.  That is of most utility for brown rice because for fortified white rice that process significantly diminishes the nutrient value of the food.


You can see more interesting detail in the Horizon post including links to the individual research efforts.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com

Friday, October 30, 2015

Taking On the Merchants of Food Fear


New book available 10/29 from Amazon, BarnesandNoble.com, and independent book stores


(This post originally appeared on Forbes 10/29/15)
Fear has always been an effective tool for exercising influence in society, but the internet age has enabled fear-based marketing to move to a whole new level.  This is particularly true when it comes to generating fears about food as a means to sell alternatives, supplements and various magical offerings (woo).  One of the most successful and egregious examples of this phenomenon is Vani Hari, the self proclaimed “Food Babe.”  There is a new book coming out on Thursday the 29th  titled “The Fear Babe.” The book executes a thorough take-down of Hari’s claims, methods and business model.  The content is well described by the sub-title: “Shattering Vani Hari's Glass House."

Vani Hari has a degree in computer science and once worked for a large consulting firm.  She has no background in nutrition, toxicology, medicine, or agronomy, but has no qualms about pontificating on almost any issue or about giving advice for how people should protect themselves from what she paints as an sinister, unregulated and callous industry.  She created a website and enlisted her own “Food Babe Army” to supposedly protect society from the evils of the food industry.  She has been successful at times in bullying major food companies to make changes in their offerings, not based on real issues but on the angst she has been able to generate.  Of course along the way she promotes a range of diet supplements and other magical offerings to net a nice profit.  Hari is not alone in this “create fear - sell newsletters and magical stuff” sector, which also includes Dr. MercolaThe Health RangerDr. Oz and others.
 One of the biggest challenges for the authors of the “The Fear Babe” is how to address the staggering list of topics about which Ms. Hari has generated disinformation: vaccines, microwaves, yoga mat components, GMOs, food colorings, sugar, Stevia, Silly Putty, pesticides, preservatives….. to name only a few.  The book is over 400 pages long because that is what it took - not only to address the technical issues, but also to document the emotive strategies and logical fallacies that Hari so deftly employs.  The book also includes examples of the push-back that these authors and others have given as the flood of Food Babe distortions emerged (Twitter and comment threads, blog postings…).

A public domain picture of Hari


The primary authors of “Fear Babe” are active players in the realm of science communication and myth busting.  They are not in any way employees or “shills” of the system, just people who are outraged by seeing people manipulated.  You can feel that in their writing.  Marc Draco was a veteran member of Banned by Food Babe and started the site, "Food Babe in Black and White" which compiled memes about Hari prior to organizing this book effort.  Mark Alsip writes the blog Bad Science Debunked.   Kavin Senapathy is a co-founder of “March Against Myths” who blogs on multiple sites and her own loyal following known as the “Senapath Crew.” The Preface to the book is written by veteran science communicator Kevin Folta of the University of Florida.  Several other experts contribute throughout the book as well.

This book will probably never be read by those that have bought-in to the Food Babe’s conspiratorial view of the food system. But it can serve as a useful reference for those who have the opportunity to defuse some of the specific fears they see worrying their friends and families. It is well indexed and referenced, and so it can serve as a valuable resource for anyone who plays a role of rational skeptic in the internet age.

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Productivity Of Organic Farming In The US: Mind The Gap


This warning from the London "Tube" could apply to organic farming
(This post originally appeared on Forbes 10/9/15)
The productivity of organic farming is typically lower than that of comparable “conventional” farms. This difference is sometimes debated, but a recent USDA survey of organic agriculture demonstrates that commercial organic in the U.S. has a significant yield gap.

I compared 2014 survey data from organic growers with overall agricultural yield statistics for that year on a crop by crop, state by state basis.  The picture that emerges is clear - organic yields are mostly lower. To have raised all U.S. crops as organic in 2014 would have required farming of one hundred nine million more acres of land. That is an area equivalent to all the parkland and wildland areas in the lower 48 states or 1.8 times as much as all the urban land in the nation. As of 2014 the reported acreage of organic cropland only represented 0.44% of the total, but if organic were to expand significantly, its lower land-use-efficiency would become problematic.  This is one of several reasons to question the assertion that organic farming is better for the environment.
The USDA conducted a detailed survey of organics in 2008 and then again in 2014. Information is collected about the number of farms, the acres of crops harvested, the production from those acres, and the value of what is sold.  The USDA also collects similar data every year for agriculture in general and makes it very accessible via Quick Stats.  It is interesting that they don’t publish any comparisons of these two data sets as they would be able to make comparisons on a county basis. By working with both USDA data resources I was able to find 370 good comparisons of organic and total data for the same crop in the same state and where the organic represented at least 20 acres.  That comparison set covers 80% of US crop acreage.



For 292 of those comparisons, the organic yields were lower (84% on an area basis).  There were 55 comparisons where organic yield was higher, but 89% of the higher yielding organic examples involved hay and silage crops rather than food crops. The organic yield gap is predominant for row crops, fruit crops and vegetables as can be seen in the graphs below.

The reasons for the gap vary with crop and geography.  In some cases the issue is the ability to meet periods of peak nutrient demand using only organic sources.  The issue can be competition from weeds because herbicides are generally lacking for organic.  In some cases its reflects higher yield loss to diseases and insects. Although organic farmers definitely use pesticides, the restriction to natural options can leave crops vulnerable to damage.
I’ve posted a much more detailed summary of this information on SCRIBD with the data at the state level.





There is some potential for artifacts within this data set.  If the proportion of irrigated and non-irrigated land differs between organic and conventional that would skew the data.  With lettuce and spinach it is likely that the organic is proportionally more in the “baby” category making yields appear dramatically lower.  But overall this window on farming is useful for understanding the current state of commercial organic production.  Since the supply of prime farmland is finite, and water is in short supply in places like California, resource-use-efficiency is an issue even at the current scale of organic (1.5 million cropland acres, 3.6 million including pasture and rangeland).

You are welcome to comment here and/or to email me at savage.sd@gmail.com. I'd be happy to share a data file with interested parties and to get feedback about where particular yield comparisons might be misleading.
A more detailed presentation is available at https://www.scribd.com/doc/283996769/The-Yield-Gap-For-Organic-Farming