Monday, July 25, 2022

Who Owns America’s Farmland? And What Is Their Role In The Response To Climate Change?

 (This article was originally published on Forbes on 7/18/22)

No-till Soybeans Following Corn (NRCS image)

1870 was the first US Census in which farmers were in the minority (47.7%).Today, only 1.3% of Americans are still farming and increasingly do so on operations of over 2,000 acres. Even so, family farms still make up 98% of our agricultural sector. Farm ownership still reflects the legacy of the Homestead Act of 1862 as a great deal of current farmland still belongs to descendents of the 19th century homesteaders. According to the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture in 2017, the largest share of the US agricultural land is owned by families and individuals (201.5 million acres of cropland and 223.8 million acres of pastureland). Partnerships and family corporations own most of the remaining private land with non-family corporations holding only 3.1 million acres of cropland and 6.4 million acres of pastureland (see graph below)

US agricultural land is mostly in the hands of families and individuals, many with ties to to historic farming families 


The remaining farmers have typically expanded their operations by renting additional acres rather than by purchasing land. That approach makes perfect sense in the high risk, moderate reward business of farming the likelihood of a year with bad weather or low commodity prices makes it too risky to take on a big mortgage. In the USDA’s TOTAL Survey from 2014, rented land accounted for around 28% of US pastureland (~144 MM Acres) and 54% of US cropland (~214 MM Acres).  That survey also found that 31% of farmland (pasture and crop) was rented from “non-operator landlords” and 8% from farmers (see graph below)

The land that farmers rent is mainly from non-farmers (31%) and the landlords are either individuals, partnerships, family corporations or trusts


Farm operations that rent some or all of their acreage dominate in all but the smallest farm size categories (See chart below with partial rental operations in light blue and full rental operations in orange).

The majority of farming operations include at least some rented land. (USDA ERS and NASS)

The landlords who lease this property are a mix of still-active farmers, retired farmers, farm widows, city-dwelling descendants of farm families, and some unrelated investors. Many of these landlords have a hands-off relationship with their farmer tenant and simply collect their annual rent payment directly or through a farm management company. In an age of climate change there are good reasons to consider a more active role for these owners.

Agricultural Land Value In An Age Of Climate Change

Agricultural land is an asset with both short and long-term value. It generates annual income for the farmer and a significant portion of that is applied to rent if the property is owned by someone else. Ag land rental rates are closely tied to historic and regional production history – better land commands higher rent.  Around 1/2 of the cropland in the highly productive Midwest is rented and the percent of land rented from non-farmer owners is highest in the states with the highest rental rates driven by their productive potential (see graph below).

In the major farm states, the percent of land leased from non-farming owners is highly correlated with rental rates which are linked to yield potential for key crops


The property value of agricultural land has been increasing at a brisk pace in recent years making it interesting for a range of investors. A projection from the 2014 USDA survey of land ownership and tenure was that around 9.3 million acres of land would change ownership between 2015 and 2019 and that 60% of that would be through gifts, trusts, or wills, but that some of that may then be sold by the new owners, increasing the supply of land available for purchase. Land values and land rents are highly correlated (see graph below)

Land rental rates are highly correlated with property values within these seven USDA regions. In the Northeast and Western Pacific states other factors tend to drive property values. 


Risk and Opportunity

Climate change is creating both new risks and new opportunities related to the annual and long-term value of agricultural land. On the risk side, agricultural productivity in any given growing season is intimately linked to weather. The shifting climate exposes crops to more frequent extreme weather events (drought, flooding, wind…), yield-robbing warmer nights, and increases in the range and severity of pest challenges. Farmers can get some relief through government subsidized crop insurance, but there could eventually be the need for some risk sharing by landlords.

On the opportunity side, plants can capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it underground in relatively stable forms of organic matter – this is one means of climate change mitigation through carbon sequestration. There are certain farming systems that focus on the improvement of soil-health, and they do a particularly good job of carbon sequestration. If this kind of “climate-action farming” could be implemented at large scale (e.g. 100+ million acres), it would be of great benefit for society as a whole. There is a further upside associated soils that have captured and stored a lot of carbon – they become more resilient in the face of climate change because they are better able to capture and store rainfall in ways that buffer crop yields in both excessively wet and dry years. The land becomes more “climate-resilient.” While there is no one system suited to all situations, the basic elements are keeping plants growing in a field to feed the soil ecosystem for as much of the year as possible (double cropping, cover crops), having different species there over time including some which are particularly deep rooted (diverse rotations), and most importantly doing all of this with little to no mechanical soil disturbance in the form of plowing or tillage since that sort of operation leads to the release of sequestered carbon. There are also benefits from certain livestock integration practices.

The Transition Challenge

While dual climate-resilient/climate-action farming systems are very attractive as concepts, it is not at all trivial for a farmer to implement them in the real world. They must also be customized to fit different soils types, regional climates and primary cropping options. These changes require upfront investment in things like seeds or equipment. There may be reduced income from some of the rotational crops chosen for their soil enhancement characteristics rather than profitability. It also typically takes 3-5 years years for the yield and yield stability benefits to kick in and so the key hurdle is financing the transition. These changes are difficult enough to justify for land the farmer owns, but far more difficult to justify for rented land. It will be increasingly important to educate landowners that there will be a growing perverse incentive for a future tenant to “mine” the soil of nutrients for a few years by tilling --- essentially what the original sodbusters did.  That future conventional tiller will actually pay more to lease the ground, knowing that his non-land operating costs will be lower than on his/her other fields.  An unwitting landowner might think this is a good deal and switch tenants for a slightly better rent offer --- not appreciating the asset degradation the land is about the suffer in the background.  It is a poor trade, but not very visible.  This has been a major source of friction in some communities.

Carbon Offset Markets

There are initiatives underway to pay farmers to sequester carbon, but there is considerable skepticism as to whether such programs offer enough money to justify the costs and complications involved. There are also questions about whether these programs can be administered in a way that is fair and verifiable. Hopefully carbon markets will contribute towards more climate-ready farming, but other mechanisms are needed to enable the extensive and timely adoption of climate-resilient farming needed to protect the food supply.

Regenerative Farming

The farming methods described here are related to what is variously defined as “Regenerative Farming.” Unfortunately there is an effort to link the regenerative designation to organic through a certification process that would continue the ideologically-driven technology limitations of organic. The organic business model is to compensate the farmer for lower crop yields through consumer-paid price premiums, and that is not a workable approach to drive the system change on a large sale in row crops. The shift to climate-resilient farming methods needs to be enabled by all the best available technologies including biotechnology and well regulated crop protection chemicals.

Is This Kind of Change Even Possible?

Yes, there is reason to believe that this is possible based on a historical precedent for a farming huge system paradigm shift that happened in mainstream agriculture:  “no-till farming”. That change was also a response to a climate crisis of human origin – the Dust Bowl phenomenon of the 1930s, and it demonstrates the fact that farmers can make changes when they need to. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the first “no-till” field grown in Kentucky in 1962. Growing crops without plowing or tillage was such a radical idea that early adopters had to avoid social gathering spots like coffee shops to avoid getting harassed about their “trashy fields.” Fast forward to 2017 and 104.5 million US acres were farmed using a no-till approach.  No-till or the related Strip-till farming methods are the ideal foundation for the full suite of climate ready systems, and so it is important to consider what enabled that kind of large-scale change. The key elements were applied public research, the development of specialized machinery, and the availability of key technologies such as herbicides and biotech crops.  But perhaps most importantly, the change was pioneered by a distinct and innovative subset of the farming population. Today there are still self-identified “no-tillers” and “strip-tillers,” and they are at the adoption forefront of other farming methods that enhance climate-resilience. Grower oriented publications like No-till Farmer or Progressive Farmer are filled with narratives about farmers that are working out the practical details of adding things like cover crops or unusual rotations or livestock integration. The key is not to tell growers how to farm, but rather to ask these leaders what works and what would help them and others to move in the right direction in terms of a climate change response.

How Could Farm Leases Be Modified To Help Drive Change?

As mentioned earlier, it can take several years for the crop yield benefits of modified farming practices to kick in and typical leases are on an annual cash basis.  Longer leases would be a step in the right direction, but probably not all that is needed.

As the growing climate becomes more challenging, land with enhanced climate resilience will become more valuable, both in terms of potential rent and as a premium property. It would make sense to structure a lease to include some cost sharing between the farmer and the owner during the transition process, and then have some mechanism for the farmer to share in the for the increased rent potential and land value. There would also need to be a cooperative lease model for land that is going to be enrolled in a carbon market program. Getting carbon credits requires a commitment to the “permanence” of the carbon sequestration which is not something that a renter can promise since a subsequent renter could return the land to full tillage and release the stored carbon back into the atmosphere. A land owner who wants to have their land in a carbon program will need to find a capable and willing farmer and it would be appropriate to do that with some sort of cost and value sharing arrangement.

Another possibility would be to identify farmers with the most experience with transitioning to climate-ready farming methods, and engage them to upgrade land that hasn’t been optimally farmed in the past. Once again a cost sharing arrangement would be appropriate up front followed by some mechanism for the grower to share in the upside value. It would also make sense to set up an apprentice-like arrangement for young farmers to learn from those same experts.

Connecting the Key Players

In order for there to be widespread adoption of new lease models that support climate-ready/climate-active farming, to be there needs to be a way to connect progressive farmers with enlightened landowners and other entities. The goal is not to tell farmers how to farm, but rather to enable them to optimize the climate resilience of land in ways that make sense for specific settings. There could be a role for environmental or climate-action NGOs to generate interest among non-farming land owners and provide them with background information and lease models. Federal and state agencies involved with agriculture as well as farm industry organizations could help in the development of the new lease models. The operators of carbon offset programs should clearly “be at the table” as should individuals or organizations who want to invest in farmland. There could be a role for entities pursuing corporate sustainability or climate goals. There could be a role for climate-oriented charitable foundations. On the surface these diverse groups might seem like “strange bread-fellows,” but with a commitment to mutual listening and respect, they could join forces to make a meaningful difference for the future of the food supply and the trajectory of climate change.



Sunday, July 24, 2022

Can Florida's Iconic Citrus Industry Survive Its Own Pandemic?

(This article was originally published on Forbes on January 26, 2022

For more than two years, human society has been dealing with ramifications of the Covid-19 pandemic and that already feels like a long journey. It has killed millions, caused significant human stress, and precipitated economic disruption. Unfortunately the timeline for its resolution is unclear. For the past seventeen years, the Florida citrus industry has been grappling with a pandemic of its own – in this case an exotic bacterial disease that plagues the trees grown to produce the popular and health promoting fruit and juices we enjoy (oranges, grapefruits, lemons, limes, tangerines…). This severe plant disease now occurs in all 45 citrus producing counties in Florida. The disease was first described in China in the early 1900s where it called Huanglongbing or “yellow dragon disease.” In the U.S. it is usually called “HLB” or “Citrus greening.” 

Asian Citrus Psyllid Adult (image USDA-APHIS)

In 1998 an insect called the Asian Citrus Psyllid (ACP) showed up in Florida and caused concern because it was known to vector this disease while feeding on the tree’s sap. However the bacteria didn’t get introduced into the state for a while, and it was not until 2005 that the first diseased trees were found. In the ensuing years the insect and disease spread to essentially all of the citrus groves in Florida where they threaten the very survival of this important industry ($6.7 billion total economic impact, 33,000 jobs, $1.816 billion at the farm level). However, both pests are also now present in other US citrus growing states and represent a looming threat to those industries. 

This story has been unfolding slowly over these many years. The reason such a long-running problem has returned to the news of late is that the USDA published a depressingly dark production estimate for the 2022 Florida orange crop. They project that it will be down to 44.5 million 90-pound boxes - only 18% of the crop seen in 2004 - prior to the HLB era (see graph below) 

Ever since HLB appeared in 2005, production has been dropping (graph by author based on USDA-NASS data)

How Low Can It Go? 

In Florida, this disease is causing considerable concern about the future. Once the bacteria have been introduced into the tree by the ACP insect, they become systemic. The infection leads to a 50-70% decline in tree root function, reduced tree vigor, fruit drop, and problems with fruit ripening. Infected groves generate lower and lower marketable crop yields over time. That financial strain has induced around 5,000 farmers to quit growing citrus altogether. Unfortunately the potential to shift to different crops (e.g. blueberries, strawberries, peaches, vegetables) is limited because of weather and competition from other US growing areas and from imports. Citrus used to be the most profitable option in South Florida and that is why it was grown on around 900,000 acres prior to HLB. The declining yield and acreage trends for oranges can be seen in the graphs below. 

Orange production has dropped both because of reduce acreage and because of declining yield per acre.  This has also been true for other citrus types (Graphs by author based on USDA-NASS data)

Particularly for the juice industry, critical mass is required for running processing plants. Therefore it has been necessary for the major brands to include imports from Mexico and Brazil. The one grower-cooperative juice brand that continued making a “100% Florida-grown” product for many years (Florida’s Natural) has no longer been able to maintain that distinction. 

So Is There Any Hope? 

As is often the case in agriculture – adversity has inspired a diversified, private/public research effort to identify and/or develop pest management options for this disease and its vector. Funding for this comes from the industry itself (eg. The Florida Citrus Research and Development Foundation), the state ( University of Florida/IFAS), the federal government (USDA) and private technology companies. In 2018 the National Academy of Science published a 287 page review of the research effort with inputs or reviews from 23 scientists. One of the key conclusions was that no single solution would be likely to solve this problem and that a diversified strategy was needed. The following is at least a partial list of the strategies that are being pursued for both immediate and long-term solutions to this challenge. 

Nutrition and water management – because HLB compromises the tree’s root system, it becomes more important than ever to provide nutrients via fertilizers. However, this is a challenge in the extremely sandy Florida soils because these minerals can be washed down below the rooting zone to become a potential groundwater issue. The state’s extension experts recommend “spoon feeding” of small doses of fertilizer at multiple times during the year delivered through the irrigation systems which are now used in virtually all the groves. Major additions of organic matter are also used at replanting and/or in later years, but it is a challenge to retain their effects in these soils. Overall, growers are advised to follow BMPs (best management practices) that do as much as possible to reduce the effects of HLB while also protecting the environment. 

CUPS - One fairly extreme but near-term option for growers who are planting new citrus stands is to use a system called CUPS –“Citrus Under Protective Screening.” The idea is to completely exclude the ACP vector by growing the trees under a protective 40-50 mesh high density polyethylene screen. 
There is an orange grove under this protective cover designed to completely exclude the insect vector of HLB (Arnold W. Schumann, University of Florida/IFAS)

This sort of structure costs around $1/square foot and the screen has to be replaced every 7-10 years. That capital investment can theoretically make sense because in addition to avoiding HLB damage, the trees begin to bear fruit within 2.5 years of planting vs the normal 5-7 year range. Still, economic analysis of this system suggests that it is only feasible for the “highest possible yield of premium-quality fresh fruit with a high market price” and that only with a high degree of market stability. 

Breeding New Citrus Varieties – there are several, long-running University and USDA breeding programs for citrus which have added HLB resistance to their goals in addition to other kinds of pest resistance, yield and quality traits, and consumer traits like easy-to-peel tangerines. There are some promising examples of new varieties coming out of these programs. There is also another ambitious inter-species hybridization effort working with a citrus relative called Poncirus trifoliata or “Japanese Bitter Orange.” That source of genetic diversity may provide “constitutive disease resistance (CDR) genes” in hybrids that can then be back-crossed to restore fruit and juice quality. Modern technologies like genome resequencing and transcriptome sequencing are used to speed-up this process. Poncirus hybrids are also being evaluated for relative resistance to the vector insect, ACP. 

Rootstock Breeding - with tree and vine crops there are usually independent breeding efforts for the part of the plant that grows above ground (scion) and that which grows below (rootstock). Researchers at both the University of Florida and the USDA have long-standing rootstock development programs that were seeking to address other disease and nutrition issues before HLB, but they have found a few of their hybrids to be promising for reduced impact from infections. In some cases they have observed reduced proliferation of the pathogen inside the tree. There is the possibility that this sort of bacterial growth reduction effect will move up to the grafted scions where the fruit is formed. They are also breeding for “dwarfing” rootstocks that enable early bearing, “ultra-high density” plantings suitable for machine harvesting – a potentially more economically viable option for the future. 

Biocontrol - pest management involving live biological control agents is an increasingly important part of the tool box for farmers in general. Researchers at the University of Florida’s research and education center in Apopka have been testing a benign strain of a different bacterial pathogen of grapes called Xylella. By injecting this organism into HLB infected trees it appears to be possible to delay the development of severe symptoms and thus keep the orchard producing longer. This option is not yet available to growers because it will require EPA registration, but research continues to determine how effective the protection could be for new trees and how often new injections may be needed. 

Genome Editing - The recent advances in genome editing technologies such as CRISPR are generating excitement for many applications ranging from human health care to agriculture. An extensive review of how this might be applied to counteract HLB has been published by Chinese researchers in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences. While the USDA and other global regulatory agencies have signaled that they will minimize barriers to this approach, it remains to be seen how the EU will respond to broad scientific support for a smooth regulatory path for this kind of technology. If instead, the EU follows its historic tendency to employ extreme precaution regardless of scientific advice, their influence on export markets will negatively impact this future option for Florida and other citrus growing regions. In any case, this solution will not be available soon because it takes several years to get from a gene edited cell to a tree that is old enough to generate buds for grafting on to rootstocks. Genetic Engineering: like many other brand-sensitive food industry players, the Florida orange and grapefruit juice producers have acquiesced to the pressure to display the insidious “Non-GMO” label even though there are no commercial “GMO” cultivars being grown. There was an excellent article written in 2013 about the early history of this pandemic and the concern that growers would be denied any transgenic tools with which to fight HLB.

There is an active genetic engineering research program being pursued by a multi-party team involving Texas A&M, The University of Florida, Southern Gardens Citrus, Purdue University, the University of California and the USDA. It involves identifying genes for antimicrobial peptides to counteract the HLB organism and then either getting those expressed in the trees or delivering them with the help of a benign version of a common citrus virus. In the later case the trees themselves would not be “GMO” and it would be possible to use the technology across many existing and new varieties. There are regulatory processes involved (USDA, EPA) but those are nearing completion. Even if the “conventional breeding” options are promising and less controversial, it is always logical to have a diversified strategy – especially for a perennial crop which needs solutions that will remain effective over something like the 20-30 year lifespan of a new planting. That National Academy of Sciences review from 2018 specifically recommended “expanded efforts in educational outreach to growers, processors, and consumers” about the topic of biotech options. Back to the Covid-19 pandemic analogy, disinformation abounds when it comes to both vaccines and “GMOs.” 


So yes, the continuing HLB pandemic will result in a record low Florida orange crop in 2022. But there is still reason to hope that a combination of grower dedication and research to develop diverse strategies will ultimately mean that consumers can continue to enjoy these flavorful and health-promoting fruit and juice options. Finding solutions is not just important for the Sunshine State but also for other HLB-threatened states like Texas, Arizona and California.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Salmon, apples and potatoes — 3 healthy and sustainable foods that you can buy now under the new “bioengineered” label

Label required by Jan. 1, 2022, on food products containing bioengineered products and byproducts. Credit: USDA.

Label required by Jan. 1, 2022, on food products containing bioengineered products and byproducts. Credit: USDA.

(this post originally appeared on Genetic Literacy Project - January 4, 2022

The “bioengineered” label for foods sold in the United States is now in effect. Any food or food ingredient that has been genetically modified must include a label that says “bioengineered,” or come with a phone number or QR code guiding consumers to more information online.

On the positive side, the national labeling law avoids the nightmare of state-by-state requirements. The major negative is that the label could well become the target for negative campaigning and marketing around the fear-based, anti-GMO narrative and misleading “Non-GMO” labeling that have permeated food-related messaging for so long.

Fortunately there are some exciting “consumer-oriented” products finally becoming available which can display that newbioengineered label that would help consumers to overcome the disinformation and embrace technologies that actually improve our food system and our ability to enjoy it. The most notable are non-browning Arctic Apples, non-browning Innate potatoes and healthy, fast-growing, AquaBounty Salmon, which I wrote about two years ago in an article in Forbes and on Medium titled: “Three Foods I Wish I Could Buy at Costco.” These novel options that are not only tasty and healthy, but also have benefits in terms of sustainability, climate-smart farming, and food waste reduction.

I’ll discuss each example in detail below, but the big picture is that consumers in some locations are now able to find these products for sale, although they are not yet in national chains like Costco or Walmart, which for now are bowing activist pressures. Supplies are limited, but there is also a hesitancy on the part of many retailers who don’t want to be “first” to step into something potentially controversial. The truth is that there is no justification for such controversy since all the safety or environmental questions have already been addressed during the extraordinarily long and rigorous regulatory process overseen by the USDA, EPA and FDA. The farmers that grow major commodity crops have been able to take advantage of biotech crops for a long time, but consumers and specialty crop growers are only beginning to have that opportunity. Let’s see what that looks like.

Arctic Apples

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Twenty-five years ago a Canadian fruit grower named Neal Carter and his wife Louisa started a project to develop non-browning apples with the vision of reducing food waste and reversing the declining consumption of that healthy fruit. With a very small organization (e.g. less than 12), Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc.(OSF) developed varieties of well known apple cultivars in which a gene for a particular enzyme was turned off or “silenced.” That enzyme is what turns the fruit brown when it is bruised or cut. Turning it off makes the fruit more robust in general and dramatically reduces the amount that is rejected from harvest through storage and processing. The other non-browning trait advantage is that Arctic apples can also be sold as a ready-to-eat, sliced product that retains the fruit’s full flavor, aroma and vitamin content.

OSF shipped me a box of these as whole apples a few years ago and I was able to take them to a potluck dinner a couple of hours after slicing and compare them with regular apples. Everyone who tried them thought they were great, wanted to be able to buy them, and didn’t worry at all about them being “GMO.” I think that will be a normative reaction once consumers can see biotech advantages first-hand instead of just hearing them demonized by notorious anti-technology groups and writers.

OSF was acquired in 2014 by Intrexon, a publiccompany where R.J. Kirk served as Chairman and CEO. As of 2020 ownership transferred to Third Security, LLC, a venture capital firm led by Kirk. Kirk encouraged a vertical integration business strategy focused on the sliced apple or “Fresh cut” market. Neal Carter continued to run the company as he still does today. Talking with him last week I was impressed by the scope of his expertise and understanding ranging from the growing the trees to the processing step, to nutritional information, food safety protocols, product distribution options, marketing and building of a solid public image. He also has a solid understanding of the science involved in the genetics of the Arctic® offering and how that technology has become ever more sophisticated over time.

OSF has purchased or leased 1300 acres of land for apple production land in Washington State where it currently grows 2.6 million trees. They have plans for additional orchards and their own dedicated slicing facility in the near future. Their apple variety options include Arctic Goldens, Arctic Grannys, and as of this year Arctic Fuji. Arctic Galas will be next. In the longer term, non-browning red skinned apples are on the list. They are also hoping to develop more robust, non-browning cherries that will avoid the stem decline or pitting that tends to occur with that delicious fruit.


OSF’s apples are now being sold asstand-alone slices or as a component of fruit mix products packaged in cooperation with companies providing the other ingredients. There is also a dried version which is special because the slices don’t require sulfur products to prevent browning while they were being dried. These products are increasingly available at some regional grocery retailers; at certain convenience store chains and food service outlets. Some is now provided through military procurement. In some geographies the sliced fruit is now available for home delivery from Amazon Fresh. The convenience store and home delivery options have become even more popular during the pandemic. In the long term these slices might be found at a Costco or other national chains, but this will require expanding orchard plantings that that is a relatively slow process (4-5 years from planting to achieve full productivity).

Overall, Arctic apples address many societal needs and desires: a positive olfactory experience (flavor, aroma, appearance, and texture), convenience, health benefits, food waste reduction, and efficient use of farmland and inputs.

Innate Potatoes

In the process of harvesting, cleaning, sorting and storage of potatoes, they can get bruised leading to black spots and browning inside the potato that makes them ugly and undesirable. This damage generates substantial waste all along the food chain from the packing house, to processors, to stores and through to the consumer. Black spots and browning are also very undesirable for making something like hash browns at home.

The Simplot potato company has been using biotechnology methods to “turn off” or “silence” a PPO gene that is similar to the one silenced in Arctic Apples. They have also turned off genes to reduce the amount of the amino acid asparagine in the potatoes that can turn into the naturally occurring compound acrylamide during frying. Acrylamide is linked to various health effects so having less is a nice outcome. These potatoes have been on the market since 2015 as “white russets” and were labeled as “bioengineered” even before the requirement to do so in 2022. This has not been controversial with the consumers who have had access to the product, mainly at regional grocery chains and restaurants, not in national chains like Costco, Safeway, Kroger, etc. Again this is partly because of retailer’ hesitancy to “be first,” but as the supply of these potatoes increases it will be interesting to see whether that picture can change

Simplot has other grower- and consumer-oriented potato improvements in the development pipeline. They have moved genes from wild potatoes to make their potato cultivars more resistant to late blight – a fungal disease that caused the Irish potato famine in the 19th century and which still requires substantial control efforts by potato farmers today. That trait is “cisgenic” or “intragenic” in that it is based on potato genes being used in potatoes.

Simplot also added these resistance genes to the potato cultivars typically grown in Bangladesh and Indonesia and provided them for free to those farmers. They are also working on resistance to a virus disease (Potato Virus Y) which has become a bigger issue for North American potato farmers since an insect called the potato psyllid has moved into the Northwest. That pest movement has likely enabled by climate change in that pest can now survive the warmer winters in that major growing region. Hopefully, the anti-technology voices won’t deprive the farmers of these pest resistance traits as they did successfully with the Colorado potato beetle resistance trait developed by Monsanto and first sold in 1997. Growers saw great benefit from those “NewLeaf Potatoes,” but the controversy led to their removal from the market in by 2001.

Simplot has future plans to use CRISPR on russet varieties and even extend them on smaller, non-Russet potatoes. They recently announced they are working with the strawberry breeding company, PSI to make various consumer-oriented options in that popular fruit crop using gene editing. Simplot has also received a CRISPR license to work on browning and bruising reduction for avocado! That could prevent a lot of food waste at the consumer level.

The many sustainability advantages of Innate non-browning potatoes. Credit: Simplot Biosciences

Overall the Simplot efforts address many positive societal benefits: food waste reduction, enhanced consumer experience, health benefits, farmer pest management and land-use-efficiency.

AquaBounty Salmon

The third food is a kind of Atlantic salmon that has been improved using biotechnology so that it can grow more rapidly and require less feed while still having the highly desirable nutritional content of other salmon (e.g. the heart-healthy omega-3 fats). The US imports ~400,000 metric tons of farmed Atlantic salmon each year, around 16% of the growing global demand (Norway, Chile, Canada and Scotland are the largest producers).

AquaBounty salmon are raised in bio-secure, re-circulating, terrestrial aquaculture systems (RAS) that return 95% of the water each day and remove any sludge for use as fertilizer on nearby farms. In the tanks the fish can be carefully monitored. They are also free from the parasites and pathogens found in the ocean so they don’t need antibiotics or vaccines. Another advantage is that they are not exposed to ocean pollutants like heavy metals or microplastics.AquaBounty salmon can be raised anywhere such a facility can be built – the first one is in near Muncie Indiana so the transport carbon footprint is minimized to many US markets vs international imports.

Salmon swimming in tank. Credit: AquaBounty

While this desirable fish option is now commercially available for some Americans and Canadians, it will take time to expand the number of production facilities sufficiently to serve national food retail chains like a Costco. Unfortunately my home state of California might never be on the list for local production. There is a state regulation against raising these “GMO” fish. There is no rational reason; it isn’t that there is danger of these fish getting loose in the Pacific Ocean (they are all sterile females and the tanks are secure). I’m still trying to trace the “logic” here, but ironically there is an exception in the state law for aquarium hobbyists to buy novelty “Glofish” that are genetically engineered to glow because they have DNA from jellyfish.

It makes no sense to allow anyone to buy cool“GMO” pets and not allow local production of one of the most resource efficient, environmentally friendly, safe, healthy and delicious food production options that will eventually be available to most regions.

What’s next?

If you want to know more about the label, and which foods or ingredients will be labeled as such, check out the USDA website and hear a good discussion featured in the first part of this podcast.

If you as a consumer are excited about these options and would like to see more innovative food products in the future, I would encourage you to seek them out in stores or on-line and to ask for them at your favorite retailers. Our best hope of overcoming the decades-long, fear-based campaigns against modern biotechnology is to finally “vote with our food dollars” and let our voice be heard through the comment boxes or websites that are available.

Eating Insects Sounds Gross, But Could They Play A Palatable Role In Our Food Supply?


Black Soldier Fly Larvae (AP Photo/Aleks Furtula)

This article was originally posted on Forbes, January 11, 2022 as “Could Insects Play A Bigger Role In Our Food Supply?”

We are often told that something we can do to fight climate change, is to eat less meat or dairy. While there are certainly greenhouse gas issues with animal production, it is not that simple. But animals play a unique and indispensable role in our food supply– they can thrive on sources of nutrients that would otherwise be unavailable to humans. A familiar example would be the ruminants that can live on the cellulose in grasses both in pastures and from crops (cows, sheep, goats, etc.).

But there is an interesting source of feed for other farm animals that can’t use cellulose: Insects. Most people are not attracted to the idea of eating insects directly (although some cultures have included insects in their diets). A more broadly appealing option is to use insects to feed animals like poultry, hogs and fish because they can do well on that diet. This article will describe a pair of companies that are scaling up this potential food supply enhancement.

The leading insect candidates for this approach are crickets, mealworms and Black Soldier Flies. What these organisms can do for us is to “up-cycle” nutrients from various food system “side-streams” and/or from food waste. Then protein and lipid products can be derived from those insects to feed to animals in order to produce nutritious and widely appreciated human foods. This is also an attractive option for pet food.

A recent, large-scale example of this strategy involves the French insect-rearing company Agronutris and the Swiss, family-owned, global technology company Bühler. Together these two companies have announced the construction of a plant in Rethel, France which will be operational in 2023. It will employ larvae of an insect called the Black Soldier Fly to process 70,000 metric tons of low value side-stream feeds which will then be converted to high value protein and lipids that will be ingredients for feeding animals and pets. The overall recovery rate from the process is high with 70% of the dry mass protein in the starting side-stream material being converted into insect protein. Agronutris has plans for a second, 210,000 metric ton facility in France with a longer-term vision for global expansion.

For the plant in Rethel, Agronutris is leveraging ten years of experience optimizing the the biology of insect rearing and growth. Bühler engineers the insect feed preparation, the larvae growth units, climate control, and separation of larvae from the left-over feed and insect frass (insect poop) at the end of rearing. They also engineer a pasteurization step, and extraction of the clean final products. They will also optimize the system by collecting and analyzing 350MM process-related data points per day. This should take care of any “bugs in the system”–except of course the main actors. As for the frass etc. — that becomes a good soil amendment for local farms.

Black Soldier Fly — Hermetia illucens — the non-biting adult stage

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The logic for using the larvae of the Black Soldier Fly (technically its maggot stages) is that the species is already a proven option on a smaller scale and one that is already being pursued at an industrial level, initially with a pet food focus but now opening up for broader usage. The adult stage of the fly can be raised in captivity, but if it were ever to escape it is short-lived and does not bite or sting. The Black Soldier Fly larvae are also extremely flexible in terms food sources on which they can thrive. This includes side-streams like bran, husks, pods, or DDGs that come from major crops such as wheat, rye, soy, corn, barley, oats, rapeseed, sunflower and even coffee and tea. There are millions of tons of these options available and this would represent a higher-value use for those available streams.

The fly larvae can also thrive on peelings, trimmings and culls from fruit and vegetable crops. Another desirable option would be to use the system to help address the 1.3 billion ton per year generation of food waste. Anaerobic digestion is a great solution for many waste streams because it can generate carbon-neutral energy, but this insect model makes sense for waste-streams with enough potential proteins and lipids to generate a high value feed.

When insect-based feed reaches significant scale it can help to address food supply needs, and also help with sustainability goals such as water and energy conservation, reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, and reduced pressure for land-use-change.

Insect pests certainly can cause significant damage to our food supply unless well managed. But with the help of the technology described here; Black Soldier Flies could join other beneficial insects like pollinators, lady bugs, lacewings as positive contributors to our food supply.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The European Union's Wine Grape Quandary

The European Union has recently published a lengthy "Farm to Fork Strategy" which sets out ambitious goals for its agricultural sector. One part of the agenda is to reduce the use of pesticides either by restricting the way they can be used or in many cases by not authorizing their continued use when those particular chemicals come up for periodic review by regulators. Often these restrictions are at odds with the rigorous safety assessments that have been made by many regulatory bodies around the world including the US EPA. Another part of the agenda is to encourage the expansion of Organic farming. There are several reasons why this plan will cause serious complications for European farmers, and since the EU is a major importer of food, feed and fiber crops, the restrictions that it applies to various grape pesticides will also be a problem for farmers around the world who export their crops to the EU market.


Many crops will be affected by this agenda, but one interesting case-study is what this push will mean for the prominent and highly regarded wine grape industry in the EU.  Wine grapes only represent around 3% of EU farmland, but around 20% of total EU pesticide use. There are several reasons for this relatively intensive use of crop protection products.  For one thing wine grapes are a very high value crop so growers can afford to use more products to optimize the yield and quality of their fruit. But there are also important historical and genetic reasons why certain pests represent a particular challenge for the European grape industry. 


With most crops, breeding is an important strategy to help with pest problems, notably when that involves tapping into the genetic diversity available in various wild relatives of the cultivated crop. With wine grapes the breeding option has essentially been "off-the-table" because of the long tradition which has identified very specific Old World grape varieties of the species Vitis vinifera which have been found to provide the highest quality for the weather and soil conditions of each growing region or "appellation." The long-term history and tradition of growing specific grape cultivars in each region is often called "terroir" and this is not anything the industry wants to change because it needs to meet consumer expectations and marketing narratives about wine quality.


Interestingly in the 1870s there was a dramatic change to the genetics of European grapes.  A root feeding insect called Phylloxera was inadvertently transported to Europe from North America. The various wild species of grapes that evolved alongside Phylloxera are fairly resistant to the damage from that specific insect pest. (The most familiar example of this kind of grape is a species called Vitis labrusca which consumers know as Concord Grapes because that is the kind of grape used to make non-alcoholic grapes juices such as the famous brand - Welches). The native American grapes are not considered to be that good for making high quality wines, but some hybrids between the two species are grown for wine in the Northern US in areas that are too cold for Vitis vinifera.  The Vitis vinifera grapes of Europe evolved without the challenge from Phylloxera so once the pest crossed the Atlantic the vineyards were highly susceptible to its damage and began a steep decline.  The only way the industry was able to be saved was by grafting the vinifera cultivars onto "American Rootstocks."  Grafting is a horticultural technique that has been practiced for centuries, but it was only with great reluctance that the European growers took that step. 

A grafted grapevine, image from Washington State University Extension

Around the world today virtually all wine grapes are grown on these "American" rootstocks because they can provide protection from soil-borne pests while allowing the traditional varieties to achieve the desired fruit qualities that made them so desirable. Rootstocks are used for almost all perennial crops and also for high value vegetable crops like fresh market tomatoes.


There are also two serious foliar diseases that also made the jump from North America to Europe in the 1800s. The first was a disease called Powdery Mildew and it causes loss of yield and quality as it grows on the exterior of the leaves and fruit.  Vitis vinifera is highly susceptible to this disease.

Grape Powdery Mildew infection of a developing grape cluster. Photo by Laura Jones/Univ. California, Davis

The solution that was found is probably the oldest known pesticide, elemental Sulfur.  This "natural" mineral product was found to control the disease but only if the grapes were "dusted" with something like 10 pounds/acre of sulfur every 7 to 10 days for much of the season until the fruit begins to ripen (a stage called veraison in grape-speak).  Sulfur is not very toxic to eat or drink, but it is an eye and skin irritant that can make it quite unpleasant to work in a vineyard. There is also some evidence that as with other dusts, sulfur can increase the risk of asthma among the children who live near the places were dust products are applied. California has recently restricted the use of sulfur and other dusts near populated areas. "Wettable" forms of sulfur can still be used without the respiratory problem and that is still a part of integrated pest management systems for grapes.  However; most modern grape growers use sulfur more sparingly because newer and more effective "synthetic fungicides" have been developed which require far smaller doses at longer intervals and which are in the EPA toxicity class IV described as "essentially non-toxic" by ingestion. I remember a time in 1978 during my second season being out in California vineyards for my graduate research that I was amazed to smell a beautiful floral aroma during the grape bloom period - something I had not experienced the season before. It was because I was in a block treated with the first example of these new fungicide options instead of the normal odiferous and irritating sulfur. I have a podcast about that event.  Grape growers who choose to grow for the organic market are not allowed to use these more modern tools and must therefore depend on high use-rate options like sulfur and something called "petroleum distillates" (think mineral oil for the later).  Thus, this is just one example of how the EU Field to Fork strategy embodies conflicting goals if it wants to reduce pesticide use and the push for more organic production.

Grape Downy Mildew sporulating on the bottom of a leaf. Photo by Mark Longstroth, Michigan State Univ. Extension

There was another "intruder" fungus pest that originated on North American grapes and then caused even more severe problems for the European industry in the 1870s.  It is called downy mildew.  The solution that was ultimately found to this disaster was another very early pesticide. It was discovered by a French botanist named Pierre Millarday who noticed a particular vineyard along a roadside that stood out by exhibiting much less damage from the new disease. He learned that the grower had applied copper sulfate combined with lime as a way to make the fruit look unappealing so that people passing by would stop helping themselves to his grapes (you can see an image of this blue coating in this article in Wine Spectator).  


That "natural" pesticide became known as the Bordeaux mix and it saved the grape industry.  It was also a much-needed solution for a related disease on potatoes that had cause the famous Irish Potato Famine in the same era.  Various copper-based products do work against these pests and many are approved for use in organic production, but unfortunately they are quite toxic to aquatic organisms and are persistent in the environment since the mineral copper is copper and it isn't going to break down to innocuous components the way that many other natural or synthetic chemicals do over time. After years of use, copper fungicides build up in vineyard soils and can become toxic to grape roots. Many European organic growers have had to abandon their organic status because of these soil issues.  Copper fungicides also require high use-rates (4-6 pounds/acre) and frequent applications because the copper is easily washed off by rain. 


Once again, many low toxicity, highly effective and environmentally safe synthetic fungicides that have been developed to fight downy mildew, but those options are not allowed to be used by Organic growers. European regulators are not fans of these copper fungicides, but their politicians have made exemptions for their own grape growers while at the same time setting up barriers to more benign products that have met rigorous standards in other countries.  


Organic growers also have limited options for the control of mold fungi that can infect the grapes as they become ripe. That sort of "bunch rot" is very bad for wine quality, but a disease that is well addressed with safe, modern synthetic fungicides while organic growers still depend on things like copper. Chemical herbicides are also desirable for grape production so that there isn't a need for erosion-causing mechanical plowing to take care of weeds in the vine rows. Tillage is still the main option for Organic growers. So, in all these cases the EU's pesticides and organic goals are in conflict with one another when it comes to that iconic industry


As mentioned earlier, there are several wild grape species that are more resistant to powdery and downy mildew. Theoretically traditional breeding methods could be used to transfer some of those genes. Conventional breeding of grapes is possible but slow, and it has been used to develop things like seedless table grapes with new colors and flavors.  Some new wine grape varieties with disease resistance from wild grapes have been developed by breeders working for the University of California, and they were repeatedly "back-crossed" so that the final result was a variety with 95% vinifera genes. But because of tradition and some remaining wine quality questions, almost all the wine grapes of that state and other grape growing regions around the world are still the traditional European varieties.


With modern genetic technologies it is now possible to work with only one or a few genes from the wild grape species that confer pest resistance and do so without any effect on the thousands of other genes in the storied cultivars. This sort of precision is now much more feasible because of the genome editing technologies that are generating excitement for many applications in both medicine and agriculture.  But the EU as a whole has been very resistant to accepting "GMOs" methods even though their own scientists have long argued that such changes do not represent any greater risk to public health or the environment than do traditional means of breeding. Scientists at Rutgers University and with the USDA are working now on using this approach to get downy mildew resistance into Chardonnay. 


There is some hope in the scientific community that European activists and political authorities will take the logical step of saying that they can consider these modern genome editing technologies differently from how they responded to first generation genetic engineering methods. There is at least a promising mention of such technologies in the EU's Farm to Fork Strategy


"In response to the request of Member States, the Commission is carrying out a study which will look at the potential of new genomic techniques to improve sustainability along the food supply chain."


Some are even optimistic that traditionally anti-GMO groups will make a distinction for the new methods. Ideally the EU might take reasonable approach of combing state of the art genetics with the sort of low hazard synthetic chemical options that would still be important in order to avoid selecting for fungal resistance to traits a grower would need to last for decades in a new vineyard planting.  That would also relieve the wine industries in other countries from having to cater to EU trade barriers in the choices they make about how to produce their crops.


Europeans are not likely to abandon their taste for wine and they don't have to in order to pursue their legitimate goals.  Organic isn't the solution here.  Instead what is needed is respect for the science and more effective communication of the actual safety story behind modern agriculture.  There is an excellent explanation written by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) that describes how robust the approval system is for safe pesticide standards, and this is confirmed by academic experts as well. But all too often in Europe, politics trumps science. Let's hope we might someday raise a toast to a more constructive and science-driven solution to the EU's grape quandary.