Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Do You Really Need To Worry About Pesticide Residues On Fruits and Vegetables?

(This article was originally posted on Forbes on 3/23/23) Fruits and vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet providing vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, dietary fiber and other benefits. They can also be quite delicious. Nutrition experts agree that many Americans should eat more of these foods, but that can be challenging for those with a busy lifestyle. But another reason is consumers hesitate to buy produce items that they’ve been told are risky because of pesticide residues. The main way they get that idea is through something called the “Dirty Dozen List” which is published each year by the Environmental Working Group (EWGEWG) – an organization which gets funding from several large organic food companies. The 2023 list is expected soon. It purports to advise consumers about which specific foods are most important to buy as Organic to avoid these pesticide residues. This fear-based message is completely misleading and irresponsible. There are several reasons why this list has a negative effect on society. The first is it represents an egregious misinterpretation of an extensive and transparent public data set called the USDA Pesticide Data Program or PDP. The EWG claims that their list is based on the PDP data, but in fact what the data shows is these foods are safe and “clean” and should be enjoyed with confidence. That conclusion is clearly expressed in the USDA’s public summary and confirmed by the EPA and FDA. The second issue is the messaging tends to discourage many people from consuming healthy amounts of fruits and vegetables. That is particularly true for those on limited incomes. We do not have a two-tiered food system that requires us to pay a price premium for safety, and the USDA makes it clear that it’s Organic certification is not about safety. The third reason that the Dirty Dozen List is so corrosive it undermines public confidence in the EPA regulatory process for pesticides as if nothing has changed in the more than 50 years since that agency was established. The fourth problem is the Dirty Dozen List denigrates the farmers who actually do a great job of producing these crops and protecting them from pest damage and food loss while still complying with the EPA’s requirements for how to do that safely (e.g. what rates can be used and how close to harvest). What is the PDP and what does it really tell us? Each year the USDA and its 10 state-level partner agencies go out and collect more than ten thousand food samples from commercial channels within the US food system. For the 2021 study 21 commodities were included (Fresh and frozen Blueberries, Broccoli, Cantaloupe, Cauliflower, Carrots, Celery, Eggplant, Sweet Bell Peppers, Tangerines, Grape Juice, Green Beans, fresh and frozen Peaches, Plums, Green Beans, Watermelon, Summer Squash, Winter Squash, Butter, and Corn for Grain). The samples are taken to the USDA’s national lab or to one of 7 state laboratories throughout the US. There they are prepared the way they would normally be at the household level (washing, peeling etc), and then analyzed using very sensitive technologies that can accurately measure the amounts of more than 300 different pesticides and pesticide metabolites. For 2021 (the 31st year of the PDP) there were 10,127 samples and a total of 27,541 residue detections. For their Dirty Dozen List, the EWG essentially treats all of those detections as equally problematic. To do that truly represents “data abuse.” To understand the actual significance of any given detection one has to consider three details which are quite transparently available through the USDA-PDP dataset download site. 1. What chemical was detected? Individual crop protection chemicals (whether natural or synthetic) differ dramatically in terms of their toxicity profile. Very few modern pesticides are highly toxic to animals or humans. Many work by inhibiting specific enzymes that occur in pests but are not even present in animals. Thus these typically end up being classified by the EPA as category III - “slightly toxic,” or category IV – “essentially non-toxic.” 2. How much of the chemical was present? Since the time of the ancient Greeks is has been understood that “the dose makes the poison.” Modern chemical testing methods can detect extremely small doses – that does not mean that those represent something dangerous or “dirty.”
To begin, 14.4% of the detections were at extremely low levels for which the chemical could be identified and for which there is a defined tolerance, but where there was so little of the chemical present that the amount couldn’t be quantified. These “Trace w/Tolerance” detections are clearly not of concern (see the blue slice in the pie chart above). For 84% of the detections there was both a quantifiable level of the chemical and a crop/chemical-specific tolerance. In almost all those cases the residue was at a level below the tolerance. These “below tolerance” detections can be further sorted by their “safety margin” (see the four green slices in the pie chart above). For example, if the detected residue was at 1% of the tolerance, it would have a 100-fold safety factor. 16.5% of the samples had a safety margin between 1 and 20. 31.5% had a safety margin between 20 and 100. 31% had a safety margin between 100 and 1000. 4.5% had a safety factor of more than 1,000. These detections simply span the range from safe to extremely safe. The reason that a separation was made at the 20-fold safety level is because there is a stipulation in the rules for USDA Organic that if claimed organic foods are being tested as part of an enforcement activity, any residue of a synthetic (and therefore unallowed) pesticide below 5% of the EPA tolerance is considered to have been “inadvertent” and would not constitute a violation of the organic rules. That is not based on any different safety standard. Instead the 5% rule is just a practical acknowledgement that there could be low level residues coming from blowing dust or equipment or picking boxes or some other route than having being intentionally treated with the chemical in question. The PDP program is not used as enforcement activity for Organic, but if it were, 82% of all the residues could qualify under that organic exemption.
Only 0.43% of the detections (one in 233) exceeded the relevant tolerance (see the red slice above), and for many commodities there were no detections above tolerance (Cantaloupe, Carrots, Cauliflower, Corn for Grain, Frozen Blueberries, Frozen Peaches, Plums, Grape Juice, Sweet Bell Peppers, Summer Squash, Tangerines, Watermelons). In 2021, a small subset of the detections were for chemicals without a specific tolerance for the crop in question. Most of those (1.15% of all detections) were below the tolerances for other crops and so they are not of particular concern as they might also have come from some sort of inadvertent, low level exposure. Another 0.3% of detections were cases without a tolerance but only present in the trace detection range that can’t actually be quantified, so they do not represent any significant risk. Only 0.13% of the detections were for chemicals with no tolerance at all and those would need to be considered on a case by case basis to decide if they were actually problematic. Only 6.35% of the PDP samples in 2021 were labeled as certified Organic items. The analytical methods used by these labs are only designed to detect synthetic chemicals. With the exception of the natural fermentation product Spinosad, the PDP methods can’t detect the most frequently used organic-approved pesticides such as mineral-compounds like copper sulfate and sulfur, microbial products like Bt insecticides or fatty acids. Each such product would require its own specific testing method. Residues of 33 different synthetic chemicals were found among the organic samples and that represents an average of 0.43 detections per sample (vs 2.9/sample for conventional samples). That lower frequency is expected since those chemicals are not supposed to be intentionally applied to an organic crop. Interestingly, the distribution of those residues by category is similar to that for the conventional samples (see graph below) In conclusion, the largest categories of detections for 2021 were those that are far to very far from anything that could be called “dirty.” In a sense the PDP is a “graded test” of our farmers’ compliance with EPA regulations. They deserve an A+, not an insulting distortion of the truth. If the EWG’s notorious list is published again in 2023, and if it uses its standard, debunked methodology, it should simply be ignored by consumers and either ignored out called out for what it is by the press. Here is another source of good information on this topic. (Full disclosure: during my 40-year career in agricultural technology I have worked on the discovery and development of crop protection products based on synthetic chemicals, natural products and live biologicals. I have also consulted for numerous companies in that sector. Between 2017 and Q1 2021 I served as a Crop Protection Products Benefits Communicator for the CropLife Foundation - the non-profit arm of CropLife America which is the industry association for the crop protection industry. I performed this year’s data analysis in my semi-retirement, not in any paid industry role).
3. How does the concentration compare to the crop/chemical-specific “tolerance?” Tolerances are residue thresholds established by the EPA as a conservative safety standard. To set this threshold the EPA factors in all that is known about the toxicological profile of each chemical and how the commodity fits into normal diets with special consideration for the diets of children. An additional safety factor is added just to be sure that the tolerance defines a level below which we can be extremely confident that there would be no significant health effects even with frequent consumption. It is inappropriate and irresponsible to classify a residue below or well below the EPA tolerance as “dirty” or dangerous. Based on the answers to those three questions, one can sort the detections from 2021 into nine categories as shown in two pie charts below.

Monday, November 14, 2022

A "Farm Powered" Business Model for Scalable Renewable Energy Production from Waste

(This article was first published on Forbes on 10/29/2022)
(Image above: The logo for Vanguard Renewable's business arrangement with dairy farms to generate energy from what could have been waste) It has been pointed out that “waste is only really waste if you waste it.” That is of particular concern when what is being wasted is potential renewable energy. Our food system generates two major waste streams that have traditionally ended up on the negative side of their potential – the manure that comes from farm animals, and the inedible food waste that happens at the food manufacturing or retail level. There is a solution that addresses both of these missed opportunities and reduces our reliance on landfills and incinerators. A company called Vanguard Renewables has developed a business model that connects farms with food companies and retailers to combine their waste streams and use them to generates renewable natural gas which can then serve to decarbonize the energy supply for society as a whole. This solution hinges on a technology called “anaerobic digestion” or AD that has been used extensively for decades in Europe. An organic waste source like manure is put within a closed tank without oxygen. Under that “anaerobic” condition there are specialized microbes from the gut of the cow that can digest the organic matter. Unlike most living things that generate carbon dioxide as they metabolize their food, these “anaerobic” specialists generate methane gas - the same energy-rich fuel we call natural gas. The difference between the gas from one of these digesters and the fossil fuel version is that the carbon in the gas from a digester was created biologically, and not by fossil extraction. That means that when the methane is burned to produce energy, the carbon dioxide that is emitted is “carbon negative” and isn’t a net contributor to the total amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Then, if the methane from a digester (also called “green natural gas”) is piped into the existing natural gas utility stream, it has the same sort of “decarbonization” effect that is achieved by putting electricity generated by solar, wind or nuclear into the overall electricity grid. Vanguard Renewables was started in 2014 by solar energy investor and entrepreneur John Hanselman who had been a skeptic about AD until he saw how widely it was being used in Europe. At that time anaerobic digestion was being used to some extent in the US dairy industry, but there was much more untapped potential. The limiting factors for AD implementation are the significant capital cost to build a facility and the need for considerable expertise to operate the system. Large diary operations are a logical place to build digesters because they generate a continuous stream of manure – often more than can be reasonably spread back on the surrounding fields. Also, if the manure has to be stored in a lagoon for later use it creates methane and an odor issue for any neighbors, and the ammonia that volatilizes from stored manure causes other environmental problems. A digester can be run on a continuous basis so that the need to store the manure is virtually eliminated.
(Image above from Vanguard Renewables - photo by John Maciel. Dairy cows with anaerobic digester in the background) The Business Model Vanguard makes lease arrangements with the dairies for the land where it builds digester facilities. They then take the manure and after they have generated the methane, the farmer gets back “digestate” that as been fortified with all the food nutrients at no charge. He solid part of what they get makes excellent bedding for the cows and the rest makes a soil-injectable fertilizer that avoids the odor and massive volume issues of raw manure or even composted manure. The farmer doesn’t need to purchase nearly as much synthetic fertilizer and so a life cycle analysis of the milk reflects a smaller carbon footprint ( in an almost ironic way that savings is because less fossil natural gas is needed to make nitrogen fertilizer for that farmer’s forage crops). Vanguard dries and purifies the methane and feeds that into the regional natural gas network and gets their income from the utility company. The dairy farmer has no upfront capital cost, does not have to play any role in operating the plant except collecting and delivering the manure, gets a monthly lease income and then the digestate fertilizer and bedding. This farm side of Vanguard’s business it described as “Farm Powered.” The other part of the business model is that Vanguard makes agreements with companies that have food waste issues such as processing side streams at a food manufacturer or brewery, or inedible food waste that is generated at grocery retail based on items that have gone past the date at which they can be sold or donated to a food bank. Vanguard has organic waste recycling facilities built specifically to accept and process this waste including even packaged foods that have to be opened to get to the organic waste.
(Image above from Vanguard Renewables, photo by John Maciel. A truck delivering food waste from a partner company to the recycling facility in Agawam, MA that prepares it for delivery to a farm with a digester facility) This organic waste is then sent to the farm where it enters a hydrolyzer and is heated to 104 degrees for five days before entering the anaerobic digester to be combined with dairy cow manure. This addition can actually lead to even better performance of the anaerobic digestion process. The farmer gets even more digestate. Some municipal waste haulers also arrange to bring their excess organic waste to the farm sites.
(Image above from Vanguard Renewables - photo by Todd Balflour. A co-digested for manure and food waste on the Goodrich family farm in Salisbury, VT) Over the past several years Vanguard has been refining their system and so they recently pursued a round of funding for expansion. They had several offers and took the one from BlackRock Real Assets, an ESG-focused finance company. It takes a reasonably large dairy in terms of the number of cows to justify a digester installation, but in areas with smaller dairies Vanguard has set up arrangements where the manure from several farms can be pooled at a single location. Currently they have 150 dairy farms under contract ranging from those with only 400-1000 cows to one that has more than 10,000. In all cases these are family farms, and they greatly appreciate the steady lease income since the prices they get for their milk can fluctuate a great deal. So far, the company has recycled more than 1.7 million tons of organic waste (food was and dairy cow manure) and produced enough digestate to fertilize more than sixty-one thousand acres of crop land. So, what this business model achieves is recovery of energy from both manure and food waste, a reduction in materials going to landfill and incineration, cleaner air around a dairy, a stabilizing income for family dairy farms, a reduction in the need for fertilizer, and an increase in the proportion of renewable energy for society. Further expansion is now underway. This is just one of the ways that the US dairy industry is pursuing sustainability and overall carbon footprint reduction.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Agriculture’s Critical And Complex N-Game

(This article was originally published on Forbes on August 24, 2022)
(Cornfield Image - Petr Kratochvil) Critics of modern agriculture often cite its dependence on “synthetic nitrogen fertilizers.” They point to the carbon footprint of the natural gas used to make it and the fact that nitrogen from farms can end up as a water or air pollutant. Also there is the issue that under certain circumstances a fraction of farm applied nitrogen can be emitted from the soil as the very potent greenhouse gas - nitrous oxide. While these issues are real, the solution is not to somehow avoid using this fertilizer or to arbitrarily set limitations on the quantities that farmers can use to grow their crops. Unfortunately there are several such misguided approaches being pursued. A cautionary tale comes from the nation of Sri Lanka which recently banned fertilizer imports in its attempt to become the first 100% organic production region. That choice crippled their food supply and their important tea export industry. Canada recently mandated nitrogen fertilizer reduction for its farmers without tying that to a rational measure such as kg of fertilizer per ton of output. India is promoting “zero-budget natural farming which could undermine the food independence that nation has enjoyed since the “green revolution.” The European Union is promoting organic agriculture which excludes “synthetic fertilizers” as part of its controversial Farm to Fork Strategy. In fact, organic is often promoted as a solution to fertilizer issues without recognition that organic crop production is actually quite dependent on “synthetic” nitrogen that has ended up in the manure of conventionally raised animals. As one expert on the subject says, “follow the nitrogen.” And just to be clear, human produced nitrogen fertilizer starts as ammonia which is a naturally occurring form of that element and not something artificial as the term “synthetic” might imply. Getting Fertilization “Just Right” In the classic fairy tale Goldilocks wants her porridge “not too hot, not too cold, but just right.” The challenge for farmers is to apply nitrogen in a way that doesn’t represent either too much or too little, but what is “just right” for optimal crop growth. Fertilizers are one of the more significant operating costs of growing a crop, so growers have no incentive to over-apply. But conversely if a crop is short on nutrients during key growth stages, the farmer’s yield-based income will be compromised. Thus, the long-standing goal for optimal fertilization has been expressed as “The 4-Rs” – 1. the right amount 2. in the right form 3. in the right place 4. at the right time This is a non-trivial challenge because of logistical limitations and the vagaries of weather, but the basic economics drive careful use. Why Agriculture Needs to “up it’s N-game” There are now two “game changing” factors driving more attention to nitrogen fertilizer issues -the war in Ukraine and Climate Change. The war has led to a dramatic increase in fertilizer prices and highlighted the desirability of a to shift to domestic sourcing. Rational concern about Climate Change is putting the spotlight on the greenhouse gas footprint of current nitrogen fertilizer production methods as well as on the emissions of nitrous oxide from fields. In the face of these heightened concerns the agricultural sector is being called upon to “up its N-game.” Why Agriculture Needs to Up it's "N-Game" The challenge is to meet increasing demand for food, feed, fiber, fuel and other biomaterials without driving land-use-change and without exacerbating nitrogen-related issues. Fortunately, the trend over the past three decades is encouraging. Consider the example the “I states” which account for around one third of US grain corn production. As shown in the graphs below, yield in 2021 was 35-51% higher than in the early 1990s but nitrogen use only increased between 8 and 18%. Thus “nitrogen use-efficiency” in those states (expressed as bushels produced per pound of nitrogen applied) has increased 29-35%.
That means that the use of nitrogen for corn in these three states in 2021 was 1.73 billion pounds lower than if it has been used at the rates it was in the early 1990s. That benefit is shown below for each year in which there was survey data.
Farmers use many different practices and technologies in order to optimize their use of nitrogen and other fertilizers. The following is a list of both existing and emerging n-game tactics. Some are well established but could be more widely employed. Those are highlighted with the symbol (>>>). Others that are relatively new, but which could make a significant contribution are highlighted with the symbol (+++). Those that are in the research phase are indicated by the symbol (***). Nutrient Recovery When animals (including humans) digest their food they fail to absorb all the nutrients it contains. That is why manure has always been used as a fertilizer as it continues to be today. Manure in its various forms (including after composting) is not an ideal fertilizer in that it requires the application of tons per acre and it isn’t amenable to some desirable farming practices such as no-till farming or precision application (described below). Even so, a new technology called a Varcor Processor (+++) is available today to do a much better job of recovering the fertilizer nutrients from manure in highly usable forms. There is also interest in setting up mechanisms to recycle human urine (***) as a fertilizer high in both nitrogen and phosphorus. However, since neither animals or humans actually make nitrogen fertilizer, these are limited potential sources. Precision Fertilization Farm field soils are not uniform in that they have different yield potential in different zones. It is common today for farm machinery to be equipped with GPS or other geo-referencing technologies in order to do “auto-steer” and to generate information like a yield map. To avoid wasting money on excess fertilizer the farmer can use “variable rate fertilization” (>>>) putting down more or less in each individual zone based on its growth potential. The application rates can also be guided by various imaging technologies that use “hyperspectral analysis” (>>>) to visualize the nutrient status of the growing crop and to adjust fertilizer rates on that even more precise zone basis. For crops that are irrigated it is possible to very closely link the supply of nitrogen and other nutrients to what the plants need at any given point in the growing season by “spoon feeding” (>>>)- delivering it through drip lines or other irrigation systems at levels that closely match what the plants will quickly absorb with their roots at each time point throughout the season. In non-irrigated agriculture that level of control is not possible, but fertilizer can be applied in a few “split applications” (>>>) to more closely match plant needs. Another option is a “controlled release formulation” (>>>) of the fertilizer in which a polymer coating slows the rate at which the nutrients move out into the soil. Preventing Nitrogen Loss After a nitrogen fertilizer has been applied in a field it can be a while before it is taken up by the growing crop and in the meantime, it can be converted to forms that allow it to move into the air or water so that it is no longer available for the crop and can cause problems in the environment. There are several technologies that act as “Nitrogen Loss Inhibitors.” For instance urea is a very practical form of nitrogen to use as a fertilizer, but there are enzymes present in soils called ureases that convert it to ammonia (NH4) which is volatile so that it moves away in the atmosphere only to be washed down later and cause a form of water pollution known as “eutrophication.” There are products called “urease inhibitors” (>>>) that prevent that potentially major form of nitrogen loss. When fertilizer nitrogen is in the positively charged ammonium form (NH4+) it is in an available but non-mobile form. There are microbes in the soils that convert the ammonium to nitrate (NO3-) which is very mobile in water so that it can leach into ground water or be washed into streams. If the soil is waterlogged or compacted so that it doesn’t have air available, the nitrate can also be lost to the crop if it is “denitrified” meaning that it is converted to N2 gas that goes back into the air as a harmless gas. Unfortunately, in that process some of the nitrogen is turned into nitrous oxide (N2O) which is an extremely potent greenhouse gas. There are products called “nitrifications inhibitors” (>>>) which reduce these nitrogen loss and pollution issues. The GPS-based autosteer technology also allows the grower to employ “controlled wheel trafficking” (>>>) so that only a small percent of the field is ever compacted by the wheels of heavy equipment. If no nitrogen fertilizer is applied to those potential soil compaction wheel tracks, the risk of nitrous oxide emissions is greatly diminished. Using “Green” Nitrogen In the early 20thcentury, the German scientists Fritz Haber and Karl Bosch invented the process through which the inert nitrogen gas that makes up 78% of the atmosphere could be converted into ammonia and from the converted to other forms that can fertilize plants. Up until that time the world had been tapped out of nitrogen from natural sources including the mining of deposits of bird guano. Hydrogen is also needed for that reaction and natural gas (CH4) has has always been used in the Haber-Bosch process because it was the cheapest source. Hydrogen can also be produced from water using wind or solar generated electricity and there are technologies now available to make much lower carbon footprint nitrogen (+++) and they are getting more cost competitive. Another advantage of using renewable energy to generate nitrogen fertilizer is that it can help with the reduction of import dependence. Nitrogen Fixers The term “fixer” has some negative connotations, but in nature there are certain beneficial bacteria that can “fix” nitrogen meaning they have a unique ability to take some of the nearly inert N2 gas that makes up 78% of the atmosphere and convert it into ammonia (NH4) which is the starting point for all the biologically important forms of that element. There is a family of plants known as legumes that have a special relationship with one of these bacterial species called Rhizobium. The plant supplies the microbe with the sugars that then provide the considerable amount of energy required for that process. The plants also “house” these bacteria in specialized structures along their roots called “nodules” that created a very low oxygen environment which is also important for the fixing process. Several major and minor legume crops have this capability and require little to no nitrogen fertilizer (soybeans, dry edible beans, peas, peanuts, lentils, chickpeas, alfalfa…). When legumes are part of the crop rotation (>>>) they leave a fair amount of nitrogen for the next non-legume crop (e.g. corn, wheat, canola…). There are also legumes that can be used as cover crops (>>>) between seasons to increase the supply of nitrogen in the soil.

Friday, August 26, 2022

We Are Asking For More Than Food From Our Farms. A New Cropping Option May Help Meet The Demand

 (This post was originally published on Forbes on 8/17/22)

Humanity depends on the agriculture sector to produce our food, feed, and fiber, and that demand continues to grow. Increasingly we look to crops as more climate-friendly sources for fuels, plastics and other “bio-materials.” The challenge is to fulfill this diverse and expanding demand without driving land-use-change (LUC)- the conversion of previously uncultivated lands to farms. LUC leads to the loss of biodiversity and a massive release carbon dioxide from those soils. Through the refinement of farming practices and the use of new technologies, the productivity of many major crops has been steadily increasing (see graphs below), but climate change may compromise that trend.

The per acre yield of major US crops has been increasing for decades (Graphs by author based on USDA-NASS Quickstats data)

There is another way to expand crop production without adding new land - a farming method known as “double cropping.” In temperate climates there is normally one crop harvested from each acre each year. Double cropping involves pairing two crops that can be grown in back-to-back periods on the same parcel of land in the same growing season. For instance Winter Wheat is often double cropped with soybeans in states like Kentucky and Ohio.

A field of Camelina in bloom (image from Yield10 Bio)

There is a newly developed version of a crop called Camelina which will allow double cropping in Northern latitudes where that was not previously possible. It has the potential to be planted on millions of acres following crops like corn and soybeans or canola in the prairie provinces of Canada and in the Northern Tier of US states.

Double cropping also aligns with the concept of “Regenerative Farming” in that it keeps diverse species growing on the land for as much of the year as possible which builds soil health. “Cover crops” are a similar option but in that case the planting is not for a second harvest. Over time both of these practices increase the drought resilience and nutrient buffering capacity of the land, and when paired with no-till management these systems result in long-term sequestration of more carbon in the soil which could add value through a carbon offset market. There is a yield and yield stability payback from the enhanced soil health, but that can take several years to accrue and so it is difficult to justify the cost of seed and fuel for a non-harvested cover crop. A cash double crop generates income while providing the same benefits. Double cropping and cover crops also provide other “ecosystem services” in that the active root systems prevent erosion and nutrient runoff during the part of the year following harvest of the primary cash crop. Although Camelina does not require bees for pollination, it’s flowers are an excellent forage resource for bees and its golden yellow blooming fields are beautiful to see. In recognition of the many benefits of double cropping, the USDA has added coverage for the practice in its crop insurance program.

Camelina closeup Camelina flowers are very attractive to bees

Camelina does not require bees for pollination, but it is a very attractive to bees and other pollinators

Camelina is actually an ancient crop which was a common source of lamp oil and animal feed in Europe into the early 20th century.  It was recently selected as a candidate for improvement by a company called Yield10 Bioscience. With the advanced breeding tools that are available today, it is possible to take a relatively unimproved crop like Camelina and rapidly develop improved versions to fit modern needs. Yield10’s initial focus has been to develop very high yielding and high oil content versions that could be used to make biodiesel and jet fuel.  Yield10’s leading winter cultivars for this purpose have been scaled up for larger acreage planting this fall and the Company has a strong pipeline of proprietary genetic traits in the pipeline to further increase seed yield and seed oil content. There is also a feed meal side-product so there is a food supply element to this story as well.  Yield10 is currently targeting their lines for farmers in Montana, Idaho and southern Alberta and Saskatchewan.

It is interesting to compare the trajectory of Camelina improvement to that of Canola, a related species that was transitioned starting after WW II from Rapeseed (a source of lubricant oil for steamships) to a healthy human food oil and animal protein feed crop through a multi-decade conventional breeding process in Canada. Much faster progress was possible with Camelina because of advanced genetic technologies such as “marker-assisted-breeding” and gene editing. The improvements that Yield10 has been able to achieve are dramatic even though this species has a complex allohexaploid genome (3 subgenomes, predominantly 6 copies of each gene) which means that many copies of each target gene need to be edited to achieve the desired trait. Realizing that herbicide tolerance is a key trait for farmers wanting to grow Camelina in a continuous no-till system, Yield10 has a transgenic version with that trait working its way through the regulatory process.

In the not-too-distant future, Camelina double crops could also include cultivars that take advantage of that species’ high Omega-3 fat content, and Yield10 has the rights to UK patented methods to increase the additional health-promoting EPA and DHA content of the oil. This could be a good source of vegetable oil for human food and it would make an excellent aquafeed.

So overall there is reason to be optimistic about agriculture’s ability to meet the demand for biofuels, and other bio-based materials in addition to its traditional role in providing food, feed and fiber. This new double cropping option can be a part of that solution.

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.