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 

GRAPH BY AUTHOR BASED ON USDA DATA


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

FROM THE USDA TOTAL SURVEY SUMMARY

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

GRAPH BY AUTHOR BASED ON USDA DATA


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. 

GRAPH BY AUTHOR BASED ON USDA DATA


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.” 

Conclusions 

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.

Credit: Articapples.com

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.