Wednesday, April 27, 2011

1996: The Year That Everything Changed For US Agriculture

(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 4/27/11.  Click here for links to all my posts over the last two years on various sites)

Farming is a unique industry.  Even though less than 1% of Americans are doing it, it is still an industry with hundreds of thousands of independent decision makers.  It is also a far more dynamic and adaptable industry than one might imagine.  A look at USDA crop statistics before and after 1996 demonstrates this point extremely well.

If you look at historical planting data for soybeans in the US, the trends change dramatically after 1996 (see chart above).  That makes sense because "Roundup Ready," herbicide tolerant soybeans were commercialized that year.  Since 1999, the vast majority of soybean acres have been planted to this GMO trait and there are now about 20% more of them.  These soybeans are very attractive to farmers because weed control is much easier and doesn't involve the sort of plant injury that came with previous "selective herbicide" options.  It makes it easier to farm "no-till" which conserves water and uses less fuel. But it wasn't just soy planting that changed in 1996.

More Corn

Corn also became a GMO crop in 1996 with the launch of "Bt-Corn" which is resistant to the European Corn Borer, a serious pest in the Western Corn Belt.  Farmers started planting more corn, particularly after 2003 , but the area gain was not as significant as with Soybeans.  Glyphosate tolerant corn was added in 1998 and improved in 2003.

The Price of Precaution

But it wasn't just the commercial GMO crops that saw a change. Spring wheat (used for high quality bread flour, pizzas etc) saw a dramatic loss of planting area, dropping a full 20% between 1995 and 1999.  Much of this was switched to soybeans and later to corn.  The spring wheat area has continued to decline and is now 40% below it's peak.  That might not have happened to this degree if two biotech traits were commercialized early in this century.  Monsanto was developing a glyphosate herbicide tolerant wheat and Syngenta was developing wheat resistant to a disease call"Fusarium head blight." These would certainly have helped keep spring wheat more attractive as an option for growers. But nervous customers in Europe and Japan put pressure on the North American wheat industry - threatening not to buy any North American wheat if any GMO wheat was commercialized.  The wheat industry gave in and asked Monsanto and Syngenta to shelve their biotech wheat programs - something they now deeply regret.  The wheat growers of the US, Canada and Australia have since agreed that they will do a simultaneous launch of any future biotech wheat so that the Europeans and Japanese cannot strong-arm them again.  But any such advance has been delayed by 10 to 15 years.   The GMO-pact countries are the producers of most of the wheat that goes to countries that can't produce enough for their own needs (which includes Europe and Japan, but also the Middle East and many other areas rich and poor).  Considering how global wheat production is failing to increase as rapidly as global demand, the "Precaution" leveraged by rich Europeans and Japanese has insured that this "Staff of Life" will become very expensive for the world's poor.

There Are More Forces at Work Than Technology

In the "Pre-biotech Era" soybean prices were rising at a modest rate which didn't keep up with inflation. The graph above shows that between 1995 and 1999 the price growers got paid for soybeans crashed by almost 40%!  But then a new trend started where prices were rising at ~10% per year. Actually this same price trend has occurred for all the major and minor crops (corn, spring wheat, winter wheat, durum wheat,  barley, silage corn....).  This can't be explained by the introduction of GMO crops alone, although the drop could be related to the delays in regulatory approvals in Europe that disrupted trade. This cross-crop phenomenon  is probably driven by the "Freedom to Farm Act" of 1996, passed by Congress.  It wasn't really an end to government interference in these markets, but it was a change in the way the government distorted the market via farm policy. This complicates the analysis of US row cropping trends. They are driven by a complex mix of biotechnology, increased private investment in the breeding of some crops and not others,  ethanol "blender credits" and tariffs, and the effects of grain subsidies.  Many people assert that the US has a "Cheap Food Policy," but if that is what was intended, it is clearly not working!  Oh, by the way, the grower's are not getting rich on this new trend.  These commodity price increases end up driving up land rents so the money is flowing to the land owners (former farming families and land speculators.)

Since the introduction of biotechnology, the rate of yield gain for corn has increased by a factor greater than two.  Some of this is from the traits themselves, but it also involves the more sophisticated seed treatments that are now applied to the very valuable seed and the increased investment in breeding (e.g. Marker Assisted Breeding).  In years like this with high commodity prices (e.g. as in 2007/8) farmers will also apply fungicide and/or insecticide sprays that are now easy to "pencil" adding several more bushels to their yield.  Opponents of GMO crops mistakenly linked the increased chemical use in 2007/8 to biotechnology when it was simply a function of economics.

The soybean yield trend shows a "lag" after the introduction of biotech and then a similar but slightly slower rate of gain.  This is mostly because of the expansion to areas that were not traditionally major soy producing sites and the lower yields of those regions due to colder temperatures (Northern expansion in Minnesota and North Dakota) and lower rainfall (Expansion to the West).

Spring wheat yields are always highly variable because it is mostly planted in more marginal land, but there has been a distinct acceleration of yield gain for this "orphan crop" that didn't get to be improved by biotechnology.  What has happened is the farmers have "intensified" their production of the spring wheat that is still grown.  This involves using "certified seed" grown specifically for that purpose rather than just "saved seed" out of their last grain harvest.  It involves a "split application" of fertilizer, better seed treatments and possibly a fungicide spray. This represents a greater financial risk for the farmer, but also a greater reward when things go well.  These are the kind of adjustments that farmers can make which provide encouragement that the looming global food crisis can be at least partially ameliorated.

So, by any measure 1996 was a watershed year for US agriculture.  Agriculture is a remarkably dynamic and adaptive industry based on the independent decisions of thousands of individual family business owners who grow our food.  The notion that this vast network is "controlled" by any business or government is absurd.

Graphs based on USDA, National Agricultural Statistics Service data.  You are invited to comment here or to write me at  I would be happy to email a copy of these and other slides or you can download them from SCRIBD.  A full listing of my blog posts on various sites over the last two years can be found at Applied Mythology.

Soybean field image from DOK1

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Sweet Taste of Sustainability

(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 4/24/11.  For links to all my posts on various sites)
I don't do product endorsements, but this post will probably seem like one.  My most recent Sustainablog post was about how to make fruit production more sustainable by reducing the "shrink" (read waste).  I was particularly focused on the worst kind of waste which is "disappointment shrink" where the fruit is grown, harvested, shipped, sold, and then rots in the consumer's refrigerator because it does not taste good enough to eat.  In the past I have actually heard produce companies and retailers say that one of their biggest customers is the garbage can. That mindset is, thankfully, changing.  Today I want to talk about just one of many produce industry players that are doing the hard work to consistently deliver fresh produce that will be eagerly eaten because of taste quality (thus making the inputs for their production more efficient).
A day or so after the "disappointment shrink" posting, I walked into a small produce vendor named Carlsbad Ranch Market.  I was happy to see that they were selling Dulcinea branded melons including a watermelon called "Ruby Bliss." They had free samples at the check-out stand and they were absolutely delicious.  I wasn't surprised about the flavor because I know this brand. I was only surprised that Dulcinea had a full-size watermelon because they pioneered the "personal watermelon."  Fortunately this shop sells quarter melons because with just two of us we risked the kind of waste I just critiqued!
The business behind the Dulcinea brand  is a perfect example of how produce can become more sustainable through consistent quality management that vastly reduces waste at the consumer level.  Their first product was the "personal watermelon," specifically the Pure Heart variety bred by scientist Xing Ping Zhang.  I interviewed Zhang a few years ago.  His goal was to make a melon that was small enough for a normal family to consume with minimal rind and with the color/flavor of the "heart" of a large melon. Zhang's long-term goal was to develop a softball sized melon with similar characteristics that one could take for lunch. He certainly succeeded at the family-sized goal, and until last week I couldn't imaging buying any different watermelon (these are normally available at Costco and many other retailers).  Then I tasted the "Ruby Bliss" melon at this little produce shop.
Dulcinea is a division of a much larger company (e.g. >$10Billion) called Syngenta that is based in Basel, Switzerland.  They have more than 20,000 employees around the world.  Dulcinea may not been able to execute its quality-based strategy without the support of a "deep pockets" company like Syngenta.  They had to develop the superior genetics with scientists like Dr. Zhang.  They had to work out the growing systems and the business models to reward contracted growers to produce quality fruit on a consistent basis (rather than  just on weight, the common contract term).  They had to work out the details of getting this quality preserved through the "channel" in terms of "cold chain" consistency and speed.  They had to work out all these details for multiple geographies as they source seasonally from Central America, work up through California and Arizona, and up from Florida to North Carolina and even to Kentucky.
This was not an immediately profitable business, but Syngenta has provided the "patient money" to make this work.
Dulcinea also has a "Tuscan Sweet" melon which is actually a muskmelon but which seems like a cantaloupe.  I now never buy any other sort of cantaloupe because the quality is so much more dependable. They have a tomato call Amadoro and also a grape tomato.  They have a not-yet-commercial "chocolate tomato" which has fantastic called "Rosa Bruno" (it is brown which is an issue for some consumers but the taste is amazing).  I really want that one to make it after tasting it at the PMA.
Dulcinea is not the only example of "sustainability via edibility."   I could talk about the "Golden Pineapple" originally pioneered by Del Monte.  I could talk about "Conditioned Stone Fruit."  I could talk about "SmartFresh treated apples."  I could talk about the premium greenhouse tomato offerings like "Campari," "Amarosa" etc.  I could talk about "Cuties" in the mandarin orange market.
For consumers concerned about sustainability, it is encouraging that there are all these quality-focused options.  These companies are selling products that are nutritious, delicious, and that will end up in your family's stomachs rather than in your compost pile, disposal, or worst-case, the land fill.
You are invited to comment here or email me at  My website is Applied Mythology.
Dulcinea Watermelon Image From stevendepolo

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sustainable Fruit Production: Eliminating "Shrink"

(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 4/19/11.  For links to all my posts on various sites click here)
Many consumers have the noble desire to purchase fruit and vegetables from sustainable sources.  Grocery retailers and food service companies clearly want to be able to respond to this demand.  A "whose-who" of the retail and foodservice industry have joined the Wal-Mart initiated, Sustainability Consortiumwhich has, among its goals, a desire to define and then source "sustainable produce."  What they end up with as a definition and a means of  measurement is likely to be very influential because they certainly have so much leverage in the produce market.  The problem is that the many stakeholders in this process are far from agreement about what "sustainable produce" really means.   Many believe that it has to do with the details of how or where the fruit and vegetables are grown, making it mostly the farmer's responsibility.  While I'm sure that there are some incremental gains that could be made on-farm in terms of inputs of water, fertilizers, fuel, chemicals..., I would argue that those are minor in comparison to finding a better answer to this question:
"Is the produce actually being eaten?"
If the answer is "no," then the resources that have been put into the produce have been squandered, and that is not sustainable.

Loss, Waste, Shrink

With produce, there are many potential reasons why it is never consumed.  Losses to pests in the field or to decay after harvest can occur.  The product can lose too much water or it can over-ripen.  Farmers and shipper/packers have done a very good job of reducing these various sources of loss, waste, or "shrink" (to use the industry term).  They do this by using a wide range of protocols and technologies.  The potential for further efficiency improvements "in the chain" now mostly fall to the retailers (appropriate temperatures for holding rooms and displays...).
But there are remaining sources of "shrink," specifically in thefruit industry.  Both are related to quality.  There is an old saying in the business that "produce is sold based on appearance, not based on taste."  Unfortunately, this is largely true and it happens in two ways.  One I will call "Cosmetic Shrink" and the other I will call "Disappointment Shrink."I would humbly recommend to the "Sustainability Consortium" that solving these two issues is within their power and also the first, best step they could take.

Cosmetic Shrink

Almost every fruit or vegetable industry has a "marketing order" which sets the standards for which items can be sold.  The standards are set by an industry committee and over-seen by the USDA or state agencies.  For instance, there are standards for the size, shape and color of apples that can be packed in various quality categories.  Under these rules there is a fair amount of perfectly nutrious and tasty fruit which is diverted to low value processing or animal feed markets because it is small, lacks color or has a funny shape.  This part of the harvest is excluded mostly to control total supply.  During periods of over-supply, the wholesale price of that commodity can crash.  The marketing order also sets the standard for visual quality and uniformity.
From a sustainability point of view it would be far better to find alternative market channels for "cosmetically challenged fruit" that wouldn't undermine the price for the "standard" supply.  Considering how many Americans eat far less fresh produce than is advised, it would be good to find ways to expand consumption with this fruit that does not require growing a single additional acre. American Farmland Trust estimates that it would take 13 million more acres of fruits and vegetables if every American were to actually eat the RDA!  There has to be a way to sell all this perfectly good fruit without killing the main market.
One strategy would be to sell this fruit at "farmer's markets" in urban food deserts.  This would not be an issue of "dumping" low quality produce on anyone.  In fact there are "non-destructive" testing technologies which could be used to pack only the best tasting, off-cosmetic-standard fruit for this new "sustainability category."  This kind of fruit definitely exists, but it would take a mindset shift by the packers, the retailers and the customers to be able to "reclaim" the resources that were deployed to get this product all the way to harvest.

Disappointment Shrink

Everyone has had the experience of cutting into what looks like a nice canteloupe and finding that it has the taste-appeal of cardboard, or eating a nice looking grape that is far too sour. The unfortunate reality of fruit marketing is that the price that the grower is paid is often inversely related to the quality of the fruit.  When supplies are low (e.g. the very beginning of the season or the very end or after a weather disruption), the scarcity of fruit drives up the price and encourages the picking of marginally ripe fruit at the beginning of the season, or the excessively long storage of fruit at the end of the season.  Annual profitability for the grower tends to hinge on those periods of short supply while the price he/she gets in midseason (when quality is high) may not even be enough to break even.  So, the incentives are perversely aligned for the shipping of low quality fruit, which usually ends up sitting in the consumer's refrigerator until mold growth gives the "permission" to get rid of it.  In the worst-case-scenario, that fruit ends up in a landfill generating the potent greenhouse gas, methane.
Disappointment Shrink could be greatly reduced if retailers implemented a different buying practice.  They could negotiate an entire season price that makes it possible for the grower to make money while delivering only high quality fruit that will definitely be eaten. That might mean that sometimes the retailer's prices will be higher than chains that are taking advantage of "spot market" opportunities, but I believe that customers would learn to appreciate that they were at lower risk of getting disappointing fruit from such responsible, sustainability-conscious retailers.
Again, I would challenge the Sustainability Coalition to take on these two sources of shrink and make a significant advance in the sustainability of fruit production.
Apple Image from tecfan.  Grape image from kirstea
You are invited to comment here and/or to email me at  

Monday, April 18, 2011

A Vision For Truly Sustainable Fruit and Vegetable Farming

An Orchard with a cover crop between the rows

(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 4/18/11.  For links to all my posts on various sites, click here)
Many responsible consumers would like to be able to buy fruits and vegetables that have been raised in a sustainable manner, and many retail and food service entities want to be able to respond to that demand.  There are multiple existing and in-process efforts to define "Sustainability" for the specialty crops that make up the fruit and vegetable sectors.  I have been participating in some of these discussions and reading the scientific publications on the subject.  I'm going to throw out "my vision of Sustainable Production" for these crops, which is really based on that literature and on the practical innovations by the farming community.  I've already written and posted about what sustainable farming might mean for the major row crops.  There are some similarities, but many differences.
I would submit that Sustainable Fruit and Vegetable Production should entail the following eight features in terms of on-farm activities.  I will write separately about post-farmgate changes that are needed.

1. Minimal Soil Disruption

Plowing of soils is unlike anything that occurs in nature.  It leads to a loss of sequestered carbon and to the degradation of the aggregates that make for a healthy, aerated, biologically active, and nutritionally buffered soil. For perennial fruit tree and vine crops it is quite practical to avoid any tillage of the soil for weed control by using herbicides to control weeds in the "row" and mowing in the "middles."  For annual vegetable crops this is a more challenging issue.  There are systems that involve permaculture, hydroponics, and other systems that do not involve the extensive "working" of the soil to make a planting bed.  There is the possibility of moving GPS-based "precision agriculture" into this segment as well (to limit soil compaction).

2.  Cover Cropping

In perennial tree and vine crops, the “middles” (the space between the rows) can be managed as a permanent cover crop.  This avoids erosion, reduces dust, provides a home for beneficial insects and can provide some of the crop’s nitrogen is a legume is included.  In dry areas this should be a drought tolerant mix of species so that irrigation is only needed for the main crop.

3. Optimized Plant Nutrition

From an environmental point of view, the biggest single issue for Agriculture is the impact of fertilization.  It takes a lot of fossil fuel to produce the nitrogen fertilizer and to move all the other major fertilizer components to where they are used.  Nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers can contaminate ground or surface waters. Nitrogen fertilizer can be converted to the potent (>300 x CO2) greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.  The best way to avoid all of these problems is to only deliver fertilizer to crops at the rate and timing that they can extract it from the soil and use it.  For many specialty crops this is actually a practical possibility.  Fertilizers can be delivered through the irrigation water (drip, sprinkler etc...) and growers can choose how much to deliver when based on testing of the growing crops themselves.  This is already a common practice for many specialty crops

4. Optimized Plant Genetics

Growers of vegetable crops have continuously improving options in terms of productivity, pest resistance and quality.  This is a much slower option for perennial fruit crops.  There are even significant advances in the productivity that comes from "rootstocks" for greenhouse grown tomatoes and cucumbers.   Producing more from the same or less area is definitely key to sustainability and genetics plays an important role in optimal productivity.

5. Optimized Pest Management

Many people would like the idea of no pesticides, but these are not people that farm.  Pests are a very real issue.  Since the 1970s there has been a discipline call "Integrated Pest Management" supported by ag universities and other entities.  It seeks to minimize sprays and to use sprays that are the least disruptive to natural biological controls.  These approaches are widely employed in specialty crop agriculture today.  Modern pesticides are far, far less toxic to us and far less damaging to the environment, and used in an IPM approach they are a key part of making sustainable use of the other resources that go into growing a crop.

6. Labor Efficiencies

One of the most challenging issues for specialty crop farming is that many require a great deal of human hand labor.  In places like the US that have failed to meaningfully address immigration or “guest worker” issues, there is already great uncertainty about the future labor supply that is influencing what crops are declining.  Future demographic trends towards an older society mean that manual farm labor will only become more difficult to supply and more expensive.  Any changes that allow increased mechanization or changes that reduce labor costs (e.g. more uniformity of maturity for harvest) will make a given crop more sustainable.

7. The Logical Use of Protected Culture

Weather is always a source of uncertainty in agricultural production, but various degrees of “protected culture” from screenhouses, to frost-protection tunnels, to simple greenhouses to elaborate greenhouses can increase the predictability, and often the overall productivity of farming.  As land, water and labor supplies are stretched, this sort of intensification makes more and more sense.

8. A Logical Balance of Fresh, Frozen and Canned Output

This is really a post-farmgate issue, but since most growers intentionally grow intending for sales to one of those specific markets, I will include it in this list.  Society has a preference for fresh produce and there can certainly be flavor and nutritional advantages; however, getting fresh produce to distant markets in good condition is an energy-intensive endeavor.  “Local” production could only ever solve part of that issue and when it is less efficient in terms of yield or handling/shipping it can actually be worse from a sustainability point of view.  There are some fruit and vegetable crops that can be very flavorful and nutritious  in frozen form, and with good insulation, once the energy has been spent to get it frozen, it can be stored and shipped that way quite efficiently.   A good comparative life cycle analysis (LCA) could define which commodities might be best delivered frozen, at least for parts of the year.
Cover crop image by Gary Kramer of the NRCS
You are invited to comment here or email me at

Monday, April 11, 2011

Farm Subsidies Don't Make Us Fat

(This post originally appeared on Red Green and Blue on 4/11/11.  For links to all my posts on various sites click here)
Last week Dr. Robert Paarlberg published an article in GOOD titled "The Inconvenient Truth About Cheap Food and Obesity: It's Not Farm Subsidies."  In the article he debunks the assertion by Michael Pollan in Omnivore's Dilemma that farm subsidies make unhealthy foods artificially cheap.  He points out that (for different reasons) libertarian-leaning groups like the Cato Institute and the columnist George Will make similar claims that are not supported by the facts.

The Response To This "Heresy"

The incendiary comment stream after this article (over 230 responses) reveals that Paarlberg has touched a nerve among Food Movement "true believers" for whom the Subsidy/Obesity linkage is a central dogma.  In the face of Paarlberg's careful logic and facts, those that cling to the dogma turn mainly to ad hominem attacks.  Frankly, Paarlberg is far more qualified to answer this question than Pollan or almost anyone else.  He spent a long and distinguished career as a professor of Political Science at Wellesley (hardly a mainstream Ag-connected institution) and specializes in the intersection ofpolitics and economics in the global food system. He is an associate at theWeatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. All of his grant support has been from public sources.  While he is a defender of modern agricultural technologies, he is not associated with companies involved - a charge that is regularly hurled by the defenders of Food Movement Orthodoxy.  Paarlberg is an independent, academic expert who also challenges certain food processor practices and aspects of the livestock industry. He also points out the moral ramifications of the precautionary principle as projected by the rich world on technology access for the poor world.

The Actual Effects of Subsidies

Paarlberg is not defending subsidies in this article, but simply pointing out what effects they actually have on food prices.  In fact, the farm programs are designed to supplement the income of farmers, which actually makes food artificially expensive, not cheaper.  This makes sense when you think about Europe where even larger farmer subsidies contribute to their higher food costs.  This is just basic economics.  Paarlberg estimates that American farmers produce about 4% more corn than they might without subsidies which could slightly lower prices, but between trade restrictions and the federal corn ethanol program (credits and tariffs) the net effect is definitely to make food prices higher.

Why Is Our Food Relatively Cheap?

So, even though Farm Programs actually raise food costs above what they might be, food is still relatively "cheap" for most Americans who typically spend less than 10% of their income feeding themselves.  Paarlberg points out that this is first because our incomes are high, and second that agricultural production-efficiency is constantly improving because of new technology development.  No wonder so many families can afford the added expense of eating out or buying "value added" foods to make preparation more convenient.  There is an excellent recent study published by the USDA that analyzes the "American Food Dollar" and it shows that food for "at home" consumption returns about 20% to farmers while that purchased "away from home" returns less than 5% to the farm.

Why Are Americans Obese?

If farm subsidies cannot be blamed, what can?  I would submit that it mainly comes down to education, life-style, and personal responsibility with a possible role for genetics.  We all make choices about what we eat and how much of it.
That is somewhat of an over-simplification, because American consumers are certainly given misleading information about food, and nutrition and they lack the background to see through it.  We need to teach our children the basics of nutrition and food preparation and how to resist clever marketing schemes.  They also need to understand enough science and have the critical thinking skills to resist the irresponsible disinformation about our food supply put out by anti-technology groups. One example is the "dirty dozen list" put out by the Environmental Working Group, which has been documented to discourage many consumers from purchasing fresh produce.
The solution to the obesity epidemic is not to make food expensive enough to reduce its consumption.  It really comes down to giving people accurate information about food.  Paarlberg's article contributes to that effort by shooting down a false excuse.
Obesity image from mor10am.
You are invited to comment here or to email me at Links to all my posts on various sites can be found Here.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Third Update On The 2010/11 Food Price Spike

(Originally posted on Sustainablog 4/7/11.  For links to all my posts on various sites click here)
The FAO released its monthly indices for food prices in international trade today.  For the first time in many months, most of the indices retreated slightly.  Experts warn that this may not actually mean that this spike is over.  The thinking is that between the crisis in Libya and the earthquake in Japan, the uncertainty drove prices ahead of whatever existing forces would have done.   This should become clearer by the next scheduled index release on May 5th.

The Current Agricultural Response

Ultimately, much will depend on how growers respond to the higher prices in terms of increased planting and better crop protection of what is planted. The USDA's "Planting Intentions" survey released on 3/31 indicated a 4.5% increase for corn, 8.2% for wheat, but a slight 1% decrease for soybeans.  Cotton prices are also up and there is expected to be a 15% increase of that crop after a long period of decline.
The response in the US is to more fully farm existing fields or to displace crops that are not seeing large price increases.  The high commodity prices are driving agricultural land expansion in places like the Cerado of Brazil.  Brazilian farmers recently protested the uncertainty about land use regulations which were never enforced but which could now force them to replant  with a compliance cost of $378 billion.   This combined with efforts by Chinese companies to expand soy production in Mato Grosso puts a great deal of uncertainty into projections for that crop.
Of course much will also depend on the weather, so we won't really know if this historic, second spike will be reversed as with the one in 2007/8.   In any case, "rational intensification" using the most sustainable options on existing acreage is the most desirable way to respond to rising global demand for food.
You are invited to comment here or to email me at  

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Helping A Farmer Tell His Sustainability Story

A farm stand in Ontario, Canada
(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 4/5/2011.  For links to all my posts on various sites click here). Today I got an email from a Canadian farmer that attended a talk I gave last February at a grower meeting in Ontario.  He was reminding me to send him some of the charts I had used in a presentation titled "Talking to a Skeptical Society About Pesticide Safety."  His family has a farm that does a great deal of "direct marketing" to consumers who come to the farm to buy fruits and vegetables.  He is often asked the question, "Why are you not Organic?" or "Do you use sprays?"  He explains that he only sprays when it is absolutely necessary, that he follows all of Health Canada's guidelines, and that he takes regular spray safety classes through Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA).  His farm uses manual pest control where possible and employs IPM (Integrated Pest Management).

His story is quite compelling, but he was interested in the data to show that most pesticides are a lot less scary than most people think and that there are some pretty toxic natural things that most of us happily include in our diet.  I sent him the slides and then decided that I would like to share them with the readers of Sustainablog.  There is nothing "sustainable" about squandering the land/energy/fertilizer/water/labor/fuel inputs to a crop by letting it be diminished by pest damage.  This farmer knows that, but it isn't that easy to communicate that story to urban/suburban customers.  These customers don't have much context for their concept of "toxicity."

How Toxic is Toxic?

The US EPA classifies the acute toxicity of chemicals in four categories (I, II, III and IV).  This is the kind of toxicity we all know as how poisonous things are - could they kill you and at what dose?  It is only one of many "dimensions" of human and environmental toxicity, but it is a good starting point to see that "toxins" are certainly not "created equal."  This is one of those annoying scales where a bigger number is better - the amount of the chemical it takes to kill half of the test rats ranges from >5000 mg/kg for Class IV to <50 mg/kg for Class I.  The chart below shows that there are familiar "natural products" that fall into all four EPA categories of toxins and that things we think of as good (e.g. vitamins, pharmaceuticals...) or desirable (caffeine, capsaicin...) fall into the more toxic ranges.
Many of the most widely used "pesticides" in agriculture in Canada and elsewhere fall into category IV, "Relatively Non-toxic."  They are probably even safer than their official toxicity rating because it is hard to even feed the poor rats more than 5000 mg/kg so that is usually the maximum rate that is tested.
Many natural products and drugs that we all consume fall into EPA Class III.  So do some very important pesticides.  In the case of the pesticides, they have had ample opportunity to degrade to non-toxic metabolites before the crops are harvested while the natural products are present at significant levels in foods and the chemicals in pharmaceuticals.  Most people think that Organic means no pesticides while in fact it often means the substantial use of Class III toxins.
Class II, "Moderately toxic" chemicals include some important pesticides but also common Organic pesticides, drugs, and my favorite food-based toxins, caffeine and capsaicin.  There are certainly Class I pesticides that actually fit the image of what most people imagine when they hear the word "pesticide."  The second graph below shows that this kind of pesticide is a small part of the story in agriculture and getting smaller (the trend would be similar for most crops and geographies.  I suspect that the trend is even more dramatic in Ontario).  Nature has even more toxic offerings, but our food system is quite good at protecting us from these threats.

Will Data Like This Help This Ontario Farmer?

I don't know.  I hope he will let me know how it goes with his customer interactions during the 2011 growing season.
Ontario farm stand image from Andrea_44
Please comment here or email me at Also if you are interested I would also be happy to email you higher quality versions of these charts/graphs.  My website is Applied Mythology.