Saturday, May 28, 2011

An Applied Mythologist's Garden

The Applied Mythologist With Brussels Sprouts

(This post is only on Applied Mythology)

I estimate that I have been gardening for fifty years, ever since I started helping my grandfather in his Denver, Colorado "Victory Garden."  I've gardened in Denver; in Palo Alto, California; Davis, California; Grand Junction, Colorado; in Newark, Delaware; in San Marcos, Calfornia; and now in Encinitas, California near San Diego.

Of all those places, Encinitas has been the most challenging in terms of gardening.  We have an amazingly moderate climate with temperatures rarely above or below the 60-80F range. That makes it a very pleasant place to live, but it is also a very "bug friendly" environment.  There are no frosts or cold spells to break the pest cycles, so all the pests flourish all year.  This includes the whiteflies, aphids, caterpillars, and flea beetles from the insect side.  There are always slugs and snails. Diseases like Botrytis and Alternaria wreak havoc on my basil and tomatoes because of our foggy mornings.  Powdery mildew attacks the squashes and cucumbers.  Mucor attacks the blooms of the Kubosha squash.  Some root rot has caused two of my strawberry plants to die this week.
Dying Strawberries

I suppose this is good for reminding me why it is so important that the industry for which I consult is developing newer and safer pest control tools.  It is just frustrating because we homeowners don't have the chance to buy the best new options.  A regular dose of reality is probably good to counteract my basic optimism.

Garlic I Harvested Yesterday
We have an large population of gophers which has forced me to grow everything either in puts in in raised beds with wire mesh underneath.  One of the few crops I planted in the ground this year, an artichoke, disappeared just the other day with a tell-tale mound of soil that is the calling card of the gopher.  I've given up trying to kill them.  Instead I use the loose, relatively weed-free soil they bring up to mix with my composted produce scraps.

This year I greatly expanded my greenhouse and set it up to be mostly screen surface for the warmer parts of the year like August and also January when we get hot Santa Ana winds from the desert.  It is mostly made from re-purposed windows, screens etc.  I filled the new beds partially with 'Coir' which is finely ground coconut husk.  It probably originated in Sri Lanka, went to the Netherlands and then was shipped here with Oriental lilly bulbs.  The local greenhouse sells it for $5/trash barrel so its a great deal.

I know it is trendy to call what I am doing "Urban Farming," but I could not in good conscience elevate my hobby to the status of actual "farming".  It does not carry the sort of financial risk that makes it so amazing that there are still people left who are willing to feed us by growing crops.  If I get some tasty, fresh produce it is purely a treat for me and maybe my friends and neighbors.

I have a much more ambitious garden this year.  It includes or included the following vegetables.

Squash (Zucchini, Kubosha, Butternut)
Brussels Sprouts (already harvested)
Tomatoes (8 different varieties including three "heirloom types," Juliet plum tomatoes and Sweet 100 cherry types)
Tomatillos to make green sauce
Cayenne pepper to spice that sauce
Romaine lettuce, chard, carrots
Basil for pesto etc, parsley, dill, oregano, rosemary, thyme, and Thai basil
One ex-artichoke
Fingerling potatoes and volunteer Russet potatoes in the "compost" bin
Green beans and snow peas
Onions, garlic and shallots

For fruit I have 1 apricot tree that is currently providing delicious fruit in a rare year where there was enough chilling to set a crop.  I have two avocado trees which are producing a total of one avocado!  Two lemon trees, two mandarin trees and one Mexican lime.  I have two fig trees which annually feed 4-6 fig lovers.  I still have 10 living strawberry plants and have recently started two pineapples (in the greenhouse).  I have one Flame Seedless table grape vine which usually does not have ripe fruit until November.

The largest, and most labor intensive part of my garden is my little, terraced vineyard of 25 Sarah wine grapes (Shiraz to my Australian readers).  If I am very careful to get my net up and well anchored, I can get 20-30 gallons of decent wine a year, but the raccoons and birds have dropped that to 5 gallons for some vintages.

My Vineyard. Three Rows
The newest addition this year is thirty five baby coffee trees that I am growing for a friend.  I will keep three of them and maybe someday produce about one pound of coffee per year - reducing my dependence on imports by about 0.5%!
John's Coffee Trees About 4 Inches High Now

So that is a description of one agricultural blogger's garden.  I know my Grandfather would have approved.  I hope to pass along a passion for gardening to my grand daughter!

Botany Lesson

You are invited to tell me about your garden by comment here or to email me at  For links to all my blogs on various sites click here.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Struggling To Think Glass Half Full In Face Of Supreme Court Ruling

(This post originally appeared on Red Green and Blue on 5/27/11.  Links to all my posts on various sites)
I usually try to be an optimistic, "glass half full" kind of person, but yesterday when I read that the Supreme Court had upheld an Arizona law that allows fines and business license revocation for companies that knowingly hire "illegal aliens," it took some serious effort to come up with optimistic scenarios for the future of the fruit and vegetable industries in our nation.
United Fresh, a major produce industry organization, quickly posted a response saying that while farmers want to respect the law, they need a rational "guest worker" system if they are going to continue to supply us with healthy food.
Many logical people will adopt the "glass half empty" perspective. For the US to institute a rational, humane, and practical guest-worker system would require an unprecedented outbreak of reason and practicality in our political system.  Remember, this is a system which is currently dominated by hyper-partisans who fit two of the other personality types relative to the status of the "glass":  the liberal, "Is the glass half empty or half full, I can't be sure...?" camp or the conservative, "Hey! I ordered a cheeseburger" camp that was identified by cartoonist, Gary Larson (Far Side).
So I'm going to try to brainstorm some ways that we could continue to eat fruits and vegetables in the future in spite of the ramifications of this legal ruling.  They will appear below in declining order of desirability:

A Rational Guest Worker System

Seriously, civilized societies all around the world have "guest worker" systems that both protect the rights of the workers and the immigration sensitivities of the host nation.  We could do that, but extremists on both the "Right" (anti-immigrant...) and the "Left" (no permanent underclass...) make sure that there is never a reasonable discussion of this issue.

Professionalization of the Job of "Farm Worker"

There are huge inefficiencies in our farm labor system which uses an ad-hoc and "under the radar" approach to connecting workers and employers.  Farm workers should be highly trained in everything from pesticide safety to botany, transported in vehicles which provide their decent housing, efficiently deployed to the places where their efforts are needed through the season, and safely and cheaply transported back across borders for the off-season.  Who knows, this sort of system might actually attract some Americans to pursue this highly important and respectable career.

Even More "Protected Culture"

There is a whole range of technological intensity from completely controlled greenhouses to shade cloth or hoop houses that protect crops from the potentially devastating effects of weather. This approach both broadens the geographical options for growing crops (not limited to the desert West) and makes the limited labor options more viable by having such high productivity and pleasant working conditions that more people are willing to take the job.  A great proportion of our tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers already come from these super-efficient farms.  That segment could definitely expand.

The Euro-option

We could do more of what Northern Europeans and Scandinavians have done.  They have simply "outsourced" a tremendous amount of their food production to parts of the world with bigger labor pools, more sunshine, and sometimes irrigation resources.  The US and Canada have also done this to a great extent to Mexico, Central America, and, in the off-season to South America.  This works until birth rates fall sufficiently in those nations to make it irrational for them to feed us.


Gary Larson's epic cartoon on this topic didn't include the fifth "glass perspective" category of engineers who say, "The glass is over-engineered."  Crops that can be tended and harvested with mechanical and/or robotic equipment can be viable even in the face of our irrationality about guest workers.  That qualifies as "factory farming" which many people think they hate, but who is it that longs to spin thread as opposed to the machines that do it in what were first characterized as "England's Dark Satanic Mills?"  Some crops, like asparagus have frustrated the efforts of agricultural engineers to come up with mechanical harvest options.  Others like Romaine Lettuce or Almonds have been more cooperative and so they are likely to continue to be in your stores even after the impact of this court decision.

"Victory Gardening"

After returning from WWI my grandfather took up the challenge of a "Victory Garden" and supplied his neighbors and family with wonderful vegetables for 60 years.  Many of us could benefit from the exercise and the super-fresh food we could grow if we used our yards, balconies and roofs. There are many limitations to this approach, but it cannot be ignored.

You-Pick Local

Finally, everyone loves the idea of "local" food production, but if "illegal alien labor" is increasingly limited, it will only be a bigger issue outside of the West and East coast corridors of seasonal agriculture.  One option is to have consumers come out and do the picking (often the most expensive component of farming).  But this approach is not without issues.  Inexperienced "pickers" often damage the crop, and after the original excitement wears off, they may not like the effort or the expense.  Still, it can work for some systems.

So, we will probably continue to have access to good food, but almost certainly at higher cost.  Most of us could offset this by simply reducing the number of meals we eat out.

I still believe that the glass is half full, but that does not justify either complacency or continued hypocrisy.
Farmworker's child image from National Farm Worker Ministry

Biofuels For Transportation: Been There, Done That

(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog 5/27/11.  For links to all my posts on various sites click here)
There is a great deal of controversy about the wisdom of diverting a significant percentage of the US corn crop into the production of ethanol to fuel cars.  Something like 25-30% of the crop will probably be used this way in 2011 which sounds alarming in the face of global food supply issues that have driven commodity prices to record levels.  Its not really quite that extreme because the fermentation to make ethanol only uses 60-65% of the corn and the remainder is used as a high protein animal feed called DDGS.  That means that at most 18% of the crop is going to this subsidized use.
As is often the case, it is useful to put this into historical perspective.  Consider the purple line on the graph below which shows that until the middle of the last century, US farmers devoted more than 40 million acres to growing a biofuel crop - oats for horses.  Yes, we powered much of our personal and public transportation, as well as the transport of goods, with the energy released by the bacteria in the digestive system of horses.  It certainly wasn't a perfect system between flies and methane emissions from the horses stomachs and from the manure they deposited all over the roads.  Thus when the "horseless carriage" became available along with cheap fossil fuels, only romantics missed the good old days.

So, since the 1950s we have returned more than 40 million acres back to food/feed crops - more than twice the effective area going to ethanol today.  But that is only part of the story.  In the same sixty years we have quadrupled the total production of corn making the amount going to ethanol seem small by historical standards (see graph below).

So, although the issues of food vs fuel, indirect land use, transition to next generation biofuels and the proper role of subsidies and tariffs are all important to consider, how we grow the corn is more important from a water pollution, energy, and greenhouse gas perspective (See "What I Hope Will Be The Future Of Sustainable Farming," and "The Surprising Reason We Don't Farm As Sustainably As We Could").
Graphs based on 5 year running averages of historical data from USDA-NASS Quickstats1.  Horses image from leunix

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sustainability Through Intensification

(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 5/24/11.  For links to all my posts on various sites click here.)
Last week I had the honor of meeting Dr. Jason Clay, Vice President of the World Wildlife Fund.  We were on the same panel at CropLife America's second annual National Policy Conference.  Jason got the opportunity to promote his main project which is influencing major commercial entities in the food chain to promote intensification of agriculture in ways that are good for both the environment and the food supply.  You can get the whole story behind this excellent WWF effort by watching Jason's TED Talk.

Why Intensification?

For many years the promoters of "sustainable agriculture" have made the purely philosophical assumption that sustainable means "low input" and thus they favored things like Organic production.  What groups like WWF have realized is that if we are going to be serious about protecting wild habitat to maintain biodiversity, we need to grow more of our food on the land that has already been converted to farmland so that we can meet global demand without destroying the remaining wild lands.

Big Companies Are Not The Only Ones Who Can Drive Rational Intensification

In this post I'd like to talk about a perfect example of sustainability through intensification that can be observed from historical data available from the USDA-National Agricultural Statistics Service (USDA-NASS).   When biotechnology was introduced in Corn, Soybeans, Cotton and Potatoes in 1996, Wheat became even more of an "Orphan Crop" than it already was.  In many areas its planting declined as the other crop options became more attractive to farmers.  When biotech wheat was successfully blocked by a GreenPeace-driven scare campaign in Europe and Japan, wheat suffered even more.  I have tried to calculate that loss in a post called "The Cost of Precaution."

Going Against The Grain In Northwest Minnesota

However, the wheat growers of Northwest Minnesota (and also other areas) responded to all these economic drivers with a classic example of "agricultural intensification."
From talking with dozens of wheat farmers over the years I have learned that there are two perfectly viable economic strategies for growing wheat.  One is a "low intensity, low risk" approach.  The grower uses a minimal seeding rate (~60 lbs/acre) of "saved seed" which is just part of last year's harvest, maybe given a cheap seed treatment.  There is a single fertilizer dose at planting, little to no herbicide use except to burn down the weeds/cover crop, and no fungicide or insecticide sprays during the season.  The yield is low but so is the investment.  If the crop is wiped out by hail or Fusarium head blight the farmer had only limited financial exposure.  This approach works for growers.
A "high intensity" approach by US standards (European wheat growing is far more intensive") means buying ~90lbs/acre of certified seed, giving it an elite seed treatment, using a selective herbicide instead of tillage, doing a "split application" of the fertilizer with a larger total quantity, and making a fungicide application at flag leaf stage and/or flowering to reduce disease damage.  Wheat yields in this scenario are typically 2 times as high as with the low intensity strategy (60 bushels/acre vs 30 bushels/acre).  Both strategies can work for the farmer, but obviously the later is better for the food supply and better for the planet by reducing the need to farm more land.
You can see how the wheat farmers of NW Minnesota switched to this "intensity" approach in the biotech era.  The area planted to Spring Wheat actually has been declining since 1999 (see graph below).

But, as more and more farmers switched to the more intense culture of wheat, the average district yield/acre increased:
The net effect was that even with less wheat planted, the district delivered as much or more of the highly sought-after, high protein, hard-red-spring-wheat which is needed for artisan breads, pizza crusts and any other bread that needs high dough strength.

"Footprint Analysis"

It is counter-intuitive, but the carbon, and energy footprints of the intensive approach to wheat farming are all better as long as one uses the appropriate denominator of yield (bushels per acre).  The graphs below demonstrate this for typical comparisons.  The 60 bushel/acre farmer had a slightly smaller "footprint" per bushel than the low intensity, 30 bushel/acre farmer.  The fertilizer rates here are based on University of Minnesotarecommendations and I am assuming a 0.8% conversion of applied nitrogen to nitrous oxide.

Northwest Minnesota wheat farmers are not by any means the only example of this sort of rational intensification to achieve sustainability, but they are a classic example.  I think that Jason Clay and the WWF would applaud these growers, and so would I.
Please comment here or email me at  My website is Wheat image from ReaA.  USDA data from the NASS website.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Whistleblower Casts Doubt On The Integrity Of Organic Certification

(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 5/22/11.  For links to all my posts on various sites click here)
Mischa Popoff is a hard core Organic farming advocate.  He grew up on an Organic farm in Saskatchewan and went on to become a licensed, independent Organic inspector.  He still believes in the ideals of the Organic movement that he traces back to the early 18thcentury at the dawn of the faith-driven founding of modern, Western science.  But Mischa is disillusioned about what “Organic” has become since the finalization of theNational Organic Program in the US in 2002 and comparable standards around the world.   Mischa actually traces this back to the early 20th century when Rudolf Steinerbecame the key driver of the Organic movement and shifted it to anti-science, Vitalism, and homeopathy as in “Biodynamics.”

Popoff's Book

In October of 2010, Popoff published a book titled, “Is It Organic?” with the sub-title, “The inside story of who destroyed the organic industry, turned it into a socialist movement and made millions in the process.”  The core of the book is the story of Popoff’s experience as an Organic inspector.  He describes how, on the annual and pre-scheduled, on-farm visits, he would often find troubling signs of potential fraud (the use of non-allowed pesticides and fertilizers, sanitation issues…).  Popoff recommended to the various certifying agencies for which he worked that they take samples and test them in the lab.  His suggestions were never taken seriously, and at most the farmers were asked for additional paperwork.

A Fundamental Weakness of the System

The incidences that Popoff describes in detail are certainly suspect, but what is more disturbing is his description of the way that Organic crops are actually certified for sale at premium prices.  Even though the system theoretically allows testing, in fact that almost never happens and everything depends on paper work.  As Popoff puts it, it is like asking Olympic athletes to sign a document saying they used no performance-enhancing drugs but never testing them.  It actually gets worse.  The certifying agency gets a fee for the farm visit, but they make much of their revenue as a percentage of the sale of the approved crop.  In any other business this is considered an “active conflict of interest.”  Do you think these certifiers would be inclined to spend money on tests that could potentially reduce their revenue?  I don’t think so!
As you might expect, after he went public with his concerns, Popoff was “black listed” among certifying agencies and driven out of the Organic industry.


To be balanced, there are a few things about this book that are less than ideal.  First of all, at 538 pages before the index, it is a daunting read (however, Popoff supplies an extensive index so one could read only the topics of interest to them).  Second, Popoff spends a great deal of time arguing that the current Organic industry downstream from the farmer (brokers, distributors, retailers, regulators) is part of a sort of conspiracy from the Left.  It seems to me that these “socialists” are actually pretty good capitalists so I’m not sure I buy all of that argument although he is probably right in observing that socialist movements are often well financed.  Third, the tone of the book is often sarcastic and/or snarky in a way that will put-off many readers who actually need to hear what Popoff is saying.


On the positive side, Mischa’s story is honest and deeply personal.  He is careful to point out that there are many completely honest and skilled Organic farmers.  He should qualify as a card-carrying historian for his tracking of the origins of this movement and the history of science in general.  He is also a realist who recognizes that Organic (the pure type he favors) will never be a large part of the food supply.  He also says that: “people in the third world need organic farming like they need caviar and 15-year-old Scotch.”

Why This Is A Big Deal

Probably the most disturbing message of this book is that if there is some degree of fraudin Organic in “rule following” societies like Canada or the US, what about the un-tested, paper-work-only “Organic” products coming from outside North America and particularly from China?  Popoff is not the only one raising this issue (PRITreehugger).  Since US Organic acreage only represents 0.5% of cropland and is generally only 60% as productive, a large proportion of what is sold as Organic comes from outside of the US - particularly any grain-based, frozen, or fruit sweetener containing products.  Mischa Popoff’s question, “Is it Organic” takes on a whole new meaning in that context.
You are encouraged to comment here or to email me at  My website is Applied Mythology.  Book cover image from Popoff's website.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Cost Of Precaution

(This post originally appeared on BioFortified on 5/21/11.  For links to all my posts on various sites click here)
The graph above shows the relative production of these major US row crops comparing the years 1993-1995 (just prior to the introduction of biotechnology enhanced crops) and 2008-10 (the most recent available data which covers a a span which comes 12-15 years after biotech.  Soybean production has expanded 47% in this timeframe while corn is up 58% (far more than the quantity now being diverted for biofuel).  Both of those crops are predominantly planted to "GMO" varieties, while the various segments of the wheat crop remain non-GMO.  Until 2004 it looked as if North American growers would also get to plant biotech wheat, but a vigorous campaign led by GreenPeace succeeded in blocking the technology.  Many major European and Japanese grain buyers were concerned about potential consumer push-back (based on GreenPeace efforts), so they made a coordinated threat to boycott all North American wheat exports if any commercial GMO wheat was planted in the US or Canada.  This was based on the "precautionary principle."
The wheat industry, particularly the Canadian Wheat Board, asked Monsanto and Syngenta not to go ahead with their plans to sell the improved wheats, and so those often villified companies put their programs on the shelf at the request of their customer base.  GreenPeace then declared Victory.

The Traits That Didn't Happen

Monsanto had been developing a "Roundup Ready" version of wheat which would have helped the wheat growers who have grass weed issues.  It was also shown to increase yields and it would have aided in conversion to no-till, and  increased genetic purity for specialty uses.  Syngenta was developing wheat with resistance to a disease called Fusarium Head Scab.  That particular fungus is difficult to control with fungicide sprays, but it can severely hurt yields, and it can diminish the value of what grain is harvested by contaminating it with the mycotoxin, DON or "vomitoxin."  A major reason that farmers include less wheat in their crop rotations than would be optimal is because of the risks associated with this disease.  The fact that these traits would have increased grower income and reduced a dangerous toxin in the food supply were listed in the GreenPeace internal literature of the day, not as "pros," but as "campaigning challenges."

What The Farmers Thought

In the late 1990s, I had the opportunity to sit down with dozens of wheat farmers in Kansas, North Dakota, Minnesota, Indiana and Kentucky to talk about these coming traits.  These growers had experience with GMO soy and corn and were very much looking forward to these new products.  I was testing various "business models" for how the traits would be made available because, like soybeans, much of the wheat crop is planted with "Farmer Saved Seed."
With non-hybrid crops, farmers have the option to simply save some of their previous grain harvest to use as seed.  Typically they buy new, "certified" seed every few years.  With Soybeans, Monsanto took the risky and controversial step of getting growers to sign a "technology agreement" in which they promised not to save the biotech seed but rather to purchase it new every year.  I, and many in the industry doubted that growers would be willing to do this or that the system could be enforced well enough to prevent free-loaders.  After a few, high-profile lawsuits, the new system was widely accepted and no mainstream soybean farmer even questions it today.

Much More Was Lost Beyond The Traits

Before biotech, the soybean seed industry existed mainly as a "price of doing business" for corn seed companies.  Much of the breeding advancement was still happening in Universities (though with precarious funding).  When soybeans became an every-year purchase, the overall investment in the improvement of that crop went up dramatically.  This helped extend the range of the crop into colder Northern regions and dryer Western areas.  We are also now beginning to see the pay-off of the investment in genomics and Marker Assisted Selection - biotechnology enabled updates on "traditional breeding."  Roundup Ready soybeans were not a "yield trait" as such, but they were far more convenient for busy farmers and easier to "no-till" farm.  So now both soybeans and corn had become much more attractive options for farmers, and in many regions the "loser" has been wheat.

The Wheat That Was Not To Be

The expansion of corn and soy production in the first chart represents a combination of factors.  Growers planted more of their land to those crops, often using their better fields.  They often grew these crops with greater inputs of fertilizer, water because the economic risk was smaller.  In most areas there was a distinct change in the long term trends for these crops that corresponds to the pre-biotech era (before 1996) and the post-biotech era (after 1996).
One way to calculate the real "cost" of the GreenPeace wheat victory is to extrapolate what would have been the production of wheat if the earlier trend lines are extrapolated to 2010.  To do this I took the data from the USDA-NASS at the Crop Reporting District level (usually 9 districts per state) from the years 1984 to 2010.  This allowed me to fit lines for each crop/district covering the Pre-biotech years of 1984-1995 and then a similar 12 year time frame from 1999-2010 as a Post-biotech era.  By comparing what level of production each trend for predicted for 2010, the impact of the non-biotech nature of wheat in a biotech world could be estimated.  Example trend comparisons are shown below for single district examples of corn, soybeans and winter wheat.  Finally those differences are summed for all the districts where data is available over the 27-year time span (238 for corn, 173 for soybeans, 191 for winter wheat, 39 for spring wheat and 6 for durum wheat).
An example of one of many areas where corn productivity increased faster after the introduction of biotechnology through a combination of more acreage being planted and yield progress increasing.
A very typical example of an area where farmers began to plant a great deal more soy when it was improved through biotechnology.
An example of an area where wheat planting and intensity dropped in the biotech era relative to earlier trends.

Many Variables but Major Overall Outcomes

Exactly how trends changed for each crop and region varied widely, but in very few cases did the pre-biotech trend continue unchanged. For every crop some areas were up and some down, but the net effect was an overall shrinkage of US wheat production at a time when global wheat demand is constantly increasing.  The chart below shows that the biotechnology enhanced crop options saw substantial production increases vs earlier trends, + 437 million bushels/year for soy and a whopping + 4.03 billion bushels for corn. Winter wheat overall declined slower than it had prior to biotechnology for a net trend change of +35 million bushels.  Spring wheat, which was much more in the geographic path and time of year of the soy and corn "locomotives," lost 315 million bushels of "potential" production.

Would Things Have Been Different With Biotech Wheat?

Would that have been different if GreenPeace didn't "win?"  It is difficult to know because there were other factors in that time frame such as the Freedom to Farm Act of 1996which changed the nature of government crop subsidies and set-aside programs.  Delays in biotech trait approvals for import to the EU and Japan altered global market dynamics as did the wide-spread pirating of Roundup Ready soybeans by South American farmers.
Would Monsanto and Syngenta have cross-licensed their wheat traits to allow an attractive package for farmers?  Would the transition away from a "saved seed" market for wheat have offset the declining public breeding support which continues even today?  It is impossible to know, but the wheat industry has now decided that they don't want to be denied a technological advantage again.  National wheat grower associations in theUS, Canada and Australia agreed to a simultaneous launch of any future GMO wheat so that the Europeans and Japanese could not blackmail them again.  Even so, it is likely to be at least a decade until that happens because the other thing that was lost in 2004 was the continuous years of breeding effort that it takes to incorporate a biotech trait in the complex world of wheat (winter, spring, red, white, hard, soft.....).

How Much Lost Wheat Is That?

The theoretical 315 million bushels of wheat not being produced as of 2010 represents 8.6 million metric tons (in the units of global trade).  That is roughly equivalent to the crop in each of the wheat producing countries Argentina, Egypt, or Italy.  It is more than the total wheat imports that go to each of these major, net wheat importing countries (Japan 5.8MMt, Algeria 6.9MMt, Egypt 8.3MMt, Italy 5.4 MMt, Indonesia 4.5 MMt, Brazil 6 MMt, Iran 5.2 MMt).

Putting This In The Context Of The Current Global Food Price Spike

We just finished seeing a severe spike in prices on the global food trade scene in 2007/8 and a new spike is underway and appears to be continuing - particularly for cereals like wheat which is now within 3% of the previous record (see chart below).  India is considering a wheat export ban this year.  Global wheat demand is expected to double by 2050.
Then, just to add insult to injury, the US congress cut funding for the Global Wheat Genomics Center at Kansas State .  That happens as a new strain of the dreaded Wheat Stem Rust pathogen is threatening wheat crops in more countries every year.
We probably won't ever be able to make up for what has been lost for one of the world's most important human food crops.  The catch-up on biotechnology will not be in time to help many poor people survive or to prevent the political instability implications of food shortages.  These are the true "Costs of Precaution," but they will not be borne by the GreenPeace activists in rich nations.  These very real costs will be borne by poor families in places where wheat can't be successfully grown.  GreenPeace was happy to take credit for stopping this technology.  I wonder if they are willing to take credit for these consequences.
Norm Borlaug said:  "If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace."
I'd go with Norm's "Peace" agenda, not that of GreenPeace.
Graphs from USDA-NASS and FAO Data by Steve Savage.  My email 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Food Price Spike Continues (4th Installment)

(This post originally appeared on Sustainablog of 5/5/11.  For links to my posts on various sites click here)
The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN) released their global food price index data today showing what happened in April.  Last month there had been a glimmer of hope that the upward price trend was reversing, but as many predicted that was not a trend that continued.  Dairy, Oil and Sugar prices on the international markets did continue down a bit, but meat and cereals prices continued to rise as did the overall index.  The biggest increase was cereals (5.5% April over March).  This is bad news for poor, grain import-dependent countries in Africa and the Middle East.  Europe and Japan are also very dependent on grain imports, but they can afford this.

What Is Going On?

The Farm press has been full of articles about high grain prices and the efforts of farmers to boost supplies.  There have been major planting delays for the US 2011 crop season because of a wet spring.  That reduces final yields.  Growers are also getting advice about using fungicides this year to protect their yields from diseases like Head Scab.  India is said to be considering a ban on wheat exports to protect domestic supply/price.

The Real Concern Is About Wheat

The FAO site says that rice supplies are strong, so the big factor in the cereals index is wheat.  This is much more than a short term worry.  It is estimated that global wheat trade (already huge) will double by 2050.  This is because most of the remaining expected increase in human population is in places like Sub-Saharan Africa where wheat cannot be grown.  It will really fall to places like the US, Canada, Australia and Argentina to produce that food.  That is why the wheat industry is working hard to prepare their customers and consumer for the need to enhance wheat with biotechnology.  Whether that will happen in time to help is doubtful, particularly in groups like GreenPeace have their way.

Political Insanity

It is a sad thing to watch something as important as the global wheat supply being compromised by the thought-free budget process in the US Congress.  In the midst of a cereal price spike and with a looming long-term supply question, our "representatives" have cut the funding for a very important wheat breeding program based at Kansas State that had a critical global mission.  But the tax benefits for the rich and the oil companies were "saved!"
These developments come in a week when one great enemy of world peace has been eliminated.  But it would do us well to consider these words of Norm Borlaug:
If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace
You are welcome to comment on this site or to email me at  I can also provide higher resolution versions of the chart.  My website is Applied Mythology.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Why We Ever Ate Trans-fats In The First Place

This post originally appeared on Sustainablog on 5/3/11.  Links to all my posts on various sites are here)
Today I was doing errands and decided to buy a large fry at McDonalds.  I do that occasionally, but I'm always a little disappointed with the flavor.  It was pretty good, but not nearly as tasty as when I bought them as a teenager in the early 1970s.  Each Friday night as I returned from using the Denver Public School System's mainframe computer as part of my high school's Computer Math Club (I know, seriously nerdy), I would stop at the Golden Arches for an order of fries.  The reason that they were so good back in the day is that they were fried in beef tallow, not the vegetable oil that has been used for a long time and today.

Fats and Oils 101

Most animal fats, and "tropical oils" are "saturated" which means that they consist of a long chain of carbon atoms each having  two hydrogens attached and being attached to the two neighboring carbons (see diagram above).  Only the end of the chain is different with a "carboxyl group" (COOH).  There are three of these chains (fatty acids) attached to a glycogen backbone which makes the actual oil or fat.  So the beef tallow is made of three "Stearic acid" chains (C18:)).   A fat is "mono-unsaturated" if the fatty acid chain has a double bond between two of its carbons, then in nature the remaining hydrogen attached to each of those carbons is on the same side of the chain.  That is called a 'cis' conformation and that is the way it is for all natural "unsaturated" fat.   The "healthiest fats" like olive, canola or sunflower oil all have only one of these 'cis' double bonds in the middle of the chain - "Oleic acid."

"Bad Fats"

In the 1970s, nutritionists and doctors began to say that our high rate of heart disease was related to the high amounts of cholesterol and saturated fat in our diets. They actually meant the volume of those oils, but the public message quickly lost the "in moderation" caveat. The first target was eggs, then butter and lard, then red meat and finally tropical oils (palm C14:0, coconut (C12:0...).  This was over-blown by the press and embraced opportunistically by the growing soybean processing industry and processed food industry.  We all started eating much more "vegetable oil" based on soybeans.  It wasn't necessarily a good thing.

Soybean Facts

Before WWII, Americans mostly cooked with animal fats (butter, bacon fat, lard, tallow...).  We had known about Soybeans for a long time and Ford actually used plastics based on soy in the 1930s. But it wasn't until the 1940s and the Chinese supply disruption of the war that the US acreage of soybeans grew dramatically.  Soybeans were found to be an excellent rotation partner for corn because they "fixed their own nitrogen" and in some areas they could be "double cropped" with winter wheat.  Soybean planting was originally driven by the high protein content as an animal feed. But since ~20% of the bean is oil, the US suddenly had a vast supply of a "vegetable oil."  When the "saturated" and "tropical" oil scares hit, it was a huge opportunity to market all that oil.

Problems with Soybean Oil

But soybean oil is different from olive or Canola - it contains quite a bit of poly-unsaturated fat (2 and even three double bonds in the carbon chain).  This gives it certain undesirable properties.  It turns rancid more quickly.  It stays liquid at lower temperatures.  During use as a frying oil it "peroxidizes" faster, generating off-tastes, so it has a shorter, functional "fry life." Because it was becoming plentiful and cheap, food companies really wanted to use the soybean oil, but first it needed to be "fixed."

The Fix: "Partial Hydrogenation"

The food industry developed a process where some or all of the double bonds in the fatty acids could be turned into single bonds with the addition of hydrogen atoms.  This allowed soybean oil to be turned into a butter substitute called margarine that, when dyed yellow, could compete for space on your toast.  The new process turned soybean oil into the "100% vegetable oil" that  sounded healthier in a society that had become obsessed about avoiding "bad fats."  Processed foods started sporting big labels bragging "No Tropical Oils."  Worst of all, they stopped cooking my McDonalds fries in beef tallow!

Unexpected Consequences

There was one problem with this "fixed" oil: some of the double bonds that didn't go away ended up with their hydrogens on opposite sides of the carbon chain in the 'trans' conformation, something that never occurs in nature.  Oils than contained these 'trans-fats' had different properties than their natural 'cis' relatives.  That matters because there is a "bi-layer" of oil molecules that covers the surface of every cell in our bodies and the properties of those layers matter. If  'trans-fats' become part of that bi-layer, the membranes may not function as they should. Eventually the nutritionists and doctors figured out that trans-fats are far worse for us than saturated fats.  The fix was no fix at all!
It took a remarkably long time for this discovery to translate into change in our food supply. Perhaps it was because society has become "fatigued" by the constantly changing story on what is good or bad for us.  Perhaps it took that long to overcome the billions of advertising dollars that had been spent telling the wrong story.
So, even though French fries cooked in beef tallow and eaten in moderation are perfectly fine, I got an order today that was only pretty good.  This is because no big food company has the guts to say they were wrong all those years.  They have adjusted the hydrogenation process so they make almost no trans-fat oil.  There are technologies to grow soybeans that can be a source of zero-transfat oils, but even with these advances, the frying oil still isn't as good as in the old days.

What's the lesson?

Maybe we should be skeptical of warnings about the latest "food demon."  Consider for instance "high fructose corn syrup" (HFCS) which is the current demonized food target.  Yes, if you consume vast quantities of this (or any) sweetener it will make you hyper, fat or type II diabetic.  But before you jump to something exotic like agave nectar, remember that marketing messages driven by opportunistic marketing dollars are not always the best thing to heed.
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French Fry image from Adria Richards