Agriculture News Links – December 16, 2013


Paul Signac: The Pine, Saint Tropez, 1892-1893 ~ Oil on Wood ~ Hermitage, St. Petersburg

USDA, Navy Expand Farm-to-Fleet Biofuels Program (Farm Futures) Note that Vilsack sees the Navy as a consumer of biofuels “regardless of what the EPA may or may not do.”

Oil Seen as Main Driver of Ethanol and Grain Prices in UN Study. By Rudy Ruitenberg. (Bloomberg) AND Ethanol blends carry hidden risk. By Mike Williams. (Phys.org) AND Bill Would Axe Corn Ethanol Mandate. (Reuters)

New FDA ‘Rules’ Not Likely to Reduce Antibiotic Use On Farm. By Beth Hoffman. (Forbes)

Farmers Hoard Corn as Prices Drop. By Tony C. Dreibus. (WSJ) AND China rejects fifth US corn cargo in a month, citing GMO strain. (RT)

● FARMLAND: Canada’s CPPIB to buy farmland portfolio in Saskatchewan. By Euan Rocha and Rod Nickel. (Reuters) AND Iowa Farmland Values Hit a Record High. By Andrew Martin. (Bloomberg)

Two crop scientists from China are accused of trying to steal rice seed samples from a biopharmaceutical research facility in Kansas. By Bryan Thompson. (KMUW-Wichita) AND Three Chinese men charged with stealing U.S. seed technology. By Carey Gillam. (Reuters)

● ENERGY: New oil boom lurks in Denver-Julesburg Basin. By Mark Jaffe. (Denver Post) (Don’t miss the sentence, “Those old wells are perfect pathways for pollutants.”)

● ECONOMIC: Stagflation is not our fate — unless we let it be. By Lawrence Summers. (Wash-Post)

Progress Report: I’m very pleased to say that the new sister-site of Big Picture Agriculture is coming along and should be up and running in a couple short weeks. In the meantime, I shall keep you in suspense …stay tuned.—Kay

Monsanto Going Green: Using Bacteria and Fungi to Increase Crop Yields and Lower Inputs

BioAg Alliance, they are calling it, a venture to use microbes and fungi to enhance crop growth and yield, help with pest resistance, and reduce inputs like water. Monsanto paid Novozymes $300 million to partner in this “game changing” venture. Monsanto will do marketing and field testing. Novozymes will do the manufacturing.

Today, the headlines are everywhere about this announcement, but the articles all say the same basic, vague things. Here at B.P.A. let’s learn more.

First of all, this will rock the world of agribusiness stereotypes. People conjure up their own images of the company Monsanto, that goes without saying. Certainly, my own impression of the Danish company Novozymes is not so green, as I’ve seen the massive building which abuts the Missouri River in Blair, Nebraska, that turns out the enzymes used for ethanol production and sits next to Cargill’s massive corn processing plant, and I know what the park-like setting looked like before this industrial complex was there.

My initial reaction to this announcement is that this venture has enormous potential, is, as they are saying, a game changer, and, it is also very green. I suspect, also, that Monsanto doesn’t want to be left out of a future where the cost-competitive advantages of more sustainable production methods using fewer expensive inputs could take off. Using biologicals to enhance yields instead of chemicals has the potential to be a game changer that could help lower the input costs for farmers. Let’s hope.

This whole subject is HOT, HOT, HOT. It received little fanfare at the time, but earlier this year, the American Academy of Microbiology came out with a report, “HOW MICROBES CAN HELP FEED THE WORLD, 2013.” According to the report summary, improved understanding of plant-microbe interactions has the potential to increase crop productivity by 20% while reducing fertilizer and pesticide requirements by 20%, within 20 years. The ASM PDF report reads like a confirmation of Gaia hypothesis.

Here are a few quotes from the Monsanto and Novozymes spokespersons:

“…(this) represents the next layer of opportunity for growers to drive yield and productivity while helping the preservation of finite natural resources in our precious planet,” Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer said.

Novozymes CEO, Peder Holk Nielsen, said that to meet world demand, farmers must produce more food in the next 50 years than they have in the last 10,000 years while using the planet’s land, water and other resources wisely. Nielsen also said that harnessing the beneficial effects of microorganisms has “an untapped potential for biological solutions for agriculture. These products do work. … I believe we are rewriting agricultural history.”

While some of the articles covering this story today are saying this will be used for vegetable and fruit crops, the Novozymes website “BioAg Alliance” page shows photos of corn, soybean, and wheat fields.

The following is a direct excerpt from Novozymes website:

WHAT ARE AGRICULTURAL BIOLOGICALS?
Agricultural biologicals is an umbrella term for microbials, plant extracts, beneficial insects and other organic material used by farmers to increase crop health and productivity.

Microbial-based products are derived from naturally-occurring microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. They are normally applied to seeds before planting, in-furrow or sprayed on crops, and they protect crops from pests and diseases and enhance plant productivity and fertility. With faster development cycles compared to other agricultural innovations, as well as broad geographic and crop applicability, microbial solutions offer tremendous potential to deliver sustainable, cost-effective solutions that can increase yield using less input.

Agricultural biologicals today represent roughly $2.3 billion in annual sales and have for the last several years posted double-digit percent revenue growth annually.

According to Nielsen, both companies already have products on the market and have been doing work on biologicals.

Next, let’s speculate on what, exactly all of these vague comments about game changing microbials are about.

Somewhere in the mix, one might expect them to use Mycorrhiza:

I’ve defined Mycorrhiza here previously, in this brief summary:

Mycorrhiza, which means “root-fungus” grows in healthy soils and functions symbiotically with plants by enhancing the uptake of phosphorus and other nutrients. The fungus attaches to plant roots, increasing the root surface area which comes in contact with the soil. It excretes enzymes which allow it to dissolve soil nutrients, and extends the life of the root. Mycorrhizal fungus greatly amplifies the ability of plant roots to uptake and reuse phosphorus.

This fungus increases the drought tolerance of plants and can reduce water needs by 25 percent. It increases the fruit and flowering of plants while reducing the need for water and fertilizer. It also enables plants to grow in salty or contaminated soils and increases the temperature stress tolerance for plants. It helps protect plants from disease, and helps store carbon in the soil. Mycorrhiza has the potential to bring poor and degraded lands back into cultivation.

It is possible to encourage mycorrhiza growth in soils by adding compost to your garden soil, by not using synthetic chemicals, using minimum tillage, rotating crops, and growing cover crops. By cold composting, or mulching your garden with shredded leaves each fall, you can promote optimal Mycorrhizal fungi growth. Or, it can be purchased and added directly to sterile potting soils, or degraded soil.

Novozymes says they already have a product that coats seeds with a fungus “that grows along the plant’s roots and produces phosphates, promoting growth and saving chemical fertilizer.” UPDATE: This product, called JumpStart uses the bacterium penicillium bilaii.

Another root-colonizing, helpful bacteria is Rhizobacteria, which form symbiotic relationships with plants, and are generally thought of as important to biofertilizer producers. Rhizobacteria help with nitrogen fixation, and thus enhance plant growth. Inoculating them onto seed can encourage them to colonize the root zones of plants. The rhizosphere, which is the ecosystem around the roots of plants, includes many microorganisms. There are subsistence farmers in India, for example, who know how to use these bacteria to their advantage, according to a friend of this site who also works on similar products.

More thoughts…

In Joel Salatin types of farming methods, soils are already teaming with plant growth-enhancing microbials. And today, some sustainable farming advocates are finding that by using multiple varieties of seeds in cover crops, as on this North Dakota farm that I’ve featured here before, these microbials take off and do save water and fertilizer inputs while producing great crop yields. Useful microbes already exist in healthy soils and there are methods which encourage them to thrive. Today’s industrial agriculture system is not one of them. It would make so much more sense to work with Nature’s wisdom, rather than destroy it and then try to rebuild it.

Some say that the ubiquitous microbials need to be specific for the region and location to match the soils and environment unique to the region. Many say that the life world which teams beneath our feet in soil is a future frontier, a mystery yet to be explored. In healthy soil, there seems to be an infinite variety of microbial life. This whole subject is ripe for discovery, as it relates to carbon storage, too.

Many scientists, smaller companies, and individuals have been studying these microbes for a long time, and some already have products on the market.

It is encouraging to see that the future of industrial agriculture is taking a new direction towards sustainability. Good seeds with sustainable practices sounds like a winner to me.

UPDATE: I recommend this Forbes article for more specific information about this venture between Monsanto and Novozymes.

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Additional Reading:
Novozymes infographic “What are Agricultural Biologicals?”

Mycorrhiza Proves Valuable in Qatar’s Saline Soils

TED Talk: Phosphorus Fertilizer Should Be Replaced with Mycorrhizal Fungi

PBS Video on Qatar’s Food Security Innovation

Hot 5: March Temps. Steiger Fuel Efficiency. Mycorrhiza for Soil. Soybean Supply. Agricultural Trade.

Smart, Innovative Farmers in the Dakotas

Is Humanity Really Going to Starve to Death in Twenty Years Because We Will Have Run Out of Potash and Phosphorus Fertilizers?

Water Used to Produce Ethanol in Nebraska

Do you notice any similarities between the two maps below? The top map shows us the corn production regions in Nebraska in 2012 (a drought year), the dark green areas having the highest production.

The red stars represent the ethanol plants in Nebraska.

The second map from year 2005 shows us the regions of Nebraska which irrigate most heavily using groundwater withdrawals. As you can easily see, the regions which irrigate most heavily, are the same as those that were most productive for corn in 2012.

Nebraska ranks as the third highest corn producing state, and it is also the state that is gifted with the most underground Ogallala Aquifer water. Seed corn companies prefer to use Nebraska’s irrigated corn acres for reliability during drought years and ethanol plants also like the reliability of corn production that Nebraska’s irrigated acres can provide. In 2008, 3.6 million acres in Nebraska were irrigated using center-pivots, and that number has surely grown since then.

According to a 2011 article out of Columbia University: “In Ohio, because of sufficient rainfall, only 1% of the corn is irrigated while in Nebraska 72% of the crop is irrigated. It takes 19 gallons of water to produce a bushel of corn in Region 5, 38 gallons in Region 6, and 865 gallons in Region 7. (Region 5 includes Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Missouri; Region 6 includes Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan; and Region 7 includes North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas.) The Baker Institute estimates that producing the corn to meet the ethanol mandate for 2015 will require 2.9 trillion gallons of water.”

Nebraska ranks second of all the states in ethanol production. I was curious to find out what percent of Nebraska’s corn was turned into ethanol. The clearest and most recent numbers that I could find using a non-drought year belong to 2011.

To do the calculation, I used data provided by the National Corn Growers Association:

1,536,000,000 bushels corn was produced in 2011 in Nebraska
2.089 billion gallons of ethanol operating capacity* in 2011 in Nebraska
(if) 1 bushel of corn produces 2.8 gallons ethanol
then the % of corn going to ethanol in the state of Nebraska in 2011
= 49 %

From the University of Nebraska’s website, the issue becomes is it worth it?

Life cycle analysis (LCA) of ethanol production from corn grain has yielded a net energy ratio of 1.2 to 1.45 (Liska et. al. 2009). This represents just a 20 to 45% positive energy balance when producing ethanol from corn. This number has been the criticism of corn ethanol because of the large amount of fossil energy used to produce ethanol.

Yes, I know, the ethanol industry would argue that today’s conversion factor is more efficient, however… irrigated corn requires higher energy inputs even if the price of the water is considered to be free. It is possible that the energy returned on irrigated corn converted to ethanol in Nebraska is negative or about 1:1.

Where is the outrage on that, I ask the Nebraskans who proudly protested the Keystone pipeline to protect the state’s water?

In conclusion, the majority of the corn produced in Nebraska is produced by using irrigation water. And, around half of the corn produced in Nebraska is being converted into ethanol. Given ethanol’s negligible energy return, it looks like a hamster on a wheel that gets nowhere, a frivolous thing to do with this precious fossil water.

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*note that this number should be quite accurate because ethanol plants were operating at near 100% capacity in 2011 in Nebraska.

See previous post: Pivots and Loss of Habitat in Flyover-Country

Caution: GMO Labeling Regulations Could Soon Become Obsolete

Yesterday, there was an article on the opinion page of my local newspaper, the Daily Camera, by Andrew Staehelin, who is a professor emeritus of the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology here at the University of Colorado. The piece was titled “Mandatory GMO food labeling — a subsidy for the organic food industry.” Scientist Staehelin has been a staunch defender of GMOs here in my community which harbors many anti-GMO activists.

The whole opinion piece is well-worth reading, but I’d like to point out one sentence in particular, because I think it is so important and unrecognized by activists who want labeling.

It also does not take into account that molecular biology techniques are evolving rapidly, and that there is no guarantee that today’s laws will be relevant tomorrow.

This issue also concerns me as I constantly see new breeding method advancements which are increasingly muddying the picture of what is and isn’t GMO. GMO labeling regulations, if passed, would add a huge level of complexity to our current food system, leading to cost increases for food prices even though there has been no evidence that GMO foods are unsafe. See my article from earlier this year: The Editors of Scientific American Take a Stance Against GMO Food Labeling.

So then what, when no one knows how to comply with the regulations, once they are in place — due to the rapidly changing science? It would certainly drive the science towards the techniques that wouldn’t technically be classified as “GMO,” although they might be very similar in end result. GMO labeling has the potential to become nothing more than additional job security for this nation’s legal profession.

I’ve recently discovered a blog by Richard Ha, a Hawaiian farmer who shares views similar to my own: he is an environmentalist, he is especially concerned about energy issues in agriculture, and he supports GMOs because they help him as a farmer. He reported that the farmers on the island who produce 90 percent of the food there opposed Bill 113 “because the bill was rushed and its consequences were not considered.”

This is what he said after the bill had passed:

People are angry at Monsanto and are willing to punish their own, local, small farmers – their family, friends and neighbors. It’s hard to understand. I am very disappointed that Bill 113 passed.

Smart regulations are important and necessary in our system built upon capitalism, though politically that has been difficult. Smart and good regulations keep the system sane, keep society safe, are in place to protect the things we value, and to keep conditions optimal for our progeny. Dumb regulations, on the other hand, add expensive and unnecessary layers of complexity to our already too-complex systems. Activists driven primarily by emotion need to be careful.

My stance as an environmentalist on the subject of agriculture remains thus: GM technology is advancing rapidly and has great potential to aid in more sustainable and resilient crop production, including for those populations which are the most vulnerable in this world. The anti-GMO activists have misdirected their focus because of their hatred for one agribusiness company, and if they really knew the big picture, they should redirect their activism by opposing our government mandated ethanol and biofuels levels, today’s real gift to agribusinesses and the primary cause of environmental damage happening in our farmbelt. Why these activists do not recognize this is beyond me.