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Sunday November 19, 2017

Why did farmers stop saving their own seeds?

The expected corporate merger of seed company Monsanto and crop-chemical company Bayer, expected to take shape by the end of this year pending approval from the regulators in 30 countries around the world, has raised a new round of concern that a small handful of companies are coming to control nearly all the seeds used by farmers. Take the two biggest crops in this country, for instance. According to Wall Street analyst Mark Gulley, Monsanto now holds 36 percent of the seed corn market and 28 percent of the seed soybean market after the merger.

“If these posed mergers work like all of the past ag supply mergers that we have already experienced," Nebraska Farmers Union President John Hansen told Colorado's Summit Daily, "it will mean that [farmers] have fewer choices in the market place....”

That continuing market concentration fans the flames of Internet mythology that farmers have lost control of their seed destiny, including stories of farmers being sued for replanting seed harvested from plants of purchased seed (sometimes true), that farmers get sued when nature blows the pollen of neighbors' crops into their fields and pollinates theirs (not so true), or that companies have genetically engineered "suicide seeds" to cross-breed with plants and render them sterile so they can't reproduce usable seed in a next generation, forcing all farmers to come under the thumb of "Big Ag" to buy replacement seed year after year (ridiculously untrue).

It all raises an interesting question that may occur to some of your shoppers: Why in the world did farmers ever give up so much control over something as important to their livelihood and stop saving their own seed? Why do farmers do that?

It's not been that simple for more than a century. Yes, in pre-industrial America, when 9 out of ten people relied on their own farms to feed themselves, the typical farmer did depend largely on his own crop to provide seed for the following season. But as agriculture grew, that practice went by the wayside quickly. The nation's first commercial seed seller opened in Philadelphia only a decade after the nation's independence. By the last quarter of the 1800s, more than 100 U.S. seed companies were handling a large quantity of seed corn. By 1960, at least 96 percent of all corn seed was a purchased seed not grown on the original farm. Even as early as 1940, when USDA started collecting reliable statistics, less than half the red clover seed and less than 10 percent of the alfalfa, the two most important hay seeds, were being used on the farm where they were originally grown. Farmers have been buying seed from specialists for a long time.

It's made farming more reliable. It wasn't Monsanto that led to widespread abandonment of saved seed in this country. It was biology. After Congress set aside $1,000 in 1839 to collect and give seed away free to farmers, literally billions of packages were given to farmers until the program ended in 1923. But complaints soon grew widespread about the reliability of those seeds, and despite some public efforts to improve plant breeding, farmers were often disappointed with the reliability of those public seeds.

About halfway through that period, a Czech monk named Gregor Mendel unlocked the key to specifically identifying genetic traits that farmers in the past had bred into plants and animals only by the generational process of trial and error. When commercial companies began applying Mendel's concepts to seed breeding around the turn of the century, the age of the "hybrid" seed was born.

As this video clearly explains, hybridization tightly controls breeding of parent plants in order to help remove the random chance that occurs in nature—the reason some of us are born blonde, some brunette, some red-headed. Like specific building blocks, beneficial traits like disease resistance or tolerance to drought will reliably "express," or appear, in the hybrid plant, in the first seed that goes into a field as predictably as it does in the 10,000th. That predictability is the reason for any given Nebraska corn field's row after row of uniform plants. It's also the reason the Nebraska legislature is currently considering a bill that would allow a restraining order or injunction to be imposed on anyone who sells or represents corn seed as a hybrid variety if it doesn't meet the standards to do so.

And that predictability of a hybrid's performance is the reason farmers don't save hybrid seeds for the following season. By law of averages, only half the plants in the second generation of a hybrid seed will express the traits you originally wanted. Each succeeding generation of saved seed will dilute that trait further. Farmers buy hybrid seed rather than save their own because they know the cost of returning to the first-generation seed is generally worth it to get seed that grows true.

It's made them more productive. Going hand-in-hand with that reliability has come productivity by using purchased seed. Even advocates for sustainability and what's known as "open pollination," or use of seeds that don't rely on commercial, often patented, parent lines, don't doubt the boost in productivity that's been brought about by hybrid seeds. All else equal, studies show, modern hybrids often yield much more that open pollinated varieties, and they have done so for going on a century now.

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Social media scrambles egg advice

Because the Internet, social media and e-mail chain letters have become important sources of information for grocery shoppers, Farmer Goes to Market regularly follows those sources for food news and food-safety warnings. We will bring you regular updates on such food-news reports, testing them for accuracy and context, so you can convey the realities to your consumers.

This month, like our previous report on Facebook claims about dangers of chlorine in baby carrots, another long-lived Internet-driven theme claims scrambling eggs is the next big danger. Because scrambling an egg breaks its yolk and therefore allows the cooking heat to oxidize the natural cholesterol found in it, according to these Internet health experts, scrambling is the most risky form of egg preparation—riskier even, it seems, than eating them raw. Oxidizing the egg yolks increases the level of very low density lipoproteins in the cholesterol, which is the form of cholesterol most linked to coronary disease. Accordingly, the ranking of dangerous egg cooking practices, from least to most, goes like this:

  • Raw, if pastured and organic
  • Soft boiled or poached with runny yolk
  • Fried in butter or coconut oil, sunny side up, soft yolk
  • Cooking with the yolk intact
  • Cooking with a broken yolk
  • Scrambled or omelet

It's a very elegant scientific theory, save for one small problem. "Not only is this ranking silly," says molecular biologist and senior fellow for the American Council on Science and Health Julianna LeMieux, "it's dead wrong."

Here's why:

This theory that never dies completely dismisses an important fact about cholestrol and nutrition. Yes, eggs contain cholesterol. And yes, whipping the yolk and heating oxidizes it, converting more of the cholesterol into the VLDL form. The problem is the lipid profile of the cholesterol is irrelevent, because it never reaches the bloodstream in the form it's consumed. All cholesterol, regardless of its form, only gets converted into VLDL (the worst form), low density lipoprotein (bad), or high density lipoprotein (good cholesterol) after it's digested and reaches the liver. How the liver converts those components into VLDL, LDL or HDL and then sends them into the bloodstream is genetically determined and affected only peripherally by diet and exercise. That's why, for most people, the cholesterol you get from your diet makes little to no difference in HDL or LDL levels.

The real irony of the Internet advice, LeMieux argues, is that the only real risk in eating eggs comes with the "best" alternative in the list above: eating raw eggs.

Eating eggs raw does bring a chance, although small, of causing harm. In about one in 20,000 times, she says, eggs can carry Salmonella bacteria which can cause a stomach bug. And that risk is the same whether the eggs are organic or not. So if they're playing the odds, cooking, regardless of how consumers choose to do so, is a safer bet than eating eggs raw.

Have an Internet myth or consumer concern relayed to you that you'd like to see us address? Leave a comment below, or click here to email us.

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Almost from its beginning, the story of American farming has been the story of lowering food costs for consumers by replacing increasingly scarce human labor with technology. First, it meant substituting literal horse power with internal-combustion horsepower in the early 20th century. In the early 21st century, it's been replacing the work of physically walking crop fields with viewing them remotely via aerial drone. For 2017, you can expect even more exponential leaps toward the increasingling technology-centric farm—perhaps no more aptly sympolized than by the unveiling of the first farmer-free tractor at this year's Husker Harvest Days held in mid September near Alda. Those technological improvements will continue to drive down costs of farm products or add value, or both.
Already, the level of technology on today's farms might astound those who still hold the imaged promoted by the slow-food and local-farms movements. That giant threshing machine you see along the highways cutting wheat, corn and soybeans every fall, now nearly the size of a small home, is already a satellite-navigated system of thousands of moving parts, less guided by the operator inside the climate-controlled cab than it is monitored by him, since it's likely being steered by a computer. The hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of crops being processed through the combine are constantly monitored, their progress displayed on a computer terminal, alerting the operator to important measures, from the bushels per acre to the moisture level of the crop. Before it was even planted, the field it's harvesting may have been reviewed by satellite spectrum analysis in order to help choose the best combination of crop, seed variety, number of plants per square foot and needed fertilizer additions by region of the field—even by row. A computerized planter may have adjusted those factors on the fly, making real-time tweaks where the data dictated. Next might have followed a computer-guided pesticide sprayer that changes the quantity and type in areas of a field that are more disease-prone. Aerial drones may have flown low over thousands of acres to help the farmer spot any suprise increase in pests, disease or specific weeds without ever leaving his farm office, sending that data to a worker's cell phone or an unmanned vehicle to locate and kill the specific outbreak of bugs or weeds in the field.

That's all apparently just the beginning. The drive to further automate farming will only accelerate, according to experts. Here are trends that will continue to drive technological change in farming:

Increased demand for high-quality outputs. Today's drive away from commodity crops and toward value-added foods may not require technology, but technology will be the key to make their production cost-effective. The so-called Internet of Things is coming to agriculture as a result, demonstrating the added value of smart webs of connected and remotely controlled objects. One example: The holy grail of meat production known as transparency and traceability. A future interconnected web of objects from the cattle ranch to the meatcase could not only permit consumers to know where a cut of meat came from, but theoretically could even affect the production of that cut by placing market-of-one custom orders that only an interconnected system could execute efficiently enough to make it affordable.

New social and political priorities. If consumer dollars aren't necessarily driving demand toward high-tech, some of the socio-political priorities are. Modern tractors and farm trucks, for instance, use advanced diesel technology that has brought their emission of pollutants down to almost zero. Remote monitoring and data analysis guided by computer has also made an impact in improving the well-being of farm animals, even as pressure continues to cut back on the use of more traditional tools that ensure animal welfare, like antibiotic-based medications.

Changes in farm structure, practice and culture. On average, computing power doubles about every 12 to 18 months, according to conventional wisdom. That incessant improvement has left a lot of affordable computer capability available to harnass on the farm, says Wisconsin professor of biological systems engineering John Shutske. "Big Data" has arrived, creating a "virtual tsunami of data" to drive decision-making by a group who, in the course of just one generation, went from keeping little or no production records to collecting, analyzing and mining data on everything. That trend toward big data, coupled with the Internet of Things will make artificial intelligence available to assume simple decision-making for the farmer in areas like pest management, scheduling operations or optimizing animal health or crop health treatments and regimes.

Beyond that availability of tools, a change in attitude has also opened up young farmers to new ways of doing business. The "shared economy," for instance, has changed some farmers' way of thinking about equipment use, a traditional drain on farm economics. Farmers who used to be willing to spend today's equivalent of $500,000 on a large harvesting combine just to see it sit idle 95 percent of the year are instead open to software-based equipment-sharing arrangements like AirBNB that spread that cost of capital over many farms.

Biotechnology. Not simply the mechanical, but the bio-mechanical, will continue to revolutionize farm technology. The better understanding of genetics at a molecular level brought about by the GMO revolution has made farm production more economical by reducing the greatest remaining source of unpredictability: Living nature. Owing to biotechnology, plants and animals raised on tomorrow's farms will be more controllable and more reliable.

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Workers test a turkey for avian influenza

This time last year, American turkey growers were feeling the effects of what USDA has called "the largest animal-health emergency in U.S. history." An outbreak of highly contagious avian influenza, or bird flu, which started in December 2014 and lasted through June 2015, caused the death of more than 48 million turkeys and chickens, including about 3.8 million birds in Nebraska, eventually costing an estimated $3.3 billion in this country, according to the Congressional Research Service. The outbreak in the Midwest led to a turkey shortage that lasted into spring 2016 and also led to higher prices last year.

Fast-forward to this Thanksgiving, and turkey processing is now about 10 percent higher than the same time last year, and no one is talking seriously about any shortage in supply of either frozen or fresh turkeys.

Despite some holes remaining in the nation's protection against the worldwide disease, including some seriously unanswered questions about precisely how it jumped from wild birds to commercial poultry, a year later experts believe the nation is prepared for the next inevitable outbreak. How did the United States avoid a turkey apocolypse?

Working with Congress, USDA has beefed up plans to respond to another outbreak by targeting a series of efforts to three main audiences: commercial poultry farms, technical service industry, and small hobby poultry farmers. "USDA...has learned a great deal through the experience of responding to the largest animal health event in our history," the agency says. Not only did the government and industry react to improve its response, but it also used the outbreak as an opportunity to collect scientific data on the field viruses and from affected premises, as well as solicit feedback from affected parties to better prepare for a future outbreak. Although another outbreak still poses significant risk to the industry and can wipe out individual flocks, the food chain should be aware the United States has the world's strongest surveillance program for the disease. Federal and state animal health agencies along with industry have responded to contain and control another outbreak through several measures:

  • Promoting improved on-farm "biosecurity" practices. Although USDA has concluded wild birds were responsible for introducing the flu virus into the environment, from which it then spread to commercial poultry farms, the number and proximity of affected farms leads them to believe the virus likely spread in other ways as well once it was introduced. For that reason, USDA has emphasized the importance of individual farms upgrading their security practices that help keep infections out of their farms.
  • Improving bird-flu surveillance in wild birds as a means to provide “early warning” risk information. USDA has markedly stepped up testing for the presence of virus in wild migratory birds, funding several university-centered testing programs. It has shared the data from this surveillance throughout the year with poultry producers and other stakeholders in order to communicate ongoing or changing risk of exposure and to encourage enhanced biosecurity.
  • Expanding federal, state and industry response capabilities, including additional personnel, equipment and depopulation, disposal and recovery options. The agency has surveyed government, first responders and industry within the 20 states it considers critically important should a worst-case flu outbreak recur. From that analysis, it has concluded all states have made significant improvements in response capabilities for future cases. Industry-based efforts are also ongoing to improve education and awareness about the disease.
  • Improving the capabilities to rapidly find flu in domestic poultry and to kill off affected flocks within 24 hours. USDA's veterinary division has rallied not only its current tools to quickly and humanely kill infected birds an entire barn at time and dispose of their carcasses quickly and without environmental hazard, but it has also increased research to study new and possibly more effective tools. It has also studied the demographics of poultry populations and better mapped rendering, landfill and incineration facilities that would be needed in case of another outbreak.
  • Streamlining the process to pay affected farmers for their sacrificed birds and for the cost of eliminating viruses, so producers receive a fair amount quickly and can return to full production as quickly as possible.
  • Enhancing the agency's ability to communicate in a timely and effective way with producers, consumers, legislators, media and others regarding outbreaks and other information.
  • Working to identify and deploy effective bird-flu vaccines. Although vaccination is a common tool farmers use to control other diseases in their animals and birds, vaccination against flu creates several problems that make it impractical at this time. For one, influenza is a difficult virus to create a vaccine against that reliably matches the field strains of the virus, so it's not often effective. Secondly, vaccination with flu virus across the poultry industry would confuse surveillance for the disease, since birds that have been vaccinated can't be easily or cheaply distinguished from those that are carrying the wild, infective virus. However, USDA is working to identify better vaccines, and has outlined a strategy in which vaccination might be used as an emergency approach within a tightly confined geographic area with dense poultry production.

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