Translating Food Technology

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Monday December 11, 2017

Water-saving technology will bring corn production backThis summer’s severe Midwest drought has nearly devastated staple crops here: Almost half the growing areas for the region’s two most important crops, corn and soybeans, suffered “extreme” to “exceptional” drought. On a national scale, about two-thirds of all U.S. acres have experienced either “moderate” or “exceptional” drought—the largest area classified as such in more than half a century, USDA days.

In response, the American Farm Bureau Federation went so far as to call for a National Day of Prayer for Drought Victims in August.

With so much of the Corn Belt suffering reduced crops because of the drought, even as we enter a new marketing year with beginning stockpiles of corn at only about 7 percent of the 12.7 billion bushels we’ll need to satisfy the coming year’s demand, how will U.S. farmers ever recover enough production to satisfy that demand?

They’ll do so by continuing the pattern we’ve experienced year after year: Farmers will respond to this year’s drought with a production increase of nearly 50 percent, if next year has normal weather.  Just a dozen years ago, U.S. farmers were planting only about 75 percent of the corn acres they planted this year. Next year, that number will increase another 6 percent or more by some expectations.

But that’s only half the story. The average amount of corn produced for every acre harvested will likewise continue trending upward. The average yield per acre for the last half decade, not counting this year’s drought-stressed crop, is nearly 8 percent higher than it was for the first half of the decade after 2000. It is fully 40 percent higher than the average for 20 years ago. That kind of productivity increase isn’t limited to corn. Historically, all U.S. crops are showing that pattern of farmers squeezing more and more food from the same or fewer acres. They have done so by adopting technology that makes their use of natural resources more efficient.

The quest for drought tolerance

Take, for instance, the all-important resource of water. All crops require water, and this summer’s withering drought and heat have reminded us of the need to continue improving the management of that water both this year and in the longer term.

When it comes to saving and more efficiently using water, farmers have three options: irrigate more, improve their management of the soil and environment to conserve water, and look for crops and varieties that require less. Farmers have already increased irrigation: Nebraska's 8.5 million acres under irrigation as of 2007--the latest count available--makes it the largest irrigating state in the nation. But potential to continue that growth is limited, according to Bruce Johnson, a University of Nebraska- Lincoln agricultural economist. "We’re developed pretty much to the max," he said. “In short, there is no more development frontier. From now on, Nebraskans, from the individual water user up through our policy arena, will need to wisely manage our water resources for a sustainable future.” Continuing improvements in management practices like no-till and low-till to better manage the water-saving capacity of the soil and reduce the water use of competing weeds are also being made every season.

But it's development of crops, specifically corn, that are genetically bred to more efficiently use water that may be the real bright spot. "Drought tolerance conferred through biotech crops is viewed as the most important trait that will be commercialized [from] 2006 to 2015, and beyond, because it is by far the single most important constraint to increased productivity for crops worldwide," according to Greg O. Edmeades, former head of the corn drought program at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center. "Drought tolerant biotech/transgenic maize is the most advanced of the drought tolerant crops under development."

In any given year, Edmeades predicts, the world loses 15 percent of its potential corn crop to drought. Regular, temporary droughts in the Corn Belt take 20 percent in some years. “Genetic modification won’t ever allow us to turn desert into farmland, and the worst droughts will continue to inflict a terrible price on agriculture," says farmer and North Dakota state senator Terry Wanzek. "Yet biotechnology gives us a tool for pushing back. Just as it has helped farmers fight weeds and pests, it can help them battle dry spells too. The goal is to grow more food with less water. Drought-resistant crops will help us move even further towards that goal."


Expected drought resistance progress with and without biotech

During the last century, according to Pakistan's Muhammad Ashraf, one of the world's authorities on genetic resistance to drought, conventional plant breeders have already made great strides in developing drought tolerant lines of not only corn, but also of many important food crops. For example, one breeding approach started at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in the 1970s developed a drought-tolerant corn for use in Mexico that improved yields per acre by nearly three times. However, conventional plant breeding for traits like drought tolerance are both time-consuming and labor- and cost-intensive.

New biotechnology that identifies specific genetic markers on a plant's DNA that signal an ability to withstand drought promises to greatly speed that development cycle. Using those genetic markers now makes it possible to examine the usefulness of thousands of genomic regions of a crop's genetic profile under conditions of limited water, a task that took generations and decades under conventional breeding. In addition to that "marker-assisted breeding" that offers a tool for better selection, other biotechnology also permits developers to examine the breeding value of each of the genomic regions of a plant veriety and then piece together genes of several origins in novel ways, which was not possible previously with conventional breeding tools and protocols. Monsanto, for instance, already has a drought-resistant corn variety based on introduction of such "transgenes" in the final stages of commercial development. Published scientific studies suggest that the transgene used could offer from 8 percent to 22 percent yield improvement  under a drought stress that reduces yields of conventional corn by about half--although more recent statements have downplayed these yield gains. Equally important, those yield improvements under drought don't come at the price of yield reductions under normal seasons. It's "drought gene" functions by enhancing the way the plant uses its own genetics to adapt to drought, reducing the stress reaction with which they respond and improving photosynthesis in stress conditions. That stabilized photosynthesis leads to better plant growth , which leads to increased growth of kernels per plant.

Why do pig farmers use gestation crates?The last 45 days have seen a line of announcements by food retailers and quick-service restaurant chains that they would soon begin to deman their pork suppliers phase out the use of "gestation crates," individual stalls in which pregnant and newly delivered sows are housed. Spurred by criticism from animal rights groups that the practice is cruel, Smithfield Foods, the country's largest pork farm, first announced in 2007 it would gradually abandon the practice over a 10-year period. Animal-rights groups have lobbied heavily against the practice, often successfully. Ballot initiatives banning sow stalls have passed in many states, and threat of action has led to voluntary agreements to cease their use in other states and Canada. Although Smithfield had earlier backed off on its promise because it was facing financial hardship, Smithfield President and CEO Larry Pope said the company’s hog operations had converted housing for 30 percent of its sow herd and was now back on track to meet the 2017 goal.

Since March, Wendy's, Burger King, Safeway, Sonic, Denny's, McDonalds, Cracker Barrel and Kroger have all released statements in conjunction with the Washington-based animal-rights group Humane Society of the United States announcing they plan to pressure pork suppliers to abandon the practice.

“Kroger believes that a gestation crate-free environment is more humane and that the pork industry should work toward gestation crate-free housing,” said that company in a press release co-authored in early June with HSUS.

“Kroger’s has taken a very important step for animal welfare in declaring that the pork industry must find an exit strategy for its use of gestation crates,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of  HSUS.

Faced with the continual barrage of negative media fanned by HSUS and other animal-rights advocates, grocers and their customers may rightly ask, if so many people believe the practice of crating pigs is inhumane, why do most farmers still use them?

1. It makes indoor housing practical. First, many critics are correct when they say sow stalls are a result of the indoor housing pig farmers evolved toward in the 1970s and 1980s. However, their criticism doesn’t necessarily mean indoor housing is a bad thing—most farmers moved their pigs indoors because they believed it benefited the animals, as well as the caretakers. Indoor housing made sense because it protected both animals and farmers from weather, predators, parasites, and also because it made animal performance both better and more predictable (Pigs left outdoors typically use about a quarter of the feed they eat just to keep warm in winter, for example.)

Once farmers moved pregnant sows indoors, though, they found the traditional group housing for pregnant sows that sufficed in mud barnyards didn’t work well indoors. So they turned to individual housing as the practical solution.

2. It protects individuals from the animal's natural aggression. Why didn't that group housing work for sows housed indoors? Like people who push and crowd to get on a bus where only a few seats are empty, yet will be relaxed and courteous when they know seats are available, sows will fight, wound, and even kill one another when they think their access to feed is at risk. When farmers move 350- to 550-pound bred sows--which are only normally fed a set amount of feed once daily to control their weight--into indoor group pens, sows begin to anticipate the feed delivery, understand there will only be a set amount to go around, and begin to fight for the lion’s share of it. As a result, weaker sows will be injured, as well as be starved of their allotted feed portion. At the same time, the "boss" sows will eat too much, making them overly fat, which will eventually harm their ability to give birth to and feed a healthy set of baby pigs.

By instead training sows to eat in individual stalls before putting them into groups, farmers are in effect training them that fighting doesn’t earn them any additional feed. Each individual is ensured the correct amount of feed and the ability to eat it in peace and safety.

3. It improves the farmer's ability to manage individual animals. It would be disingenuous not to recognize that individually confining animals does also improve the farmer’s ability to manage them, by making it easier and quicker to give them medications, check their condition, and perform other tasks. However, the additional expense of crating sows (it is more expensive to build individual crates than group-housing pens) likely couldn’t justify those management concerns; the predominant reason is to prevent group fighting. Stalling is a trade-off between full mobility and reassurance of feed.

It works, but is it right?

So the question becomes, is it right or wrong to force these trade-offs on an animal? The late Dr. Stan Curtis, who spent his career at University of Illinois studying questions of how animals think and the effect of modern envorinments on them, believed it was. Before his death last year, Curtis was vocally critical of today’s animal behaviorists who conclude that assessing an animal’s well-being based on the animal’s “feelings” was a valid method of assessing the cruelty of practices like gestation crates.

“As long as we can’t yet measure how a pig feels, let alone measure the depth of any such feeling—which everyone agrees we can’t do—we can only speculate, surmise, analogize and anthropomorphize,” Curtis said. In other words, according to Curtis, what humans feel when they see a sow in a crate speaks only to how that human would feel were that human confined in a crate. It says nothing about how the sow feels. Farming decisions can’t be based on those human feelings. “What we cannot do is know, set thresholds, define limits or draw lines. How then is it reasonable to expect producers to manage pigs on that basis?”

To Curtis and those who follow his thinking, the only accurate measure we have of whether the animal is suffering in a crate is what he called the “Performance Axiom:” The best single set of measurable—and manageable—indicators of an animal’s state of being will be how well it produces and reproduces compared to its predicted potential. “When bodily resources become limited because a pig is in a situation requiring extraordinary adaptation, productive processes will be the first to decrease. We can measure that. Reproductive functions will be next. We can measure that. Maintenance processes, which ensure survival, last. These observed reductions in measurable performance traits are the earliest, most sensitive indicators that a pig’s well-being has been disturbed—much more sensitive than behavioral patterns that may indirectly signify some emotional reaction,” he said.

And the research shows that although both group housing and individual crating have advantages and disadvantages, sows peform as well or better in crates than they do in stalls, as long as both systems are managed well. Paul Sundberg, a veterinarian and vice-president of science and research for the National Pork Board, summed it up well in a Washington Post article. “The key to sow welfare isn't whether they are kept in individual crates or group housing,” he said, “but whether the system used is well managed. "[S]cience tells us that [a sow] doesn't even seem to know that she can't turn ... She wants to eat and feel safe, and she can do that very well in individual stalls."

What do you think about the issue? Leave a comment and get some discussion started with your fellow grocers.

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Celebrity Chef Jamie Oliver mistakes a common, safe food processing agent with household cleaner

File this one under the No Good Deed Goes Unpunished department: When it first developed the process to treat ground beef with trace levels of ammonia hydroxide to help abate the seemingly intractable problem of E. coli contamination in that staple product, Beef Products Inc.’s process was considered groundbreaking. The South Dakota company has been credited in large part with helping reduce the incidence the U.S. Food Safety & Inspection Service found of E. coli positives in ground beef samples from 4.5 per thousand in 2009 to 0.8 per thousand in 2011.

Little wonder, then, that many in the ground beef business began a concerted push-back after McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell staged high-profile announcements in December announcing those chains would no longer purchase the company’s beef trimming products that one former FSIS employee hung with the catchy name “pink slime.”

Why do farmers use anhydrous ammonia?

If it's spring, it must be meth season.

Recent news reports about illegal labs manufacturing the drug methamphetamine from Fairbury, Waverly and others have raised the perrennial question: If illegal methamphetamine labs make such ready use of the common crop fertilizer anhydrous ammonia, why do farmers continue to make it their most popular source of crop nutrients?

If consumers really want to go green, they should welcome the use of today's animal technologies like antibiotic feed additives.

Critics of modern farming technology, such as the 2008 Pew Commission on Industrial Animal Production, often condemn the use of antibiotic feed additives by livestock and poultry farmers. Feed additives are tiny amounts (typically the equivalent of about four single serving sweetener packets in 2,000 pounds of animal feed) of antibiotics, which improve the animal's health and in many cases make its digestion function better. Despite their use for nearly 60 years for this purpose, critics attack them as not environmentally sustainable. In fact, raising farm animals without antibiotics has now become a common food marketing ploy, often promoted as the green, economically sustainable choice.

But when held up to the light, those claims reveal their inherent logical flaw: As long as consumers insist on consuming meat, milk and eggs at anywhere near current levels, the only thing that removing antibiotic feed additives from the system accomplishes is to make the system less efficient. And when the system becomes less efficient, it becomes more wasteful of natural resources. Not only is that wasteful from an economic standpoint (arguing that reduced farm efficiency provides an economic boost because it employs more farmers is as illogical as arguing that a grocer’s shrinkage is a boon because it creates jobs for the garbage collector), but it's also environmentally wasteful. Australian veterinary consultant Stephen Page, from University of Sydney’s Veterinary School, reviewed over 2,000 global scientific studies, concluding that the use of low levels of common antibiotic additives in livestock and poultry feed ultimately helps improve the environment via numerous avenues. (Click the image for a full size version in Adobe Acrobat format)

Details on why feed additives help the environment 


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The farm and ranch families represented by Nebraska Farm Bureau are proud sponsors of the Farmer Goes to Market program. We take great pride in supporting Nebraska's agricultural foundation. A key part of that effort is to make sure we produce safe and affordable food. This newsletter is an important part of our effort to connect the two most important parts of the food chain -- the farmer and the grocer -- with the goal of increasing consumer awareness and information about how their food is raised in Nebraska.

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The Nebraska Corn Board, on behalf of 23,000 corn farmers in Nebraska, invests in market development, research, promotion and education of corn and value-added products. The board aims to work closely with the farmer-to-consumer food chain, to educate everyone about the role corn has in our everyday healthy lives. The Nebraska Corn Board is proud to sponsor the Farmer Goes to Market program to help bring its mission of expanding demand and value of Nebraska corn to the consumer, through the strongest touch point in that chain: the Nebraska retail grocer.

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