Saturday, January 4, 2014

Musings: Swan Song

A crescent moon brightens in a western sky draining gold as the cacophony of fighting roosters quiets to a dull roar that with darkness will become silence, broken by chirping crickets and river song.

I'm not into pop songs, but the headline Kansas Farmer has New Internet Hit with Miley Cyrus Parody caught my eye when I linked to the AgWeb site, intending to read USDA Opens Door to New Herbicide-Resistant Seeds.”

It was another example of how farmers are taking to social media, talk shows and the lecture circuit to add their voices to the growing din about agriculture — a trend I'd read about in a series of articles in Acres USA.

Small dairy farmers in western New York spoke at foodie conventions in Manhattan to make urban “locavores” aware of their existence. Other farmers have joined Twitter and Facebook to share the farm experience. The Peterson Farm Bros reinforce the message of God-loving family farmers working their asses off to “grow your food” in viral music video parodies like “I'm Farming and I Grow It,” “Chore" and “Farmer Style.”  

Sample lyrics: "Without the farmers working we would all be starving. Do you hear what I'm saying?" "Gotta feed everybody, gotta feed everybody." And "Agriculture is so important to me and it should be to you."

Though farmers are late to a public relations frenzy already dominated by anti-GMO activists and chemical/seed companies, that freshness may give them an edge. Americans are always hungry for something new to devour, and they may be getting indigestion from the ongoing bickering over GMOs.

And according to a front page New York Times article that uses Hawaii Island's anti-GMO bill as a case study, that argument won't be settled anytime soon. The piece, which follows Councilman Greggor Ilagan through his decision to ultimately vote against the bill, emphasizes the debate between scientists and lay people over the safety of GMOs.

What it ultimately comes down to is we don't know the answers to many of the questions being raised about GMOs, and even if we did, it's unlikely they'd be fully accepted by either side, seeing as how distrust is so rampant.

But some things are known, like many weeds are becoming resistant to glyphosate, the world's most popular herbicide. As you may recall, the chemical companies began by genetically engineering crops to withstand direct applications of glyphosate and other herbicides. But the weeds have adapted, prompting the chem companies to offer farmers a different mix of herbicides — and GE seeds to handle them.

Which brings us back to the AgWeb article on how Dow is seeking federal approval for its Enlist corn and soy seeds, which can withstand applicants of 2,4-D, as well as glyphosate and other herbicides. It went on to report:

Currently, the seeds, which have been under USDA review for several years, can only be used in tightly controlled field trials. USDA on Friday recommended full deregulation of corn and soybean traits.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency, which is conducting its own review of 2,4-D, will release its report in the coming months.

Today’s announcement came as something of a surprise given that last May, USDA announced that it would require a more stringent environmental review of Enlist crops waiting for market approval.

The draft EIS — prepared by the USDA — acknowledged that 2,4-D-resistant weeds could cause a new set of problems:

As noted above, 2,4-D is already the third most widely used herbicide in the United States. Among agricultural uses, 2,4-D is widely used for weed control on small grains (wheat, barley, oats, and sorghum) and orchards. If 2,4-D resistant weeds become more prevalent as a result of its use on Enlist™ corn and soybean, growers of these other crops that rely on 2,4-D for weed control may need to modify management practices to control weeds that become resistant to 2,4-D. The management changes would increase the complexity and cost of weed management programs for these growers. Growers most likely to be affected include those who grow small grains.
The EIS also pointed out that farmers aren't the only ones using it:
2,4-D is an active ingredient in hundreds of herbicide formulations and is commonly found in lawn care products (for example Scotts® Turf Builder® Weed and Feed) and widely available to consumers at retail outlets and home and garden centers.
Ultimately, the USDA determined:
While the selection pressure for 2,4-D resistant weeds is expected to be greater under the Preferred Alternative, the selection pressure for GR weeds is expected to be greater under the No Action Alternative. This is because the Enlist™ cropping system decreases grower reliance on glyphosate by including an additional type of herbicide in the weed management system.
In other words, the Roundup-resistant weeds will win for sure if they don't up the ante, which will inevitably lead to yet another re-upping of the ante, and another and another — in our yards, and in the fields.
And we know we can't keep doing that, because we know pesticides aren't good for people and the planet. We also know the population is growing, and the planet is undergoing dramatic climate changes that are going to affect food production.
It's a critical time for agriculture, and the civilization it has created.
And in a perfect expression of America today, we're responding with bitter discord and PR campaigns — a pop parody of a swan song.


Anonymous said...

Enlist™ corn and soybean, BORN and RAISED on Kauai.

Anonymous said...

Less than 2% of people in US farm. And those that do are getting old. Very few people understand it or the complicated issues. It is a complex and moving target. I think farmers are getting tired of getting beat up and many things are out of their control like weather, interest rates, crop prices. For example there is no farm bill in place yet farmers have to plan a year ahead. Most try to do the right thing, but the risk is huge. Farmers would like to raise other crops, but the govt focus has been on corn and beans.

There was a good special on PBS about the farm crisis late 70's. It is good to watch since that was how the big corporate farms came into existence. Most farmers never forgot going thru that.

Anonymous said...

Big Farms grow and control the world's food supply. Many smaller farms (Mainland) are used as hunting clubs. Big Farms are raising more food on less land, using technology. People are living longer and are healthier. Farmers (big and little) have been working hand in hand with technology since the first irrigation systems were used in Egypt. Today the fad (allowed by the comfort and wealth of a steady food supply) is "everything that is big is bad"....There is a continual search for balance, but the reality is money has always been the key since civilization.
On a positive chord, soon the World can be at peace and be positive on all ramifications of Herbicides and Food supply, once our County Council gets done with their superlative study on all things GMO and poison. BTW- fact #1 on health, more lives have been saved (and continue to be saved) by the simple infusion of Sodium hypochlorite (bleach) into drinking water than any medicine or vaccine. OMG- you mean to tell me that very dangerous and toxic bleach saved the world from cholera, dysentery and every other water born ailment.....gag me with a coke spoon, call up the Hooserites and end this poison being forced upon us....

Anonymous said...

And one day, when the only "food" producers left are an oligarchy of 5 or six soul free corporations, we should all be grateful.

Maybe the GMO is bad for people, maybe not. My mind is open. But please 9:01, don't try to convince us that your factory model Corpo farm is anything but another form of profiting from the useless eaters (as Henry Kissinger once called the 99%).

Should society allow them the freedom to plant GMO foods? Maybe - watched very closely.

Should we believe they are altruistic and loving family farming corporations that care about our health and world hunger…. oh paleease.

Anonymous said...

Those farm videos were cute and a good idea. I had never seen farm operations before. Most people probably haven't.

Anonymous said...

Joan, do you know anything about Act 113, which allows Agriculturally zoned land the right to Agricultural Based Commercial Operations. It was passed at the state level a few years ago, but was never covered by the local Kauai papers, and the scope of the operation is yet to be defined in detail at the County level. I think we should be discussing the possibilities of transforming our local farms into economic engines that allow full commercial operations. The Act empowers the local agricultural land to process and sell on site. The possibilities are endless and greatly increase the value of our local farming community.

Anonymous said...

You seem to imply that agricultural systems are exempt from natural biological phenomenon. I find this curious. The idea of an "arms race" is well established in academic ecology and evolutionary biology (The Red Queen Hypothesis). It should not surprise anyone that this idea also would apply to highly managed ecosystems like farm fields. Resistance to herbicides is not unique to glyphosate nor to genetically modified traits (1). Whether or not Enlist is approved, our crops - and by extension we humans - are and forever will be in an arms race against pests seeking to outcompete us for resources. The question is whether we want to a priori close off certain strategies for dealing with this reality of nature.

1) Gilbert, N. Nature. 497:24–26.02 May 2013. doi:10.1038/497024a

Congratulations! You hit 4 out of 10!

Anonymous said...

Joan, I think you should do a bit more research on weed and insect resistance. These have been agricultural issues long before gm crops, for centuries actually. I appreciate your willingness to call a spade a spade but you missed the big picture on this one. Blaming resistance solely on gm traits is a BAB move, we know you don't want that.