INFORMATION-BASED FARMING

S. A. Modena samodena at csemail.cropsci.ncsu.edu
Sat Sep 12 03:01:43 EST 1992


In article <1992Sep11.162916.3759 at ccu.umanitoba.ca> browns at ccu.umanitoba.ca (Stuart Brown) writes:
>I found Steve Modena's discourse on Information-Based Farming quite interesting.
Thank you.

>However, I do not think that this type of pragmatic "forget the philosophy, its
>a high-tech competitive world out there" approach adequately addresses the very
>real issues raised by Ricardo.  

I'd never say "forget the philosophy."  I'd just say: "It a high tech
world out there and *ignoring* that is a death sentence to your way of life."
So then the question becomes: looking to the past, the now and guessing about
the feature, how can we rise to the occasion?  Got any ideas besides "it
it ain't broke, don't try fixing it."

As an auto mechanic ( yes, auto mechanic Steve supported alter ego grad
student Steve ), I learned that *all* things wear out or break.

>
>I am "just" a Plant Molecular Biologist, so I don't have a lot of professional
>standing from which to pontificate on Agro-informatics or the Social Justice
>aspects of Agricultural Economics, but I do think about these things quite a
>lot. 

Well, you can't be talking about me, I'm a generalist.  :^)

>
>For example, some of the first genetically engineered plants that will
>become commercially available will be herbicide resistant varieties.  This is
>clearly a contentious issue between the pragmatists and the Social Justice
>types. These resistant varietites will be sold at a premium price in a package
>with the herbicide that they resist.  The net effect will be a slight increase
>in yield with a higher net input cost (big research dollars must be recovered
>from profits).  Very large scale farmers will achieve some benefit from the
>economy of scale while smaller farmers will either benefit less from the input
>to yield ratio, or else forgo the yield increase and avoid the engineered seed.

Actually, there's another way to express this last bit.  Almost everywhere,
there are weeds.  Weeds compete with the crop and final yield is/will be
lowered.  Finding a way to control ambient weeds leads to yield recovery
(which is conceptually different than "increased yield").

I'd suggest that the difference between a small and a large producer in
an agriculturally intensive region is in credit standing and debt load,
which leads back directly to management ability.  Weather spoils the
fortunes of big and small alike, and likewise poor management skills
really rips you bad, big and small.  The big boy has his own sprayer
and the small boy contracts his neighbor who is expanding and wants to
defray the cost of his loan by selling the use of otherwise idle
equipment.

>
>The net result of applying this new technology to agriculture will be a slight
>yield increase and a greater consolidation of agricultural production.  I also

Consolidation is already under way.  Because of technology and good
agricultural/financial skills of some producers, an operator may be
tending more land than he owns.  Let's say that I want to put another
2,000 acres into production: there is no way I can put up the money for
a purchase like that.  So I look around the county and visit with widows
who know my family going way back.  I strike a deal with this owner of
fallow land (her husband is dead and the sons and daughters headed to
Raleigh for another style of life and never looked back).  

For some money up front and for a share of the net *profit*, the
widow lets me tend soybeans on *her* land.  Now, the
widow can: 1) pay the taxes on the land, 2) have some cash income to
supplement SS and 3) not be *forced* by the kids and the banks to move
into a retirement home to die early.  This is known as "consolidation"
and this scenario is not uncommon.  Yes, there are social benefits to
consolidations.

>have some worries about the long term ecological soundness of this strategy.
>First, resistance to the herbicide will develop in weed species at a rate 
>proportional to the acreage sprayed with the herbicide.  Second, there may be

     This is/has already happened and is in the ag management and plant 
physiology literature.

>an incentive to use higher herbicide doses when planting a known resitant crop
>variety - also less worries about carryover in the soil. Third, since the 

Proper education conveying scientific facts about the efficacy are the
counter balance to blindly "putting on more."  All, repeat *all* herbicide
inventors are driving hard to *minimal* chemical application.  The price of
a herbicide is related to market positioning and yield recovery (see above)
and *not* to encouraging "spray more."  Post emergergence herbicides are
applied at the rate of 0.33 to 1.75 PINTS-per-ACRE for liquids and up
to 2 OZ-per-ACRE for solids.  So weight 30 grams of salt and go 
distribute it (as an aqueous solution) over an acre lawn...then
come back and lick the grass: can you taste the salt ?  :^)

>genetic engineering necessary to produce resistant crop varieties is costly,
>only one (or a very few) varieties of a given crop are likely to be produced
>with this resistance, so if this is widely accepted, then the germplasm base
>present in the fields will be very narrow.  Huge acreage planted to a single 
>variety is an ideal situation for a disease epidemic.

Well, this might be your approach, but seed companies like Pioneer Hi-bred
International are more sophisticated and pragmatic than to encourage
this sort of practice.

In fact, it's the small seed producer that buys generic hybrids made from
public elite inbreds from foundation seed companies, that can make your
senario come true.  Every garage operator is bagging up B73 x Mo17 (or
whatever is most popular now) under his own label.

Have you looked at how many lines Pioneer offers for a given geographic
region?  Are they carbon copies, differing by one gene?  I don't think
so. 

> 
>Anyway, I'd like to see new tecnologies of genetics and information sciences 
>used to stabilize agriculture and help small farmers at least as much as large 

Have the small farmers organized themselves *effectively* and *long-lastingly*
to stabilize or advance themselves?  Have the large producers done it?
Who are the policy makers and the influencial movers-and-shakers?
Who *listens* to whom...and why?

I'm not convinced that the average producer is engaged enough and I'd
like to see much, much more outspokeness.....if my way-of-life and
livelihood were at stake, I'd relentlessly pursue all those people who
*claim* to be working in my best interests but not appearing to help
me at all.  This is America: I have the right to life, liberty and the
pursuit of happiness.....but *I* must do it, and not think the UPS man will
drop it at my doorstep tomorrow morning.

>ones. Perhaps you economists and theorists can come up with some ways that 
>these technologies can be used to increase profits by lowering input costs
>rather than raising them.  And perhaps we need to think of ways to fund
>agricultural research that do not require huge profits to be made from the sale
>of farm inputs in order to recover development costs.

Well, are they doing it in Canada?  Do you have a model for us to consider? 

Is it the lack of funding?  Where does funding come from?  Who sets policy
on funding? Who decides who will receive funding?  How is it determined
where and by whom certain research will be done?  Can you show me that
the criteria will lead to the selection of the most suited researcher/location?
Is there already *too* much research?  Does *that* drive higher input
costs?  Are input costs increasing because of regulatory muddle?  Who
is creating regulatory muddle?  If regulatory onus can assure a safe
environment, are higher input costs worth it? 

One of the *cleanest* inputs for productivity stabilization or gain that
I can think of is *genetic* improvement.  Not DNA splicing, but straight
out germplasm manipluation and evaluation.  For example, maize is 1/5 th
as susceptible to yield reduction from weeds than are soybeans.  Part of
that is due to the genetic potential of Corn Belt hybrids: they rapidly
outgrow and shade out weeds.  Their root masses is like a broad carpet
and weeds just can't compete for light and nutrients.  

How can we step up those characteristics in soybeans?  What is the
cost of genetic improvement, is there germplasm available with the
potential, what time scale can we afford for the search, how much are
you willing to *tax* yourself to do this (remember: we are cutting out
private effort fuelled by the return-on-investment potential)?

Is this complex or what?  Can you believe that plant improvement and
agriculture can be so complex?  

Which is more challenging: basic biological/plant research or technology
transfer?  If you are in the first, do you know anyhting about the
second?  If you don't know the second (technology transfer), can you
be sure that you will do the first (basic plant research) correctly or
adequately?

>
>I'm personally interested in engineering disease and insect resistance in 
>order to reduce pesticde use and increse the stability of yield - but I do worry
>that these engineered plants will be so


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