INFORMATION-BASED FARMING

Stuart Brown browns at ccu.umanitoba.ca
Fri Sep 11 11:29:16 EST 1992


I found Steve Modena's discourse on Information-Based Farming quite interesting.
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 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. 

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.

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
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
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 
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.

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
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.

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 sold as high cost inputs and contain a
narrow gentic base.

I like the idea of using bionet for these deeper debates, rather than always
focusing on narrow methodological questions.  Which is not to say that the
facutal question/answer function is not valuable too.  Its just that I've been
at so many seminars where all of the questions were about "How?" and no one
ever asked "Why?" or Where will this lead?"

	Cheers  -Stu


-- 
Stuart M. Brown                             If you can remain cool when all 
U. of Manitoba, Dept. Plant Science         Around you are in panic,
Winnipeg, Manitoba, CANADA
browns at ccu.umanitoba.ca            Then you surely misunderstand the situation



More information about the Plantbio mailing list