Thursday, January 11, 2018

Sensors and CRISPR driving productivity and sustainability

This edible sensor could reveal what our gut microbes are up to

“Wouldn’t it be nice if our microbiomes could serve up diet advice—some science-based assurance that our food and medicines act in harmony with our resident microbes to keep us healthy? For that to happen, scientists will need to better understand how the interaction between food and microbes affects the chemical composition of our guts.” - Science

Think of how this could be used to optimize rations in livestock!

Engineers make wearable sensors for plants, enabling measurements of water use in crops

More precise and never before possible measures of phenotype through sensors can aid genetic improvements....also "The technology could "open a new route" for a wide variety of applications, the authors wrote in their paper, including sensors for biomedical diagnostics, for checking the structural integrity of buildings, for monitoring the environment" - Science Daily

Meet the Woman Using CRISPR to Breed All-Male “Terminator Cattle”

"Van Eenennaam, in fact, got the funding for the cattle project from a U.S. Department of Agriculture program looking at the potential hazards of gene-modified organisms. The department wants ways to sterilize GM organisms, including catfish and poplar trees, so their DNA modifications don’t spread to wild relatives."

"Van Eenennaam’s long-term goal is to make beef production more efficient. Males yield more meat than females and don’t get pregnant or go into heat. She thinks the ersatz males should be about 15 percent more efficient at turning grass and grain into muscle than females."

See also:

Consumers are wising up to misleading food labels

Nice piece in the Washington Post: Savvier shoppers see through misleading food labels. Here’s how. 

"Companies advertise what’s “not” in their foods to exploit the knowledge gap that consumers have. It’s natural for a shopper to assume if a food “does not contain” something, that’s a good thing (even if they have no idea what it means). Marketers prey on consumer vulnerabilities, then charge a premium for products that never contained that “evil” ingredient in the first place."

See also: Food with Integrity is Catching On

Sunday, December 31, 2017

CRISPR 2.0 Not Your Father's GMOs - How CRISPR is different

CRISPR ISN’T ENOUGH ANY MORE. GET READY FOR GENE EDITING 2.0  - Wired "Usually, when we’ve referred to Crispr, we’ve really meant Crispr/Cas9—a riboprotein complex composed of a short strand of RNA and an efficient DNA-cutting enzyme. It did for biology and medicine what the Model T did for manufacturing and transportation; democratizing access to a revolutionary technology and disrupting the status quo in the process….But like the Model T, Crispr Classic is somewhat clunky, unreliable, and a bit dangerous. It can’t bind to just any place in the genome. It sometimes cuts in the wrong places. And it has no off-switch. If the Model T was prone to overheating, Crispr Classic is prone to overeating."

These are not your father's GMOs - MIT Technology Review - some good info in this article. For one thing it explains (indirectly) how CRISPR is different from previous GE food technologies both in terms of technique and application.

Due to the fact that it is so much like other 'unregulated' crop improvement techniques (like mutagenesis) the costs of bringing this to market are much less:

"It’s counting on that to cut at least half the 13 years and $130 million that companies have, on average, invested in order to create a new GMO and get it into farmers’ hands"

The applications are also ripe for making food healthier:

Marketing “healthier” food made from GMOs has been a taller order. But if gene-edited plants can avoid the stigma of GMOs, that could change.

But there are some criticisms, that seem unfounded and hypocritical:

"To the critics, any attempt to reclassify engineered plants as natural is a dangerous fiction. “If they don’t have to go through the regulatory requirements, then it is game on again for genetic modification in agriculture,” says Jim Thomas, head of a nonprofit called the ETC Group that lobbies on environmental issues. “That is the prize. They are constructing a definition of a GMO so that gene editing falls outside it....Some organic associations have already said such plants cannot carry that label, reasoning that they really are GMOs."

I am not sure anyone is constructing a definition of GMO that is any different than the one the organic food lobby applies to mutagenesis in their own certification.

Whole Eggs, CRISPR, and GMOs

Whole Eggs Better than Whites for Muscle Growth - Feedstuffs -A recent study that seems to find when it comes to eggs consuming protein 'in its natural matrix' gives better post workout muscle growth vs. eating an equivalent level of protein from egg whites alone:

Avoiding GMOs isn’t just anti-science. It’s immoral. - Washington Post

Some good points made here:

"If you’re an academic, you can tell yourself that, sooner or later, the science will prevail. If you’re from the world of commerce, you justify your silence (or complicity) by saying that you aren’t in business to argue with customers. If you’re a regulatory bureaucrat, you worry that you will be drawn and quartered for any mistake, whereas no one is ever held accountable for the miracle that never makes it to the marketplace."

Some Farmers Still Don't Trust CRISPR, Thanks to GMOs​ - Motherboard

“I have a hard time, ethically, with the patenting of life,” he says, “and how that impacts farmer innovation and their ability to advance.”… “I think there’s a lot of controversy over whether farmers are driving for these technologies or whether these technologies are manipulating farmers,” he says. “I think you’ll get answers on both sides of that issue.” Wright agrees. “I definitely think that is a concern,” he says. “I don't think farmers are driving those decisions at all. I think the large companies that produce these technologies are driving those technologies hard.”

But are critics equally concerned with patenting of life related to so called 'non-gmo' tech, like mutagenesis? I think the answer is either NO or if they are then the media/publishers are not interested in hearing those criticisms.

“I just don’t see it as the panacea that many people in the technology industry seem to think it is,” he says. Willey stresses that the impacts agriculture has on the natural resource base are massive and no single technology is going to solve that. “It’s not about coming up with one or two CRISPR products,” he says, “it’s about looking at the whole approach to the ecology around agriculture"

That seems very agreeable. It seems like gene editing still targets one or a few genes, and there is a lot of additional genetic variation to be exploited by other genomic approaches that involve data science and discovery (like molecular/marker assisted breathing). Again its the convergence of big data and genomics.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Bridging the Gap Between People and Farmers - why agvocacy and science communication matters


The gulf between farmers and the people they feed is getting dangerously wide | Financial Post:

"realizing that without advocacy a generation that doesn’t know about food production has the power to make running a farm operation nearly impossible.If nothing is done to close this gap and the logic pounding away at this wedge is taken to its limits, farmers will continue to see an increase in agriculture-related policies and laws that have no grounding in the way things really are outside of Canada’s cities; farmers will feel more and more pressure to justify what they do to an audience seemingly oblivious to the fact that farms produce food; farmers will be forced to continue finding ways to diversify and stay afloat while government and other risk-management supports crumble; and more and more cultivated land will be forfeited to development."

Really good points. This is why agvocacy matters. Its not about 'being right on the internet' or dominating a twitter feed. This is also why those interested in the 'free market' need to stay tuned. As food companies voluntarily put out 'free-from' labels and engage in other questionable marketing practices they are nurturing an environment and sentiment that can be energized to pass technologically restrictive laws - that have no grounding in the way things really are - ultimately increasing risk, reducing food security and sustainability on a national and global scale.

This is also challenging in light of research that indicates the challenges of science communication. See: Polarization of Controversial Science and Limitations of Science Literacy

Monday, December 18, 2017

Food and Farm Bill of Rights Stereotypes Modern Ag and Family Farms

In a recent Forbes article related to food trends that will shape 2018 one trend that stood out to me was #9, Politics and Food:

"Among the most troubling political moves to food businesses has been the country's withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement…There are two important focused efforts that will impact our food world in 2018. The first is the San Francisco ordinance that requires retailers to report antibiotic use by meat and poultry suppliers…this ordinance could also expand across the country.The second is the Farm Bill that will set in place eating and farming policy for a five-year period."

This is interesting given the political polarization we have seen with food preferences and beliefs.  The article also references democratic representative Earl Blumenauer's "Fight for Food" and "Food and Farm Bill of Rights." 

For instance in discussing the farm bill his web site states:

“The current Farm Bill provides little help to most American farmers and ranchers. 94% of all Farm Bill subsidy payments go to a few large-scale corporate farms that produce corn, rice, wheat, soy, cotton, and peanuts. These payments do little to support local food systems and growers. The result is that, we are paying the wrong people to grow the wrong things in the wrong places.”

“It's time for a better Food and Farm Bill that provides more Americans with healthy, locally grown food; that promotes sustainable farming practices; that reduces our impact on the environment; and that builds an economy around local farmers--not massive, corporations.”

We've seen this distorted view of subsidy payments before (see Four Big Questions about Big Ag, Subsidies, and Food ) ...and it overlooks the fact that these products are subsidized because that is what we eat vs. the other way around. It is also interesting that this language calls out "growing the wrong thing in the wrong places" yet in other places seems to favor subsidizing local production which would be contrary to comparative advantage as well as less sustainable. There is a lot here that may be hard to take issue with, but careful reading seems to put America's family farmers on defense.

The 2nd amendment in the Food and Farm Bill of Rights states: "Americans have a right to local supplies of fresh, healthy food, not subsidized food that makes them sick...Instead, the Farm Bill supports industrial meat production and processed foods that pose problems for human health and the environment."

This is some combination of ignorance of agricultural policy and production, hyperbole, and condescension. The causal connection between subsidized food and making people sick is tenuous at best. (a good read related to this is Tamar Haspel's recent article "Junk food is cheap and healthful food is expensive, but don’t blame the farm bill.")

Further the 6th amendment states: "Americans have a right to a healthy natural environment, and to a farm policy that does not exacerbate climate change...Our food and farm policies should reduce the emission of greenhouse gases from animal production, tilling practices, and crop selection, while minimizing energy demands.”

OK I agree but what do they have in mind? We've already pointed out the potentially conflicting goals of supporting local food and sustainability. And it is a fact that the current subsidies they are so critical of (like crop insurance) are for crops that are nearly all genetically modified and associated with sustainable practices like crop rotation, reduced tillage, improved biodiversity, as well as reduced emissions. 

For the most part this is just a recycling of myths and stereotypes about modern agriculture to garner support from the usual critics. This campaign feeds these stereotypes and appears to provide them legitimacy that may eventually lead to policies that hurt family farmers as well as ultimately the environment and the future sustainability of agriculture.

See also:

 Sustainably Feeding the World: Organic Food and Vegetables vs Conventional Commodities.

Agricultural Intensification and the Environment

The Cult of Statistical bacon is not really as bad or worse than cigarettes!

Technical Efficiency, Yields, and Livestock Energy Conversion

What is the Most Effective Way to Mitigate Climate Change

Friday, December 8, 2017

Updated Hypothetical Yield, Price, and Revenue Projections for December Corn

***This commentary is provided for descriptive and entertainment purposes only and is not intended to be used for specific trading strategies or interpreted to be investment advice. *****  

Last September I wrote:

"My basic projections based on this data implies that to get any where near $4/bu, taking all other USDA estimates on usage and harvested acres, corn yields need to be in the 163-164 bu/acre range. More complicated estimates and some adjustments with the usage numbers may be a little friendlier."

September WASDE November
Projected Yield: 169.9 167 163.5 175.4 175.4
Projected Stocks to Use: 16.40% 14.70% 12.65% 19.62% 17.23%
Projected Price: 3.36 3.62 4.04 2.95 3.24

But those price projections were based on what seemed to be the loudest voices in the markets thinking that national corn yields would likely be somewhere less than 170 bushels/acre largely because of uncertainty of yields and variation due to late planting, as well as diminishing crop conditions. For example, from the Aug 21 crop conditions report:

      State     : Very poor :   Poor    :   Fair    :   Good    : Excellent 
                :                          percent                          
Colorado .......:     -           3          16          71          10     
Illinois .......:     4          10          32          42          12     
Indiana ........:     5          12          30          42          11     
Iowa ...........:     3           9          27          51          10     
Kansas .........:     4          10          29          43          14     
Kentucky .......:     1           3          19          61          16     
Michigan .......:     2          10          32          45          11     
Minnesota ......:     1           2          15          65          17     
Missouri .......:     3           6          30          50          11     
Nebraska .......:     3          10          24          45          18     
North Carolina .:     1           6          21          51          21     
North Dakota ...:     6          11          33          45           5     
Ohio ...........:     2           7          31          45          15     
Pennsylvania ...:     -           1           7          45          47     
South Dakota ...:     9          18          31          40           2     
Tennessee ......:     -           2          12          51          35     
Texas ..........:     -           3          18          57          22     
Wisconsin ......:     2           7          20          50          21     
18 States ......:     3           9          26          48          14     
Previous week ..:     3           9          26          49          13     
Previous year ..:     2           5          18          54          21     

Overall good to excellent was about 62% compared to 75% the previous year. (I'll point out that KY corn crops were exceptional with 71% at good to excellent).

So my price projections back in September were capped out based 169.9 yields which I thought at the time was the most conservative/pessimistic projection. Then came the October report with the 171.8 bushel per acre estimate and the most recent November 175.4 shocker. So above I have my price projections with this yield, first based on the September report numbers backing the stocks to use estimate ($2.95/but yikes) and then with the updated November numbers. Were it not for the changes in use (depicted below) prices could be even worse. With today's Dec 17 futures at $3.40 and and RSI at 45 (and bouncing around the 40's since September) it doesn't indicate oversold. With a naive nearest neighbor estimate based on last year's stock's to use we have an upper bound around $3.45. Looking out at March $3.52 and May futures at $3.61 looks like what you see is what you get with the December contract.

U.S. Corn Balance Sheet 2017-18 2017-18

Item September November Change

Planted Acreage (million acres) 90.9 90.4 -0.5
Harvested Acreage 83.5 83.1 -0.4
Yield (Bushels/Acre) 169.9 175.4 5.5
Beginning Stocks (million bushels) 2,350 2,295 -55
Total Production 14,184 14,578 394
Imports 50 50 0
Total Supply 16,585 16,922 337


Feed and Residual (million bushels) 5,475 5,575 100
Ethanol (5,500)

Other Food, Seed, and Industrial 6,925 6,935 10
Exports 1,850 1,925 75
Total Consumption 14,250 14,435 185

Ending Stocks (million bushels) 2,335 2,487 152
Ending Stocks/Total Consumption (%) 16.39% 17.23% 0.84%

2017 Stocks to Use: 17.23%

Projected Price: 3.1538087981

Projected Price (power): 3.2414480127

NN Estimate: 3.45

*data pulled from: 

So where does this leave my revenue projections from back in September?
Lets look more at the assumptions I made back in September:
Costs, Revenues, and Returns Per Acre
Total Variable Costs $400.00
Fixed Costs $75.00
Total Operating Costs $475.00
Land $175.00
Total Land and Operation Costs $650.00
Yield 175
Price $3.40
Total Revenue $595.00
Returns/A -$55.00

Farm Level Costs, Revenues and Returns
Total Acres: 2,000

Total Revenue: $1,190,000.00
Total Costs: $1,300,000.00

Total Return to Labor -$110,000.00
And here are the updated scenarios:

September Nov (A) Nov (B) Nov(C)
Projected National Yield: 169.9 175.4 175.4 175.4
Projected Stocks to Use: 16.40% 17.23% 17.23% 17.23
Projected Price: 3.36 3.24 3.4* 3.4*
Return to Labor: $44,000.00 -$4,000.00 $60,000.00 -$110,000.00
The September, and November scenarios A and B are based on 200 on farm bushel per acre yields with projected and current (*) market prices while scenario C assumes the national average being the on farm yield at current (*) market prices. It is easy to see how much yield matters here. The price projections are all based on this. (or costs for that matter).

Per my last update, these numbers only reflect current prices and hypothetical production costs. My next update will look at how different marketing scenarios could have impacted revenues and returns.

***This commentary is provided for descriptive and entertainment purposes only and is not intended to be used for specific trading strategies or interpreted to be investment advice. *****