Tag: agriculture

Clayton Yeutter, RIP

After a long battle with cancer, Ambassador Clayton Yeutter passed away on Saturday at the age of 86 at his home in Potomac, Maryland. With his passing, the world parts not only with a brilliant, effective, accomplished leader, but an extraordinarily generous, decent man whose enduring kindness and humble demeanor made politics and policymaking in Washington more tolerable for all involved.

Clayton Yeutter had a long an illustrious career spent in both the private and public sectors, as well as in academia, but he is probably best known for his service during the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

As Reagan’s U.S. Trade Representative from 1985 to 1989, Ambassador Yeutter presided over implementation of the very first U.S. bilateral free trade agreement (with Israel) and he launched and oversaw negotiation of the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement, which evolved into the North American Free Trade Agreement, to include Mexico, in 1994.

As USTR, Ambassador Yeutter also launched and advanced the “Uruguay Round” of multilateral trade negotiations in 1986, under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which resulted in broader and deeper reductions in global barriers to trade than had previously been achieved, and it established the World Trade Organization in 1995.

During the first two years of the George H.W. Bush administration (1989-91), Yeutter served as Secretary of Agriculture, where he was instrumental in steering U.S. agricultural policy back to a more market orientation, from which it had deviated in the mid-1980s. The 1990 farm bill (The Food, Agriculture, Conservation, and Trade Act of 1990) included reductions in agricultural subsidies that were negotiated during the Uruguay Round.

Yeutter held other high-profile positions, including an eight-year stint as President and CEO of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange—a period during which the volume of trade in agricultural, currency, and interest rate futures more than tripled. He served as Republican National Committee Chairman for two years, following the death of Lee Atwater.

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Is Hydroponic Farming Organic? Why Should Government Care?

Each time the government defines the characteristics of an acceptable product, some competition in the market is lost. The New York Times published an article on Wednesday that illustrates this perfectly.

The 1990 Organic Foods Production Act instructs the Department of Agriculture to set up a process for certifying food as organic. As part of that certification, organic farmers develop organic plans that “contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation and manuring.”

Should plants grown hydroponically be allowed under an organic plan? Hydroponic farming does not use soil, but instead uses nutrient-rich water. The futuristic technique is intended to be environmentally friendly and healthful—the same intention as organic farming. Yet in 2010 the National Organic Standards Board recommended to the secretary of agriculture that hydroponically grown plants be ruled ineligible for organic designation. The secretary of agriculture never acted on the recommendation.

David Chapman, an organic farmer in Vermont who has been a leader of the opposition to certifying produce from the hydroponic systems, said he would be driven out of business if the Department of Agriculture declared hydroponically grown tomatoes could be certified as organic. “Most people have no idea that the organic tomatoes and peppers they’re buying are hydroponically grown,” Chapman said. “I think most consumers believe those things are grown in the soil, and that farmers like me are taking care of the soil as they grow them.”

Colin Archipley, a hydroponic farmer in San Diego, is frustrated that there is even a debate over whether his produce is organic. “The reason this has become such a big deal is that systems like ours are becoming more popular because they’re more efficient, which means farmers are more sustainable and profitable,” he said. “That’s put competition on farmers, specifically in Vermont, and so what this really is about is market protection.”

The founders of our country understood that government should not arbitrate the struggles among competing religions and certify one rather than the others as state-sanctioned. Such insight applies not just to divine matters, but to profane ones like whether hydroponically grown food is or isn’t organic. Let consumers decide in the marketplace whether they think hydroponics is a good thing, rather than government decide through regulation.

NYT Article Understates the Benefits of GMOs

An Oct. 29, 2016, article by Danny Hakim in The New York Times gives a decidedly skewed view of the benefits of agricultural biotechnology. It is based on the author’s presumption that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were supposed to accomplish two things: (1) increase crop yields; and (2) reduce the use of chemical pesticides.  In essence, Hakim sets up two straw men and proceeds to knock them down using questionable analysis.

Hakim compares crop yields in the United States and Canada, where GMO use is widespread, with yields in Western Europe, where GMOs generally are not allowed.  He finds that North America had “gained no discernible advantage in yields” relative to France, Germany, and other European countries.

As an example, Hakim includes a chart showing that the trend lines for yield increases of rapeseed in Europe and canola (a variety of rapeseed) in Canada are parallel, so that both added a similar amount of output per hectare. What he neglects to explain (or perhaps doesn’t appreciate) is that the percentage increase in European yield from 1995 to 2014 was modest. It rose from about 3.1 metric tons (MT) to 3.7 MT per hectare, an increase of approximately 19 percent.[i] Canada’s yield grew about the same quantity per hectare – from 1.4 MT to 1.9 MT – but the percentage increase was much greater at roughly 36 percent.  This is because Europe grows winter rapeseed under conditions that allow for high yields, while Canada grows spring canola under conditions in which lower yields are the norm.

So which farmers experienced a greater increase in profitability? Compared to their 1995 earnings (assuming constant prices), European famers managed to increase their per-hectare revenues by 19 percent. Canadian famers, on the other hand, achieved an increase that was almost twice as high – 36 percent. Casual observation would suggest that Canadian canola growers have become relatively more profitable over time than their European colleagues. One factor that appears to have increased Canadian profitability is the planting of GMO seeds.

As for Hakim’s argument that herbicide use has increased in the United States, especially on soybeans, it’s not clear that this is a bad thing. Most of the soybeans grown in North America have been genetically modified so that they are not harmed by Roundup (glyphosate), an herbicide that kills many weeds. Roundup has the advantage of being less toxic than some other herbicides, and it breaks down quickly in the soil. Anyone who has spent hours in a soybean field on a hot, humid day pulling weeds by hand is not likely to object to the idea that the same result could be achieved by modern biotechnology.

The bottom line is that Hakim largely ignores the reality that many thousands of individual farmers make decisions each year regarding which seeds to plant and which agronomic practices to use. The fact that so many farmers choose to plant costly GMO seeds (in countries where they are allowed) indicates that the added expense produces a real benefit. It seems improbable that those agricultural entrepreneurs all are making poor decisions about what is best for their businesses. The safe assumption is that users of biotechnology expect it will lead to a marginal increase in revenue that is greater than the marginal increase in cost. In the real world, it looks like the use of GMOs is being driven by favorable economics.

Mr. Hakim may think that GMO “technology has fallen short of the promise.”  The marketplace, however, understands things very differently.


[i]The data included in the article are in graphic form, so it’s not possible to determine precise numbers.

Elevated CO2 Stimulates the Growth of Papaya

Papayas are spherical or pear-shaped fruits known for their delicious taste and sunlit color of the tropics. Upon his arrival to the New World, Christopher Columbus apparently could not get enough of this exotic fruit, reportedly referring to it as the “the fruit of angels.” And the fruit of angels it may indeed be, as modern science has confirmed its value as a rich source of important vitamins, antioxidants and other health-promoting substances to the consumer.

Papaya production has increased significantly over the past few years to the point that it is now ranked fourth in total tropical fruit production after bananas, oranges and mango. It is an important export in many developing countries and provides a livelihood for thousands of people. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that scientists have become interested in how this important food crop might respond to increasing levels of atmospheric CO2 that are predicted for the future.

Such interest was the focus of a recent paper published in the scientific journal Scientia Horticulturae by Cruz et al. (2016). Therein, the team of five researchers examined “the effect of the elevated CO2 levels and its interaction with Nitrogen (N) on the growth, gas exchange, and N use efficiency (NUE) of papaya seedlings,” as they note there are no publications examining such for this species to date. To accomplish their objective, Cruz et al. grew Tainung #1 F1 Hybrid papaya seeds in 3.5 L plastic pots in a climate-controlled greenhouse at the USDA-ARS Crops Research Laboratory in Fort Collins, Colorado under two different CO2 concentrations (390 or 750 parts per million) and two separate N levels (8 mM NO3- or 3 mM NO3-). CO2 fumigation was performed for only 12 hours per day (during the day, 06:00 h to 18:00 h) and N treatments were applied to the pots weekly as a nutrient solution to reach the desired N levels. The experiment concluded 62 days after treatment initiation.

In discussing their findings, Cruz et al. report that compared to ambient levels of CO2, elevated CO2 increased photosynthesis by 24 and 31 percent in the low and high N treatments, respectively. Plant height, stem diameter and leaf area in the high N treatment were also enhanced by 15.4, 14.0 and 26.8 percent, respectively, and by similar amounts for the height and stem diameter in the low N treatment. Elevated CO2 also increased the biomass of leaf, stem plus petiole, and root dry mass of papaya plants regardless of N treatment, leading to total dry mass enhancements of 56.6 percent in the high N treatments and 64.1 percent in the low N treatments (see figure below).

Figure 1. Total dry mass of papaya plants grown in controlled chambers at two different CO2 concentrations (High and Low; 750 and 390 ppm) and two different N treatments (High and Low; 8 mM NO3- or 3 mM NO3-). Adapted from Cruz et al. (2016).

Figure 1. Total dry mass of papaya plants grown in controlled chambers at two different CO2 concentrations (High and Low; 750 and 390 ppm) and two different N treatments (High and Low; 8 mM NO3- or 3 mM NO3-). Adapted from Cruz et al. (2016).

 

Cruz et al. also report that “significant, but minor, differences were observed in total N content (leaf plus stem + petiole plus roots) between plants grown at different CO2 concentrations, but the same N levels.” Consequently, plant Nitrogen Use Efficiency (NUE) – the amount of carbon fixed per N unit – was around 40 percent greater in the CO2-enriched environments, regardless of the N level in the soil.

Commenting on their findings, Cruz et al. write that contrary to some other studies, which have suggested that low N reduces plant responses to increased CO2 levels, they found no such decline. In fact, their data indicate that elevated CO2 “alleviated the effect of low N on dry matter accumulation in papaya,” which they surmised is at least partially explained by a larger leaf area and higher rate of photosynthesis per leaf area unit observed under elevated CO2.

In light of all of the above, Cruz et al. conclude that “an increase in the atmospheric CO2 concentration [is] beneficial for dry mass production of papaya and alleviate[s] the negative effects of N reduction in the substrate on papaya growth.” Thus, in the future, those who cultivate this fruit of angels should find an angel in the ongoing rise in atmospheric CO2.

 

Reference

Cruz, J.L., Alves, A.A.C., LeCain, D.R., Ellis, D.D. and Morgan, J.A. 2016. Interactive effects between nitrogen fertilization and elevated CO2 on growth and gas exchange of papaya seedlings. Scientia Horticulturae 202: 32-40.

Elevated CO2: A Key Driver of Global Greening Observations

Despite a constant barrage of stories portraying rising atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) as a danger and threat to the planet, more and more scientific evidence is accruing showing that the opposite is true. The latest is in a paper recently published in the journal Scientific Reports, where Lu et al. (2016) investigated the role of atmospheric CO2 in causing the satellite-observed vegetative greening of the planet that has been observed since their launch in 1978.

It has long been known that rising CO2 boosts plant productivity and growth, and it is equally well-established that increased levels of atmospheric CO2 reduce plant water needs/requirements, thereby improving their water use efficiency. In consequence of these two benefits, Lu et al. hypothesized that rising atmospheric CO2 is playing a significant role in the observed greening, especially in moisture-limited areas where soil water content is a limiting factor in vegetative growth and function. To test their hypothesis, the three scientists conducted a meta-analysis that included 1705 field measurements from 21 distinct sites from which they evaluated the effects of atmospheric CO2 enrichment on soil water content in both dryland and non-dryland systems.

Elevated CO2 Reduces the Inhibitory Effect of Soil Nitrate on Nitrogen Fixation in Pea Plants

Introducing their work, Butterly et al. (2016) write that rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations are projected to increase the productivity of agricultural cropping systems in the future, primarily via enhanced photosynthesis and reduced evapotranspiration when water and nutrients are not limiting. One field crop that is economically important in many semi-arid locations is the common pea plant (Pisum sativum); yet according to Butterly et al., “few studies have examined the effects of elevated CO2 on field pea.” Therefore, in an attempt to rectify this situation, the team of four Australian researchers set out to examine the interactive effects of elevated CO2 and soil nitrate (NO3-) concentration on the growth, nodulation, and nitrogen (N2) fixation of pea plants. Nodules house bacteria that “fix” atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, which serves as plant food.

The study was conducted in a semi-arid location at the SoilFACE facility of the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources Plant Breeding Centre in Horsham, Victoria, Australia. There, pea plants were grown for a period of 15 weeks in Vertisol soils containing either 5, 25, 50 or 90 mg NO3--N kg-1 under either ambient (390 ppm) or elevated (550 ppm) carbon dioxide concentrations maintained using free-air CO2 enrichment (SoilFACE). It was the hypothesis of the researchers that “nodule establishment (nodule number), development (nodule mass) and function (nitrogenase activity, N derived from the atmosphere) would be progressively inhibited with increasing NO3- (nitrate) concentration, but these effects would be reduced under elevated CO2 via enhanced N demand due to greater photosynthetic activity and plant biomass accumulation.”

The results of their analysis confirmed the inhibitory effects of soil nitrate concentration on field pea plants growing under ambient CO2. In the elevated CO2 treatment, however, field pea plants had approximately 30 percent more biomass and were not affected by N level (see figure below). What is more, Butterly et al. report that “elevated CO2 alleviated the inhibitory effect of soil NO3- on nodulation and N2 fixation,” which impressive finding they say “is likely to lead to greater total N content of field pea growing under future elevated CO2 environments.” And the end result of these findings, they add, “indicate that field pea may perform well in semiarid agricultural systems under future CO2 concentrations irrespective of soil N status, and subsequent gains in N input via enhanced N2 fixation will be important for maintaining the N fertility of cropping systems.”

Now that is good news worth reporting!

Figure 1. Shoot (Panel A) and root (Panel B) biomass of field pea grown for 15 weeks under either an ambient (aCO2) or elevated (eCO2) carbon dioxide concentration and with 5, 25, 50 or 90 mg NO3--N kg-1 soil.

Figure 1. Shoot (Panel A) and root (Panel B) biomass of field pea grown for 15 weeks under either an ambient (aCO2) or elevated (eCO2) carbon dioxide concentration and with 5, 25, 50 or 90 mg NO3--N kg-1 soil.

 

Reference

Butterly, C.R., Armstrong, R., Chen, D. and Tang, C. 2016. Free-air CO2 enrichment (FACE) reduces the inhibitory effect of soil nitrate on N2 fixation of Pisum sativum. Annals of Botany 117: 177-185.

Arctic Methane Scare Oversold

Global Science Report is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science, where we highlight one or two important new items in the scientific literature or the popular media. For broader and more technical perspectives, consult our monthly “Current Wisdom.”

Methane is all the rage. Why? Because 1) it is a powerful greenhouse gas, that molecule for molecule, is some 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide (when it comes to warming the lower atmosphere),  2) it plays a feature role in a climate scare story in which climate change warms the Arctic, releasing  methane stored there in the (once) frozen ground, which leads to more warming and more methane release, ad apocalypse, and 3) methane emissions are  also be linked to fossil fuel extraction (especially fracking operations). An alarmist trifecta!

Turns out, though, that these favored horses aren’t running as advertised.

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