Risks of farming… are there more or less? What do you think?

January 19, 2011

This article is a bit disconcerting – “Superbugs, Agricultural Antibiotics, and Farm-Worker Infections: A New Study Connects the Dots” (Twilley, January 14, 2011). http://www.good.is/post/superbugs-agricultural-antibiotics-and-farm-worker-infections-a-new-study-connects-the-dots/  This is by no means my area of expertise,  the relationship between the use of antibiotics in agricultural practice and  increased disease resistance in humans, and nor can I judge the credibility of the source or the writer (perhaps someone out there can?).  Nevertheless, it brings to mind the notion of ‘risk’ and the farming vocation – and my family.


Grandpa Abraham & Grandma Barbara (circa ~1953)

My grandfather emigrated from Norway to Canada (through the US) in the late 1800s. He worked in New York for a time before crossing the border into what was then the Territories (now Saskatchewan).  He settled there, raised a family and farmed the land.  My grandfather died long before I was born.  But I remember watching my uncles working in the yard.  I distinctly recall Uncle Jacob dipping his bare arm into a 5 gallon pail of agricultural chemical, nonchalantly stirring it around,  then deftly wiping the excess with a rag and carrying on.  All of my uncles did this… All of my (farming) uncles have long since passed, and all of them due to neurological or brain related disease/cancer.  Now, I am not certain if there is relationship between the manner of their deaths and these unusual (unsafe) practices – but it is highly suspect.

Despite this, I feel that agriculture has progressed leaps and bounds since that time.  Safety is practiced far more diligently on-farm now more than ever. We know how to handle the chemicals and we are no longer ignorant to risk, so we know how to mitigate them.

According to the “Superbug” article, 3.7% of working farmers (in this study) were diagnosed with MRSA related infections. That rate seems alarming but if we put this all in historical context, would it not be safe to assume that the risks of farming are substantially lower now more than ever – no matter what the practice (conventional, organic or otherwise) or what inputs are used?



A breath of fresh, logical air…”Does starvation loom? – No.”

January 14, 2011

I love Twitter!  Especially when my social network shares gems like this.

Author Matt Ridley has written several books on evolution, genetics and society (check out the list on Amazon at: http://amzn.to/eBVDkm). Sorry, Matt.  I have to admit, I haven’t read any of your books… but my interest has been piqued and I have had added several of the tomes to my growing ‘to read’ list.  

Anyway, back to the ‘gem’… A link to Matt’s latest blog entry entitled “Feeding of the nine billion” (http://bit.ly/hZv477) was circulated through Twitter today (via #scio11).  This is a GREAT piece!  In it, this ‘Rational Optimist’ addresses/challenges (what I would call in some cases) the hype around the issues of food security and a growing population, food prices and world ag production.  :

Here are a few of my favourite @mattwridley illustrative quotes from Ridley’s blog entry (which, by the way, was also posted in The Times, January 14, 2011):


“…the rate of [population] growth is decelerating. World population is now growing at just over 1% a year, down from roughly 2% in the 1960s. The actual number of people added to the world population each year has been dropping for more than 20 years.”

“…the UN estimates that the population will most probably peak at 9.2 billion in about 2075 before starting a slow decline. Population quadrupled in the twentieth century; it will not even double in this.”


“…if you take inflation into account. Food prices are up in real terms since 2000, but they are still about 30% below the level in 1980 and 85% down since 1900. In terms of wages, the decline has been even steeper.”

“Despite a doubling of the population, global food production per head is 30% up on what it was in the 1950s…Besides, the current spike in food prices is caused by prosperity, not desperation.”


“Farm yields have been marching upwards for decades and will continue to do so. In the past sixty years, the total harvest of the big three crops that provide the bulk of our calories – maize, wheat and rice – has trebled, yet the acreage planted has hardly changed.”

“The more yields increase, the more land can be set aside from food production for reforestation and national parks. This is happening already. National parks are expanding steadily…”

“Don’t forget another factor. Carbon dioxide levels in the air are rising. CO2 is a raw material that plants use to make sugars, which is why many greenhouse owners pump CO2 over their crops to boost production. The results of more than 600 experiments with rice, wheat and soybeans exposed to the sort of carbon dioxide levels expected by 2050 (an extra 300 parts per million) all show remarkably consistent 30+% increases in yield.”

FINAL @mattwridley THOUGHT:

“For all these reasons food production will probably continue to rise faster than population in the decades ahead. There will still be price spikes caused by bad weather or foolish policies, and there will be challenges: policies that encourage innovation cannot be taken for granted. Yet so long as trade is free and innovation flourishes, by 2050 it is easily possible that we can feed nine billion people with more and better food from less land.”

And for all you humanitarian types out there, you are going to love this!  Ridley is giving roughly half of the advance royalty received from his book The Rational Optimist (http://www.rationaloptimist.com/) to three charities: Farm Africa, The International Policy Network and AgBioWorldFoundation.  These are agencies/organizations that are helping those in need, especially in Africa, to trade, farm and innovate.  

The Matt Ridley Equation:  Prolific, insightful writer + Charitable = Awesomesauce!  ;o) 


Life-cycle of linen – from flower to fibre

Director Benoit Millet from France just released this exquisitely-shot fifteen-minute-long film, “Be Linen” based in France that explains the process behind the production of linen. (French with English subtitles)


Rayner offers some real talk on food production: Industrial farms are the future #farming #agnerds #ag #food #production

Big agriculture is the only option to stop the world going hungry

Food riots, such as those in Mozambique, could soon be seen here too unless we overhaul the way we produce food

 Jay Rayner, The Observer, Sept 12, 2010

 “If we are to survive the coming food security storm, we will have to embrace unashamedly industrial methods of farming. We need to abandon the mythologies around agriculture, which take the wholesome marketing of high-end food brands at face value – farmer in smock, ear of corn, happy pig – and recognise that farming really is an industry, much like car manufacturing or steel forging, one which always works better on a mass scale, but which can still be managed sustainably.



Call for New Techniques to Improve Wheat Production #wheat #production #genetics

Geneticists Call for New Techniques to Advance Wheat Production


Researchers Robert Graybosch and James Peterson from the Oregon State University examined the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data on wheat yield in the Great Plain region and found out that the yield increase is slowing. They said that the data “suggests a plateau has been reached.” Thus, they suggest that there is a need for the use of available production techniques on a wider scale to increase the wheat productivity.

“Use of these more productive areas for wheat production could, temporarily at least, continue to meet world demands for wheat. In the long term, however, effective strategies to increase the genetic gain for wheat grain yield must be identified,” Graybosch and Peterson wrote in their paper published in the Crop Science Society of America. They concluded that “further improvement in the genetic potential for grain yield awaits some new technological or biological advance.”


we need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming…

An article by Rob Paarlberg:

Attention Whole Foods Shoppers: Stop obsessing about arugula. Your “sustainable” mantra — organic, local, and slow — is no recipe for saving the world’s hungry millions.

By Rob Paarlberg
Foreign Policy
May / June 2010

“If we are going to get serious about solving global hunger, we need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming. And that means learning to appreciate the modern, science-intensive, and highly capitalized agricultural system … Wherever the rural poor have gained access to improved roads, modern seeds, less expensive fertilizer, electrical power, and better schools and clinics, their productivity and their income have increased. But recent efforts to deliver such essentials have been undercut by deeply misguided (if sometimes well-meaning) advocacy against agricultural modernization and foreign aid.”


Flax Acreage expected to drop this year…

In light of the recent Triffid issue, a drop in acreage is not a

Flax acreage predicted to drop
by Neil Billinger

Larry Weber of Weber Commodities is quoted as saying: “There are some estimates in the trade as high as 1.3 million acres…I have seen some as low as 700,000 acres. I think 700,000 will be on the low side, but I don’t think we are going to get to a million acres of flax this year.”

Weber says European buyers are paying more for flax than last year. Even so, he estimates growers are losing a minimum of $3 a bushel.

Canadian producers planted 1.7 million acres of flax in 2009.

Read more at: http://www.fcc-fac.ca/newsletters/en/express/articles/20100326_e.asp#story_2

Planting Farm Saved Flaxseed this Spring?

Guidelines for Testing for Producers
March 26, 2010
Flax Council of Canada

Procedures for testing Farm Saved Seed:

* To ensure the highest confidence in the testing procedures, a sample of seed must be drawn across the entire lot of seed. This may be done a number of ways; however the best and most preferred method is to sample directly from a clean seed stream. This includes but is not limited to sampling as the clean seed is:
o coming off the cleaners,
o being loaded into a truck,
o being transferred from the truck into a seed bin on farm.

* A minimum 4 subsamples per 1 metric tonne (1 sample per 10 bu) must be drawn and mixed thoroughly. e.g. a 5 mt lot will require 20 subsamples
* A lot may not be any larger than 20 mt.
* A representative 2 kg sample is to be submitted to a lab on the FCC’s list of approved testing labs for Triffid testing (4×60 g).
* At harvest or delivery of the 2010 crop, the grower will be asked to provide a certificate of laboratory analysis that verifies the planting seed tested negative.

A list of ISO approved laboratory is provided as well. http://www.flaxcouncil.ca/files/web/NEWS%20RELEASE%20-%20Flax%20Council%20of%20Canada%20Announces%20Industry%20Stewardship%20Program%20for%20Farm%20Saved%20Planting%20Seed%2003.26.10%20FP1%20rev.3.pdf


‘An Irish farmer’s plea for access to technology in agriculture.’

A Genetically Modified Proposal (accessed through AgBioView)

– Jim McCarthy
Forbes (Online) Oct 26, 2009
‘An Irish farmer’s plea for access to technology in agriculture.’

Sometimes when I think about the past, I fear for the future. The Chinese were once the world’s greatest seafarers. A few people even think they reached the west coast of North America before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. But then the emperor banned foreign travel and their seafaring skills were never heard of again.

The Islamic people once led the world in math and science. Did you know that the word “algebra” comes from Arabic? But then their culture embraced fundamentalism.

Today in Europe, our own civilization threatens to turn back the clock on progress. While much of the rest of the planet adopts agricultural biotechnology–an absolutely essential tool if we’re to achieve security for our 21st century food supply–the foolish antics of green party activists around the world lead us toward a future of poverty and hunger.

Before that happens, you’ll be hearing from me. This is one of the most important battles of our time. We cannot stay silent.

I farm on three continents. In my native Ireland, I work 1,100 acres, growing wheat for pigs and poultry. In Argentina, I’m managing director of a 31,000-acre operation that harvests corn, soybeans and wheat. In the U.S., in southwest Missouri, I’m an investor in a dairy farm.

I am a global farmer. I’ve observed best practices in very different environments. Unfortunately, I’ve also witnessed worst practices. A bullheaded refusal to take advantage of biotechnology is probably the very worst practice around.

GM crops are now a form of conventional agriculture for farmers in North and South America. But in Ireland, the situation is so bad that it’s illegal to research and conduct genetic modification experiments in crops. They’ve outlawed scientific inquiry!

Ireland tries to take pride in building what it calls a “knowledge-based economy.” When it comes to biotech crops, however, Ireland is in a headlong retreat from knowledge. Argentina is the exact opposite. Farmers in that country–including me, when I’m working there–are allowed to grow genetically modified crops. This gives us a big boost in yield and soil protection.

Ironically, Ireland has the better business reputation. Each year, the World Bank calculates the ease of doing business in the countries of the world, using quantitative measurements on start-ups, regulations, taxes and so forth.

This year, Ireland ranks No. 7. Argentina is No. 118, which is a little better than Bangladesh and a little worse than Bosnia. (The U.S., by the way, is No. 4.)

Yet I much prefer the business of farming in Argentina. It’s a dream place for agriculture. I’m not just referring to the climate. I’m thinking about how hard farming has become in Ireland, or just about anywhere else in Europe. The Argentine government doesn’t tell me what I can and cannot grow based upon deliberate ignorance. It lets me make my own decisions.

If I was a younger man, I’d be tempted to move permanently to Argentina. But Ireland is home. I’m not going anywhere. It nevertheless saddens me to see a vocal minority of Green party activists throttle the future of farming.

There are about as many people in Ireland as there are in Oregon–just shy of 4 million. The world adds roughly this number of people to its total population every three weeks or so. The demand for food has never been higher–and if current trends continue, it will continue to set new records every year for the rest of my life.

It will take Irish farmland–and existing farmland everywhere–to meet this need. Europe must do its part to produce more and use its influence, especially in Africa, to encourage biotechnology. The policy of refusing to take GM crops seriously sets us up for an awful tragedy.

Maybe there’s some good news ahead: This week, the Royal Society, the U.K.’s National Academy of Science, has released a report that calls for the acceptance of genetic modification on the farm.

Let’s hope for a better future, so our present doesn’t become a past we come to regret.

Jim McCarthy, a first generation farmer based in Kildare, Ireland, farms in three continents–Europe, South America and North America–growing wheat, soybeans, corn, canola, peas, oats and dairy. Mr. McCarthy is the 2009 Kleckner Trade and Technology Advancement Award recipient and a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network.