More Farm Stuff

There’s been a lot going on in the agriculture world so let’s take a look.

FDA May Remove Heart Healthy Labels on Soy Products: For years now some soy based products have been claiming that they are “heart healthy” based on a claim that using soy caused a reduction in cholesterol. But we’ve known since at least 2005 that consuming soy has little or no effect on reducing cholesterol. It looks like it only took FDA twelve years to figure that out and announce that it was going to make the 300 or so soy products that make that claim to stop using it.

Why the confusion over the issue? It’s suspected that the initial reduction in bad cholesterol that was shown wasn’t caused by soy, but by the participants in the study replacing red meat with soy products. It was the reduction in meat consumption that reduced the cholesterol, not the soy.

Food Waste and Bogus Statistics: Then I ran across this item over at AgWeb which tries to claim that there is virtually no food waste when it comes to eating meat. They claim that about 20% of fruit and vegetables get thrown away rather than eaten, but that only 3% of meat gets thrown out. Therefore, they claim, buying fruit and vegetables is far more harmful to the environment than meat production The article goes on to say that eating meat is “more satisfying” than the equivalent amount of vegetables or fruit, and that meat tastes better than plants and loading meat animals up with antibiotics is just fine and dandy because …

Oh, brother, I just can’t go on any more…  She is basically claiming that because consumers throw out only about 3% of the meat they buy, meat is somehow enormously better for the environment than fruit and vegetable production, and that producing fruit and veg is actually harmful to the environment because people throw away some of it..

I’m not even going to try to follow the mental gymnastics that she goes through to try to come to that conclusion.

But I do notice one thing, that the article completely ignores the fact that almost half of a steer is inedible. Assuming you have a 1,000 lb. steer, only about 600 pounds or less is going to be useable meat. The rest; the head, innards, bones, skin, fat, etc. is inedible. Once you add in things that are trimmed off by the consumer after purchase like fat and small bones that are discarded, etc., you quickly discover that almost half of that steer can’t be used as food.

So in one way, yes, when you get that steak home you’re going to eat almost all of it. But that’s because all of the waste has been trimmed off long before you even see it in the grocery store.

Clovis Withdraws Nomination: Sam Clovis withdrew his name from consideration for a post at USDA as undersecretary for research. The job requires a thorough understanding of agriculture, scientific research methods, and basically was intended for someone who is, if not a scientist, at least someone with a thorough understanding of farming, agriculture, and science. So what were Clovis’ qualifications? Is he a scientist? No. Is he a farmer? No. Has he ever worked in any kind of business related to agriculture?  No. He is a former talk radio host and a political science professor. Well, here is the man’s own words in response to questions from the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee’s top Democrat, Debbie Stabenow:

“Please list all graduate-level courses you have taken in natural science,” the second of 10 questions requested.

“None,” Clovis replied.

“Please list all membership and leadership roles you have held within any agricultural scientific, agricultural education, or agricultural economic organizations,” the third question read.

“None,” Clovis replied.

“Please describe any awards, designations, or academic recognition you have received specifically related to agricultural science,” the fourth question read.

“None,” Clovis replied.

Sigh…

Dicamba. Yes, Again: The apparently never ending saga about the herbicide dicamba continues. According to a report by the University of Missouri dicamba damaged 3.6 million acres of soybeans this past year. That’s a hell of a lot of beans.

The EPA has issued new labeling requirements that more strictly control how the dicamba herbicide blends from Monsanto, BASF and DuPont are used in an attempt to eliminate the problems, but the problem has been so wide spread that some states are considering issuing outright bans on the product. And a lot of people doubt that the new application restrictions and guidelines are going to do much to get a handle on the problem.

I think they’re playing with fire here. So far everyone has been focusing on the damage done to soybeans. Considering how easily this stuff seems to vaporize and drift long distances, it could very easily begin damaging large areas of ornamental plants, food crops, etc.

I’ve even been hearing conspiracy theories from some people. They’re claiming that the herbicide blends were deliberately made to drift like this to force farmers to plant Monsanto’s dicamba resistant soybeans whether they want to or not.

USDA Kills “Farmer Fair Practices Rules” (GIPSA): On Oct. 18 USDA announced it is totally dumping the FFPR, a set of rules that attempted to correct many of the abuses endured by “contract” farmers, farmers who don’t actually own the crop or animals they are growing. The famers own the land, the equipment, buildings, provide the labor, etc. but the product they are growing actually belongs to the company and is grown under a contract for a fixed price. Almost all of the chickens raised in the US are produced this way.

They may be “independent farmers”, because the big companies don’t own them, but they have only one client, and that client controls everything. They are essentially indentured servants with few if any rights. These companies are accused of price fixing, blacklisting farmers, canceling contracts on a whim, and engaging in retaliation against farmers who make waves.

The FFPR was intended to help give the famers a bit more control and flexibility to sue in cases of blatantly unfair practices.

I’m not going to get into this any deeper because it would take many, many pages to describe the whole situation. You can go do the research yourself if you’re interested. But as Chuck Grassley, a senator from Iowa said about killing the FFPR: “They’re just pandering to big corporations. They aren’t interested in the family farmer.”

Just What Is Organic Anyway?  I don’t know about you, but when I think of the term “organic” the definition definitely does not include acres of green houses containing thousands of trays of robotically tended plants under grow lights being grown by soaking the roots in a chemical nutrient solution. In other words, hydroponics.

But according to the National Organic Standards Board, it is. The NOSB has ruled that hydroponics is organic.

Look, I have nothing against hydroponics. It’s an extremely useful technology. But isn’t “organic” a lot more than just producing herbicide free food?

Farm Catch Up

 

Organic: Is it, or isn’t it?

There was a rather troubling item released the other day showing about 40% of organic produce tested was contaminated with pesticides that are not permitted for use by organic growers. The article in Wisconsin Agriculturalist talks about the whole organic situation briefly.

While organic growers in the US are fairly well monitored, the same can’t be said for sources outside of the US. And with up to 80% of organics being sold in this country coming from elsewhere, that’s a bit troubling. USDA doesn’t have the staff or funding to do more than token inspections of organics coming into the US and has to rely on certifications and inspections being done in the country of origin. And considering the horrific stories coming out of places like Brazil involving the meat industry, well, let’s jus say that the inspection systems in other countries are a bit problematic and leave it at that.

And am I wrong in this, or was one of the principals of organic farming supposed to be that food should be grown close to where it’s consumed? Organic isn’t just about growing crops without pesticides. It was a whole philosophy of reducing the use of fossil fuels, producing crops in a sustainable manner, tying to keep food production as local as possible. If you’re shipping “organic” produce 5,000 miles in massive container ships or flying it in via cargo plane, how exactly is that “organic” in the first place?

Canola Oil – The Short Story

I ran across this item over on Wisconsin Agriculturist. It’s a brief little item about how canola oil, one of the most important vegetable oils we produce, was originally developed and how it’s become one of Canada’s most important ag products.

It’s an interesting story. Canola oil didn’t even exist until the mid 1970s when plant scientists bred a type of rapeseed plant that lacked the undesirable traits of the original plants, and processing technologies permitted turning the seed of the plant into one of the most widely used vegetable oils we have. The problem rapeseed had originally was that it contained relatively high concentrations of euric acid, which can be toxic in large amounts. The new plants still have some trace amounts of euric acid.

Then, of course, they had to change the name of the stuff because “rapeseed oil” isn’t exactly appealing for consumers, so they came up with the name “canola” for it. The rapeseed plant’s name has nothing to do with acts of violence, but instead comes from the latin word rapum, which means turnip.

Anyway, go give it a read. It’s a nice little article.

In the “What the Hell Is The Matter With Them” department, we have Illinois

It seems that no matter how bad things get here in Wisconsin, we can always indulge in a bit of schadenfreude by looking at our neighbor to the south, Illinois. No matter how corrupt, inefficient, callous and cruel our political system here in Wisconsin has become, we can always look south and say “well, at least we aren’t in Illinois”.

Illinois is in the middle of a financial hell hole of it’s own making. The state just failed to pass a budget. Again. They haven’t had a state budget in two years, and are well on their way to three years in a row without one. The state is operating largely on a serious of short term spending resolutions, court orders forcing it to pay people, and legally mandated debt payments. Other than that, the state is in financial hell as bills continue to pile up, interest piles up, it’s credit rating plunges, and a bond rating that is just one level above junk bond status. The interest payments caused by it’s failure to pay bills promptly is going to cost it almost three quarters of a billion dollars alone.

This didn’t happen overnight, of course. The state (and the city of Chicago) has a long history of playing fast and loose with it’s bookkeeping practices, using accounting tricks to cover things up, postpone paying things into the future, shortchanging it’s pension funds and basically engaging in practices which, if done in the real world, would have ended with a lot of them going to jail for a very long time indeed. It owes it’s pension fund alone something like $129 billion because of it’s fiscal mismanagement. But since it’s the government and they make their own rules, they’ve been getting away with it

For those of us in Wisconsin who are sitting up here chuckling over the misfortune of the FIBs, well, it can happen here. This administration has been fiddling with the books as well, using accounting tricks that would be illegal in the real world to postpone debt payment, borrowing money to prop up the budget, especially the transportation budget. At the moment about 20% of every dollar going into the transportation budget is being used to make payments on past borrowings because the administration hasn’t been willing to fully fund all of the road projects it has mandated. This budget cycle we’re looking at the state borrowing another $500 million to try to keep it’s road projects going.

If you think Illinois can’t happen here, just remember what happened to the money the state got from the settlement with the tobacco company years ago. Wisconsin got almost a billion dollars to settle up with the tobacco industry. The money was supposed to go to health care, tobacco prevention programs, and programs to help people get off of tobacco addiction. It didn’t, of course. The state just flat out stole it, using the money to plug a hole in the state budget.

Weather Related Crop Failures

I haven’t seen a lot of news items about it yet, but we’ve already seen a lot of crop failures due to unusual weather all around the country. In many of the counties around here we’ve seen an almost total failure of the alfalfa crop, with losses as high as 80% or more. Down in Georgia and South Carolina there is a near total failure of the peach crop, with losses as high as 85%. The blueberry crop down there was hit hard as well. Farmers there are looking at a $300 million loss to the fruit crop. Large parts of the midwest have had significant delays in getting the corn and soybean crops in the ground because of abnormally wet weather. Up in Canada one region has been unable to plant tens of thousands of acres of wheat because of wet weather. Down in Australia they’re having the opposite problem, not enough rain, with significant damage to the canola and garbanzo bean crops.

Curiously enough, the commodities markets seem to have been ignoring all of this and there has been little movement in the futures prices except for the usual thrashing up and down a few cents.

Pink Slime Redux

Remember “pink slime”? You may not. It’s been a while since that scandal story hit the airwaves. ABC ran a story about this stuff, “finely textured beef”, that was made from stuff scraped off the bones of cattle, left over from the trimming process, basically stuff that would have otherwise gone into pet food or be thrown out, which was then ground up, had the fat removed from it, was treated with ammonia, and then injected into hamburger, and then they didn’t tell anyone about it. The stuff is… Well, let’s just say it’s not exactly appealing and leave it at that. Even more troubling was the fact that this was being done without any labeling or any indication that something other than normal beef was in your hamburger.

One of the major manufacturers of the stuff was not happy about the story because their sales plummeted, and they sued ABC and several individuals back in 2012, and it’s finally going to be coming to trial. The company is asking for about $1 billion in damages.

It will be interesting to see what happens with this one. Despite everything the company says, I don’t remember ABC claiming anything that wasn’t absolutely true during the report. But the way things are these days, the outcome of the trial is a coin toss, really. Whatever happens it will probably end up in the courts for years with the losing side appealing.

It’s a sad but true fact that you pretty much don’t know what the hell is in the food you buy unless you’re preparing it yourself.

Grain Facility Explodes

A corn processing facility in Cambria Wisconsin exploded, killing two and injuring more than a dozen others. According to the story in the link above, the facility had a history of safety violations, including failing to properly control potentially explosive dust.

These facilities can be extremely dangerous. Grain dust is not just a fire hazard, it is also an explosive. Until government agencies like OSHA clamped down, grain elevators and other grain processing facilities used to explode every year. There is a mill just down the street from my place and until fairly recently it was a running joke that the place burned down every year, and just a few years ago they had a massive fire that had units from a dozen or more fire departments scurrying down our street to try to get it under control. For an entire day after the worst was over, we had water tankers running down our street every 4 minutes (we timed it) to dump water on the smoldering remains.