NIAB - National Institute of Agricultural Botany

Orson's Oracle

The nearest defibrillator is ...

Posted on 20/01/2015 by Jim Orson

It was the typical start for a conference session. The chair announced the locations of the nearest emergency exits and the washrooms (a little clue as to the location of the conference). Then, to my astonishment, the location of the nearest defibrillator was described. The conference had 10 concurrent sessions held in three separate buildings, each a few hundred metres apart. The temperature outside was -15 Celsius and there was a biting wind and so going from one building to another between talks was more than bracing. It turns out that there was a defibrillator in each building which led to an overheard remark from a farmer to his father, something along the lines of, “that is awesome news because I would not bother to go to another building just for you”. I am sure that it was meant in jest.

The conference was held in an area of Canada surrounded by the great lakes. This meant that the winters are relatively mild, compared to the prairies. For instance, it was -37 Celsius in Winnipeg and Saskatoon at the time. The ‘milder’ winters mean that they can grow winter wheat and the basic rotation is winter wheat, grain maize and soya beans. However, the income from soya is so attractive that in that area alone there will be around 400,000 hectares of soya following soya this year. Agronomists are very concerned about the control of sclerotinia in the second soya.

There were 1400 delegates attending each day of the two day conference and there were an additional 100 who would like to have attended but applied too late. The vast majority were farmers who turned up in very large or extremely large pickups (utes). The benefit of these vehicles was demonstrated by the ability to get away from the conference in heavy snow conditions.

There were only two plenary talks to the whole audience. One was from a farm economist from the University of Virginia and the next day there was one by a tornado chaser. The economist gave a light hearted talk but towards the end provided the message that it was going to be tough in the commodity markets for the next few years. He said that North American farmers had got complacent about cost control and now was the time to prepare.

It is true that there seems to be a lot of new machinery on farms but the farmers who spoke at the conference (many of the talks were delivered by farmers) seem to be investing in new approaches that will hopefully not only be more labour productive but also improve soil health. I do not take this as complacency but using profits to invest in the future. The next blog will cover some of the initiatives that North American farmers are taking to improve soil health.

The conference was held in Ontario and the provincial parliament is introducing legislation to target a reduction in the use of neonic seed dressings by 80%. The legislators seemed proud of the fact that they are first in North America to impose restrictions on the use of this chemistry. However, it was pointed out in a local paper that the representatives in the majority party in the provincial parliament all represented urban constituencies.

The arguments for and against neonic seed dressings were sadly familiar and the proposed processes that individual farmers will have to go through to prove that they must have access to these seed dressings in the future appear impractical and naïve. According to agronomists, around 10% of the current area of use is where reliable and significant gains each year would be expected. The rest of the current use has to be classified as risk management with gains being less predictable but overall these seed dressings provide significant benefits for food production.

Farmers and agronomists do not argue that as a result of the air exhaust from pneumatic seed drills (primarily maize planters) the possible localised high doses in non-cropped areas adjoining to where neonics seed dressings are used can cause damage to non-target organisms, such as bees. They are vehement that the responsible use of these seed dressings is safe to bees. Last year the pneumatic seed drills began to be fitted with deflectors to ensure that the waste air was not exhausted into adjoining non-cropped areas. In addition, a lubricant had to be added to pneumatic seed drills in order that there was less chemical in the air exhaust. It is claimed that these measures resulted in overall bee losses in the environment being reduced down to a typical level.

This is to be applauded but I do wonder why it was not done before and at a time when perhaps such draconian measures by the Province could have been avoided. The issue of dust from the seed dressings in the exhaust air of the pneumatic seed drills has been recognised in Europe for some time.

I suspect it was all to do with the politics of the confrontation between the industry and the green movement. In such a febrile debate, admitting bee deaths as a result of high doses in the exhaust air from the drills would have been seen as a negative argument for the retention of the seed dressings. In a perfect world where rational debate is based on good science this may not have occurred. It is a lesson to all those who say that such matters need not necessarily be based on good science but demonstrably, a debate without verified facts can lead to a situation where everyone loses.

A final word on health and safety. My wife regularly visited a lady who has just died at the age of 98. She was once ‘in service’ to an eminent Cambridge family. The family summered in a house in northern England that is now a National Trust property. The servants’ quarters were on the top floor which had poor access to the rest of the house. So the first thing they did on arrival at the house was to do a fire drill which involved this lady, as both the smallest and youngest housemaid, being placed in a sling and lowered from an attic window by block and tackle. She said it was terrifying! If it were me, I would require a defibrillator.

 

Image: Wheat harvest in South West Ontario

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A challenging future

Posted on 02/01/2015 by Jim Orson

The start of the year is a time both for reflection and looking forward. It is rather salutary that at the end of 2014 the farming press was full of articles about how to survive the current downturn in prices. In general, the advice is largely the generic views expressed in previous downturns but of course there are more thought provoking views expressed on the dairy and sugar beet industries.

Barley & OSR fieldsThe piece of advice for combinable crops that I always view with some scepticism is that during a downturn in prices, farmers should take out of production those parts of the farm which do not have the prospect of turning a profit. I am not a business consultant but I am not sure that I fully agree. It all depends what is meant by a profit. Typically, even in the poorest yielding areas, the returns exceed the input costs i.e. there is a positive gross margin. It all gets a bit more complicated when the so-called fixed costs are also taken into consideration. I can see that where the income does not meet all costs that money is lost but I do wonder if fixed cost reductions, in line with reductions in cropped area, are easily achievable over the short term.

There are longer term issues that hang over the industry. In the 1990s MAFF and subsequently Defra had a penchant for funding studies on the impact of climate change on our agricultural industry. I suppose that they had a duty of care to the electorate so to do. On the other hand, nobody was quite sure of the likely extent and form of climate change and many, including me, thought the most sensible approach was simply to go to Toulouse (for instance) and observe the then current cropping and crop management practices. I must admit, again probably mistakenly, that I was relaxed about combinable crops because changing from say wheat to maize or oilseed rape to sunflowers required relatively small changes in farm infrastructure and machinery complement. In addition, the changes would happen fairly slowly, giving arable farmers time to adapt.

In the longer term, markets also alter due to changes in consumption patterns and international competitiveness. Last month at the AAB/BCPC conference on Crop Production in Southern Britain there was a fascinating paper by Simon Ward of Increment. His thesis was that the price of feed wheat was intrinsically linked to the maize price because they were both viewed simply as alternative energy sources for livestock. More controversially, he argued that oilseed rape and soya prices were linked, not necessarily because of their oil content but because of the value of their meal for livestock.

He then went on to argue that North European wheat yields are increasing at a slower rate than worldwide maize yields (even when the rapid rise in USA yields is excluded). On the other hand, North European oilseed rape yields are increasing at a higher rate than worldwide soya yields. The logical conclusion to this is that our feed wheat production will gradually become less competitive to maize and our oilseed rape production will become more competitive to soya. Logically this means that over the longer term we should be looking at growing less wheat and more oilseed rape. Naturally, Simon mentioned that there are a few reasons why such a change in cropping might not occur.

One of the caveats that he mentioned, and also one that undermines my 1990s relaxed view on the likely impact of climate change on combinable crop production in the UK, is that we now have less technical flexibility to sustain changes in the areas devoted to particular crops on the farm. This is due to those twin threats of pesticide resistance and pesticide regulation. In particular, the Water Framework Directive threatens the potential area of oilseed rape that can be grown because the resistance in black-grass to the ‘fops’ and ‘dims’ has resulted in our current reliance on carbetamide (e.g. Crawler) and propyzamide (e.g. Kerb). These, along with metaldehyde, are again appearing in raw water this winter at levels above that specified in the Drinking Water Directive. The current two year ban on neonicitinoid seed dressings has already significantly decreased the possibility of the effective control of flea beetle in the oilseed rape crop. Such a reduction in the ability to adapt farm systems to future markets and weather patterns is not a good place for the industry to find itself in when planning for the future.

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Because I say so

Posted on 18/12/2014 by Jim Orson

Our six week old grandson smiled at us last week. There is always a debate whether a facial expression that looks like a smile from one so young is real but his eyes were also smiling, so it was genuine. Perhaps he was enjoying a quiet time away from his siblings.

Communication with fellow humans starts literally at birth and it is at the core of our existence but it is not always easy to navigate. As Adam Smith warned in The Wealth of Nations, “people of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

I was reminded of this quotation when I read that representatives of four green groups met up in 2010 to, according to The Times, “decide in advance to seek evidence supporting a ban on the neonicitinoids”. The notes of the meeting also show that they intended to select carefully authors for the planned four papers to “obtain the necessary policy change, to have these pesticides banned”.

Again to quote Adam Smith, “science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition.” However, in this case it was possibly intended to misuse science.

Now, of course, the green groups involved say that the notes of the meeting have been misinterpreted and implied that they were already aware that the neonicitinoids were doing damage to bees and all they were doing was supporting science that could add to their existing knowledge. Somehow I am not comforted by that explanation.

I have written before about the misuse of science. Choosing treatments carefully can slant an argument one way or the other. In this case, as far as I am aware, the only papers that suggest that the neonicitinoids harm bees are based on laboratory studies or field studies when doses significantly above those recommended have been used. These have made the headlines but have not convinced some scientists.

There is also a human side to the issue. Did the authors of the planned papers knowingly go along with this strategy or were they unaware that their careers and reputation were being put at risk?

Sadly, I am only too aware that some scientists get so convinced of their own case that in order to impress they list papers that they say support their views despite the fact that some references are not relevant or some actually undermine their case. I have personally attended a couple of technical talks where this has occurred. Such an approach demonstrates either ignorance or distain for the audience and I now do not consider those who delivered these talks as reliable scientists.

A prime example of the selective and misuse of data was a paper in 2007 from the University of Michigan that claimed that organic farming could feed the world. The UK organic lobby was keen to quote this paper until it became clear that it was discredited. It even claimed a 37% increase in maize yields in Argentina being due to organic farming when the quoted farmers were actually adopting min till and using herbicide resistant GM crops!

I have just read a paper by a statistician on whether organic agriculture can feed the world (http://www.statisticsviews.com/details/feature/4795851/Can-organic-farming-feed-the-world.html). He concludes that“we need to produce less meat – as much as 40% of global grain is used as livestock fodder when it could go directly and much more efficiently to humans. And about a third of the food we produce is never eaten. So if we drop the assumption that global food supply has to go wherever existing patterns of demand drive it, the possibilities of growing sufficient food with organic methods seem a lot less daunting.” This encapsulates the view of the green blob; we have to adapt our lifestyles to that which they dictate rather than that which we might wish. There has to be a sensible compromise and that is what governance is all about.

So where does this leave farmers and advisers? Not is a comfortable place but I return to the same old theme. Do not readily accept theories, rely on your experience, listen to different sources of information and look at as many actual field trial results as possible on which any advice is based. Are the treatments in the trials a fair test, what are the errors in the trials, are the results consistent and, if not, can the inconsistency be explained? It is not easy but it has to be recognised that scientists can be subject to pressure and have egos and frailties.

Perhaps not a cheerful Christmas message but do have a great Christmas and New Year.

ChristmasTree

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Hazard – EU decision making

Posted on 04/12/2014 by Jim Orson

 

SprayerThe Pope has had a little dig at the EU institutions suggesting that they have lost their way and that they view the member states “with aloofness, mistrust and even, at times, suspicion.” Pretty tough talk and perhaps the Pope is the only person who could proffer such an opinion without a huge backlash from the bureaucrats in Brussels and Strasbourg. 

I suspect that many in the pesticide industry would endorse the Pope’s analysis. Increasingly, legislation appears to be determined by mistrust and aloofness and has resulted in some key decision-making on pesticides and GMs not being based on science. Perhaps this is best demonstrated by the green blob’s coup of lobbying for the post of EC Chief Scientist to be discontinued. Sure enough, within a month or two Ann Glover was sacked. Could it be that the reason for their hostility was that she supported GMs? Her support was derived from hard evidence and good science. The green blob, knowing that any successor to the post would also be a scientist who would rely on the same sound principles, decided that the post rather than the current incumbent should go. 

The new pesticide legislation will result in active substances being banned solely because they are defined as hazardous. This is a departure from the previous science-based practice where the risk of using a potentially hazardous substance was assessed. This approach was based on the principle that it is only the level of exposure to a hazardous substance that defines the level of risk. Just to give an example of the difference between a risk and a hazard: electricity is hazardous but the risk of using it is very low because we are not directly exposed to it. 

We may lose a lot of pesticides (e.g. the triazole fungicides) because they could be characterised as hazardous as they may be defined as potential endocrine disruptors i.e. they disrupt the hormone systems of animals. Those who support the hazard cut-off for endocrine disruption quote the increase in endocrine diseases (primarily diabetes) in humans and the feminisation of male fish. The link with diabetes seems to have been made with pesticides long banned in Europe and used particularly in parts of the world where pesticides are less regulated (http://www.diabetesandenvironment.org/home/contam/pesticides). However, as the definition of what may be an endocrine disruptor has yet to be agreed, it is impossible to assess precisely the likely extent of the damage to the agricultural industry from this hazard based approach. 

I have been taking an interest in the potential level of exposure of humans and wildlife to those pesticides that may be defined as endocrine disruptors. One potential source of endocrine disruptors to humans (and fish!) is surface and ground water. However, less than a handful of those pesticides that may be defined as endocrine disruptors have been found in water in the UK and then at incredibly low levels. A recent Defra pamphlet stated that “research has found small amounts of endocrine disruptors in some of our rivers. However they tend to occur only in immediate proximity to industrial and wastewater discharges” (http://dwi.defra.gov.uk/consumers/advice-leaflets/edc.pdf). I accept that pesticides were probably not counted as endocrine disruptors in this survey but it is important to state that there are other sources of such chemicals. 

The other significant source for humans ingesting endocrine disruptors is through food. However, the surveys of wheat flour carried out under the auspices of the Defra Expert Committee of Pesticide Residues in Food and the European Food Standards Agency have, with one or two exceptions (which were typically well below Maximum Residue Levels), failed to detect traces of those cereal pesticides that may be defined as endocrine disruptors. 

Another potential threat could be to spray operators but, as far as I am aware, surveys on their health have not picked up any problems that can be associated with endocrine disruption except where there has been prolonged exposure to pesticides that were banned in Europe many years ago. Finally, exposure of bystanders to spray drift is a hot topic. I am not sufficiently briefed to comment on the level of risk from this source but the adoption of air induction nozzles and good spray practice should minimise any risk. 

I have come to the conclusion from this rather simplistic analysis that the exposure of humans and animals to those pesticides that may be defined as endocrine disruptors could be negligible or extremely limited. Hence, it seems incredible to me that they may be banned as a matter of course. It is worth noting at this point that some foodstuffs naturally contain potential endocrine disruptors, such as the phyto-oestrogens in soya bean products, the fibre of whole grains, vegetables and flax seed (http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/type/breast-cancer/about/risks/diet-and-breast-cancer#soya). 

The European Commission is running a consultation exercise Endocrine Disruption Legislation (http://ec.europa.eu/eusurvey/runner/ED-consultation). It is essential that farmers and their representatives respond to the consultation and state the likely effect on the yield and quality of the crops grown, the impact on pesticide resistance management, the fact that there is a lack of alternative control methods in some cases, as well as what this means to their businesses. Those not close to the industry will be unaware that it takes only small changes in cropping and/or a reduction in yield to have a devastating impact on the finances of a farm business. A report by Anderson’s for the NFU, AIC and CPA provides much of the background information required (http://www.nfuonline.com/andersons-final-report/). I think that it is also important to ask if there is a credible reason (i.e. not just the unrealistic invocation of the precautionary principle) to suspect that the pesticides that may be listed as endocrine disruptors are a threat to human health and the environment. The green blob considers that numbers count in terms of response to consultations and so too should the industry.

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How to make money

Posted on 20/11/2014 by Jim Orson

In recent years I have pondered that the easiest way to make money must be to rent a shop in Cambridge and populateCup of coffee it with a few tables and chairs and serve good quality coffee. Pricing a cup of coffee would not be a problem; just think of a ridiculous amount and then treble it would be about right. Even better, have a few tables and chairs outside and there will not be a spare seat whatever the weather.

However, this get rich quick scheme may not be as robust as I thought. There has been a recent report that says that individually owned coffee shops are struggling.

Never mind, I now have a new plan which developed as I walked around the pesticide section of the local garden centre. There are now precious few active ingredients available to gardeners and, partly as a consequence, there is a growing range of ‘natural alternative’ pesticides. I noted one natural insecticide sold in 200 ml bottles. It comprised 160 ml of oilseed rape oil and the remainder, I assume, was an emulsifier in order to keep the oil in solution whilst it is being sprayed. The price was £6.99! Yes, £6.99! That must be the way to make money.

I first heard of oils (in this case mineral oils) being used as insecticides whilst talking a few years back to a French farmer. He was spraying his potato seed crop regularly with them in order to reduce/prevent aphids feeding and spreading virus. This has an advantage over conventional insecticides which tend to kill aphids after they have fed on the plant and consequently have already spread the virus. A report for the British Potato Council endorses the potential for this approach, possibly in combination with conventional insecticides, and now field research is being done to measure the benefits of using oils in order to reduce/prevent the spread of viruses.

Sorry, I have strayed from my theme of making money. It seems at the moment that producing commodity crops is not a way of making money as there is no shortage of supply because of good levels of world production this year. This is a recurring story in our industry. Uniquely there are a countless number of producers in the world whose yields can be profoundly determined by the weather resulting in it being impossible to finely balance supply and demand. So, it is perhaps in everyone’s interest that farmers will continue to produce food even when there is the distinct possibility that they will produce too much, resulting in them losing money. Some say that this is the reason why we need subsidies in order to ensure that, if anything, the world has over- rather than under-production of food.

I realise that some countries do not receive subsidies. New Zealand is an example but their commodity crop production is relatively minor in world terms and they have many alternative cropping opportunities. I am the first to admit that they themselves have created many of these alternative opportunities, such as specialist seed production, and that this may not have occurred had they received subsidies. On the other hand, there is a limited area needed in the world for such specialist crops.

Perhaps subsidies should not generally be viewed as wrong provided that they help to reduce significantly the number of years when there is an insufficient supply of the major commodity crops. The last time there was a price spike because of concern of under-supply, it caused food riots particularly in some poorer parts of the world. However, I would rather be part of an industry that does not require subsidies but this may be unrealistic until world production consistently struggles to meet demand.

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