Agricultural research has value if it can add efficiency to the food system

farmers marketOne of the reasons I don’t espouse blanket opposition to GMOs (genetically modified organisms) is because I support research, and new technologies. The day may come when we need these technologies to produce enough food for everyone. At present, however, we face many problems across the food system, and those problems often point out the inefficiency of the system. Resources are simply being wasted.

In Kentucky, former tobacco farmers are relearning their trade, and seeking crops that grow well in the same alkaline soil that tobacco did. Many in Kentucky believe that crop is hemp. The new academic year is the second for industrial hemp research at the University of Kentucky.

In the second year, UK agronomists David Williams and Rich Mundell plan to begin work on hemp varieties that produce grain, as well as fiber. They also want to find out which practices are best for producing cannibinoids, compounds that can be used as dietary supplements to enhance health and wellness.

“Our work has expanded greatly this year to include all three harvestable components of hemp,” Williams told Katie Pratt, writing for UK’s website. “We are hoping to optimize grower profitability through these small plot studies.”

Graduate student Leah Black will also be working on the project. She is the first graduate student dedicated only to hemp research in recent times. She will be working on cannibinoid production. In any case, if former tobacco farms can be at their most productive, we’ll have better efficiency in the use of these lands.

Looking farther down the production line, food safety is a hot-button issue. No one wants a serving of E. coli with their lettuce.

The University of California at Berkeley recently concluded a study on whether the removal of surrounding wild vegetation, a practice which was implemented after an E. coli outbreak in 2006, has done anything to diminish the problem. Indications are it did not. Results were reported August 10, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Wildlife took much of the blame for that outbreak, even though rates of E. coli in wildlife are generally very low,” said study lead author Daniel Karp. He was quoted on a Cal website dedicated to agriculture and natural resources. “Now, growers are pressured by buyers to implement practices meant to discourage wildlife from approaching fields of produce. This includes clearing bushes, plants and trees that might serve as habitat or food sources for wild animals. Our study found that this practice has not led to the reductions in E. coli and Salmonella that people were hoping for.”

Conversely, natural areas have been known for years to mitigate the impacts of agriculture by filtering pesticide and fertilizer runoff. Recently, decline of pollinating insect populations has put a spotlight on the preservaton of these natural areas as well.

Common field-bordering weeds like milkweed, ragweed, and goldenrod have caused both farmers and allergy sufferers to raise their eyes to the heavens for relief for many years. Though we may not think of these things as “wildflowers”, these plants can be important to pollinators, especially honeybees important to crops. In the case of milkweed, it is the sole food source for Monarch butterfly larvae.

This is also where GMO research goes horribly wrong, into Roundup Ready crops that allow farmers to wipe out weeds everywhere, and in their entirety. If this practice is deemed unnecessary, expense, labor, and the overall environment can be saved.

At the end of the chain are those who consume the food. Even though I wasn’t paying attention during Grassland Management senior year at Rutgers, and I only passed that course because I was able to borrow notes from a friend, it was only common sense that you could grow the most nutritious feed ever for your livestock, but it would do you no good if they wouldn’t eat it. We called the stuff the cows liked “palatable”. When discussing humans, “palatable” may mean a little bit more.

A sociologist and a business professor, not scientists, at the University of Iowa, found that those who support the local farmers market do so in part to support the greater good. University of Iowa professor Ion Vasi was a corresponding author of the study, released Aug. 22 at the American Sociology Association Annual meeting. Following is a quotation from the webpage Iowa Now.

“Vasi says the local food market is what sociologists call a ‘moralized market’, a market in which people combine economic activities with their social values. Among their findings, the UI researchers discovered local food markets were more likely to develop in areas where residents had a strong commitment to civic participation, health, and the environment.

“’It’s about valuing the relationship with the farmers and people who produce the food and believing that how they produce the food aligns with your personal values,’ Vasi says.”

Understanding the desires of the end user is a simple marketing principle that also makes human efforts to provide food more efficient.

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