Agricultural Research – Friend or Foe?

rice_cakes.jpgI love to eat. Just thinking about a steaming, juicy steak, hot off the grill makes me salivate – but with my New Year’s resolution to shed a few pounds, even a rice cake looks pretty good right now! Thinking of food is a daily reminder that if I ate today, I should thank a farmer. Since I am a proud farmer, I’m also thankful that there continues to be research leading to agricultural advances that allow me to eat foods from a broad variety of choices. There is great debate regarding these advances and some would argue that they aren’t advances at all. Are they kidding?

Agriculture is a broad industry that encompasses seed creation, land preparation, and planting to the point where the consumer has a mouth-watering morsel of food on their fork. Advances in seed genetics create issues that are front and centre with the critics of agricultural research – to the extent that GMO has become a four-letter word. Opponents of GMOs defend their position with beliefs that include GMOs pose a danger to humans, nature, and the environment. Simultaneously, benefits from GMOs include higher production yields that will feed more people, less pesticide use to improve the environment, and better quality food resulting in a potentially healthier human being. I admit that there can be trade-offs when using GMOs such as fewer weeds in the fields could result in less weed seeds produced to feed birds that rely on weed seeds as their lunch, but if I can include items like rice cakes in my balanced diet, can’t birds learn to eat other seeds in theirs?

Another agricultural area that continues to make giant gains thanks to research is the field of bio-fuels. It’s not difficult to see the benefits that bio-fuels can provide with gas prices over $1.00 per litre. But not everyone is a cheerleader for bio-fuels. The opposing team says that producing bio-fuels from corn reduces the amount of corn available for cow, pig and human consumption resulting in higher feed and food prices. As a farmer, I think that up until recently, the price of corn was so low that if corn had been the only crop grown on my farm, it would have been the only food available for me to eat because I wouldn’t have made enough money selling my corn to buy other groceries – like rice cakes. Maybe using corn for bio-fuels will reduce the abundance of corn to a level that a farmer can actually make a living from growing corn.

There are other crops besides corn that could be used for bio-fuels. Bryan Walsh reports in the January 8, 2008 issue of Time Magazine (www.time.com) about current positive results when converting an inedible plant called switchgrass to bio-fuel. The trials were done in Nebraska, North and South Dakota and the crop can be grown on soil that is not prime farm ground. That would free up the prime land for me to grow corn again and keep those corn prices low… Hey wait a minute, maybe I should change my position.

Research is extremely valuable to agriculture. If there was no science with its complementary research, there would be no progress in this world. If the majority of farmers didn’t believe that, they’d all be plowing their fields with horses instead of horsepower and I’d be barefoot, pregnant, wearing a long dress and using a quill to compose this column. We’ve come a long way. Let’s not stop now.

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