The EU will become the “Museum of Agriculture,” says Leading Agtech Entrepreneur

Reported by Jack Heald  (AgFUNDER NEWS)
Editor’s Note: The Thought Leaders in Agriculture series is presented by IntelinAir, makers of AgMRI: a digital decision support system for farmers using aerial imaging. The first in the series is a conversation with Robert Saik, founder of Agri-Trend, a digital agronomy business that was acquired by Trimble in 2015.

unnamed-2-e1535570765837

Agricultural futurist Robert Saik is a professional agronomist and certified agricultural consultant. He has published over 50 articles on crop agronomics and is a thought leader on the integration of technology in crop production.

Robert was awarded the 2014 Canadian Agri-Marketer of the Year by the Canadian Association of Agricultural Marketers.

He is the executive producer of KNOW IDEAS Media (Facebook / YouTube) which is dedicated to providing science-based education on the use of genetic engineering in agriculture.

Robert has founded over 15 companies ranging from field diagnostic and sensory technology firms, fertilizer manufacturing, fertilizer distribution, agri-retail, agricultural consulting and farming including a pure-bred cattle operation.

Imagine you are giving a “State of the Union” speech for agriculture. What are the main points you would make?

Regardless of what food “religion” you believe in – whether you’re vegan, paleo, organic, GMO, non-GMO or whatever denomination you come from – the one thing we all agree on is that agriculture must be infinitely sustainable. Otherwise, the human race doesn’t exist.

We must remember how fragile we are. The human race lives off six inches of topsoil that feeds all the plants and animals on the planet. Agriculture must adopt and utilize new sciences and technologies as they emerge.

As society has evolved, and people get more urban, fewer people are on the land actually growing the crops. There’s a divorce between what agriculture currently is and people’s perception. And perception is not reality.

Farmers today are very sophisticated, running multiple computers, data sets, doing amazing things with technology integration. The image of agriculture with a lot of urban consumers is still one of round-fendered pickup trucks, bib overalls, a straw hanging out of the mouth and a red barn. And that’s just not agriculture today.

Agriculture must be infinitely sustainable.
Otherwise the human race doesn’t exist.

Agriculture continues to evolve and continues to integrate new technology. Our ability to feed the planet is certainly there.

More people die of obesity than they do of starvation. We are at the lowest incidence of global poverty ever; less than 800 million people are living at the extreme poverty level, which is still a huge number, but much lower than a decade ago and a screaming success for agriculture.

If we implement the technologies at our disposal, we can vastly increase the quality of agricultural output and decrease our environmental footprint.

Let’s talk about data-driven agriculture. What technologies are the most promising in the near future?

First is field sensor technology. Whether it’s moisture sensors placed in the field, nutrient sensors placed in the field, leaf sensors to detect evapotranspiration rates – all of those things are interesting.

Then there’s aerial imaging and analytics for early-stage detection of problems.

For in-season data acquisition, you have drones, fixed-wing craft, microsatellites and macro satellites. As you go higher in the air the resolution decreases.  High-resolution aerial imagery is really important. When we’re dealing with crops, we need to have a high-enough resolution that we can actually determine what we’re looking at. And we need to be alerted as to where in the field issues are cropping up. Timely information helps the farmer or agronomist pinpoint the precise location of a problem in the field.

Let me explain the scale of this problem.

We work with many farmers that have five, 10, fifteen, 30,000 acres. Hundreds of fields. Here’s the problem: how do you scan tens of thousands of acres and then – in a timely manner – determine which ones are being impacted by a nutrient deficiency, a biotic or an abiotic stress?

Can the farmer on a 15,000 or 30,000-acre farm scout that land detailed enough and fast enough to provide actions in real-time? The answer is self-evident.

But with aerial imagery and analytics, that’s one of the problems that I think we’re starting to crack.

One of the keys to making this technology work is the rapid acquisition of data. Fixed-wing aircraft can get large swaths of land frequently. That’s the first step.

How do you scan tens of thousands of acres and then – in a timely manner – determine which ones are being impacted?

Then, you have to ingest terabytes worth of data. That sheer amount of data used to be a significant issue, but increasing computing power makes us able to ingest all that data quickly.

Once you’ve got the images, you combine digital image analysis with artificial intelligence. Now – in very little time – you can perform anomaly detection and change detection. You can see the degree of completeness of the seeding rows. You can even do weed detection.

All of those things can be brought into a machine-learning type of algorithm. And ultimately, that can alert the farmer: “Hey! Of the hundred fields you have, these four fields have an alert right now. These certain parts of this field that should be scouted out immediately.”

And the software will point you exactly to those areas where you should go walk.

Why do you consider the disconnect between the perceptions of urban consumers and the reality of agricultural producers so important?

Because concentrations of population in urban centers understand less and less about agriculture. Activist groups combine that ignorance and then leverage social media to create absolute hysteria around things that are non-issues.  

They use fear to generate membership sales and to propagate panic in urban consumers. That ultimately leads to poor policy implemented by politicians, which ultimately strips tools out of farmers hands.

You have a population, an urban population that can vote to tear the tools and the technology away from agriculture’s hands. And I don’t have to go very far to give you examples. GMO is a breeding technique. And CRISPR technology is more precise than traditional breeding techniques.

The more science you understand, the more you understand the science of genetic engineering, the more you would regard GMO as a remarkable advancement of the breeding process.

And yet that’s not what the average consumer is being led to believe.

Please comment about the recent decision out of the EU that limited the use of CRISPR technology?

It’s absurd. It’s an ill-formed, ill-conceived decision that basically grounds European agriculture in 2001-era technology.

I’ve read the ruling. The ruling basically said that CRISPR technology is deemed “the same as GMO technology.” They equated the precise editing of genes in an organism to “transgenic,” which is moving genes back and forth between organisms.

According to the ruling, if you expose seeds to mutagenesis – which is chemo or nuclear mutation – that’s okay. As long as you mutated the crops before 2001. That’s “old” mutagenesis or “old” mutation. But if you mutate crops using those methods today, that’s “new” mutagenesis.

The more science you understand, you would regard GMO as a remarkable advancement of the breeding process.

So what they basically said is this: the random scrambling of chromosomes underneath the archaic science that we had in 2001 is perfectly fine. But when you specifically edit one or two genes to prevent a disease or a fungus or fight some sort of a pest problem, that’s deemed as a “genetic interference.”

And so it falls underneath the Precautionary Principle which basically says, you have to prove things are not harmful to the environment and not harmful to human beings. That’s impossible to do. You can’t prove a negative.  

So the Precautionary Principle will stymie all development of breeding in the European Union.

What are some of the second-order effects of the ruling?

Those scientists working on CRISPR technology, gene editing, genetic engineering, will be leaving the EU. They have no incentive to work on that technology in a jurisdiction where you can’t commercialize it.

The EU will become the “Museum of Agriculture.” It’s unfortunate for them, but it’ll create opportunities for those jurisdictions around the world that can adopt a new technology.

I fear that this European Union ruling on CRISPR will also condemn many African nations to perpetual darkness in terms of agricultural science because a lot of African nations take their lead from EU policy.

What are the effects on the market as a result of this EU decision? How can those outside of the EU take advantage of this situation? What are the natural advantages that are going to accrue because of this situation?

There are some opportunities.

The USDA has already determined that CRISPR technology is not the same as transgenics. So it’s going to give those of us that adopt this new technology a leg up.

Germany is suffering a drought right now. If you had access to science, you’d be able to breed crops that are more drought tolerant.

What opportunities are going to open up for other technologies in the EU? What I’m thinking is – because we’ve got crops that don’t have the opportunity to be genetically modified, to be resistant to pests or various organic disease processes – it would seem that scientists who create technologies to help get an early warning for those kinds of things will have a bigger opportunity.

If you were in the EU right now, and you’re looking at your options for herbicide control, one option is tillage, which is not good for the soil and also not good for greenhouse gas balance.

The EU will become the “Museum of Agriculture.”

However, if you can’t use herbicide-tolerant crops – because GMOs aren’t allowed – then what are your options? You can use a specific cultivation. Or early detection of weed outbreaks, where you can spray out a certain portion of the crop with a specific herbicide at that location. Those are going to be very important. But those are important everywhere in the world.

Not once in my 35-year career have I ever heard a farmer say, “I want to spend more money on fertilizer and crop protection next year.” Farmers want to spend less.

If there are ways for them to find where they have specific problems in the fields – maybe with GIS and GPS technology – and then tie that to variable rate application or site-specific application, then we’d be able to target the problem right in the field.

If we stare into the future, and play out what happened in Europe, there’s only one outcome: ultimate food deprivation for the planet.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

They say that 2% of Americans grow the food for the other 98%. That’s not true actually. The real farmers – that grow 80% of the food – represent about 0.25% of the American population. So 0.25% of Americans are what I call “farmers of consequence.” Hell, you could fit most of them into a big-sized football field, and that’s it.

If we stare into the future, and we play out what happened in Europe, and you let that play out, there’s only one outcome. And that outcome is ultimate food deprivation for a chunk of the planet.

As human beings, we have 3 choices when it comes to a population of 9 or 10 billion people. There are only three ways to deal with this issue. One is to kill people. As a species, we’ve had a good run of that. We can kill people. Number two is we can control births. And who’s gonna sign up for birth control on a massive scale? And the third option is to feed people. If you stare into the future – based on European Union rulings right now – they’re going to choose to hurt people. Ultimately, food will become more scarce.

SOME GOOD NEWS ABOUT GLYPHOSATE

By Christopher P. Dufault, P.AG., and Robert Saik, P.AG. CAC

Glyphosate.jpg

These days we are exposed to a great deal of negative, one-sided and inaccurate information in the media and online about a herbicide called gylphosate, often sold under the trade name Roundup.

We interact with farmers and farm organizations on a regular basis.  We understand their concerns with economic sustainability and their interest in environmental stewardship. And we understand the valuable contribution that technological advances have  made in improving the sustainability of agriculture. Now, agenda-driven groups seek to take one of agriculture’s most useful technologies, glyphosate, and end its use through well- orchestrated, alarmist misinformation campaigns.

But what do government surveys  and regulatory decisions tell us?  To understand the real story we turn to an excellent set of data that tracks trends in pesticide use, hazard and risk, over time from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) in Ontario, Canada.  This data, collected using consistent methodology, enables us to learn more about how changing farming practices impact the environment and those working in agriculture.

In this article we’ll talk about:

  • the overall reduction in the amount of herbicide applied in Ontario corn and soybean production;
  • the increased use of glyphosate and benefits versus other herbicides displaced by glyphosate;
  • the reduced hazard and risk from the use of glyphosate, based on indicators called the environmental impact quotient (EIQ) and environmental impact (EI), respectively; and
  • the positive reassessments of the safety of glyphosate by the world’s major pesticide regulators.

USE OF HERBICIDES INCLUDING GLYPHOSATE IN ONTARIO

Every five years, for the past several decades, Ontario has surveyed farmers on their use of pesticides including herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. The most recent survey dates from 2013-2014 (1).   Today, we are focusing on what this survey tells us about trends in the use of herbicides in corn and soybeans in Ontario.

CORN

Between 1983 and 2013, the total amount of figure 1herbicide used in field corn in Ontario declined by 39% (Figure 1). This reduction is primarily due to the increased use of glyphosate, which is applied at a lower rate of active ingredient (ai) per acre than the herbicides it replaced, increasing from 1% to 54% of the amount of all herbicides applied to field corn during that period. Furthermore, the decline in the total amount of herbicide applied occurred despite an 11% increase in the area grown to field corn (Figure 1).

figure 2

In that same 30-year period, the yield per acre of field corn increased by 74% (Figure 2).  And due to a combination of the reduced amount of herbicide applied per acre and increased yield, the amount of kg ai of all herbicides applied per bushel produced declined by a whopping 70% (Figure 2).

SOYBEANS

Soybeans are also a good news story. Betweenfigure 3.jpg 1983 and 2013, despite the acreage of soybean grown in Ontario increasing by a massive 188%, the total amount of herbicide applied increased by just 47% (Figure 3). As with field corn, this is largely due to the replacement, by glyphosate, of other higher-rate herbicides; usage of glyphosate increased from 2% to 82% of all herbicides applied during that time frame (Figure 3).

figure 4

In that same 30-year period, the yield of soybean increased by 53% (Figure 4).   And the amount of kg ai of all herbicides applied per bushel produced declined by an impressive 67% (Figure 4).

AGRONOMIC BENEFITS OF GLYPHOSATE

From an agronomic perspective, glyphosate has been referred to as a “once-in-a-century herbicide” (2). Being a broad-spectrum herbicide, it controls virtually all species of weeds and has been utilized mostly in conjunction with herbicide-tolerant crops since their first appearance in the mid-1990s. Glyphosate also largely eliminates the need for several applications of multiple limited-spectrum herbicide active ingredients that would otherwise be needed to control all the species of weeds present. Not only do these other herbicides generally have  higher hazard/risk profiles (discussed below), but they are often more phytotoxic. The resultant crop damage reduces yields unlike when glyphosate is used in herbicide-tolerant crops. Economists have estimated that if the world ceased to grow genetically-modified herbicide-tolerant crops in the absence of glyphosate, the annual loss of farm income would be $6.76 billion and there would be substantial declines in the production of soybean, corn and canola (3).

The widespread adoption of glyphosate has also resulted in decreased tillage (or soil cultivation) as farmers have  adopted minimum or zero tillage growing systems. This has profound implications because reduced tillage means lower greenhouse gas emissions from burning less fossil fuel as well as from reduced decomposition of organic matter in the soil. Additionally, the associated increase in soil tilth brings better water holding capacity and increased soil health.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT QUOTIENT (EIQ) AND ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT (EI) OF GLYPHOSATE

Based on the data just cited, it is apparent that the amount of herbicide used to produce field corn and soybeans in Ontario has declined due to glyphosate largely replacing other major herbicides that are applied at higher rates.  But, does a lower rate of application also mean reduced risk?

In conjunction with the results of the pesticide use survey, Ontario also published a report on the environmental risk associated with pesticide use in Ontario (4). This report used an Environmental Impact Quotient (EIQ) to estimate the hazard associated with the use of each pesticide recorded in the survey.  Essentially, the EIQ is an indicator of the potential of a pesticide to cause  harm. The EIQs for different pesticides can be compared and the higher the EIQ value, the greater the possible harm such as to farm workers, consumers and ecosystems.

Different way of calculating an EIQ are found in the published literature. The particular EIQ used by Ontario in this study is calculated based on data taken from 12 different data points from safety tests conducted on pesticides in the laboratory and the field. Briefly, these include measures of short- and long-term toxicity in laboratory animals, half-life, whether systemic in plants (i.e., tendency to circulate through plant tissues), leaching and runoff potential, and toxicity to several species of non-target animals.

The reported EIQ for glyphosate was calculated to be just 15.3 which is the tenth lowest EIQ of all the pesticide active ingredients from the survey. Furthermore, glyphosate has partially replaced the use of herbicides with higher EIQs, including atrazine (EIQ = 22.9) in corn, and metolachlor/s-metolachlor (EIQ = 22.0) in corn and soybeans, meaning it is less hazardous than these herbicides. This low EIQ for glyphosate is not surprising, considering that it is “less acutely toxic than common chemicals such as sodium chloride (salt) or aspirin” (2).

So, what about risk? This can be called environmental impact (EI) and is essentially hazard (EIQ) multiplied by exposure (i.e., amount used). Not only does glyphosate have  a lower EIQ than the 2018-10-02_21-04-09.jpgabove-mentioned major herbicides that it replaces, but it is also recommended in Ontario for application at a lower rate per acre than the other herbicides when applied on their own (5).  Whereas, the Ontario study (4) calculated EIs for the use of glyphosate in the whole province, we have done so on a per acre basis.  The combination of factors – lower EIQ and lower rate – means the EI for glyphosate per acre of field corn, for example, is about 60% less than for the major herbicides that it replaces (Figure 5).

REGULATORY STATUS OF GLYPHOSATE

So, all the above is good news for producers and the environment. But it’s fair to say that the 12 data points used in estimating the EIQ are taken from a fraction of all the health and environmental studies done to assess the safety of pesticides. And, there’s the 2015 report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO)  that classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” (6).

This report has engendered much controversy as evidenced by the many, contrasting points of view on the subject that can be found on the internet. We will simply say the following:

  • The IARC report took account only of published toxicity data on glyphosate.
  • The IARC report was a hazard assessment that would take account of how glyphosate is used.  Remember hazard x exposure = risk.
  • The pesticide regulators in each country in which glyphosate is registered have access to much more substantial and relevant data sets than does IARC.  For example, in addition to reviewing and validating published data, these organizations also review the extensive body of toxicology studies from registrants that are conducted using internationally- accepted protocols. These latter studies are also required to meet stringent Good Laboratory Practice (GLP) guidelines such as those of the Organization for Economic Co- operation and Development (OECD) (7).
  • Regulatory agencies update their reviews of all registered pesticides at regular intervals; Canada and the USA do so every 15 years. And virtually all the pesticide regulatory agencies in the world, that have  recently updated their reviews of glyphosate, have  reconfirmed its safety and renewed its registration, in contrast to IARC’s assessment of glyphosate as being “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Here’s a small sampling of what some of these regulatory agencies have published:

  • In March 2017, the European Chemicals Agency reported their determination that glyphosate is not classified as a carcinogen (8).
  • In its draft “Revised Glyphosate Issue Paper: Evaluation of Carcinogenic Potential” document for public comment dated December 12, 2017, the US Environmental Protection Agency stated that it had reviewed close to 170 epidemiological, animal carcinogenicity and genotoxicity studies, and that the available data do not support a carcinogenic process for glyphosate (9).
  • On April 28, 2017, Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA)  reported in its completed re-evaluation of glyphosate that it is “unlikely to pose a human cancer risk.” In explaining why PMRA’s conclusions differed from those of IARC, PMRA stated “. . . the level of human exposure, which determines the actual risk, was not taken into account by IARC ” (10). PMRA renewed the registration of glyphosate in Canada with only minor label changes.

CONCLUSIONS

While both corn and soybean acreage AND yield have  increased in Ontario since 1983, the overall environmental impact of herbicide use per acre has declined in large part because glyphosate has displaced other more harmful major herbicide chemistries.

This reduction in risk is due to 1) glyphosate being less hazardous, based on the EIQ, compared with these other herbicides, and 2) glyphosate being applied at a lower rate. Major regulatory agencies, such as Canada’s PMRA, have  recently reconfirmed the safety of glyphosate and renewed its registration.

Glyphosate has played a key role in enabling many farmers to achieve excellent weed control in herbicide-tolerant crops while adopting reduced or zero tillage. This reduction in cultivation has positive implications for the environment in terms of soil health, water holding capacity and greenhouse gas balance.

__________________________________________________________________________________

Christopher P. Dufault is a Professional Agrologist, and the former head of the Re-evaluation and Use Analysis Section of the Pest Management Regulatory Agency in Canada. Currently, he is a Senior Agri-Coach with Agri-Trend and Principal of Christopher P. Dufault & Associates Inc., based in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  Christopher.dufault(at)cantab.net. Robert Saik, a Professional Agrologist and Certified Agricultural Consultant, is the founder of Agri-Trend and Principal of Saik Management Group Inc., based in Olds, Alberta, Canada. Rob@RobertSAIK.com 403-391-0772. Neither has ever  worked for any manufacturer of glyphosate.

___________________________________________________________________________________

REFERENCES

  1.   Farm & Food Care Ontario. 2015. Survey of Pesticide Use in Ontario, 2013/2014. Estimates of Pesticides Used on Field Crops and Fruit and Vegetable Crops. http://www.farmfoodcareon.org/wp- content/uploads/2016/10/ONTARIO-Pesticide- Use-Survey-Final-2013.pdf
  2.   Duke, Stephen O. and Stephen B. Powles.2008. Mini-review. Glyphosate: a once-in-a-century herbicide. Pest Management Science.  64:319-325.  https://naldc.nal.usda.gov/download/17918/PDF
  3.   Brookes, Graham, Farzad Taheripour and Wallace E. Tyner. 2017. The contribution of glyphosate to agriculture and potential impact of restrictions on use at the global level. GM Crops & Food. Biotechnology in Agriculture and the Food Chain. 8: 4: 216-228.  https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21645698.2017.1390637
  4.   Van Eerd, Laura  L. 2016. Environmental Risk of Pesticide Use in Ontario: 2013/2014 Pesticide Use Survey. http://www.farmfoodcareon.org/wp- content/uploads/2016/10/EIQSurvey2013FINAL.pdf
  5.   Publication 75A Guide to Weed Control. Field Crops. 2018 [OMAFRA]. http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/crops/pub75/pub75A/pub75A.pdf
  6.   IARC Monographs Volume 112: evaluation of five organophosphate insecticides and herbicides. 2015 https://www.iarc.fr/en/media- centre/iarcnews/pdf/MonographVolume112.pdf
  7.   Good Laboratory Practice (GLP).  http://www.oecd.org/chemicalsafety/testing/go od-laboratory-practiceglp.htm
  8.   Glyphosate not classified as a carcinogen by ECHA 2017  https://echa.europa.eu/-/glyphosate- not-classified-as-a-carcinogen-by-echa
  9.   Revised Glyphosate Issue Paper.  Evaluation of Carcinogenic Potential 2017. https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=EPA- HQ-OPP-2009-0361-0073
  10.   Re-evaluation Decision RVD2017-01, Glyphosate. 2017. https://www.canada.ca/en/health- canada/services/consumer-product- safety/reports-publications/pesticides-pest- management/decisions-updates/registration- decision/2017/glyphosate-rvd-2017-01.html