Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Our Food System Isn't Perfect But It Isn't Broken

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the 2017 World Food Prize and participate as the U.S. Delegate to the Global Farmer Roundtable. It was a discussion full of similarities and issues in agriculture from 14 farmers attending from around the world.

Following the World Food Prize, I headed to Chicago to attend "FNCE" the annual Food and Nutrition Convention & Expo of the Academy of Food and Nutrition. I was moderating a panel on genetic engineering and sustainable agriculture.

It was a contrast that left me contemplating how we got to such divergence in who has access to food and whether or not global hunger has truly been "solved". I tweeted up a storm following a presentation by Kimbal Musk because that is one statement he made, that we had solved global hunger and now needed to nourish people. Having been in sessions and discussions at the World Food Prize where the focus was on solving why 1 in 4 children are stunted or why 500,000 children go blind each year due to Vitamin A deficiency,  I knew what Mr. Musk asserted was at best out of touch and at worst, privileged ignorance.

I've been asked to share my opening remarks to the FNCE panel I moderated. It is focused toward dietitians, the attendees of FNCE.

"Good afternoon and welcome to the Future of Food: Biotechnology and Sustainable Agriculture. My name is Jennie Schmidt, a full time farmer from Maryland growing corn, high Oleic soybeans, tofu soybeans, winegrapes, wheat, barley, green beans and canning tomatoes. I describe our farm as a grocery store farm - we grow the ingredients you buy in products at the grocery store. Im also a former practicing clinical dietitian and am excited to have been asked to moderate this esteemed panel.

"We have had numerous sessions on food, agriculture,  and sustainability the past few days and I want to open with some comments from my perspective.

"I came to FNCE directly from having attended a week long program at the World Food Prize and watched Dr. Akin Adesina from Nigeria become the 2017 World Food Prize laureate, what is considered to be the Nobel Prize in food and agriculture. I was honored to have been asked to be the U.S. Delegate to the Global Farmer Roundtable at the World Food Prize. Our roundtable consensus definition of sustainable agriculture was "Safe food that protects our natural resources and reduces our environmental impact." Most farmers strive for this every day.

"The South African farmer delegate share a perspective you need to hear. He said "I have been fighting my whole life for the right to eat." Can you imagine? Most of us expect that food is a given, a human right,  not something we need to fight for. We often neglect to appreciate how fortunate we are.

"We have not solved global hunger. One in four children around the world are stunted due to chronic under nourishment and malnutrition. Half a million children go blind annually due to Vitamin A deficiency. Children who are fighting for the right to eat.

"Several speakers at FNCE have stated that we need to move from a food system that simply feeds people to a system that nourishes them.  I would submit to you that unless in your nutrition practice you have been treating people for pellegra, rickets, beri beri, kwashiorkor, or even goiter, our system HAS nourished people and WE have lost sight of 1) how resilient our food system has been and 2) how far our food system has come.

"I would say our food system isn't perfect, but it is far from broken. We do not fight for the right to eat. We eat from a place of privilege.

"And from that perspective, I hope you absorb (pun intended) what today's presentations offer, the importance of technology in food and agriculture to continue to move our food system along the sustainability continuum."

Saturday, April 1, 2017

High Oleic Soybeans

High Oleic Soybeans 

This is a follow up to my post about GMO vs NonGMO 2016 cost of production and a little more details about what high oleic soybeans are. 

These soybeans have 2 traits - one is a "gene edit" where the pathway that converts oleic acid to linoleic acid is suppressed. There is no "trait" added, just a silencing of an enzymatic pathway that converts one type of oil to another. The other "trait" is the RoundUp resistance that comes from the bacteria Agrobacterium that codes for resistance to the herbicide glyphosate. 

These pics show the testing each truckload goes through before unloading. When the truck pulls into the grain elevator, the truck pulls onto a scale to be weighed full and a probe pulls several samples from the trailer to analyze. 

This grain elevator is dedicated 100% to high oleic soybeans. So while they test the beans for moisture like all grain elevators do to be sure they won't go moldy, they also run a test to be sure the soybeans have the correct oil content. Regular beans have a much lower oleic oil content, around 25%, HO beans average >75%.

What's special about oleic oil? It's a monounsaturated fat, in the same category as olive oil. The oil from these beans is transfat free and so has a lot of commercial use in food recipes to remove transfat. It replaces much of the partially hydrogenated soybean oil without significant recipe reformulation.
Because of their specialty oil profile, they have to be tested to be sure they are the correct beans and meet the threshold for oleic oil before the truck can unload. If it doesn't pass, we'd have to haul the beans down to another grain elevator that buys plain commodity soybeans and sell them at a lower price. We get paid a per bushel premium for keeping them pure to their HO variety and not cross contaminate them with any other bean. Essentially it means really good record keeping and really good housekeeping of our equipment. This is why we harvested HO first, to be sure we practiced good identity preservation (IP) apart from the other soybeans we grow.

Once the oil content is verified, we can drive over to the unloading dock and dump the beans into the elevator. (Last pic) Then we pull back on the scale and get an empty weight which will then print out a ticket how many bushels we delivered on that load.

What are the benefits of HO soybeans? These beans are transfat free and the oil extracted from them is more shelf stable and does not need hydrogenation. While you as a consumer cannot yet buy this oil at the grocery store, it is used in commercial food production in frying and in reformulating packaged foods to remove the transfats. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Update: 2016 GMO & NonGMO Production

So by now you know I don't blog here much anymore. If you haven't found me on Facebook, that's pretty much where I "blog" these days, posting pictures and things that are going on around the family farm. But I know a lot of folks follow me for the updates to our GMO vs nonGMO production information and comparison so that's what I've been working on today since Winter storm "Stella" was pretty much an rain event for us. I had really hoped for a snow day since this winter has been too warm and too dry for my region.

A note for 2016 - I only included soybean information because we did not grow any conventional/nonGMO corn so I have no side by side comparison of GM to nonGM corn for 2016. All of the corn we grew in 2016 was "RIB" - refuge in bag meaning a certain percentage of the seeds in the bag were nontraited/nonGMO seeds to serve as an insect resistance management program.  Why did we give up conventional/nonGMO? Because there was no yield advantage and no premium associated with growing it. It didn't perform as well and as with any business owner looking at the bottom line, there was no economic or agronomic reason to continue.

Soybeans (dryland)


Biotech Acreage


Yield BPA


Conventional Acreage


Yield BPA


Yield Difference



(BPA = bushels per acre)

2016 Soybean Production

Cost Per Acre
for Food
for Feed
GMO/RR/High Oleic
for Feed
Crop Insurance
Fertilizer application
Pesticide application
Land Rent
Total Cost of Inputs
Bushels/Ac (BPA)
42 BPA
53 BPA
62 BPA
Gross Income
Net Income Difference

So what's our conclusion from the 2016 data?

1. GMO continues to outyield nonGMO in the 18 cropping years that we have grown it.

2. The $2/bushel premium for nonGMO soybeans does not offset the yield loss for either GMO with or without a premium. Let me explain. Here on the Delmarva, we can grow high oleic (HO) soybeans and receive a 50 cent premium  per bushel over commodity price. These HO beans are segregated and kept pure to their genetics just like the nonGMO are segregated and kept pure to their (lack of) traits. Compared to regular Roundup Ready soybeans, the HO beans which are also Roundup ready have consistently been a higher yielding bean for us having grown them now for 4 years. The chart above shows that our tofu beans continue to be our lowest yielding, least profitable soybean despite the fact that there is a significant premium attached to growing it. RoundUp Ready beans while traited/GMO, do not perform as well as the high oleic soybeans. For us, a 9 bushel per acre difference. 

3. For 2017, the majority of our acres will be high oleic soybeans. There is a huge demand and not enough acres in production for our region. The closest grain elevator to our farm is dedicated to HO beans so our trucking costs are significantly lower. We don't have to use our own storage bins so HO beans fit really well into our farming business plan. We will continue to grow tofu beans as part of a diversification effort as members of a farmers cooperative for the market opportunity to meet the limited customer demand for local tofu on the East Coast. Keep in mind that a lot of tofu can be made from a small number of bushels of soybeans so this is not a huge market. We sell tofu beans by the pallet, not by the truck load. 

4. There is no "one" way of making decisions on a farm and what works for us may not work well for others. Much depends on how much risk someone is willing to take, how much debt they are in already, what makes sense for the number of tractors and people they have to get the various jobs done, and so many other decisions that impact whether a farm is profitable or not. I do know one thing, no child is going to come back to a farm that is deep in the red and so our choices today effect the ability for the next generation to decide to return or not. Nothing is straight forward, nothing is black or white, and there is no cookie cutter method for farming across the country. 

Please remember that not all farmers have the same premiums available to them, or the same market access so this data again, only applies to us and to this region.

If you need to backtrack to my previous blogs on our cost of production here are links to the original post :  2014 GMO/NonGMO Comparison
2015 Update GMO/NonGMO comparison

For more information on high oleic soybeans, see my next blog.