Thursday, December 28, 2017

A Basic GMO Primer

I was in college when the first GMO seeds were made available to farmers. These were Round Up resistant soybeans invented by Monsanto. The trait was licensed to other seed companies too and in just a few years, such seeds became the standard for most soybean acres in the United States. A few years later the first GMO corn seeds became available too. The corn was given Round Up resistance, but also around the same time, another engineered trait that allowed the corn plant to produce its own insecticide, Bt.

My father and I adopted GMO soybeans right away. It is easier to have one herbicide plan that applies to all soybeans acres, especially if a herbicide that can be sprayed on only GMO soybeans with that resistant trait would kill soybeans without it. That could be a costly mistake. The switch to Round Up resistant soybeans immediately simplified our herbicide plans for soybeans. It was much easier and cheaper to have a field of soybeans that was clean of weeds. Yields went up. In the intervening years as both the conventional breeding programs and engineered traits have been improved, yields of soybeans have continued to climb.

I was a late adopter of GMO corn. For a few years I continued to grow conventional corn hybrids and sell them for a bonus as non-GMO corn. But as the hybrids with engineered traits continued to improve, the math no longer favored growing non-GMO corn. The loss of potential yield more than made up for the paltry bonus being paid for selling non-GMO corn. So I too switched to Round Up resistant, engineered hybrids that also produced their own Bt insecticide. As with soybeans, the yields went up and have continued to trend upwards as both the breeding programs and engineering have been improved.

Both corn and soybean acres in the United States are overwhelmingly GMO these days. These varieties of soybeans and hybrids of corn are far more reliable crops than their non-GMO alternatives. Part of this is that the conventional breeding programs for all the major seed producers are focused on providing the best lineages to be further modified by genetic engineering. But a large part of this is that the engineered traits themselves boost yields, increase the crop's resistance to drought, disease, and pests, and open up methods of weed control to farmers that allow us to better control weeds. All of that increases the yield we can reliably expect.

Whether or not the plant is GMO, whatever herbicides are used will eventually become less effective because the weeds are under tremendous selective pressure to evolve resistance to that herbicide. This played out in the 70s and 80s as herbicides in common use became less effective, leading to the development of GMO crops that could then be sprayed with herbicides that the weeds weren't resistant to. Well, that is happening again now. Round Up is getting less effective. So new soybeans are being developed that can resist other herbicides in addition to Round Up to reduce weed pressure in fields. It is an arms race of sorts, between the genetic engineers and the evolution of weeds. But so far, the scientists are winning, at least in my region where our harsh winters keep our weed pressure less than our neighbors in southern states.

I want to mention something else with regards to GMO seeds, the rumor that farmers get sued by seed companies. Where this idea comes from is that prior to GMO soybean seed, farmers tended to keep a little of their soybean grain to use as seed for the following year's crop. Soybeans aren't hybrids like corn, and what is planted will be reproduced, just in much greater quantities. With GMO seeds, farmers signed an agreement in order to buy the seed saying they wouldn't do that with their GMO seed/grain. A tiny minority of farmers cheated and got caught. An even smaller minority took advantage of cross pollination and kept for seed only the grain produced from the rows of their soybeans closest to rows of GMO soybeans – in the hope that after a few years of doing so, they would have seed with reliable GMO traits, without having had to pay for it.

Another persistent rumor is that idea that seed companies insert genes that prevent farmers from planting as seed the grain they harvested the previous year. This too is bunk. With corn the barrier is due to hybridization which has been around for 100 years, so there is no need for a so called terminator gene. With soybeans, the fact that a soybean seed makes many copies of itself that could be planted the next year is why farmers sign agreements saying they won't do that in order to buy the seed in the first place. Such agreements wouldn't be necessary if the grain was sterile, not to mention that producing the seed in the first place would be difficult or impossible if the soybean plants only produced sterile seeds.

I like GMO crops. I like that they can be made to produce reliably good yields under various stresses from drought to disease to pests. I like that they allow farmers to use herbicides that are far less toxic to humans than those in common usage in the 70s and 80s. I like that I haven't sprayed any insecticides on my corn in many years, because the plant takes care of that itself by producing the Bt toxin, the same bacteria derived toxin that organic farmers have used for decades as an insecticide spray. I like that genetic engineering provides ways of introducing traits into crops in a relatively fast, predictable way and that such traits can be removed too if a problem develops. And I have hope for the future, that engineered traits will continue to keep yields of many food crops reliable as climate change alters agriculture while the global population continues to grow.

I'm interested to see what CRISPR/cas9 enables crop scientists to do in the future. As far as I know they haven't used that technology to produce any of the developments we've seen in GMO crops so far. It takes years for a new GE trait to work its way through the regulatory process to the point that it produces a seed that I can buy. But such a precisely targeted gene editing tool ought to produce some interesting traits for future crops.

On the Prevalence of Corn (and Soybeans)

Corn is a plant related to grasses that comes from an ancestor indigenous to Central America called teosinte. It was domesticated many centuries ago, long before Europeans came to this continent, and through selective breeding the very grass-like teosinte became what we call corn. Its selective breeding continued, adapting it for the climates of central North America and it appears to have been the main energy source for the mound building cultures of the Mississippi and its tributary river valley cultures. Those ancient mid western farmers skillfully adapted corn to this environment and their contemporaries in other regions borrowed the technology making corn an important staple food crop of many Native American cultures.

By the time people of European decent were settling as farmers in what would become the corn belt of America, corn had already been well adapted and productive for the region for a long, long time. But these seventeenth century mid western farmers didn't grow corn exclusively. They brought many different crops with them as well as livestock to raise in what were largely isolated communities that needed to be self sufficient. But corn just grew very well here and even though farms in this region would remain fairly diversified in crops and livestock, almost from the start they grew a lot of corn.

For the effort, corn produced a lot of food. It thrived in the soil and climate of the mid west more consistently than European crops like wheat or oats or barley. As well it should have, being indigenous and a product of countless generations of adaptation and improvement. By the early 1900s, corn was already taking up a sizable percentage of the tilled acres of cropland and accounting for an even larger percentage of total grain production. And into that near dominance came a new technological development, hybridization.

Corn hybrids are plants that result from seeds that are produced by tightly controlling which plants get pollinated by what pollen. How this works is that a genetic lineage is developed to be the seed producing female plant and a different lineage of plants is developed to be the male pollinator. The female plants need to have their tassels removed by hand and the male plants need to have their ears segregated at harvest time. But the resulting hybrid seed from the female plants will grow a plant the following year that greatly out produces what either parent's lineage could. But a by product of this is that the resulting corn kernels don't make more of this super seed they came from, and are no better than either parent plant, maybe worse.

Farmers had since time immemorial kept the best grain they grew to use as seed for the next year's crop. Even corn had always before been that way. But now there was a new, much more complicated way to get corn seed, that involved special seed producers and multi-year processes to sell farmers hybrid corn seed. And despite the disadvantages, this was quickly adopted because the increase in yield and other positive traits was dramatic. As hybridization programs became more sophisticated and practiced, corn yields kept going up. Making corn far, far more productive per acre than other crops, leading it to take over as the dominant crop in the region.

The mechanization of agriculture happened simultaneously and by the time we get to the 1960s a generation of mid western farmers had seen farming transformed from being very similar to the way farms had operated for centuries into the beginnings of the highly specialized, high tech businesses of the modern age. That is to say, my dad has in his lifetime seen farming be powered by horses and intense manpower to raise several different livestock species and several different crops as feed, food, and grain for cash sale into what I do, which is raise only two crops, with no livestock, using GPS guided machinery to farm with only one other person helping me a number of acres that used to take at least fifty people and many horses to do when my father was a child.

But how did corn grow from being an important crop to the overwhelming majority crop in the region in less than 100 years? The aforementioned hybridization of corn was important and so was the mechanization of the work. Artificial fertilizers and herbicides, which happened in the later half of the 1900s also helped. These various factors taken together this meant that farmers growing corn were more productive, more profitable. All of this corn they grew made livestock cheaper to raise for meat, which raised the demand for meat among an increasingly urban and rapidly growing population. Which insured a steady market for corn, so even more could be grown and sold. Those regions that grew corn especially well, did. Those that couldn't grew the crops being abandoned by farmers in the corn belt. And regional specialization was established. Which actually helped farmers become even better skilled at what they grew, becoming multi generational experts and that too boosted productivity.

What I've done above is greatly simplify and condense thousands of years into a few paragraphs. And although I'm confident in my description, there are many factors that I've omitted or don't even know about, because their effects on events are comparatively minor. But I can assure you that far more well informed and educated people than I have written detailed analyses that don't gloss over or ignore various facts. I'd encourage anyone interested in more information to reach out to the Cooperative Extension Services of mid western Land Grant Universities.

That is how we got where we are, but why does it stay that way? Why is corn still the king? Well, because all the advantages it has historically had remain true. I could grow oats instead of corn and there are types of oats available to me that would grow pretty well here. Most of my machinery and agronomic practices would switch over to oats production well enough so that I wouldn't need to replace all of my equipment. But the end result is that I'd be less profitable and less financially stable. And selling all those bushels of oats I'd be producing would be harder than selling corn or soybeans.

As farmers became specialized in a given region, the infrastructure they use to sell, store, and deliver their grain became specialized too. Throughout the mid west there is a huge and tremendously expensive network of corn handling businesses and equipment that serve to connect the corn grown with the users of it. In my region these businesses are set up to handle vast quantities of corn and soybeans. It is easy to deliver grain to them, year round. This is especially important during the harvest, when it is vital that a semi truck load of grain be emptied and returned to the field quickly so the combine harvester can continue to work uninterrupted, every minute counts.

There is so little demand for non-corn (or soybean) grain regionally that there is little to no infrastructure to handle it. If I were to grow rye or barley or some other specialty grain instead, I might have to drive that grain to a facility that is hours away instead of minutes, assuming I could even find a buyer at all. In my region there is a little bit of wheat grown, an insignificant percentage of acres. But it can only be delivered to river terminals, not to most local grain elevators, and then only on a few scheduled days of the year. Likewise, a tiny number of acres are used to grow pumpkins for pie fillings, but this is by contract with canning factories only. The thing is that the regional market has about as much not-corn and not-soybeans as it wants right now and it isn't worth the risk of livelihood for all but a tiny minority of farmers in my region to grow anything else.

So how did soybeans find a niche in the corn belt when so many other crops were pushed out? Crop rotation has always been a valuable practice to farmers. It helps control weeds and pathogens. It allows some diversification of crop characteristics and weaknesses which mitigates risk. But in the age of hybrid corn, if farmers were to give up some profitability to have a rotation crop, they wanted to get something out of it beyond the traditional advantages of rotation. What they got was the nitrogen fixing legume, the soybean. Corn, especially high producing hybrid corn, needs a lot of nitrogen fertilizer in the soil. Farmers can get this from livestock manure but as grain farmers became specialized and gave up raising livestock, that fertilizer source wasn't readily available anymore. Artificial fertilizers were becoming easier to obtain in the later half of the twentieth century and that was a big help, but so too was a new grain imported from Asia, the soybean. Here was a rotation crop that not only grew well in the corn belt and was worth something to sell, but it also left nitrogen in the soil that a corn crop could use the following year, for free.

Not every corn farmer adopted soybeans on sizable numbers of their acres, but enough did that the grain became established in the corn belt and therefore it had the infrastructure and markets available to sell it as easily as corn. That remains true today, especially in Illinois which is the number one soybean producing region in the world.

You might notice that throughout this wall of text, I have not once mentioned any manipulation of farmers or consumers by big agricultural companies like Monsanto or ADM. The reason is simple. Corn was king long before those companies existed. They are not in any way responsible for the creation of regional specialization in agriculture, though they and many other companies have plugged themselves into the infrastructure and profited from the system. I personally don't think they do anything to manipulate the system to keep things as they are either, since such influence is unnecessary, based on all of the factors I wrote about above. Without multiple, permanent, catastrophic disruptions to supply and demand, corn will continue to be the major cash crop of the mid west for the foreseeable future.

We might be tempted to name human caused climate change as just such a disruption, but I doubt it. Not that I doubt the science of climate change, no, I'm a liberal, science nerd and I accept the fact of human caused climate change. But even the more pessimistic models I've seen and understand won't stop corn production in my region. Farmers here will just use corn hybrids with different relative maturity ratings to take advantage of the longer/warmer growing season, the corn belt will shift north, and corn production will continue.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi


I've seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi twice now. When I left the theater the first time, on opening night, I was uncertain about how I felt about what I'd just seen. After a few days and some thinking about it, I watched it again, in a much less crowded and raucous theater. I believe I have some clarity in my thoughts and feelings about this latest Star Wars movie.

What follows will contain spoilers. If you haven't seen it yet and don't want to be spoiled, stop reading.

I went out of my way to avoid spoilers before my first viewing. I went into the theater thinking I was prepared to be a blank slate, ready to just watch the movie without preconceived ideas. I was wrong. On some level I was expecting a movie that was thematically and structurally similar to The Empire Strikes Back. Even the movie trailers led me into that false prejudice. Throughout that viewing I was continually off balance, over and over expecting one thing and getting something else.

When we left the theater I said to my wife that although I liked the movie, it felt off somehow. It was Star Wars, but maybe the pacing, humor, archetypes, etc. were wrong somehow. Maybe not as jarring as the recent Star Trek movies, which really don't feel like Star Trek at all, despite the excellent performances of the actors revising original franchise roles. But perhaps a hint of that sort of complaint.

After thinking about it and seeing the movie a second time, I've developed a different or perhaps more nuanced impression. Star Wars: The Last Jedi is not The Empire Strikes Back, but it is definitely a good Star Wars film. It takes some archetypes, tropes, and themes that we have come to expect from the franchise and twists them about somewhat, not into anything unrecognizable, but enough to make us readjust what Star Wars is and can be.

Let me elaborate on that. Star Wars conditions us to expect heroic, capable good guys and villainous, usually uncomplicated bad guys. But within minutes of the start of the film, Poe, the heroic pilot, makes a terrible decision that costs a lot of lives on a splashy but foolish attack. And he continues that sort of behavior almost all the way through the film, being brash and wrongheaded all the way up to fomenting a mutiny. And with Kylo Ren, we get a deepening of his complexity, humanizing him to us, and teasing us with hope that he'll redeem himself, while still setting him on a path to being the real bad guy of this trilogy. Rey and Luke both subvert our expectations too, with Luke being cranky and disinterested in being a hero, and Rey being no body, unhindered by some multi generational legacy of the Force, and therefore a profound symbol of hope because if she can be a champion of the Light, so can many others.

But because of these tweaks to our expectations, the film puts the viewer off balance. The movie doesn't affirm the patterns we've come to expect in a Star Wars story, it subverts them. It made me wonder then, what was the central theme? I think it is mistakes and growth. More than The Force Awakens, this movie is the one that serves as the hand off from one generation to another. New characters, be they heroes or villains, are being set up to become the prime movers and shakers of the plot and the future of Star Wars.

I think perhaps my favorite parts of the movie were the interactions between Rey and Kylo. Through much of the film they were communicating with one another via the Force and in those conversations we really get a much better picture of who Ben Solo was and why Kylo Ren thinks as he does. But beyond that, the performances of the two actors was just fantastic. Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley were both a joy to watch in those scenes, conveying many layers of emotional subtlety and range with definite chemistry, all the way up to their climactic battle. That fight scene is quite possibly my favorite of any in any Star Wars movie. I was really pulled right along the emotional journey leading up to Rey and Kylo fighting cooperatively and then turning on one another. It was just brilliant.

Oh, Carrie Fisher, how I will miss you. Her performance was also excellent and it was really neat to see how she developed her own connection to the Force and unconventional way to use it. Her interactions with Holdo and Luke were so bittersweet, especially given Carrie's untimely death. Her tutelage of Poe was so inspiring. She was every bit the Princess and General that clearly commanded so much respect among her people.

Poe and Finn were both entertaining and funny. I will continue to look forward to seeing them in the next movie. And upon second viewing, I actually don't think the casino plot line was bad at all or disrupted the pacing nearly as much as I thought during the first viewing. Probably because I kept wanting and expecting Empire. Yeah, it isn't the strongest part of the movie, but it had memorable scenes and character interactions. It also gave us the character Rose, who was a delight.

Lastly a bit more on Luke and on Mark Hamill's performance, I totally did not expect a single thing that happened with Luke or the way he behaved. More than any other thing, the Luke scenes utterly disrupted my expectations and I can't be happier about it. Really. Luke was right, the Jedi are/were deeply flawed. The Force doesn't belong to the Jedi or the Light or anyone. Mark really brought this version of Luke to life, this haunted and cranky but not broken or hopeless man. He was great. Luke was great.

And you know what? The movie was great. It used familiar material in ways we know and subverted some of it in bold ways to tell a nuanced and interesting story. It answered some questions and made others unimportant as it worked through its theme of mistakes and growth, handing off the story to a younger generation of entertaining, imperfect, interesting characters. I can't wait to see how this trilogy is wrapped up in Episode IX.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

A Semi Automatic Rifle Proposal

The United States of America has a gun violence problem. People are injured or killed via guns at a much higher rate here than in any other western nation. At root this is because there are so many guns here, owing to our very lax gun control laws and resulting in nearly one gun for every citizen. These facts make getting guns easy, both legally and illegally. Some of those many guns will be used for nefarious reasons and even if it is a tiny minority, that still accounts for our very high gun violence rates.

In recent years and with alarming frequency America has suffered some highly publicized mass shootings. Most recently a man killed over fifty people and wounded hundreds more in Las Vegas. A single man armed with semi automatic rifles modified to fire very rapidly did that, not a team of highly trained killers, a single man with no history of such behavior and at the time of this writing no known motivation.

It is a sad truth that in a society as large as ours there will be some small number of people who want to commit mass murder for twisted or unfathomable reasons. I cannot pretend to have any deep insights into the minds of these men or ways in which to preemptively redirect their energies in less destructive ways. Though I do hope there are people far more intelligent and well informed working on that. However, I do think there are ways we can make it far more difficult for them to kill so many people. It is time to severely restrict access to the kinds of firearms that are capable of the volume of fire that can allow a single man to kill so many people in such a short time.

I propose that semi automatic, magazine fed rifles and carbines should no longer be available to consumers. There should be a voluntary federal buy back program in place that will buy such weapons from their present owners to be destroyed. That such weapons that have already been sold can continue to be owned and shot by their present owners, but cannot be sold or given away to anyone else, and must be turned in to be destroyed within one year of the death of their present owners if said owners didn't already take advantage of the federal buy back program.


This would do little to reduce small scale gun violence in America and I don't claim that it will. Robberies and other such crimes tend to be committed with the use of handguns, not semi automatic rifles. Likewise this is unlikely to have much affect on gun suicides. But what this restriction is intended to do is reduce the body count of mass shootings like what just happened in Las Vegas by reducing the availability of weapons capable of sustained high rates of fire. Over time, this restriction will virtually eliminate such weapons from civilian ownership in America.

Monday, August 14, 2017

White Supremacists in Virginia

It wasn't that long ago that people (outside of tiny fringe groups) would have been too ashamed to march openly in favor of white supremacism. I was in college when the OJ Simpson trial and verdict stirred up a lot of racial tension and I have no doubt that there were plenty of white people who harbored racist views. But they did not march and they were not open about these views in public, because they rightly knew that to do so would have made them pariahs. Not anymore, when young, angry, openly racist, openly white nationalist, openly NAZI sympathizing, white men can march on a college campus carrying torches without shame or fear of social consequences. I find this deeply disturbing.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

What is an Assault Weapon?

What is an assault weapon? Competing and sometimes mutually exclusive answers to that question seem to be driving a lot of debate and misunderstanding between gun control advocates and gun enthusiasts. Discussions about this can often end up being dismissed as a fight about what a gun looks like or how a gun labeled as an assault weapon is really just the same as other guns that share its caliber if not its design. I think that kind of thinking is missing a bigger picture.

So here is how I draw a distinction between assault weapons and sporting guns, an assault weapon is a gun designed to be a modern weapon of war or is directly derived from a modern weapon of war and therefore shares a significant number of parts with current military weapons. It isn't the magazine capacity, caliber, or shape that makes an assault weapon different from a sporting gun. It isn't judging a gun by some sort of checklist of features that if it has too many of them, it then gets an assault weapon label. The answer to me is in why it was designed, for what original purpose, and its relationship to military weapons that should matter.

A hunting or sporting rifle might have the same caliber as a current military rifle, but the hunting gun has a very different evolution of design. It cannot be remade with the replacement of a few parts into modern military assault rifle. Whereas an assault weapon like an AR15 is in almost every way, exactly the same as a front line, modern, military rifle, except that it cannot fire fully automatically without replacing a few small parts inside the action. It is the similarity of design, capability, and the sharing of parts with the military versions that makes such a gun an assault weapon.


I personally own a rifle that fires the same ammunition as the main assault rifle of the US military, 5.56mm or .223 caliber. My rifle shares nothing else in common with the Army's M4 carbine. Mine is a bolt action rifle that requires the action be manually operated between shots to eject a spent case and chamber a fresh round. It cannot fire in a fully automatic way. It cannot even fire in a semiautomatic way. I cannot possibly use it to spray 30 or more bullets in just a few seconds or hundreds of bullets in a minute or so. Because my rifle was never designed to put out that kind of firepower or to kill dozens of people in a few seconds, the M16, AR15, and M4 were and can. So, I'm not bothered by restricting their use to the military, along with many other powerful, deadly weapons of war.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Judge Gorsuch

Well, I think we've met our next Supreme Court Justice, Neil Gorsuch. From what I've read about him, he is very much like Justice Scalia who's seat he will take. So, he'll be very conservative on a wide variety of issues and the opportunity to lean the court further to the left has almost certainly been lost. I know that many will consider this unfair, given that the only reason President Trump is getting this chance to replace Scalia is because Republicans blocked President Obama's nominee for nearly a year. And, although I agree, it isn't going to matter. Democrats will not return the favor. There are a few reasons for that.

Democrats aren't going to be able to block this nomination for years waiting for another President or shift in power in the Senate. It's one thing for Republicans to hold things up while the Presidential primaries and general election played out. It is quite another matter to force a Supreme Court seat to remain vacant for at least two years and maybe four. Democrats just won't garner enough public support to maintain that kind of resistance for that long on the hope that they'll retake the Senate and the Presidency during the next four years.

Blocking Gorsuch could mean spending all of their public support and then not having enough to block whoever President Trump nominates next, someone who could be far less qualified or even far more conservative. President Obama nominated centrist in the hopes that by not insisting on a strongly liberal nominee that the Republicans would go along with things and the Court would move a little left. Instead of a centrist President Trump has nominated a Scalia clone that would keep the Court similar to the way it was before Scalia died. The Court is not going to move left under a Republican President and Senate, but at least Gorsuch isn't a swing further to the right.

Lastly, Democrats won't stubbornly block filling the Supreme Court because they are actually concerned with governing and keeping the essential functions of government in operation. Unlike some Republicans, Democrats aren't trying to create dysfunction as a justification to shrink government down to the point where it could be drown in a bathtub. By and large, Democrats believe in good governance and do not want to be accused accurately of acting in bad faith. They just aren't on the whole philosophically inclined towards long term, obstinate disruption for the sake of it. Because that sort of thing doesn't resonate well enough with their base. A base who often interprets government shutdowns and gridlock as failures not tactics.


None of this is to say I am happy about this nomination. There are a number of issues in which I disagree with Judge Gorsuch, based on his past rulings. I have no reason to expect that he will, once seated, move to the left. And so given his age, he will likely be a reliable conservative voice on the Supreme Court for decades to come. But going forward, it is the other seats on the Court that matter. Which means the 2018 and 2020 elections are very important. Democrats must gain and hold a majority in the Senate and retake the Presidency or the next Justices replaced will move the Court far to the right.