Do GMO crops “foster monocultures?”

Corn+Harvest+USB

Corn harvest, from United Soybean Board

Do GMO crops “foster monoculture?” This is a frequent criticism of modern agriculture. I have three problems with it:

  1. “Monoculture” isn’t the right term to use to describe the relevant issues – its really about a limited crop rotation
  2. History and economics are the drivers behind this phenomenon, not crop biotechnology
  3. The solutions – to the extent that they are needed – are not what most critics seem to imagine

The Corn Belt of the Midwestern US, is a multi-million acre farming region almost entirely dominated by just two crops – corn and soybeans.  This phenomenon is often termed “monoculture,”  but monoculture is merely the practical approach of growing a single crop in a given field.  The opposite of monoculture is “polyculture” and it is entirely impractical for even minimally mechanized farming.

The Corn Belt is more accurately described as an example of a “limited crop rotation.” The typical pattern is an alternation between corn and soybeans in each field.  There are also some fields where the growers plant continuous corn or continuous soybeans. There are many reasons that a more “diverse crop rotation” could be a good idea.  Mixing up crop types over time can help build soil quality because of different rooting patterns or residue characteristics. Some plant pests can be more easily managed if their life cycles are disrupted by cropping changes.  All of this is well known, but for a variety of reasons that I’ll discuss below, the less diverse rotation persists.

Corn and soybeans happen to be crops which involve widespread use of biotech crop options, but there are many other farming areas with a narrow crop rotation where “GMO” options have never been available. There are areas in Northern Europe where “continuous wheat” is the norm and many premium wine regions where essentially only grapes are grown. If farmers somewhere are not using a diverse crop rotation – there is a rational explanation involving history, economics, and risk management. Continue reading.

Consumer Reports publishes unscientific analysis

Grandpa Folta liked Consumer Reports, the magazine that would help him find maximum value in his oil filters and bacon bits. They have been recognized for a long time as an objective source of critical side-by-side analysis of consumer goods, and I’ve made decisions based on their recommendations. The magazine is still popular, and is well known for its independent evaluation of consumer goods, helping the consumer make better buying decisions.

My friend Chris alerted me to a little Consumer Credulity. The latest version shows that even an source claiming objective and technically sound analysis, is not immune from the bias of bad information.  A recent article on Milk Alternatives: Should You Sip or Skip provides a short evaluation of the various consumer milk substitutes, stuff like coconut milk, soy milk, almond milk and other dairy alternatives. Continue reading.

Help Erika Bueno Fund Her Graduate Project!

Image of Apocephalus borealis, coutesy of Core et. al 2012

Image of Apocephalus borealis, coutesy of Core et. al 2012

Finding funding for some research projects is incredibly difficult, especially for newer researchers. For phenomena which have only been recently described, finding funding is even more difficult than finding funding for more established research areas. Because of this, there are a lot of labs which rely on citizen science projects or volunteer work to gather data. You have a chance to help a really cool and interesting project that can help us understand a new problem that honeybees are facing – through crowdfunding. Continue reading.

Name our Papaya Plushie!

As some of you may have seen on Twitter and Facebook, a new round of draft Frank N. Foode™ and Papaya Plushies has come out. While Frank is almost ready to go, we have finished the design process for our new papaya plushie! Soon, I will have the design samples in my hands to look at before we place our order, but in the meantime I would like to tell you what our plan is for our papaya character, and we would like your help with coming up with a good name for it!

Without any further ado, here is our new papaya plushie design!

papaya-final-4-web papaya-final-3-web

papaya-final-2-web Papaya-final-1-web

Note the color gradient taken from real papayas, the realistic plump design, papaya leaves, flower, and freckles just like our artist Celestia drew for us! Since the draft image went out on social media, we’ve heard back from readers, kickstarter backers, papaya farmers, and people who at first passed on the papaya who are rapidly changing their minds! This papaya, like Frank, will be more than just a plushie – it will have a character and a story of its own to tell. Continue reading.

Sex and death in the cornfields: What is a refuge?

A lot of people have sent me news articles about the spread of Bt-resistant corn rootworm because they know I am interested in transgenic Bt.  These articles have alarming titles like Voracious worm evolves to eat biotech corn engineered to kill it and Evolution one-ups genetic modificationYes,  unfotunately, corn rootworm that are resistant to transgenic Bt corn are real (Cullen 2013, EPA 2014a). But the story is more complex than you’d think from these headlines. To explain, I’d like to talk about IRM (insect resistance management), specifically, the IRM for Bt corn targeting pest caterpillars (Lepidoptera).  Please note that corn rootworms are not Lepidopterans, but Lepidopterans are a good model for understanding how IRM works. Continue reading.