When Good Science Meets Bad Agricultural Economics, Good Science Loses

     I have got off to a fast start to soybean harvest this year.  For the past several days I’ve been driving my combine through some terrific soybean fields near Dresden Ontario.  For whatever reason, Dresden was centered out this year for rains.  I drove all the way to St. Louis and back and the best crops I saw were near Dresden Ontario.

For those of you who know me know, I have 40 bushel per acre soybeans written all over my forehead.  At least that’s a joke that I tell everybody, because soybean yields in southwestern Ontario have been very disappointing over the last several years.  So when I recorded a 63-bushel per acre yield on my 1st field harvested this fall, I knew something must have worked.  It makes me wonder whether I’ll have a target on my back in 2013.

I could almost combine soybeans in my sleep.  In fact, maybe I’ve done that a few times.  Needless to say, one thing that you really appreciate when you harvest soybeans is a clean field.  I grew up pulling weeds so as my combine goes through fields without weeds; it makes things so much easier.  Sometimes I think we loose sight of that in this modern era, when weed control is usually just a function of cost.  With me only growing non-GMO soybeans, it is a bit more of a challenge.

That challenge is growing more intriguing.  As many of you know I have been at the forefront of the discovery of glyphosate resistant weeds in Ontario.  My farm was the 2nd in Ontario to have the weeds identified, even though I believe I have had them for at least 10 years before they were confirmed.  I have also appeared on the CBC, “The Current” program talking about the super weeds I have in my non-genetically modified soybeans.  I used double modes of action with 2,4-D Ester on burn down this past spring and it has given me much cleaner fields.  Despite that, about 2% of those weed still escape.  You might categorize them as super, super weeds.

As I drive my combine through these fields and see the super weeds, sometimes I think we have it all wrong as farmers.  For instance I read with interest DTN’s Pam Smith’s article “Bayer Plants Seed Focus” where she writes about Bayer’s total investment of $7 billion Euros ($9.1 Billion US) for crop research and development and seed and production expansion from 2011-2016.  Pam’s piece talks about how Bayer Crop Science is making seed as a central focus to future profitability.  Roundup ready hybrid canola and cotton are mentioned as just 2 examples in the seed lineup for 2013.  It’s fantastic to think about, but sometimes I wonder who is really benefiting, the big corporations or farmers like me who have to deal with all these mutated super-weeds?

It begs the question, “what is good science and when good science meets bad agricultural economics, does good science lose?”  In many ways I have a great appreciation for good science, where everything is replicated and statistical significance is a slam-dunk.  My problem lies with good scientists doing good work but invariably getting sideswiped by bad agricultural economics.  I’ve always maintained that at the end of the day good agricultural economics wins all the time on the farm.  So as I drive my combine through my soybean fields and see these super weeds, I think somebody got it wrong.  Of course, at the end of the day I’m the one who will pay and I don’t really think that’s fair.

Of course we could branch out and make this an argument about genetically modified organisms versus non-GMO.  However, I really don’t want to go there.  In my mind you can be anti-GMO and pro-agriculture.  To me there is just as much intolerance of the truth on either side of the fence.  Needless to say, when you are spending $9.1 billion US on new seed technologies, there is a vested interest here.  Good science sometimes gets caught in the middle.

At a certain point in August it seems my non-GMO soybean fields have too many weeds and I worry about this affecting quality in the fall.   However, I always caution myself because when the leaves drop, if I have done a good job of weed control, the weeds that are there will be insignificant.  Needless to say, that’s where I am this year.  The challenge though is to keep tweaking my management, which ultimately adds up into higher costs.  Something keeps nagging at me, that it shouldn’t be that way.

If I mention that too loudly, I’ll be inundated with a tsunami of criticism.  Like, I don’t believe in good science.  However, I do believe in good science and I do believe that it can mesh with good agricultural economics.  Regrettably, as I look out at the myriad of transgenic seed options on the horizon, I’m thinking good science is being compromised.  It is getting harder and harder to tell just where we are at.

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