Sunday, February 20, 2011

Biotechnology Plants

With all the news about biotech (GMO) plants and new approvals from the government agencies, I thought I would put in my 2 cents. RoundUp Ready alfalfa and sugar beets can be grown in 2011 and Enogen, a corn with amylase inserted is also labeled for 2011. I am quite proud of my brother who led the development of Enogen.
   To begin with it is important to remember that man has been changing the look and quality of all the plants we raise and all the animals we own, both agricultural and domestic, for as long as we have been tending flocks and raising food. Corn was originally a spindly plant that had its seed on top like sorghum in old Mexico when grown by the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas. It was converted to its modern look with lower placed condensed ears by careful choosing of parent lines over centuries.
   Animals have also changed. Dogs are now domesticated, not wild like wolves or coyotes. Cattle are much larger than only a few decades ago, also by careful selection of the breeding herds.
   Biotechnology came into play only since 1973. In 1980 the first patent was issued for a biotech product, a microorganism that would eat oil. The next patent in 1982 was for a bacteria that produces human insulin.
   Plant biotech was first tried in the field in 1986 and was in tobacco, a plant that is easier to manipulate because of its gene structure. 1996 marked the beginning of a new age in modern agriculture. RoundUp Ready soybeans first entered the market in 1996 along with Bt cotton. Bt corn followed the next year.
   So what are these products and why have most farmers adopted them? RoundUp Ready is a term used by Monsanto to define their line of biotech crops that resist the herbicide RoundUp (glyphosphate). RoundUp is a broad spectrum herbicide that kills most all plants. Monsanto found a soil bacterium that would break down glyphosphate and then inserted that gene into the soybean (and other) plants. Round Up Ready allows farmers to spray a herbicide over their fields killing all weeds and leaving the desired crop untouched. Monsanto and other companies have followed with glyphosphate resistant corn, cotton, alfalfa and sugar beets. Expenses for farmers have gone down and yields have gone up. Many specialized herbicides are very expensive and often can harm the grown crop. There are fewer weed issues in the fields today and weeds really hurt yields.
   Bt corn and cotton have a gene from a  naturally occurring soil bacterium inserted that kills specific insects. Bt insecticide has been around for a long time and is qualified as organic. However once the gene for Bt is inserted into a plant it strangely loses that organic label. The Bt bacterium has many many varieties, and they can be tuned to a very specific insect. It works by knocking out a specific enzyme in the insect's gut, an enzyme humans and mammals don't have or use. Since the use of Bt has spread, insect damage to our corn crop has plummeted. We used to have to treat all our corn fields multiple times with insecticides to reduce corn rootworm, corn borer and corn earworm. Even treated the yields were reduced by the insect damage that occurred.
   The latest biotech product released is Enogen, a corn that has the enzyme amylase inserted into it. It is designed for use in the corn ethanol industry. It will not enter the human food chain, although it has been tested and approved as safe for humans to eat. It's use will increase the efficiency of corn ethanol plants. I know how long this product took to come to market since my brother started research when helping out after my father's cancer surgery in 2001.
   What about the concerns. I divide these naysayers into two groups. Those who want agriculture to be the way it used to be and those who are fearful for their lives. For those who want ag to be the way it used to be, it probably never was that way and it won't be that way in the future. Agriculture used to be a labor intense, capital poor industry. Farmers worked their lives away to feed themselves and a few others, often dying young because of the harsh work conditions. Today we are an industry that it very high tech and can grow tremendous amounts of food with little labor input on the farm. Capital requirements are very high and it is not easy to get into the profession.
   For those who are fearful of being sickened by their food, I would argue that the food today in the United States is the cleanest, healthiest, most abundant food in the history of the world. Use of biotech has reduced the amount of herbicides and pesticides that have been used on the farms. While the genes of the crop have been modified, it is with genes that exist in the world today in bacteria mostly found in the soil.
   By the time any biotech product reaches the market it has been tested for many years. It has to pass muster by several U.S government agencies and also must be approved by our major trading countries around the world. 
   I widely use biotech products on our farm. It has increased our yields, lowered our use of pesticides and decreased the weed pressure in the fields. Seed prices are much higher, to pay for the biotech research. It has been a big win so far and the seed/chemical companies are promising much more in the near future.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Long, Fun Weekend

   We just completed a long weekend that was a lot of fun, but also somewhat sad as well. Since our youngest is senior in high school, we are notching a lot of "lasts" this year. Last fall we had the last homecoming dance, the last high school volleyball game, the last halftime show by the marching band, etc. This weekend we marked off two more lasts. Thursday was parent-teacher conferences and this was the last of a long run of conferences, since J was a kindergartner.
   This year was a good set of conferences. C is really enjoying her last semester of high school in a good way. She is happy and bouncy almost every day when she comes home. Grades are the best she has ever had and she really likes most of her teachers and classes. The most surprising was the comference with her American Government teacher. His first question for us was "Does C like me? Did I turn her off?" This was surprising because it is her favorite class. For those who know her, you know that she can't or doesn't hide her feelings about anyone or anything. But Mr. Ambler had no clue what she felt about his class. We told him to tease her and loosen her up. We also told her to smile a little.
   After conferences we left for the Nebraska Panhandle for the annual East-West Shootout. Each year Lexington, North Platte and McCook (East) plays Scottsbluff, Gering and Alliance (West) in a series of three games over parent-teacher conference weekend. The boys play in one direction, the girls in the other. This year the girls played in the West, so west we went.
   This was the third time this year we traveled to Scottsbluff for sports, playing there twice in volleyball in October. This weekend was also the last time we travel there for high school activities.
   The girls did great out west winning all three games, beating Gering 53-36, Alliance 49-17 and Scottsbluff 64-46. C is not the scorer for Lex, but does a good job on defense, finding the open girl on offense and grabbing a lot of rebounds.
   The parents also had a good time out west. Most of us met for lunch on Friday at The Emporium in Scottsbluff. If any of you are ever out there we highly recommend it. Barb and I found it on one of our volleyball trips. Locally owned they have an interesting menu for lunch and unique specials for dinner. In October we had dinner there and the service and food was as good as any 4-star restaurant we have been to in Chicago or D.C.
   Part of the reason the trip was fun was just being around each other. What is special about this team of girls is that they are all friends and just enjoy hanging with each other. There are no drama queens and even our Division I basketball recruit is the consummate team player and very humble off the court. Most of the parents have been sitting on bleachers together for years, most since older siblings started sports in middle school. Oddly enough most of the girls on the team are the youngest of their families.
   Sunday morning services went very well. The service only took me about an hour and a half to put together from scratch, and pastor even used his sermon illustrations in his traditional service. Sunday evening Barb & I had a Valentine's meal at Lundgren's Catering with members of the Trinity LLL. A great finish to a fun weekend.
   Happy St. Valentine's Day to all.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Media Shout, what fun!

I am in the process of learning a new software program called Media Shout. To add to the fun it is on a new computer at church that is running Windows 7, and I'm a Mac guy.

Last fall we started a Praise Worship service at our church at the request of many of the younger families. They just didn't get into the more traditional services we had and many had migrated to another church in town to get what they wanted.

We started putting the service together using PowerPoint on a laptop and used a projector and portable screen in front of the church. I had volunteered to build the PowerPoints, knowing if I had trouble C. could bail me out. The congregation voted to purchase a new system complete with two video screens in front of the sanctuary and a computer in the sound booth. It was finally installed in January.

While the new computer has PowerPoint installed, our Tech guy also purchased and installed Media Shout, which he said was the going thing for churches. I can best describe Media Shout as PowerPoint on steroids.

There is no manual, but they do have online tutorials and lots of tipsheets. Good Thing. I spent most of one afternoon at the church just playing with the software trying it out and figuring out what button did what, and why I would want to use this. I still did the first week with PowerPoint.

Then I got brave (or bullheaded) and decided to do the next week on Media Shout. I spent 5 hours at church on a Wednesday building the first service, mostly. I had a glitch with one song, but that was a problem with another software program. I thought I was set. Friday I went in to fix the one song and WHAT HAPPENED? It wouldn't run!!

I couldn't even get things to play on the right video screen. After three visits with the tech, I found out he had come in Thursday and fixed a couple of his issues, but messed me up. I had to reformat all my cues (slides) and reformat Pastor's PowerPoint sermon illustrations. Another 4 hours.

Last week things went much smoother. It only took about an hour at church after building most of the cues at home on my Mac, running as a PC. I still have some formatting issues, but I think I know what they are and can fix them.

Why bother with Media Shout? I can now see how powerful it is and the possibilities are amazing. I can control the backgrounds separately from the foregrounds and have a music layer run independent. I can change out cues or slides while the program is running and insert them seamlessly. The director of the bell choir has asked about using a video as background during their playing bells, no problem.

Next I want to visit other churches and see what they are doing so I can get better. Maybe I should add a countdown timer so Pastor knows when he should be done with the sermon.