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August 2013 Archive for Growing Technology

RSS By: Ben Potter,

Technology editor Ben Potter brings you the latest in technology news, and how you can apply it to farming.


The One Week You Should Try Twitter

Aug 20, 2013

Twitter is a fickle animal. Many farmers have tried the social media website and liked it. After all, depending on who you "follow," you can get a steady stream of 140-character bites of ag market, news and weather information all day long. But many others have taken one look at Twitter and left it alone for good.

Who could blame them? Stumbling onto Twitter without a clear plan of attack is an exercise in chaos. Hashtags (literally putting # in front of a word or phrase) make the website a little more manageable. And once in a while, a group of people rally around a hashtag and create some really useful and interesting content for anyone who wants to follow along.

This week is one of those times.

As you may know, Farm Journal Media, led by the Pro Farmer team, is out conducting the 2013 Midwest Crop Tour. We have complete coverage on, of course, but up-to-the-minute conversations are also taking place on Twitter among Pro Farmer and other FJM staff, farmer participants and others. You can follow along at

Here’s a sampling of what you might expect to see:


And don’t forget to tune back into on Friday for the final results! 

The GMO Backlash Backlash

Aug 16, 2013

Genetically modified crops enjoyed rocket-fast adoption, even though the technology itself can be difficult to understand. That’s a surefire recipe for backlash, and sure enough, GMO opponents have been questioning the technology for the past decade. But as research trials pour in year after year proving GMO safety, the arguments against GMO safety are looking flimsier than ever.

"The modern technology that is being used – which is broadly called biotechnology – is in fact far more precise, far more predictable and far more controlled than older technologies that were used to introduce quality traits into our crops," explains Martina Newell McGloughlin, a professor at the University of California at Davis.

McGloughlin shares this viewpoint with the vast majority of the scientific community. Even so, journalists far too often give level footing to both sides of the debate. That’s beginning to change, as publications are beginning to call each other out with accusations of supporting "junk science."

Elle magazine is the latest to be criticized for its scare piece, "The Bad Seed," which asserted the author suffered "GMO allergies," a condition that has not documented nor formally recognized by any science or health organization. Reaction in the publishing world was swift, led by a takedown by online magazine Slate and echoed across the journalism blogosphere.

"["The Bad Seed" author] Shetterly’s narrative is emotionally compelling, but only that; it just doesn’t withstand the critical scrutiny of science," writes author John Entine for Slate. "Shetterly’s journalistic trick—a tactic often employed by anti-GMO activists—was to frame a settled issue in the science community as a mystery or controversy."

Entine elaborated on his Forbes blog: "Simply said, Elle has failed journalism and its readers. It should never have published this piece. It’s rationalization—that it was committed to airing both sides of a debate—is the worst kind of journalistic ‘false equivalency’—giving equal weight to two views that are not equally credible."

From a farmer’s standpoint, there are plenty of legitimate reasons not to grow genetically modified crops. Conventional crops can yield just as well for a fraction of the cost, and farmers can capture premiums in certain markets for conventionally grown crops.

But there is no scientific evidence that suggests it’s unsafe to eat genetically modified food. It’s encouraging to see mainstream media begin to self-police each other against unearned scare-mongering.

The Case of the $330,000 Hamburger

Aug 13, 2013

You don’t have to pick up your favorite sci-fi novel to read about a world where people sustain themselves on test-tube food. Just pick up the newspaper, instead.

That’s right, the world’s first lab-grown hamburger was eaten at a press conference last week in London. Scientists from the Netherlands took cells from a cow and grew strips of muscle they used to form the one-of-a-kind patty.

Total cost of the project: $330,000.

Of course, the cost will come down when and if the researchers move forward from the proof-of-concept stage into mass production. Food critics who tried the burger described it as having an "intense taste" with perfect consistency. (The biggest complaint was lack of salt.)

Not to be outdone, Missouri startup Modern Meadow has been working on creating 3D-printed meat. That’s exactly what it sounds like – computers lay down a structure of living cells and tissues in three dimensions. Sister technology is being used to research transplants (think skin grafts for burn victims, for example).

These emerging technologies bring forth a fascinating grab-bag of ethical and moral questions. Could 3D-printed meat be a viable solution for solving Third World hunger? Does it allocate more or fewer resources to produce this kind of protein? Would vegetarians be able to eat a lab-grown burger? Perhaps most importantly, could you get over the utter weirdness of eating a hamburger grown by scientists in a laboratory?

Those questions and more require answers. And at least one critic, Oxford professor Tara Garnett, says we aren’t even asking the right questions to begin with.

"We have a situation where 1.4 billion people in the world are overweight and obese, and at the same time one billion people worldwide go to bed hungry," she told the BBC News. "That’s just weird and unacceptable. The solutions don’t just lie with producing more food but changing the systems of supply and access and affordability, so not just more food but better food gets to the people who need it."

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