Like the other sectors of the economy, agriculture is becoming more information intensive. Knowing where something is, is nearly as good as owning it. Moreover, Information is transforming what were once raw commodities into more valuable production components.
Because processors and other end users are willing to pay for specific characteristics, farmers can capture more value from what they produce through verification and documentation.
The significance of this trend is itself verified in a package of technologies that help farmers produce and market more efficiently.
It's called CropTracer and the companies behind it say it provides farmers, processors and food companies with the verification they need to market in a genetically modified world.
Dr, Jim Mock: "Anytime that you can identify a specific product, just like a brand, any brand in the grocery store has some value. And if you can enhance that value and capture it, then you've really created more value in today's marketplace."
The CropTracer system had its genesis long before traces of StarLink corn turned up in taco shells last year. What its creators sought was a birth certificate, of sorts, for crops ... a new system that could affordably and easily provide unprecedented levels of documentation.
Here's how it works:
Crop data are gathered using John Deere-supplied hardware, including a Global Positioning Satellite receiver, and new software called FieldDoc. The system records field conditions, tillage practices, seed variety and populations, herbicide application and weather conditions.
Tom McMurren, Deere: "This is what you would see inside the combine when you're doing your yield mapping. We can move those same components over into a planter, or sprayer, or something and collect data as we're doing other applications now..."
Information can be stored on home computers or, in the future, downloaded on the Web to the VantagePoint Network's storage bank. VantagePoint will generate reports required by processors or food companies.
The system's final component is provided by CropVerifeye.com, which through in-the-field inspection verifies the data and audits third-party testing of the grain.
Dr. Jim Mock: "We offer the ability for people to track the genetic integrity and the identity all the way through the production process until it gets to an end product.
"And so, the traceability that we offer really says you have some confidence that the product that you want is what you're getting."
The people marketing the system say the creation of such an electronic paper trail not only ensures product integrity but could lead to price premiums for producers.
Barry Schaffter, Deere: "Agriculture today is becoming more and more like a manufacturing operation. It's requiring more control and to get that you require more documentation.
"And we believe that information, farming information, is going to be as valuable down the road to them than sometimes their crop is."
For contract growers, that means a better chance of staying in compliance on their pre-planting agreements. For non-contract growers, it provides a base to show how they handled their crops.
According to Iowa State University Economist Neil Harl, the future of agricultural biotechnology rests on three fundamental economic issues. First is the demand for GMO products, which is in the hands of the consumer. Second is the supply of GMO products, which is in the hands of producers. And third is the cost of keeping crops segregated and maintaining a two-track marketing system.
Neil Harl: "... and this is what is at stake with StarLink, of course, is that we didn't have a place a system for maintaining the integrity of one of these tracks in our marketing system. And, that's costly to maintain a multi-track system of handling..."
SLUG: Field work
CropTracer's creators are targeting the 2002 planting season for its launch. Current costs are projected at $500 for a FieldDoc key card to download to VantagePoint ... $19.95 a month for VantagePoint Network storage ... and two- to three-cents a bushel for CropVerifeye auditing and field service.