You Heard Me: I Like GMOs

By Matt McIntosh, Farm and Food Care Ontario

Few issues get me fired up like biotechnology and GMOs (also known as genetically modified organisms). Biotech interests me scientifically, concerns me socially, and confounds me to no end. It’s a subject where speaking out in favour can land you in a minefield of hateful conversations, and a topic that remains hotly contested despite thirty years of discussion.

It is also, however, a subject which the scientific and agricultural community must resolutely continue discussing with the public. The catch is, it needs to be approached in a specific way — it needs to be approached with less science and more stories.

To be honest, and if you haven’t guessed already, I’m a bit of a biotech fan.

I love GMOsYes, you read that right: I LIKE GMOs.

I see biotechnology as one of a great many tools that societies around the world can use to overcome significant agricultural, economic, and environmental challenges. Is it the scientific be-all end-all? Of course not. Should it replace things like traditional breeding? Of course not. But when used in conjunction with the practices, varieties, and lessons acquired over thousands of years of agricultural history, I can’t help but be awestruck at the astounding potential this technology has.

Why, then, does the opposition to biotechnology seem more combustible than ever?  The answer, or part of the answer anyway, is simple enough – biotech supporters are great at explaining, but not-so-great at connecting.

Kevin Folta, 2016

Kevin Folta, 2016

“Biotech is a battle between fear and fact, between heart and head, and heart always wins,” says Dr. Kevin Folta, a prominent biotech proponent and professor who chairs the Horticultural Sciences department at the University of Florida.

“You can’t pound people with science and expect them to accept it. You have to show that you have interests in problems that align with theirs, and how your solutions are viable mechanisms to fix them.”

I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Folta speak at the Farm & Food Care Ontario conference this past April. I fully support his message that establishing shared values and actually speaking-out is absolutely critical if we want the public to understand and accept this incredible science.

The unfortunate bit is Folta’s sentiment is not new. Indeed, the idea of communication through shared values has been one of the central themes discussed within agriculture for years. As progressive as this industry can be, though, it’s a theme that agriculture as a whole has in many ways failed to address — much to our detriment.

Personally, I can say I’ve bore witness to how effective a shared values approach can be (Farm & Food Care, my organization, has quite a few outreach initiatives). And really, if anti-GMO activists can successfully use this method – and they do – why can’t we?

For his part, I would suggest that nobody knows the highs and lows of public communication like Dr. Folta. His is a real roller-coaster tale.

During his presentation, and again in a follow-up email conversation, Folta explained that he, like many, had spent years reiterating the science behind biotechnology, but to no avail. In 2013, though, he started focusing on values and trust (what the Ancients called “pathos and ethos”), discussing how biotechnology impacts individual farmers, the goals of researchers, how communities cope and recover from diseases, and so on.

A change was noticeable almost immediately, and Folta began “changing hearts and minds” with much more success. Unfortunately for him, that success attracted the ire of characters with rather sinister intentions.

At that point, folks, the manure-slinging really started.

Through the American Freedom of Information Act, anti-biotech activists seized Folta’s email records (his research projects at the University of Florida make use of government funds, and thus he is publicly accountable). Using those records, a false narrative purporting him to be a payee and puppet of large agro-chemical companies was manufactured and spread from Vancouver to Pretoria. The incident forced Folta to defend his career, his science, his institution, and most significantly, his own credibility.

Kevin Folta speaks at the 2016 annual general meeting

Kevin Folta speaks at the 2016 annual general meeting

His name sufficiently tarred in the eyes of millions, Folta was worried his career was over.

Thankfully, the blatant lies were exposed soon thereafter, and he eventually rebounded both personally and in his career. Now, he actively discusses his passion through a number of different mediums, including a podcast (Talking Biotech), blog (kfolta.blogspot.ca), as a speaker, and as a contributor to www.GMOanswers.com – a public-facing site providing information, resources, and news on biotechnology.

On a personal level, Folta’s experience really hits home for me. It is a grand example of my significantly more minor-league experiences.  I myself have been called a “shill for big ag” while in university, working as a journalist, and even in social settings.

My experience isn’t unique either. Discussing GMOs anywhere can be both frustrating and stupefying. The willingness to over-simplify complex science into tweet-sized falsities, to blindly argue correlation automatically means causation, is astounding. Most notably of all, though, is the level of personal and sometimes even violent vitriol hurled between opponents. Just take two minutes and read the comments under a GMO-focused news article and you’ll see what I mean.

The whole business is a sickening state of affairs, and one that has consequences in ways most of us wouldn’t even consider. One that has stuck with me personally is how Folta’s unfortunate experience as a target of anti-GMO activism has turned people away from pursuing science.

“It breaks my heart,” says Folta with very visible emotion during his conference presentation. “I have potential students emailing me asking if their names would be included in public records if they work with me. They are not going into the field because they are afraid for their future. It’s absolutely devastating. “

Now, I may be a writer by trade, but I’m also a farm kid with career aspirations. I want to get back to my family’s farm. I cannot fathom being forced away from that goal by fear. The fact that fear keeps prospective scientists from pursuing their interests, from pursuing a career in which they see value for themselves and others, is abominable.

Amidst the negativity, though, it’s important to remember that recovery is possible, and that the public is actually open to what biotech supporters have to say. In fact, Folta specifically identified farmers as key players in the biotech debate. Farmers are, after all, the prime users of biotech crops, and the public wants to hear their stories. 

“Get your online real estate. Register your farm as a Twitter handle, start a blog and just share personal experiences,” says Folta. “People like me can be smeared to death (but) you’re immune from that. You’re the most competent and trusted, but we don’t talk to (the public). Right now the people that want to take out tools away are filling the void.”

Misinformation is a reality impossible to escape from, but laying down and letting misinformation macerate good, honest fact is an option no one can afford to take. As Folta’s experiences so blatantly illustrate, repeating the same-old communication strategies does not suffice. Saying nothing does not suffice. Speaking together and from the heart, however, has the potential to really tip the scales.

My dad often imparts the phrase “might as well do it now” whenever there’s a tough job to be done, with the understanding that procrastinating only makes the job more difficult. A lot of us, myself included in many ways, are way past due for taking our turn in the trenches.

Science needs good spokespeople and good stories — and agriculture the world over has both in spades.

Straight Talk: Let’s Get Real About Technology and our Food

It’s understandable that many consumers are curious about about how their food is grown. After all, we put food in our bodies, share it when celebrating or at times of mourning, and are responsible for what we serve to our precious children. At a time when anyone can broadcast their own personal message to millions of followers in seconds, there’s no shortage of opinions and advice on what you should and shouldn’t eat.

The tough part is, the science of health and wellness is far less sexy than many food bloggers and celebrity-du-jour personalities would have you believe. Unfortunately, the words “safe”, “affordable” and “abundant” don’t get the heart pumping like “toxic”, “Frankenfood”, and “genetically modified”. Teasing out fact from fiction about our food is not always easy or straight-forward.

This week, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a report on the effects of genetically engineered (GE, sometimes also called GMO) crops on human health, the environment, and agriculture. The broad study combed through 900 studies and compared conventionally-bred crops to their GE counterparts.

Hear More: Click here to hear “Debunking Food Myths” with Yvette d’Entremont, the Sci Babe

The panel of scientists came up with a rather ho-hum conclusion: GE crops are pretty much just crops. One of the scientists involved in the study went on to say that GE is not “the panacea that some proponents claim, nor the dreaded monsters that others claim.”

Ultimately, the study confirms that crop varieties containing GE traits are safe for us to consume and safe for the environment. They’re also not a silver bullet to any one challenge in agriculture  — but anyone involved in farming recognizes there are always trade-offs when you’re working with Mother Nature.

The Academy of Sciences’ report also noted that the distinction between “genetically modified” and not is becoming less obvious, as technology, such as CRISPR, a gene-editing technique, creates new varieties of crop types indistinguishable from non-modified lines.

Will this Biotech 2.0 ease the fears and distrust many consumers have of technology in food production? That’s the big question that many in agriculture would love to see answered with a resounding yes.

Curious about how your food is grown? Follow this link to The Real Dirt on Farming

A Day in the Life: How a Dairy Farmer Trains for Marathons

By Tom Hoogendoorn, dairy farmer

I am a dairy farmer in British Columbia who decided to take up running. But not just any running — marathon running.

Tom Hoogendoorn1Being a busy dairy guy I thought I had no time to exercise until one day I looked in the mirror and decided I didn’t want to continue to be out of shape. Life is hard enough with out packing extra weight along. So, I started running.

Of course, no self respecting dairy farmer ran in those days (this was 12 years ago). At first, I ran places where no one would see me. I got found out and started running on the local roads. My friends would tease me about it, but in the meantime they secretly admired me. Actually, I think I inspired a few people to take up running. I even had a few farmers run with me over the years.

Being a farmer and an active board member of various organizations I had to make time to run. We milk our cows twice a day at 5 a.m. and 4 p.m . Every morning is also spent doing chores related to caring for our cows and calves. My schedule works best if I run after lunch in the afternoons so I can get back in time for the afternoon milkings. I also will train after milkings in the summer with the longer days and warmer weather. Only problem then is being hungry running by houses and smelling the barbecue!

Tom Hoogendoorn's Farm in British Columbia

Tom Hoogendoorn’s Farm in British Columbia

I dedicate time to my industry as a B.C. milk board member.  We tend to have two board meetings a month as well as a lot of committee meetings, plus meetings in other provinces, so I never go to meetings without my running gear, and try to make time around meetings to get out and run. My motto is NO EXCUSES.

I have seen many beautiful places in the world because of running. I have many great stories about all the people I’ve met during my runs no matter where they are.

I found I love running and being around runners. We are a crazy fun-loving, in-your-face bunch. I feel great, and think it has helped my farming and political career by making my focus much stronger. You need focus to run 26 miles in bad weather all the while smiling through the pain! 

I’d urge all farmers young and old to do something that they enjoy that helps them stay in shape for the long haul. No one has to take running to extremes to enjoy it but everyone benefits by staying in shape. And your kids will love you for it.

Activists bring devastation and death to Ontario mink farm

By Kelly Daynard

Kirk Rankin can well remember an early morning last summer when he walked out to his barns in the morning and discovered that they’d been broken into overnight. “I felt anger and an incredible sick feeling in my stomach knowing the mess that was waiting for me inside.”

And a mess it was — 6,300 minks released from their cages from two of Rankin’s barns. There were many casualties both related to the animals being let out and then a subsequent bout of pneumonia that went through the surviving animals as a result of the incredible stress on the barn’s inhabitants.

Fast forward nine months to last weekend when another 500 mink were released from a farm in Brant County. That makes four break ins/releases in Ontario in the last year accounting for about 8,000 animals.

Rankin, who is a past president of the Canadian Mink Breeders Association and one of 300 Canadian mink farmers, is emotional when he talks about the impact on his animals and on the industry. “We’re an industry under attack,” he says, adding, “The people who do this call themselves animal activists but they’re killing — not helping — the animals.”

image1In the most recent case, the barn was filled with litters of newborn kits (baby mink) who were between one and 10 days of age. These babies are no bigger than your finger, in most cases. “Their mothers provide all their warmth and all their food,” Rankin says.

He explained that it’s almost impossible for humans to tell one kit from another. As a result, after a break in, it’s virtually impossible to reconnect the babies with their real mothers and mother animals are far less likely to nurse kits that aren’t their own.

The adults, he said, are also ill prepared to handle life outside of the barn. “They’ve never had to hunt for food,” Rankin says, “they’ll starve on their own.”

In the latest case, activists gained entry by cutting through the side of the barn before unhooking security cameras and opening 500 pens to release the mink.

Rankin is a fourth generation Canadian mink farm. It was started by his grandfather Dow in 1937 and continued by his father Jim when he came home from college in 1949 to farm. Today, Kirk is assisted by his sons Jamie and Curtis and nephew Steve who are the fourth generation of the family to raise mink.

Kirk has a passion for animal welfare and sits on a number of national organizations. In 2013, he led a committee responsible for updating the Code of Practice for Farmed Mink.  Codes of Practice are the national guidelines that farmers follow when caring for farm animals. The 60 page document covers all aspects of mink care — housing requirements, feed and water, floor space, air quality, veterinary care, transportation and more.

Work on the document was done by a committee of experts from across the country representing many areas of interest from government and farmers to humane societies, veterinarians and researchers. Kirk said that the process was a rewarding one and one that will benefit all mink raised in Canada and all mink farmers. He said that that document has led to significant animal welfare improvements on mink farms — including bigger pens and fewer animals in each pen. “We’ve done so much work to improve animal welfare in our industry,” says Rankin, “but these activists are still coming in and doing terrific damage.” If they want to make a difference, he suggests that they try to work with the industry on animal welfare initiatives instead of killing animals through their actions.

The only good outcome resulting from the break-ins may be the show of support that the farmers experienced from those outraged by the acts of cruelty. More than 40 neighbours and other mink farmers showed up to the latest farm to offer help in catching and saving the animals.

Last summer, the Canadian Mink Breeders Association offered a $75,000 reward for information leading to charges against those responsible. As of yet, that reward has been unclaimed.

Nurse-Turned-Farmer Featured as May’s Faces of Farming

By Matt McIntosh for Farm & Food Care Ontario

Diane Cook may have gone to school for nursing, but shortly after meeting her future husband, Don, she immediately took an interest in farm life. Now, 37 years later, she’s the matriarch of a farm family that’s five generations old, and even has their own road.

May 2016 Diane

“Don’s great grandfather was a county constable, and one of the original settlers in this area,” says Diane. “20 years ago, the historical society renamed the road ‘Cook Road’ after him.”

Diane grew up close to her grandparents and uncle. They were farmers, and that meant Diane spent quite a bit of time helping out with chores. Her real interest in agriculture, however, began when she started dating Don. Because of the workload Don and his family had to manage, the couple used to spend some of their dates riding inside the tractor cab as Don worked in the fields. At the time, Diane also took it upon herself to start tackling a few tasks herself.

“It was a natural progression into farming for me, really. I thought since I was already there, I might as well help out and get something done,” she says.

That natural progression eventually saw Diane taking on some of the bookkeeping responsibilities as well, even before the couple married in 1978. She began working on the farm full-time a couple years after marriage, with her role expanding as time went on.

Today, Diane and Don are parents to Jeff (age 32), Lisa (age 30), Bobby (age 25) and Brett (age 22), and grandparents to Briar, Kyla, and Shaye. Diane is also the face of May in the 2016 Faces of Farming Calendar. Her page is sponsored by RBC Royal Bank.

Along with their son Jeff, the couple grows 3,500 acres of corn, wheat and soybeans for both the consumer market and seed companies. On top of that, they produce sweet corn, green beans, lima beans and green peas for the Canadian frozen vegetable market.

As is expected with a business that’s five generations old, the Cook family farm has certainly changed since Don’s great grandfather first settled the area. Now called Mapleview Farms, Diane and Don have added to the amount of land under their business name, and the variety of crops grown on that land throughout their time together. They even tried growing about 90 acres of black beans for the first time in the spring of 2015, despite the fact that it can be tricky to grow in cooler and wetter climates.

In terms of future plans for the farm, Diane says they are hoping to incorporate more black beans into their crop rotation, and continue making environmentally-conscious improvements to other aspects of their farm. Jeff, she reiterates, is very focused on being progressive.

“Jeff went to the University of Guelph for agriculture and graduated in 2006. He manages our contracts, plus he does a lot of research because he’s interested in finding new and better ways to manage the farm.”

In her spare time, Diane enjoys golfing, biking and gardening, as well other sports when time permits. Spending time with their young granddaughters and being able to live and work on the farm, though, are some of Diane and Don’s favourite pastimes.

“I love being outside, and having the chance to see my family,” she says. “Farming is a challenge; no two jobs are the same. You can see every day what you have accomplished.”

2016 Census on Agriculture About to Get Underway

It’s time for Canadian farmers to stand up and be counted in the 2016 Census of Agriculture.

It’s interesting to note that farmers have been providing information about their businesses for well over 140 years (since 1871); it’s all part of an effort to provide a better understanding of Canadian agriculture. In the last census, in 2011, a total of 205,730 farms were recorded across Canada.

In the next few weeks, farmers will receive a letter with instructions on how to complete the Census of Agriculture questionnaire.

Every five years, since 1871, Statistics Canada has conducted the “Census of Agriculture.” As is the purpose with other census initiatives, this is done to provide policy makers as well as those in the bureaucracy and ag-industry with up-to-date data about Canadian farming – who is farming, where they are, what they’re farming, how much, and all other relevant information.  The Census compiles information and identifies trends on issues, opportunities and challenges affecting the agricultural community. Farmers also provide information about land use, crops, livestock, agricultural labour, machinery and equipment, land management practices and farm finances.

It’s important to note that it’s a confidential process. All information provided to Statistics Canada is protected under the Statistics Act, which ensures that census information is kept confidential. Privacy is a fundamental component of the census.

Census of Agriculture data is the definitive source of community-level data. “By drawing on this data, decision makers will be assured that they are acting in the interest of farmers, farm communities, and agricultural operations” says Greg Peterson, director eneral of Agriculture, Energy, Environment and Transportation Statistics at Statistics Canada.

ag CensusIn layman’s terms, that means what farmers report directly impacts the future of their industry on a national and more community-level.

It’s not just government policymakers that use the information generated through the census either. Organizations representing farmers like Farm & Food Care and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture also rely on the data to shape their programs, build more effective communication strategies, and keep up-to-date with the state of the industry more generally – Farm & Food Care’s The Real Dirt on Farming publication, for example, relies heavily on the data generated by the census.

Farmers themselves can use the data generated to, among other things, analyze market trends and make investment decisions. Agricultural supply companies can better pinpoint where there is a market for products and services, and as Peterson describes, “governments and farm organizations also use census data to evaluate the impact of natural disasters on agriculture, and react quickly.”

Needless to say, the input of every farmer is important.

The 2016 Census of Agriculture will be sent to farmers across the country beginning in May of this year, with the results to be published in May 2017. “The census collects information from every farm operation in Canada,” says Peterson. “The collection, follow-up, quality checks, processing, validation, tabulation and publication of data from such an extensive operation takes one year to complete.”

For the farmers out there, remember to do your part. Complete the census, and help bring perspective to your modern and ever-changing industry.

You can find out more about the Census of Agriculture here: www.census.gc.ca

2016 CEAG_FR_AgPhotos (1)

A Canadian Rancher’s Take on Earls’ Beef Campaign

Adrienne Ivey is a Canadian rancher, blogger, and mother. This post originally appeared on her blog The View from the Ranch Porch

Earls Kitchen and Bar has set the Canadian farming world all a-twitter.  The restaurant chain has recently launched a new marketing campaign promoting their latest development in beef  — “Certified Humane” raised without the use of antibiotics or added hormones and steroids.

I don’t (didn’t) mind Earls as a dining option. Up until now, they sourced their beef for their 56 Canadian restaurants here, in Canada. They have great summertime patios, and they make fantastic Caesars. Their head office is in Vancouver, and their first ever location was started in 1982 in Edmonton, Alberta. Sounds good, right? Then suddenly their marketing took a turn that just doesn’t sit right with me.

EArl's ad

Earls Restaurant’s marketing campaign

Their first words of their sourcing strategy label their beef as “Certified Humane,” which struck immediate warning bells for me. As a beef producer, I have had the opportunity to visit and tour MANY cattle farms. I can say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the vast majority of Canadian Beef farms and ranches are raising their cattle in a humane way.

We are ranchers for a reason. We like working with animals every day. I have no issue with weeding out the “bad apples” that are bound to turn up in any industry, but these bad farmers are so uncommon, I cannot imagine the need to base your entire purchasing decision around them. I visited the label’s website and most specifically their producer page. On the page directed towards the farmers who would use their certification process, there was zero information on what they considered “humane”, zero mention of how becoming certified humane would benefit a farmer’s animals, zero mention of ways to make a farm more humane for its animals.

So what was the producer page for? Sales. It was touted as a way to sell more product. End of story. Andrew Campbell wrote an article for Real Agriculture about what exactly certified humane means… not much. To top this one off, Canada already has steps to make sure our animals are raised humanely. The Canadian Beef Code of Practices is something each and every one of us take pride in, something we follow because it is the right thing to do, not because we get paid more money for it.

So there’s that. I moved on a few words to “without the use of antibiotics”. This is perhaps the most terrifying marketing catch phrase in my mind. Why? Because this directly impacts animal welfare. I fully believe that healthy animals begin with prevention. The old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is completely true. The problem is that all sickness cannot be eradicated with prevention alone. Just like people, animals get sick sometimes — it’s a fact of life.

Finally, to the point of “no added hormones or steroids”. This I have spoken about many times. With the use of proven  safe methods, including hormones, Canadian farmers are now able produce MORE beef (32% more), while using significantly fewer resources (24% less land and 29% less breeding stock), and creating a significantly SMALLER environmental footprint (producing 15% less greenhouse gasses). I wrote about this HERE. Can we produce beef without hormone implants? Sure. But why choose to do less with more if it is a proven, safe, efficient method? To learn more about hormone use in beef read here or here.

To read the rest of this blog entry, which includes a discussion on Earls sourcing beef from outside of the country, click here.

Guest Blog: What a Dietetic Intern Learned at a Farm Conference

By Anna Van Osch, Dietetic Intern, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre

Last week, I had the privilege of attending Farm & Food Care Ontario’s Annual Conference and Speaker series. Like everyone else in the room, I was there to learn more about the state of our food system, how to sustain it and what can be done to ensure consumer trust in it. Unlike most people in the audience though, I am not a farmer and have no direct link to the agriculture sector. I am a dietetic intern, working to gain experience so I can write my exam to become a registered dietitian (RD). I usually spend my days in hospitals, with family health teams or other healthcare facilities, so being surrounded by food producers was a change of scenery.

Michael Von MassowDr. Michael von Massow (pictured), with the University of Guelph, quickly made me realize why I was there.

Whether a producer, consumer or somewhere in-between, we all make choices every day that impact our food system. As consumers we have started paying more attention to our food system and asking tougher questions about how the food on our plates is produced.

Interacting with patients (a.k.a. food consumers) on a daily basis I get asked questions like: What’s the difference between conventional, organic and grass fed dairy; what effect will GMO foods or steroids have on my kids; and, why should I buy local?

There is a knowledge gap that exists regarding how we think food is produced and how food is actually produced. Sitting in a room full of farmers whose livelihood depends on having the most up to date knowledge and intimate understanding of farming practises, it may be hard to fathom that millions of Canadians don’t truly understand how their dinner makes it from the field to their fork.

Neither party is at fault for the miscommunication, rather it is a misunderstanding borne of different experiences. Farmers are experts in their field and therefore while they are trying to detail the benefits of antibiotic use in their livestock, some consumers don’t even know what that chicken’s life on the farm actually looks like.  As von Massow said “we’re trying to have a nuanced discussion… we have to start with the basics.”

Be it social media, activist groups, or friends, being aware of where consumers are getting their information can help producers to effectively share their knowledge. Von Massow encouraged producers to look for opportunities to engage with consumers and build a positive relationship so consumers feel comfortable coming to the experts (farmers!) when they have questions. Rather than an “us” and “them” mentality, we have to look for opportunities to engage with the other and listen to their concerns. At this point, I wanted to tell everyone in the room to “talk with me!”

The food production questions RDs are asked every day show that consumers are looking for information about their food system. The danger of the knowledge gap is that even without all the information, consumers can still form opinions. RDs are already providing evidence-based information about the health effects of food. So why not make all our jobs easier by providing RDs with the correct information about farming practises, so we can confidently answer questions about how food production methods impact our health? As von Massow said “a conversation can’t be two monologues,” so let’s close that knowledge gap by opening up the conversation between consumers, producers, and RDs, too.

Earth Day is Every Day on Canadian Farms

Since 1970, we’ve been celebrating Earth Day (the largest environmental event in the world) annually on April 22. But on Canadian farms, farmers celebrate Earth Day each and every day.

Farmers understand the importance of healthy soil, water and air. They live on farms with their families and they depend on the environment to create a healthy place to live, as well as the right conditions to grow crops and raise livestock. Farmers want to leave their farms in better shape for their kids than when they started farming.

Urban growth also continues at a staggering pace – with housing developments being constructed on once productive farm land near urban centres – which is another reason that farmers must protect, preserve and nurture their valuable farmland.

Here’s some of the ways that farmers strive towards protecting their farmland and creating a cleaner environment for generations to come.  

ED - Soil HealthSoil health – sustainability

  • Our very existence on this planet is dependent on a few inches of topsoil. Over two thirds of farmers use conservation tilling practices to help preserve that precious resource.
  • When people talk about ‘bringing soils to life,’ they literally mean increasing the amount of living creatures in the soil. You can measure this by counting earthworm holes in a square foot. Another way is to bury a piece of 100% cotton in the top layer of the soil to measure levels of decomposition after a few weeks or months. You can actually see how the microbiological activity turns last year’s plant stalks into smaller organic partials that build soil and bind carbon, reducing the impacts of climate change.
  • Greenhouse gases are a concern to agriculture as they are to society as a whole but farmers can actually sequester carbon in the soil as they build organic matter through good soil management. This is good for the soil and good for the planet because it reduces atmospheric CO2.  Farmers can help reduce emissions and transform atmospheric carbon dioxide into soil organic matter – and ensuring a sustainable food supply despite a changing climate. The carbon sequestered (saved in the soil) due to conservation tillage in Ontario alone equals 600 kilotons/year. That’s equivalent to taking 125,000 cars off the road each year.

Environmental training for farmers

  • In all provinces across Canada, an educational initiative called the Environmental Farm Plan is helping farmers assess their farms for environmental concerns and set goals and timetables for improvements. In Prince Edward Island, for example, 90 percent of farmers have completed an Environmental Farm Plan and in Ontario, about 70 percent of farmers have participated and invested over $600 million into on-farm environmental improvements over the last 20 years.

Did you know Conservation TillageTillage

  • Tillage is an age-old practice and refers to plowing or working up the soil, something that’s done mostly to control weeds. Many farmers in Canada have adopted “conservation or minimal tillage” or “no-till” practices. This means that crops are grown with minimal or no cultivation of the soil. Any plant materials remaining from the previous year’s crop, like corn stubble, is left on the soil building up its organic matter.  Minimal or no-till practices also help maintain populations of beneficial insects and soil and nutrients are less likely to be lost from the field.
  • Farmers also strive to prevent soil erosion caused by wind or water. One of the ways they do this is by planting cover crops to prevent soil erosion. Cover crops can do exactly what their name implies; cover the soil during the rest of the season before or after the main crop has been grown. Cover crops may be planted over a whole field for erosion protection, or they may be selectively planted in the most erosion prone areas. Cover crops are not harvested and cost money to plant, but their benefit comes from improving the soil quality and preventing erosion.

 

Water

  • Farmers rely on water for their crops and livestock to flourish. Most, 91.5 per cent to be exact – rely solely on precipitation for watering crops. Irrigation is used on higher quality crops like berries, fruits and vegetables that are for direct human consumption.
  • In Canada, only 8.5 per cent of farms use any form of irrigation. The remaining 91.5 per cent of farms rely solely on precipitation for crop watering. Irrigation is used on higher quality crops like berries, apples, tender fruits and vegetables that are for direct human consumption.

 

Natural environment

  • Work is ongoing across Canada preserving hundreds of thousands of acres of land that are inhabited by wildlife – whether that be forests, swamps and other natural spaces that are also part of a farmer’s property. Many farmers have also created, improved or expanded farm forests, ponds and river edges.

 

These are just a few of the environmental initiatives taking place on farms across this country. Today, farmers across Canada are pleased to join with their fellow Canadians to celebrate this special day.

Happy Earth Day, everyone!

 

Guest Blog: Biotech Benefits for the Environment and You, Too

By Bob Bartley, grain farmer based at Roland, Manitoba.

I have been a farmer for 40 plus years and I have grown genetically enhanced (GE) crops since 1996. We grow corn, soybeans and canola, all of which are GE as well as other crops which are not. I have seen many benefits to this technology through the years, but what is in it for the consumer?

IMG_2241I really don’t consider the crops I grow to be ready-to-eat food, like apples, carrots or potatoes, but more like ingredients to make food products such as margarine, flour and feed for livestock. Government regulators and scientists have questioned the safety of GE crops right from the beginning. As a result, these crops have undergone testing far beyond that required for other new varieties. There have been about 2,000 published studies on GE crop safety, I’m told. The results say that the GE crops now grown are as safe as any others. Some reports say even safer. There have also been several studies showing that they reduce food prices too-a direct result of the higher farm yields. GE crops are one reason why North American consumers have the safest, highest quality and most affordable food in the world.

The adoption of higher yielding GE crops has allowed farmers to grow more without using additional land.  Every day, cities grow larger on some of the most productive soils in the world. Every day the world’s population increases. Farmers are tasked to produce more food on fewer acres and it’s not something we can do on our own.  Farmers need the help of innovative plant breeding tools to increase the capability of the crops we grow – innovations that increase production and allow our harvests to be used in many different ways to provide food for you and me.

The adoption of higher yielding GE crops has allowed farmers to grow more without using additional land.  Every day, cities grow larger on some of the most productive soils in the world

The discovery of the herbicide glyphosate and glyphosate-tolerant crops changed agriculture. They have allowed farmers to control perennial weeds in crops instead of depending on summer-fallowing, which requires no crop to be produced for an entire year.  Also, with the new technology, the crop stubble remaining after grain harvest is undisturbed and this allows for more moisture retention and reduced soil erosion due to wind and water. There is less fuel used on the farm because of the reduced soil tillage.

Bob BartleyInsects have always been a threat to our crops and thus to our livelihood. The Bt gene in the corn we grow, gives the crop resistance to the European corn borer. In earlier years, we used insecticides to kill the borer but they also killed beneficial insects such as lady bugs. Bt is pest specific and only kills the corn borer. Insecticide is not applied now which saves another trip across the field.

Farmers have always been stewards of the land using the tools available to them.  We strive to leave our land with the same or increased production capability compared to when we started farming. Carbon sequestering in farm soils, through no-till and reduced tillage, results in a reduction of green house gas (CO2) levels in the atmosphere.

What’s in it for the consumer? Society’s buying habits have leaned towards being environmentally friendly and sustainable. So here it is!  Better air and water quality due to reduced erosion and reduced tillage. Fewer pesticides applied and less fossil fuel consumption resulting in lower greenhouse gases. Drought-resistant crops that produce with more efficient use of water. Protection of beneficial insects. It turns out that what’s good for me as a farmer is also good for you the consumer.  Some call that win-win.

This post first appeared in the Financial Post, April 13, 2016, and is used with permission.