“When was the last time you changed your mind?”

By Sarah Sheppard

I recently had the chance to attend a screening of a new movie about food production, breeding methods and technology at my alma matter, the University of Guelph. It was followed by a panel of a group of scientists and activists who I think I are really cool.

I recently had the chance to attend a screening of a new movie about food production, breeding methods and technology at my alma matter, the University of Guelph. It was followed by a panel of a group of scientists and activists who I think I are really cool.

The Food Evolution movie tells the story of how genetically engineered crops are perceived by scientists, activists and the public and the friction between the groups to figure out how to provide enough food for a growing world population.  Narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, it compares the debate of genetically engineered crop use in Hawaii with the debate in Africa (Kenya and Uganda specifically).

Since I have not yet talked about genetically engineered (GE) or genetically modified organisms (GMOs), here is a quick crash course.

Genetically engineered (GE) organisms, also often referred to as genetically modified organisms (GMOs), are things that have had a gene from either a different species or a synthetically produced gene added to their DNA to allow the organism to have a trait it would not be able to get through traditional breeding methods or to have a trait appear faster than it would be able to through selective breeding.

This means that organisms can be improved to have more disease resistance, to have more nutrients that humans need in their diets, to have resistance to herbicides that can kill weeds, to maintain genetic diversity, to improve the hardiness of crops in the face of climate change, to improve animal welfare, and to more effectively produce livestock for human consumption.

Some genetically engineered products are already available – corn, soybeans, and cotton all have genetically engineered varieties that are widely used, as well as sugar beets, alfalfa, papaya, squash, canola, and potatoes.  There are also apples, salmon and eggplant (brinjal) that are starting to come to the market now.

Some consumers and activists are ardently opposed to the use and sale of genetically engineered products for a variety of reasons, including playing God, concerns about effects on the environment, food safety and human health concerns. However, there is no scientific evidence of these concerns being actual problems across thousands of scientific studies and there is a consensus among scientists that GE products are safe. The problems lie in the fact that the people opposed to GE crops are often so passionately opposed to them that they are able to sway politicians into banning these crop and animal varieties and that keeps these products out of the hands of the people who would benefit most from them.

Two resources that I like to point people to when they have more questions about GE technology are the Genetic Literacy Project and GMO Answers. For those of you wondering why I keep using the term GE instead of GMO, Dr. Kevin Folta recently wrote a piece about how use of language matters in the technology debate, although it is generally accepted that the two are interchangeable (you may remember Kevin from my first post as someone who helped me get this blog off the ground).

Food Evolution explains the fear associated with GE products but then goes through the scientific process and allows the research to be explained by renowned scientists.  It features skeptics, farmers, politicians and researchers from both America and Africa. It particularly focuses on the Rainbow Papaya in Hawaii and bacterial wilt-resistant bananas for Africa, two crops that are able to resist diseases which are crippling to them when the diseases occur. These crops are another tool farmers can use to help produce a viable crop for consumers and they bring in enough money when sold to allow the farmers producing them to make a living.

The movie screening was followed by a panel with Dr. Kevin Folta, Dr. Allison van EenannaamMark LynasAdam Kighoma MalimaRobert Wager and Dr. CS Prakash.  Prior to the movie screening, the audience was polled to see where they stood on genetically engineered products. 90% of the audience was in favour of the use of GE crops and the rest were opposed or unsure. Personally, I found it interesting how the first 90 minutes of the panel was made up of questions from people who were very opposed to GE technology, even though the made up the minority of the audience.  Some had thoughtful, valid concerns, about things like how a neighbour growing GE crops would affect their organic crops, while others had questions that seemed intent on out-foxing the panel and trying to force them into saying something they didn’t mean (the panel handled it much more gracefully than I would have…).  By the end of the night though, the tone of the questions changed, and the pro-GE part of the audience started asking more questions, wanting to know how we in the audience could support science, science communication, and bringing the technology into the hands of the people who need it.

I took a lot of notes over the course of the movie and the panel, and true to form, I cannot read a damn word I wrote. As such, some of the more refined points I wanted to bring up are squiggles that I can’t unravel.  The title of this piece is a quote I can read though, and I thought it was powerful because everyone who holds an opinion on GE crops (or any other debatable subject) often feels very strongly about the matter. Be it science, politics, religion, it is often hard to change your mind and even harder to admit that you have. That seems to be part of the problem with people in the GE debate, and that is part of what makes panel-speaker Mark Lynas so credible in the GE debate because he was so opposed to the technology for so long.

The other quote that stuck with me (and that I can read!), was one from Dr. Allison van Eenannaam in the panel, where she asked:

“How do we make people evaluate the risks based on what is more likely to be bad? The risks people worry about are the ones they don’t have control over, like the way people are more afraid of flying than they are of driving, even though driving is more dangerous.”

I find this poignant because at this point in time there are quite literally thousands of studies saying that GE crops are safe (including this meta-analysis of 1783 studies from a 10 year period), but because so many people are so far removed from the food system and are really trusting the people growing, processing, auditing and regulating their food to keep it safe, the general public can be wary of GE foods.

I think movies like this help. I think hearing from a panel of experts like I did helps. I think people who support the technology sharing information about it with people who don’t know or are indifferent helps.

Unfortunately, the screening last week was the only Canadian one scheduled so far and no US, Canadian or European broadcasters have picked up the movie to air it.  I’m hoping that Netflix will pick it up because then it will likely be accidentally stumbled upon by a person who would not necessarily watch the movie if it was shown on a TV station.

If you get the chance, please go see this movie, it is so worth it.

 

***This piece originally appeared on Sarah’s personal blog site City Mouse in AG

 

More than dogs & cats

Why I want to be a farm animal vet

By Shannon Finn

Ever wondered what it takes to be a veterinarian? As a fourth year veterinary student at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College, I thought I’d give some background on the process, and our role in Canadian Agriculture.

I grew up in Baden, Ontario – a beautiful and agriculturally rich area of Southern Ontario, and an area where I would like to practice when I graduate. Coming into vet school, I didn’t have as much large animal veterinary experience as some of my classmates, but I love rural life and have a true appreciation for farmers and the work they do.

The road to vet school itself is a long one! In Ontario, in addition to at least two years of a

Shannon Finn

university undergraduate degree, you must get three professional references – two of which need to be from veterinarians. This usually involves working or volunteering at veterinary clinics so they can get to know you. I worked at two small animal clinics during high school and undergrad. I also got experiences with horses by working on a horse farm in high school.

My advice when volunteering – don’t be scared to ask questions. Volunteering continues throughout vet school with lots of extracurricular activities, so it’s best to learn early how to make the most of it.

When you acquire references and enough hands-on experience, you can apply to school. I started my application after finishing two years of an Animal Biology degree. The top 200 applicants go through an interview process, but only 120 are selected for the program.

There are four phases, or years, in vet school. The first year involves learning everything that is “normal” for healthy animals. The second year is all about learning what can “go wrong” – how and why an animal get sick or injured. Third year is the last year of “book learning,” and we learn how to diagnose and treat a wide variety of conditions in many different animals.

Fourth year is an entire year of clinical learning on rotations. To start off our clinical year we also have to do an 8-week externship at a mixed animal practice. You can read more about what we do on our externship at OVC’s Externship Blog Project!

One of the cool things about being a veterinarian is you are able to specialize in animals that interest you the most. I chose what’s called the “Food Animal stream” for my fourth year because I’m passionate about keeping entire herds healthy – as well as individual animals – and because I’m also very interested in food safety and biosecurity.

Considering food safety, herd health, and animal welfare is a big part of being a food animal vet. It also includes building relationships with farmers, communicating knowledgeably with the public about agricultural issues, and a willingness to be on call so people can reach you whenever an issue arises.

I will be one of the Externship Project bloggers this summer, and I hope you follow along with me! I’m hoping to shed some light on the kinds of things we do as future veterinarians, including what it’s like to work in rural Ontario, and how we work to keep animals healthy. You can also follow me on Twitter at @SFinnDVMStudent!

Bringing food to the classroom

Experiences of an AgScape Teacher Ambassador

 

By Amy Dunslow, OCT, AgScape Teacher Ambassador

Growing up in Chatham-Kent (Ontario), I had the privilege of learning about agriculture first hand – by visiting farms, eating fruits and vegetables bought at the local farm stand, and running through the fields across the street from our home.  Even though I didn’t live on a farm, I recognized and understood the hard work and effort it took to bring food to our table. This recognition and understanding is often missing for many of the students I meet when I visit urban high school classrooms as an AgScape® Teacher Ambassador.

This is understandable, though, because most people have little opportunity to experience what I grew up with.

At the beginning of each lesson I always start with one question: “What is agriculture?”  The answers I receive often surprise me – from “I don’t know” and “A culture about something,” to the more promising “Culture of food” and the occasional “Farming”.  These kinds of answers remind me that we live in a time where most of us are drastically disconnected from the people, places, and processes that bring food to our table.

When I introduce AgScape® to a class I always comment, “The more you know more about the food you eat, the better choices you will make for your health and the more respect you will have for your food.”   Usually I have to go on to explain that what I mean by ‘respect for your food’ is an appreciation for the abundance and choice of foods we have, a true understanding of where it comes from, and recognition of the energy, thought and care that went into producing it. This understanding is the primary reason AgScape’s Teacher Ambassador Program® is so important – it brings students the knowledge they need so that they can understand how their food is grown and processed, and it prepares them to make informed choices about that food.

In every classroom I visit, I see opportunity for learning, growing and making good decisions.  Today’s students are great at asking questions and trying to find what matters most to them. On several occasions my ‘lessons’ have transitioned to more of an open ‘question and answer’ period, with students picking my brain about agriculture.  I don’t get lessons shift focus – I’m happy that these students are curious and asking questions about what interests them.  This often happens in my Local Food lesson when students are surprised and excited to learn about how much food we actually grow in Ontario.  It’s often a revelation to them, and their surprise is understandable when we consider that they are urban students and the nearest farm is a 45 minute drive away.

In an age where almost any kind of information is readily available to them, talking about food in school – and doing so with balanced, fact-based programs and resources – is very important. It’s right that we focus our attention on something that’s so important.  The Teacher Ambassador Program® has a wide variety of topics for teachers to choose from – this variety allows us to connect to many parts of the curriculum in most of the subject areas.  It’s a great program and I look forward to working to promote it in as many schools as possible.

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A partner organization of Farm & Food Care, Agscape works to promote food and farming literacy in Ontario’s school curriculum.

More information is available on on there website:

Agscape.ca

 

Warm days bring more local food

Local foods like meat, dairy and root vegetables are available year-round, but spring provides an opportunity to really celebrate the greener things in life.

In Ontario, the variety of local foods available at markets, on roadside stands and at grocery stores is tremendous, and for those with access to it, something to be cherished. See what’s available each month with Foodland Ontario’s FOOD AVAILABILITY GUIDE.

Looking for local food in Ontario? It can be easier to find than you might think!

Curious about how your food is produced on Canadian farms? Visit FarmFood360.ca

The Earth needs you – and good science too

Everything’s gotta eat.

All life needs food, and everything relies on a healthy environment for it. Since we humans cultivate our own, farming and the environment are naturally inseparable.

Here in Ontario, and Canada more generally, farmers have a lot to draw from when it comes to environmental improvement. Cover crops like clovers and grasses can help reduce topsoil erosion and increase organic matter; GPS makes for more targeted use of fertilizers and pesticides; higher quality feed means healthier and more efficient animals; conservation projects help growers reduce their water use, establish wildlife habitat, and much more.

A farm – and the family behind it – can’t operate for generation after generation if environmental sustainability isn’t taken seriously, after all.

Agriculture exists the world over, and each farm has its own set of challenges, opportunities, and triumphs when it comes to the health of our air, water, and soil. What suits one farm may not suit another – though there are often a few ways to approach new challenges. Indeed, both agriculture and our planet’s environment are incredibly complex, and that’s something to celebrate.

Politics and narrow thinking, however, have a habit of oversimplifying things to an unhelpful – and dare I suggest dangerous – degree. It’s a problem to be sure, and one that takes a constant, global effort to confront. The health of our planet relies on our understanding of both the positives and the negatives of agriculture’s relationship to the environment, as well as ways to continuously improve how we produce food.

So, for this year’s Earth Day, go to the source – check out what the environment means to farmers, get the science, and give politics the boot.

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Curious about environmental initiatives here in Ontario? Check out these links:

Best Management Practices – Methods farmers use to promote environmental stewardship

The “Soil Your Undies” test – Farmers measure soil quality with underwear

Faces of Farming – Profiles of Ontario farms and the families behind them

Farm & Food Care on Facebook – Quick facts on Canadian food and farming

Farm & Food Care on YouTube – Videos of all kinds, from on-farm water conservation to how chickens are raised

Have questions about farming, the environment, and science in Canada and around the world? Get some answers through the links below:

Best Food Facts – For any and all questions about your food

Cornell University Alliance for Science – Profiles of science in the field, from Alberta to Uganda

Cucumbers, Peppers, Tomatoes, Oh My!

Our friend Fresh Air Farmer is visiting 52 farms in 52 weeks! Check out the latest video where he tours a vegetable greenhouse, one of Ontario’s most technologically advance farm types.

Want to see more Ontario farms? Check out Fresh Air Farmer on Twitter and Youtube for more.

 

Were the good old days really so good?

by Patricia Grotenhuis

When people think of the farms of the past – small, diverse and all work being done by a small handful of people, they often comment that it is better for the environment than the farms of today.  The pastoral views of 50 or 100 years ago conjure up many “warm, fuzzy” feelings about caring for the land and animals.  Today’s farms, with their modern equipment and technologies, are often regarded as less environmentally friendly in their approach.
As someone who lives and works on farms, and who has also worked in the crop protection and livestock research sector during my studies for my agricultural science degree at university, I see it a little differently.  This excerpt, from “The Real Dirt on Farming II” helps explain the environmental benefits of today’s farms.
A common misconception is that early agriculture functioned in harmony with nature, and that environmental degradation is a phenomenon of “modern” farming.  Historical records reveal a different story.


For example, the farming systems adopted by settlers prior to 1850 was wheat monoculture coupled with biennial summer fallow – meaning the production of one crop every second year, with the soil being intensively cultivated but not cropped during alternate years.  This system was wasteful of land and ruined soil health and organic matter levels.
Many of the early methods of crop protection involved either excessive tillage or inorganic chemicals, such as sulphur, mercury, and arsenic compounds.  Many of these older chemicals are no longer used because of their toxicity or inability to be broken down in the environment.
Between the 1960s and 1980s, monoculture corn was common, leading to pest problems and soil degradation in many areas. Today, we’re learning from our past shortcomings.  Crop rotation is the norm, we’re much better at looking after our soil’s health and crop protection products are safer and highly regulated.
As farmers with families whose livelihood and way of life are very close to the land, we understand more than most the importance of healthy soil, water and air.  We live on our farms with our families and depend on the environment to create a healthy place to live, as well as the right conditions to grow crops and raise livestock. Through farm groups, we invest in environmental research and help develop programs to disseminate the latest findings to our members.  In fact, Canada is a world leader in on-farm environmental programs.”
Farms today use modern technology and equipment to protect the environment as much as possible.  Yes, there will always be farms which have room for improvement, but part of the reason for that is technology changes so quickly today that it’s impossible for farmers to use only the newest technology on their farms.  Whether a farmer has all new equipment and uses the latest in crop protection, or they are like most farmers with a mix of new and old, they are adjusting their practices regularly to protect the environment as much as they can with the means they have available.
For a full copy of “The Real Dirt on Farming II” visit: http://www.farmfoodcare.org/index.php/farm-a-food-resources/2-farm-food-care/37-dirt-on-farming