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

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. 

Does it have to be today?

Why farmers spread manure when they do

By: Patricia Grotenhuis, sixth generation farmer

Spreading liquid manure on a field in the spring.

This summer, one of our neighbours asked us a favour, and we just couldn’t grant it.

One Saturday morning at approximately 9:30 a.m., we heard a knock at the door. Our neighbour had a request – could we please not spread manure that day, since he was having a family reunion and was afraid the smell would be too strong. We were left in an awkward position. The request seems simple enough to grant. There are always jobs to do on the farm, so simply switching a day of spreading manure for a day of doing other jobs is surely easy, right? Wrong. Continue reading

Innovative collaboration drives greenhouse project

By Blair Andrews, Farm & Food Care

Greg Devries, president of Truly Green Farms, displays tomatoes-on-the-vine being grown in the company’s greenhouse in Chatham.

Greg Devries, a farmer from Chatham-Kent, is hoping to use innovation and a unique partnership to redefine the greenhouse vegetable industry. If successful, his efforts could also get people to think about tomatoes in a “greener” way.

Devries is the president of Truly Green Farms, a company that is gradually building a 90-acre greenhouse complex across the road from the GreenField Ethanol plant in Chatham.

In a first for North America, the greenhouse operation will be using carbon dioxide (CO2) and low-grade, waste heat from the ethanol plant to help grow the tomatoes. The concept is to take a greenhouse gas like CO2 that would otherwise be emitted into the atmosphere, and use it to produce a healthy food product. Continue reading

Using shellfish to clean wastewater

By Blair Andrews, Farm & Food Care

University of Windsor chemist Bulent Mutus holds samples of chitosan that were tested in his lab to filter phosphorus and micronutrients from wastewater. Encouraged by promising results, the method will be tested this growing season in the field.

(Windsor) – Ontario researchers are testing a new way of removing phosphorus and micronutrients from wastewater. Dr. Bulent Mutus, a chemist at the University of Windsor, has developed a bio-filter made from chitosan, the hard material from shellfish.

The filters, which have produced promising results in the lab, are going to be tested this year at three agricultural sites.

“It’s very heartening that we can do this in a laboratory scale,” says Mutus. “This agricultural scale will tell us whether our lab results can be extrapolated to the real situation.”

Dr. Mutus’ project was one of 17 that were funded partially through the Water Resource Adaptation and Management Initiative (WRAMI) administered by Farm & Food Care. The WRAMI project supported research into improved agricultural water management. Continue reading

Happy Earth Day!

Our farmers are working hard year-round to protect the environment for future generations.  Here is an infographic showing just some of the ways they do this. Continue reading

What about Greenhouse Gas?

By Patricia Grotenhuis

Climate change – the term is widespread, and commonly used. It’s also common for people to talk about causes of climate change and contributors to greenhouse gases. Farms do contribute to greenhouse gas, but at the same time, they also reduce greenhouse gases. The following excerpt is from “The Real Dirt on Farming II”.

“What about greenhouse gas?

I’ve heard farming contributes to greenhouse gas. What are farmers doing about that? Yes, agriculture is part of the problem. But we are also an important part of the solution.
Scientists estimate agriculture produces 10 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. Methane, coming largely from livestock, accounts for one-third of agriculture’s emissions and nitrous oxide, which accounts for most of the rest, comes from farm soils, especially those that have used manures and fertilizers. Continue reading

Farming and greenhouse gases

by Patricia Grotenhuis
Climate change – the term is widespread, and commonly used. It’s also common for people to talk about causes of climate change and contributors to greenhouse gases. Farms do contribute to greenhouse gas, but at the same time, they also reduce greenhouse gases. Continue reading