Reality Check: GMO vs. Non-GMO Crop Production

By now you may have stumbled across a recent New York Times article that outlined the “broken promises” of genetically modified crops (GMOs). This first-generation of transgenic crops was first introduced in to commercial production about 20 years ago. With traits such as herbicide tolerance and insect resistance, these GMOs were rapidly adopted by North America’s farmers.

(If you haven’t yet seen the New York Times article , you can read it here) 

In Europe, however, they don’t grow GM crops, though they do import products, such as meal or oil, from GMO crops. In the New York Times article, the author uses European vs. North American production and pesticide usage patterns to outline his argument that GMOs don’t offer the benefits they claim.

Stuart Smyth is an assistant professor in the Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics at the University of Saskatchewan, and he wrote a lengthy rebuttal to the article (you can read it in its entirety here), correcting many of the falsehoods and half-truths of the above story.

As a quick summary, Smyth draws on actual research studies (not just data point comparisons) that quantify the economic and environmental impact of GM canola, corn, and even papaya. From, yes, reduced pesticide use, to a reduction in tillage (and thus diesel fuel use), and more, Smyth reiterates that GMO crops are safe to grow and eat, reduce the environmental impact of crop production, and benefit our farmers.

Still not sure? We’d be happy to connect you to an actual farmer who uses biotechnology on their farm so you can ask them first-hand how GMOs have changed (or not changed) how they farm. Just ask!

For more on biotechnology, GMOs, crop production, and more, read up in the Real Dirt on Farming.

Pilot Mixes Aeronautics with Agriculture on the Family Farm

By Matt McIntosh for Farm & Food Care Ontario

It’s been nearly 112 years since the Wright brothers successfully completed the world’s first heavier-than-air flight, and almost 113 years since Norm Lamothe’s farm was first cultivated by his wife’s family.

Why are these two facts relevant, you may ask? Both helped elevate Norm to the place he holds today —  happily farming, teaching, and even flying drones with his family on their farm near Cavan, Ont. .

Norm Lamothe is the face of October in the eleventh annual Faces of Farming calendar. His page is sponsored by the Grain Farmers of Ontario’s Good in Every Grain program, and the calendar is published by Farm & Food Care Ontario

Norm Lamothe is the face of October in the 11th annual Faces of Farming calendar. His page is sponsored by the Grain Farmers of Ontario’s Good in Every Grain program.

Norm is the proud father of three children – Noémie (age 8), Alec (age 5) and Max (age 3) — and husband to Emily, who works off-farm as a nurse. He has been involved in Woodleigh Farms Ltd., his in-laws’ farm business, for 10 years and a co-owner since early 2014.

The farm is 500 acres in size, with Norm sharing ownership with his brother-in-law Colin, father and mother-in-law Don and Marg. The family grows approximately 400 acres of corn and soybeans, while the remaining acreage is either rented to neighbouring farmers, used for hay and garden crops (vegetables), or remains tree-covered. 

“The farm used to be a hog farm for a long time. We got out of that a while ago and started focusing on a number of different crops,” says Norm. “We have a really diverse farm. It’s undergone a lot of changes over the years.”

Norm explains that his family maintains a number of wood lots on the more marginal land of each farm property, which helps decrease their environmental footprint. Some of those wood lots grow naturally while other parts are planted strategically, but all serve to increase the farm’s biodiversity and reduce soil erosion. As an added bonus, the maple trees provide the family with sap, so maple syrup can also be counted on the roster of products produced by the farm.

Another prominent farm feature Norm likes to highlight is a large pond they stock with trout. It is used as a swimming pool by his kids, a supper source by his father-in-law, who reels in a fish every week, and as an irrigation source for their market garden.

While Norm’s current farm business was originally purchased by his wife’s family in 1902, Norm himself was exposed to a less-common version of agriculture at a young age. His father was the manager of a prison farm in northern Ontario which meant Norm didn’t have to do much in the way of chores because they were done by the inmates. Regardless, though, he was intrigued by the work.

Norm eventually went to flight school, and subsequently flew planes in the commercial airline industry for ten years. Because the career meant he was often away from home, though, Norm eventually decided to leave the skies and take an active role on the family farm. That decision also had the benefit of letting him spend more time with his family, while maintaining a private pilot’s licence.

But don’t think Norm completely forgot about flying. Indeed, he is still an active aviator since, just this year, he started his own aerial drone field scouting business called “Eagle Scout Imaging.”

“The drones use an infrared camera to measure plant health through chlorophyll density,” he says. “It’s a pretty efficient tool for doing things like scouting for harmful pests, or measuring what parts of the field might need more fertilizer.”

On top of it all, Norm is fluent in French, and teaches the Entrepreneurship Course in the Food and Farming Program at Durham College. He also sits on a number of different boards, including the Millbrook Agricultural Society and Millbrook Figure Skating Club.

As for future plans, Norm says he and his family are focused on further diversification. They are considering delving into the world of “value added” crops, and they also plan on incorporating wheat into their seasonal crop rotation. That, says Norm, will do a lot to help maintain soil quality.

“We have some ideas on next steps, but we are still playing around right now,” he says.

Overall, Norm sees farming as much more than a career. He loves the diversity, the time with his family, and the opportunity to be creative in his own environment. It’s both a creative outlet and a lifestyle, and one that he looks forward to expanding in the years to come.

“With an acre of land you can grow a million different things on it, all of them unique,” he says. “It never stops being interesting.”

10 Reasons to Love (and Trust) Your Food

Guest Post by Patricia Chuey

I always embrace any opportunity to visit my home province. In addition to getting back to see family a few times each year, every so often I’m fortunate that my work also takes me there.

I recently had the opportunity to attend an agricultural tour sponsored by Farm and Food Care Saskatchewan and a number of groups representing many of the main foods grown or raised in Saskatchewan including flax, pulses, lentilsmustard (and Frenchs), barley, canola, chicken, eggs,beef, pork along with tourism Saskatchewan and Crop Life Canada. This type of tour came at a very important point in my professional life in regularly facing questions and grave concerns from consumers about quality in the food supply. I wish I could have magically had every person whose ever asked me about organic, free range, hormones, steroids, animal welfare, genetic modification and related issues by my side as our group of food writers, media dietitians and chefs from North America met many farmers on their farms, toured an egg processing plant, visited agriculture and bioresource greenhouses and the University of Saskatchewan Grains Innovation Laboratory. (We toured a prairie brewery too!) But, having them all join me wasn’t possible.

farm-collageBecause I couldn’t do that, I want to share 10 thoughts from many critical conversations on the tour. I left feeling renewed and more confident than ever in the quality of the food our Canadian farmers provide to the marketplace. Although I still feel heavy-hearted for the many people I’ve met who feel completely confused about what to eat or to safely feed their family, in many ways I felt both ‘cured’ of mass confusion and energized to continue sharing the truth of what I witnessed. Our group also left very well fed and richer in spirit for having experienced the passion and commitment these food producers put into the food they feed their families and share with Canada and the world.

There were countless reminders of the conscientious commitment farmers make to providing safe food to consumers and the challenges they face from often misinformed, yet vocal, adversaries. Here are few points I encourage thinking about:

  1. Less than 2% of Canadians are directly involved in farming to provide food for the remaining 98%. Typically, the more removed a person is from the farm, the more critical they are of farming. So unfortunate and a source of mass confusion and misinformation. It’s worth finding out the farm experience and background from the person who may be criticizing farming. Asking questions is great and very strongly encouraged. Unqualified folks scaring people about farm-raised food, isn’t.
  2. Canadian farmers are very open to talking about their operations and have nothing to hide. The industry is strictly regulated and uses the latest SAFE technology to produce food that is nutritious and affordable. Big corporations have NOT taken over Canadian farms. More than 97% of Canadian farms are family owned and operated.
  3. There is zero difference nutritionally between white and brown eggs. The difference lies in the feather colour of the hens they come from. Brown are perceived as healthier. What applies to brown bread or brown rice versus white with fibre content, is NOT relevant to eggs. If you buy free range or free run eggs and the shells happen to be brown, know that isn’t a characteristic indicating a free range egg, but simply a brown-feathered hen. Free range eggs also come in white shells. There’s actually more risk of contamination in free range eggs as the conditions in which the chickens are raised can’t be monitored quite as carefully as indoor operations. Egg farmers are committed to providing a variety of egg choices in the marketplace in response to consumer demand. I suggested the egg producers start selling a dozen odd-shaped or non-uniform eggs if we really want to see “natural” eggs. Consumers want ‘natural’ yet also want 12 eggs that look the same. Go figure?! Maybe someday NUeggs (Non-uniform eggs) will be a thing! #HeardItHereFirst
  4. Egg yolk colour is determined by the type of feed a hen eats. Wheat-based diets produce pale yolks while corn or alfalfa-based produce darker yellow. Yolk colour is not an indication of freshness or nutritional value. Organic eggs are fed certified organic grains which cost more.
  5. It is ILLEGAL in Canada to use hormones or antibiotics in chickens. “Ads promoting hormone-free chicken are like adds promoting water that is wet”. No pigs, chickens, turkeys or egg-laying hens in our country are fed hormones. It has been illegal for decades. And they’re not used in milk production in Canada either. Some beef farmers do use approved hormones in cattle. Hormone levels in beef from cattle treated with hormones are virtually the same as beef from untreated cattle once in the food system. Any hormones are administered to cattle in safe time before they are made available for food. Calves are immunized for the same reasons we immunize children – to keep them healthy.
  6. Why the heck don’t we eat even more lentils and other pulses? If we are truly serious about food sustainability let’s eat more of these affordable, nutritious legumes from our home country – the world’s largest EXPORTER of pulses!
  7. Farmers follow strict federal laws for humane animal treatment. A Canadian farmer is not keeping you out of his or her egg operation housing 60,000 hens because anything controversial is going on, but rather for strict biosecurity to protect the chickens. Farmers are as shocked and enraged as everyone else, if not more so, when situations of animal cruelty happen. I chatted with passionate, professional egg farmers who are considering taking on the expense of having large viewing windows and video cameras in the next barns they build to reassure consumers. These kind of measures becoming standard will increase egg prices. (I don’t require a web cam on my dentist’s office or other professional I trust.)
  8. Farmers are the original active environmentalists. Their livelihood depends on healthy soil, water and air to grow crops and raise livestock. We met sixth generation farmers, farmers whose healthy 87 and 91 year old parents still live and work on the farm, rugged male farmers who tear up when talking about the damage misinformation is doing to food security in Canada, strong, young female farmers who wrangle cattle and much more. The common thread: a deep commitment to the environment, passion, hard work ethic and a safe, healthy food supply for all. We were humbled when the combine drivers actually stopped during active harvest to talk to us (VERY expensive to their operation to do so) and saddened to hear farmers say that MISINFORMATION IS MORE OF A THREAT and worry to today’s farmers than crop-destruction from pests or the weather conditions. Crazy and very disturbing. We should all be concerned about that.
  9. Canadians pay a mere 10% of their available income for food, one of the lowest percentages in the world yet for top quality domestic food. Without the use of APPROVED pesticides to prevent complete crop destruction we’d risk complete crop devastation and food shortages. If no approved, regulated pesticides and GMOs were ever used, Canadian farmers would need 37 million more acres to grow the same amount of food as today.
  10. There is more risk in food raised by people who “dabble” in farming as a sideline than food produced on regulated, inspected large farm operations. That said, farmers are very happy to share gardening tips and encourage us to use any available land to grow at least some of our own food.

We have a WORLD CLASS food system that is envied around the world. We need to understand it, celebrate and support it. Absolutely learn and make informed decisions about crop spraying, GMOs, organic vs conventional and where food comes from but avoid information from unreliable, misinformed people that is negatively impacting the very food system that feeds us and many others on our planet.  I remain 100% confident that it makes more sense to question unrecognizable ingredients in packaged food (even the organic ones) with lengthy ingredients lists and long shelf lives than the wholesome home grown WHOLE food from Canadian farms.

Thank you Saskatchewan!

(Sincere thanks also to the chefs and hosts at the Delta Bessborough, Wilbar Farms, Wilbar Cattle Company, Agar’s Corner, Riverside Country Club, Wanuskewin Heritage Park, Boffins Public House and the University of Saskatchewan)

Reference: The Real Dirt on Farming

 

This post first appeared on Patricia Chuey’s blog, and is used with permission.

Diverse Prince Edward County Farm Featured as September Faces of Farming

By Matt McIntosh, Farm & Food Care 

If there’s one example of a diversified farm business, Sandy Vader and her family are it. From their farm near Picton, they grow a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and other crops for a local farmers’ market, raise sheep for wool and meat, and have even diversified into seasonal decorative arrangements.

Sandy Vader's page is sponsored by the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association. She is joined in the photo by daughters Kelsey and Kaitlyn

Sandy Vader’s page is sponsored by the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association. She is joined in the photo by daughters Kelsey and Kaitlyn

Sandy and her daughters are the faces for September in the 2016 Faces of Farming Calendar, published by Farm & Food Care Ontario.

“We are always trying to diversify,” says Sandy Vader, mother of three and avid market gardener. “I like the animals, and the people from the market. It’s a very family oriented business.”

Sandy started farming with her father-in-law in 1987. At that time, she says, they were growing about 180 acres of crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat, and producing vegetables and fruits for canning companies, “but those companies eventually left Prince Edward County,” she says. The loss of the local processing meant she had to make some major changes to the family business.

Since taking over most of the market-garden side of the farm in 2000, Sandy has expanded her crop portfolio to include — take a deep breath — asparagus, lettuce, kale, Swiss chard, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, beefsteak tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, peppers, sweet corn, beets, and various varieties of flowers, among other crops. All the produce generated by Sandy and her family is sold at the Belleville farmers’ market.

“We used to go to more farmers’ markets, but it can be pretty tiring. We like to stick with one that we enjoy and works for us best,” she says.

Sandy’s youngest daughter, Kaitlyn, has been actively helping run the business since she was five years old. She helps Sandy on a regular basis, and in addition, keeps a small number of sheep and goats. Sandy’s other daughter, Kelsey, has also been involved on the farm from a very early age, and continues to help on occasion despite working full-time at an off-farm job.

Kaitlyn and Kelsey’s brother, Cody, has a farm of his own where he keeps 200 ewes. When required, though, he does help in the day-to-day operations of the farm, the market, as well as any other task that “needs to be done.”

Several years ago, Sandy also began creating a kind of value-added product for sale at her market stand. Using some of the flowers produced in her greenhouse, she creates centre pieces and other seasonal decorative arrangements for Thanksgiving and other occasions. So far, she says, they have proven to be quite popular, and have done a lot for the business when vegetables and fruits are not in season. Consequently, she plans on expanding that side of her business.

“The decorations help make going to market in the winter useful, plus there’s something about working in a greenhouse that makes the winter shorter,” she says.

With the exception of flowers and a select few others, says Sandy, all their crops are started in a greenhouse before being moved to a field to finish growing. Lettuce and sweet corn, she says, are their most popular crops, with fresh-cut lettuce being available from April to December. That two-step process works well for them, but it is labour intensive and one of the reasons Sandy values the help she receives from her family.

In her limited spare time – and she does emphasize limited – Sandy enjoys sports of all kinds, but says she is particularly happy that she had the privilege of playing hockey with her girls when they were younger. She was also an active volunteer when Cody, Kelsey, and Kaitlyn were still in school.

Whether sports or farming, though, the key theme that repeatedly crops up in Sandy’s mind is her family. For her, working with her son, two daughters is the most rewarding career she could have, and it’s the cornerstone of their success.

“The farm is a team effort,” she says. “That’s a farm family – we’re always helping each other out.”

From the Ground Up — August’s Faces of Farming family, the Van Laeckes

By Matt McIntosh for Farm & Food Care 

Like the seeds they sell, Rick and Angela Van Laecke grew their business from the ground up. They are the owners and operators of Horizon Seeds Canada Inc. — a Norfolk county seed producer, processor, and dealer — and a proud farm family.

Rick and Curtis Van Laecke are August's Faces of Farming family

Rick Van Laecke and his son Curtis are featured as August’s Faces of Farming. Their page is sponsored by SeCan

Along with their children Curtis (age 25) and Candice (age 23), the Van Laeckes are featured as the August 2016 Faces of Farming Calendar family.

Rick and Angela started farming in 1993 after purchasing 200 acres of cropland near Courtland. Originally growing corn for various seed companies (which process and resell grains for planting rather than for human or animal consumption), the couple eventually decided to try developing their own brand of ready-to-plant seeds. The company is called Horizon Seeds Canada Inc., and the passion they have for agriculture stems from both Rick and Angela growing up on their respective family farms.

“Our main crop is hybrid corn, which is made by crossing two distinct varieties,” says Rick. “We originally chose to grow seed corn because it was a perfect fit for the growing conditions. It works really well in our sandy Norfolk County soil.”

Now over a decade old, Horizon Seeds began when the couple started breeding their own corn, and acquired seed processing equipment that allowed them to dry, treat, and package their seeds — a necessary process when preparing grain for sale to other dealers and farmers. Rick and Angela have continued to vertically integrate their business since officially launching it, and now have over 1,000 acres of cropland; they grow corn and soybeans, all of which is marketed under the name Horizon Seeds Canada Inc.

The facilities housing their processing equipment are, as Rick describes, organized horizontally in a pseudo assembly-line fashion. This means they can move their product through the processing system efficiently while maintaining seed quality.

Van Laeckes One of the more notable aspects of their business, though, is Rick and Angela’s use of buildings previously employed for the drying of tobacco leaves.

“The Norfolk-area used to produce a lot of tobacco. We repurposed some of the pre-existing buildings for drying seed,” says Rick. “The conditions in the tobacco buildings mimic a natural drying process, which makes for a more vigorous seed.” 

We get a huge amount of satisfaction from growing and providing a premium product.”

The Van Laeckes employ 16 full-time staff, as well as approximately 200 seasonal staff comprised of local high-school students. For about two weeks each summer, says Angela, the students are tasked with removing the tassels (the brown top of a maturing corn plant) from designated rows in the field; this allows for cross-pollination between the plants, which produce the hybrid seeds sold by the family.

“We harvest our seed corn by removing the whole cob from the stalk, just like sweet corn. Not stripping the kernels off through a combine helps protect the embryo in the seed,” says Rick.

Rick and Angela’s life-long love of agriculture has also transferred to their son Curtis and daughter Candice. Candice holds a Bachelor of Commerce in Food and Agricultural Business from the University of Guelph, while Curtis holds a Bachelor in Plant Science from the University of Guelph and a Master Certificate from the University of California, Davis. Curtis is very involved in the breeding side of the business, and Candice works off-farm in an agricultural career.

The family enjoys boating in their spare time, and can often be seen cruising Lake Erie’s waters near Turkey Point. Candice competes on a synchronized skating team in London, while Curtis enjoys playing pool – he even played competitively for many years.

As for future plans, Rick says they want to expand their market presence by growing the Horizon Seeds brand, particularly into Canada’s western provinces. Rick and Angela both say it’s the unique lifestyle and the opportunities the industry provides their family that continues drawing them to agriculture.

“We couldn’t be happier that we got to raise our kids here,” says Rick. “We get a huge amount of satisfaction from growing and providing a premium product.”

Fact or Fiction? Canola oil is the same from GM and non-GM crops

FactFictonYou might be surprised to know that canola is a distinctly “Made in Canada” crop. It was developed by researchers from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the University of Manitoba in the 1970s, using traditional plant breeding techniques. It is derived from rapeseed, an oilseed plant already used in ancient civilization as a fuel. Rapeseed is not fit for human consumption so Dr. Richard Downey and Dr. Baldur Stefannson, through breeding, lowered the erucic acid and glucosinolates thus creating a new plant — canola! The name canola is a contraction of Canadian and ola, meaning oil.

Did you know? Glucosinolates are what makes mustard spicy

Canola belongs to the Brassica genus, the botanical family that includes turnips, rutabaga, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, mustard, and cauliflower. Brassica oilseed varieties are some of the oldest plants cultivated by humanity, with documentation of its use in India 4,000 years ago, and use in China and Japan 2,000 years ago.

While canola was developed using traditional plant breeding techniques, about 80% of the canola grown in Canada has now been modified using biotechnology to make it tolerant to certain herbicides. Using these specific herbicides has reduced the amount of chemical needed for weed control in the fields. Remember: the canola plant has been modified, not the oil, oo canola oil from the herbicide tolerant plant is exactly the same safe and healthy oil as canola oil from conventional plants. The modification has been made to only one canola gene, and it is a protein. Processing removes all proteins from canola oil. That means canola oil made from genetically modified seed is conventional canola oil.

Did you know? Herbicide tolerance also occurs as a traditionally bred trait in canola, wheat, and lentils

In Canada, the largest producer of genetically modified (GM) canola, GM crops are regulated by Health Canada, under the Food and Drugs Act, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency are responsible for evaluating the safety and nutritional value of GM foods. Since the dawn of canola, approximately 20 years ago (over 3 trillion meals), there are no documented cases of harm correlated to human consumption of canola oil.

FACT: Canola oil from GM crops is the same as canola oil from conventional crops!

Sources: Canola Council of Canada, CropLife Canada, Health Canada, Wikipedia, and SaskCanola

Four Ways Farmers Promote Pollinator Health

By Mel Luymes, environmental coordinator, Farm & Food Care Ontario

This week is pollinator week, and all across Ontario insects are briskly buzzing about their business. Pollinators play an important role in agriculture and, in turn, Ontario farmers play an important role in protecting and feeding them.

Sam McLean farms in Peterborough County, and grows 175 acres of strawberries, raspberries, pumpkins, and other crops that rely on pollination. McLean is careful in his application rates and timing of pesticides, and understands that farming is all about creating balance. “We have a lot of hedgerows here, a lot of natural habitat for bees and other pollinators, so we don’t even need to bring in honeybees to pollinate our crops,” he says. 

Video Resource: Fruit farms and pollinators work together  

Sue Chan is a pollination biologist with Farms at Work and she has been working with McLean for years. “What I’m seeing is many, many species of native pollinators here, so he is obviously doing something right,” says Chan. She points to the plants in the hedgerows: basswood, sumac, elderberry, wild raspberry, even burdock and dandelions are great food and habitat for native pollinators, she says.

On the other end of the province is Mary Ellen King, a fourth-generation farmer in Lambton County who operates several hundred acres of wheat, corn and beans. “Ten to fifteen years ago we started to enhance our farms with trees, hedgerows, wetlands and native tallgrass prairie,” she says. “We need the birds and the bugs and the bees, it all works together to make a healthy farm. I like to walk around the farm in the evenings, it just sings!”

Video resource: Farmers plant cover crops for pollinators 

Kathleen Law is a master’s student at the University of Guelph and studied the ways farmers can and do promote pollinator habitat on their properties.  Farms have historically been great habitat for bees, she says. “As farming has changed and field sizes have gotten bigger, it means that farmers need to be intentional about enhancing pollinator habitat. Instead of having fencerows play that role, they can create habitat around buildings, ditches or woodlots,” she says.

“As an environmental researcher, it was really heartening to see how much cash croppers care about pollinators,” continues Law.  “Often the missing link was having the necessary information and support to go ahead with pollinator projects on farmland.”

Video resource: Riparian areas & Hedgerow Management for Pollinator Promotion

In Ontario, there are many resources for farmers interested in enhancing pollinator habitat. The Environmental Farm Plan addresses pollinators and the Ontario Soil & Crop Improvement Association supports projects through cost-share programs like the Species at Risk Farm Incentive Program (SARFIP) and the Great Lakes Agricultural Stewardship Initiative (GLASI). In certain areas, farmers may have access to the Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) program or Farms at Work.  Local Conservation Authorities can also be a great resource as well.

Law recommends that when farmers plant pollinator habitat, they should be more proactive in letting people know. “Put up a sign up that says who you are, what you’re doing and why,” she says. “It’s a great opportunity to demonstrate Ontario farm stewardship to your community and to society.”

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

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.”

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!