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!

 

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. 

Cold snap leaves marshmallow growers feeling frosty

By: Farm & Food Care staff

MarshnewCanadians planning on camping with family and friends may feel a little less jovial this summer as late-spring cold has devastated much of the country’s marshmallow crop.

For the first time on record, it looks like frost and freezing rain will cause everyone’s favorite fluffy confectionary to jump significantly in price, and drop in availability.

“2012 was a devastating year for fruit growers, and this year we have that level of damage on our crop,” says Robyn Smore, a marshmallow farmer near Erieau Ontario who specializes in producing large white marshmallows for the retail market.

“We have almost two-hundred acres planted with marshmallows […] there’s damage to well over three-quarters of that.”

The marshmallow plant – formally known as the perennial Althaea Unofficinalis – has been used as both a medicine and foodstuff for thousands of years, and varieties of the plant exist in many areas across the globe. In Ontario, most marshmallow varieties originate from Scipio Africanus, or varieties native to Northern Africa, largely due to its sweet taste and high plant productivity. While these varieties can handle cold weather if temperatures transition slowly, they are not suited to sudden climactic changes. Buds and flowers are particularly vulnerable, and will not produce harvestable marshmallows if damaged.

This year, a spurt of warm weather early in March saw many Canadian marshmallow growers reporting earlier-than-expected budding; some farms even reported seeing plants in full bloom. Last week’s hail storms, freezing rain and heavy morning frost caused significant damage to farms across Canada with the impact of harsh March conditions was felt as far east as Prince Edward Island.

“We’re going to have to change our plans and basically cancel our early harvest altogether,” says Smore. “It just looks bad all around.”

Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the marshmallow plant’s plight either. The unseasonably warm winter experienced by growers south of the border has also led to resurgence in Mallow Beetle populations – a pest which burrows into and consumes the sugar-laden buds of miniature-marshmallow plants – meaning an even wider shortage in the coming year.

Smore believes the loss of prime production areas in Canada and the United States will raise the retail price of marshmallows across North America, perhaps as much as 30 or 40 per cent.
Still, Smore says she is hopeful that they will be able to recover their losses next year.

“There’s always a sticky year between a few good ones. We just hope not to get burned the next time,” she says.

As for the rest of us, now may be an appropriate time to replenish summer stocks. Not having any on hand during the annual family camp-out would certainly be playing the fool. Read more

Updated: Cold snap leaves marshmallow growers feeling frosty

Marsh jkHappy April Fool’s Day!

Farmers definitely don’t grow marshmallows on bushes. Today’s sugary treats are made from a mixture of sugars, egg whites and gelatin beaten together. Although they used to be made of ingredients from marshmallow plant roots and there are accounts of ancient Egyptians making candies from marshmallow root and honey.

Now you know.

For more interesting farm and food tidbits, check out www.realdirtonfarming.ca

Water, water everywhere…or not

The United Nations has declared today – March 22, 2016 – as World Water Day.

Did you know Canada has approximately 20 per cent of the world’s total fresh water supply? But, less than half of our supply is considered “renewable” — that is, it’s readily available and of a certain quality. That means, based on water cycling and recycling times, that Canada has only 7 per cent of the global “renewable” supply of water. Source: Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Did you know 061 (Canada)What about farmers and water?

Farmers are the original environmentalists and understand the importance of healthy soil, water and air. Farmers live on their farms with their 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.

Farmers work hard to grow food sustainably, ensuring the land is of good quality for future generations and is left in better shape than how it was when they started farming it. Canadian farmers are always proactively working to protect the environment and growing more food with fewer inputs such as water.

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More than Farming: What’s a crop science regulatory consultant?

By Matt McIntosh

MorethanFarmingWhat career possibilities were you indoctrinated with as a child? Did your parents or others suggest you become a lawyer? A tradesman? Perhaps even an engineer of trains or mechanical design? What about a crop science regulatory consultant?

To that last one, I suspect your answer is no.

I know that, for my own part, I never heard such a title in my younger days. Considering I grew up a farm kid and have been working in agricultural communications for years now, I’m willing to bet very few of my less-agricultural peers have heard of it either.

What is a crop science regulatory consultant you ask? In short, it’s an individual that assists companies in registering new products – insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides for instance – with the government. Governments, as we know, need to regulate things, and registering agricultural products for sale and use within a given political jurisdiction involves long, rigid certification processes – this is particularly true in Canada, which has some of the strictest food safety regulations in the world.

Someone has to know the process, after all, and be willing to complete the associated paperwork.

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