The greatest thing about farming is working with family

Lorna Callbeck

Jeff Mathieson is a fourth-generation farmer who runs the day to day operations of their grain farm near Watson, SK. During the busy times, like seeding and harvest, Jeff’s dad comes out of retirement to run the sprayer and drive the combine but they also hire some part-time employees to make sure everything gets done on time. They grow crops like barley, oats, canola, flax and pulse crops like peas and lentils.

Farming is much different than when Jeff’s parents and grandparents started out.

Jeff’s grandfather was considered a pretty large farmer back in the 1950s when he was farming 800 acres, which is just over 3 square kilometers of land. Today, many consider a large farm in Saskatchewan to be over 10,000 acres, which is just over 40 square kilometers. Jeff says at 2,600 acres, their farm is not massive, but it’s still a big change. “I try to imagine what my grandfather would think of the size of our equipment and the technology we’re using today and how we do things,” Jeff says. “I bet it would be amazing for him.”

Jeff goes onto explain that farms don’t get bigger just because farmers want to get bigger. It’s a matter of economies of scale and efficiency in order to maintain a family farm. “In Western Canada, based on the price the consumer is willing to pay for food and what my family is growing, farming isn’t economically sustainable on only 800 acres. We can’t purchase equipment, pay the mortgage on our land, or manage the costs of a grain farm that small these days; it is just not financially viable.”

He’s at that age where he’s having a lot of fun playing farmer” says Jeff of son Andrew

“To me there are two really great things about being a farmer.” Jeff says. “The first thing is that we grow food for people. Basically, we take all kinds of energy, add support from the equipment we purchase and the methods we use to grow the crop, and we turn that into a saleable product. To me, that’s pretty cool. There aren’t very many opportunities in the world to take the energy from the sun and the gifts of Mother Nature and help feed people. And we create a sustainable and renewable resource that we sell into the economy.”

“Our house and yard is in the middle of one of our fields and we grow a crop about 100 yards away from where we live. Everything that we do to produce the food that we sell to consumers is done outside our home. Where we live is the biggest testimony to the safety of the food that we produce because we are living right where the food is grown.”

The other great thing about being a farmer is the daily connection to family. “In central Saskatchewan, we have one planting season, one growing season and one harvest season,” Jeff explains. “While we put in many 15 to 18 hour days during those busy times of the year, I can spend more time with my family in the off-season and take part in activities like taking my 3-year-old son Andrew to the science centre or spending time at the lake with him and my wife Shawna.”

“Farming is my choice. I have a university degree and experience in other professions. I could be doing anything anywhere else and maybe earning a higher salary. In my mind, working for someone else wouldn’t give me or my family the same opportunities.” Jeff goes on to explain that the significance of having family on the farm is the ability to build something that can live on beyond oneself and be transferred to the next generation.

To keep their farm sustainable for future generations, one of Jeff and Shawna’s main goals is to leave the land better each year than it was the previous year. “Everything we do, every crop we plant or the fertilizer or pesticides we apply, we ask ourselves, is this going to make it better? If the answer is yes, it’s absolutely something we’re going to do. If it will hurt the quality of the soil or the environment around us, then we find a different way. As farmers, our job is to take care of the land so it will be there for the next generation.”

“Our house and yard is in the middle of one of our fields and we grow a crop about 100 yards away from where we live. Everything that we do to produce the food that we sell to consumers is done outside our home. Where we live is the biggest testimony to the safety of the food that we produce because we are living right where the food is grown. The Mathieson family farm follows and supports the rules set out for safe food production by commodity organizations and regulatory bodies to make sure that food produced is a safe product right from field to table.”

Is Roundup Poisoning Us?

By Jean Clavelle, Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan

Glyphosate is a herbicide — a type of pest control product used to kill plants. It is the active ingredient in the now infamous chemical Roundup, and is one of the most used agricultural chemicals worldwide.

Google glyphosate, originally released as the product Roundup, and you’re faced with results like ‘horrific’ “new evidence about the damage Roundup causes” and “Roundup chemicals are lethal.” One quick search and I can understand why society might have concerns about the pervasive use of glyphosate in agriculture. Reading these statements does lead us to question: is Roundup poisoning us?

Let’s examine the science.

A small amount (think: pop can) is mixed into a tank of water on the back of a special machine called a sprayer. Farmers use these machines to spray the mixture onto the weeds over a large area (that one pop can treats an area nearly the size of a football field) where it is absorbed by the plant. Once inside the plant, glyphosate binds to an enzyme (EPSP synthase), preventing it from building essential amino acids that a plant needs to live and grow. With this enzyme disabled, plants die. Now, the really interesting thing is that EPSP synthase is found only in plants and bacteria; humans and animals do not use this process.

Remember that Google search which told us glyphosate is one of the most toxic chemicals around? Not so. The general standard for acute (short term) toxicity is a value called an LD50. This refers to the median lethal dose, the amount of a chemical needed to cause death in 50% of the animals it is tested on. An LD50 is one way to measure the relative short-term poisoning potential of a compound. The lower the number the more toxic it is. For example, the LD50 of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda, a common ingredient in baking) is 4220 mg/kg; table salt 3000 mg/kg; caffeine (as in our precious morning coffee) is 192 mg/kg; and nicotine (cigarettes) is 50 mg/kg.

So where does glyphosate fit? Glyphosate has an LD50 of 5600 mg/kg. Yes. It is less toxic than baking soda, table salt, and coffee.

Our entire world is comprised of chemicals. Water, salt, and vinegar are chemicals, and even our bodies can be considered walking, talking chemical bags.

You’ve probably heard the old adage of toxicologists “the dose makes the poison”. Even those regular household compounds like salt, vinegar or yes, even water can be toxic if ingested in high enough doses. When glyphosate is used as it is intended, just like salt, vinegar, and water, it has minimal toxicity to humans and animals because the amount used is small.

But how do we know we are not consuming high levels of pesticides? Health Canada scientists review the data from over 250 separate studies before they approve a pesticide for sale or use in Canada. As part of this extensive review before a chemical is approved for sale, they identify the amount of a pesticide that a person could be exposed to without any adverse health effects. These levels are then compared to the maximum amount of residue that might be found on crops after use of the pesticide (a value known as the Maximum Residue Limit or MRL) in order to ensure that consumers are never exposed to an amount that could pose a risk to health. Indeed, MRLs are typically 100-1000 times below levels that are still considered safe.

Thanks to the MRLs established by Health Canada, based on science, we can be confident that if small amounts of glyphosate are ingested through exposure in our food system, we know they won’t be at toxic enough levels to cause damage, even if they are consumed every day over a life time.

I should probably also mention that it is not just Health Canada that has assessed the science around glyphosate. Most other major regulatory organizations around the world, including the European Food Safety Authority, the World Health Organization, and the U.S.’s Environmental Protection Agency, have also reviewed data on glyphosate (available here).

Glyphosate is easily and relatively quickly broken down in the environment. It does not bioaccumulate, meaning it does not build up in the bodies of fish and wildlife (read an example of mercury bioaccumulation here). And finally, it is excreted by our bodies if ingested. Their overwhelming consensus? When glyphosate is used according to label directions, it poses minimal risk to people, wildlife, and the environment.

We need to evaluate claims on the basis of overall weight of scientific evidence behind it. The stronger the weight of evidence, the more confidence we can have in the scientific findings. Glyphosate has been investigated by many scientists from around the world, in hundreds and hundreds of studies (again, available here) all of which have determined that, when it is used as it is intended, it is safe for people, for animals, and our environment.

Being a science geek, I follow facts. And the evidence tells me glyphosate is not the problem a cursory Google search might suggest. If you would like to know how glyphosate is used, the label (which is a legal document authorized by the Pest Control Products Act) can be found here. And if you still have questions, we want to hear them.

For more information/resources:

https://www.bestfoodfacts.org/glyphosate/

https://www.bestfoodfacts.org/glyphosate-in-food/

http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-16-2012_en.html

http://europepmc.org/abstract/MED/1287975/reload=0;jsessionid=osa7mo59kVxNtcafSkkP.18

http://weedcontrolfreaks.com/2014/06/salt-vinegar-and-glyphosate/

http://www.who.int/foodsafety/jmprsummary2016.pdf

 

What’s the deal with hormones?

By Jean L. Clavelle, Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan

I’m just going to say it — grocery shopping is complicated business. You are bombarded by confusing marketing campaigns and it seems everywhere you turn there is another ‘dangerous’ food item you should avoid.

Take hormones, for example. You see chicken, turkey, and dairy products with stickers that say “hormone free” or “raised without the use of added hormones” and then around the corner, cattle ranchers ask us to buy their “grown with hormones” beef! What’s the deal?

It’s true. Chicken and turkey farmers do not use hormones. The truth is they just don’t need to. Animal scientists have done a pretty good job of selecting the breeds of birds that grow the fastest. They have figured out the best feeds that the birds require, and farmers hire animal nutritionists that develop food specifically for their birds. Farmers are particularly aware of the environmental factors that will slow growth, such as changes in air temperature, humidity extremes and lighting and they do their utmost to ensure those are controlled or eliminated. Not only that, but they limit barn access to everyone but family and farm employees to prevent exposure to diseases or stressful situations. Basically, these birds are already growing under peak physiological conditions.

If a farmer wanted to, though, could he or she still use hormones? The answer is no. You might be surprised to know that the use of hormones in poultry farming was actually made illegal in Canada in 1963.

dyk-chicken-1However, there’s another reason, too. Hormones are naturally occurring and necessary for biological function. In poultry, for added hormones to be effective in improving growth, they would need to be administered in sequence with the peaks in their existing hormone pattern (which occur several times daily) and they would need to be injected intravenously. Given the current scale of poultry farms (most farms have several thousand birds), the cost to administer and the stress to the animal, the impracticalities are just too significant for this to be a plausible management strategy. So, NO CHICKENS are ever raised with added hormones.

The same is true of dairy cattle. It is illegal for Canadian farmers to use hormones in dairy cattle farming. But, this is not due to human health concerns. In fact, the U.S. does allow hormones to be used in dairy cattle — a hormone called recombinant bovine somatotropin (or rBST for short). So why don’t Canadian dairy farmers use rBST in milk production?

Because the advances in dairy farming are astonishing! There are now robotic milkers which allow cows to decide when and how often they wish to be milked, waterbeds for cow comfort, and we even have scientists who devote their entire careers to studying cow welfare. Canadian farmers have a national dairy herd that is considered among the highest level of genetic quality in the world to optimize animal production. Dairy farmers use nutritionists who balance the cows’ diets using the best of the best food ingredients. All in all, Canadian farmers are dedicated to ensuring healthy, stress free cows, promoting efficient milking and prioritizing cow comfort and welfare, which means dairy cattle have reached peak milk production without the need for added hormones.

Research has shown that using hormones to increase milk production in dairy cattle that are already milking at a high rate can result in health problems for the cows. Wisely, Canada decided this was not a necessary practice and banned its use due to animal welfare concerns – not because of fears regarding human health impacts.

But why do beef farmers use hormones? Hormones for beef cattle are administered via very small (2 mm in diameter), slow-release capsules placed under the skin in an animal’s ear where they dissolve over a period of months. These hormones work by enhancing the production of naturally-occuring hormones, by directing growth towards muscle and away from fat. Growing muscle takes much less energy (and is more efficient) than growing fat (which is less efficient). As a result beef cattle given hormones grow faster, have leaner compositions, and make more efficient use of the feed that they eat. These are important and environmentally beneficial things.

Now, it is true there are differences in hormone levels between beef raised with hormones and beef raised without hormones. That difference is about one nanogram or less. A nanogram is one billionth of a gram. For context, that is the equivalent of one second in 32 years, one foot in a trip to the moon, or one blade of grass in a football field. So, yes, technically there is a measurable difference in hormone levels found in beef raised with added hormones, but one that is minuscule.

Major governing health organizations (including Health Canada, World Health Organization, and United Nations) agree that this tiny difference is of no significance to human health. I should also point out that no peer-reviewed scientific studies exist to indicate eating beef produced with hormones has any negative impact on human health.

It might be surprising to learn that hormones are in all living things and that the relative amount of hormone in beef, either with added hormones or without, is much less when compared to many other food items regularly consumed in North American diets. For example, a 355 ml glass of beer contains nearly 8 times the amount of estrogen than a serving of beef grown with hormones, and a serving of cabbage contains over 1,000 times the amount of estrogen than an equivalent serving of hormone-raised beef. A pre-pubertal boy would have to eat over 8 cows’ worth of beef produced using hormones PER DAY to match his own daily production of estrogen. Please keep in mind though that even at higher levels, like those found in cabbage, and regardless of the food source they come from, hormones are proteins and are simply broken down into amino acids during digestion just as any other protein.

My take home message? Please do not be frightened of your food. Canadian farmers, scientists and government health organizations have our best interests at heart when it comes to the health, safety and affordability of our food supply. Continue to make nutritious choices, keep asking questions, and get to know a farmer so you have someone to talk to about your concerns!

READ MORE IN THE REAL DIRT ON FARMING, PAGE 23

How Can You Be Sure Your Food is Safe?

By Lauren Benoit and Carmen Tang

Canadians adore food, and rightfully so — we’re the country that combined the most artery-clogging ingredients we could find and turned the resulting dish into a national treasure known as poutine. We pour maple syrup on snow and call it dessert (or breakfast, if you’re truly dedicated). Heck, we love peameal bacon so much the rest of the globe collectively named it after us.

When it comes to food, Canada has a lot to offer and so much to be proud of, including an incredibly safe, diverse, and affordable supply.

Plentiful offerings

As Canadians,  we are privileged to a lot of choice when it comes to what we eat. If you want fresh veggies on your poutine you can have it, if you want bacon on your poutine you can have it, if you want poutine made with organic potatoes and vegetarian gravy, yes, you can have that too. The choices we have are impressive and what’s equally impressive is that every single one of those choices is just as safe as the next. Our government has a responsibility to protect the health and safety of Canadian consumers, and that is something they are very good at.

As farmers we often speak about what we do on the farm, how we follow the strict, federally-regulated protocols that ensure that food leaving our farms is safe for Canadians. The farmer is involved with- and committed to- the production of safe food, but our food safety story doesn’t stop there. A lot happens between the farm gate and dinner plate, and through every step of the value chain the safety of Canadians remains the top priority.

Keeping Canadian food safe

The Canada Food and Drug Act, created by the government of Canada, dictates the laws and policies of food. The CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) enforces these laws and can be thought of as the watchdogs of food safety. The CFIA is also responsible for other parts of the food chains including: the living and transportation conditions of animals, protecting our country from foreign diseases/pests, verifying food import quality, honesty in food labelling, and the regulation of genetically modified crops (commonly referred to as GMOs).

Your beloved golden, crispy fried French fries are likely fried with vegetable oil, particularly canola oil. Much of the canola grown in Canada has been genetically modified to include different traits, namely herbicide tolerance. Genetic modification, a type of biotechnology, is regulated by CFIA and Health Canada under the Food and Drugs Act. Genetically modified crops undergo rigorous safety testing before they even reach the farmers’ fields. The regulatory process involves thoroughly researching, testing and assessing the safety of the new GM foods. In Canada, these foods are referred to as ‘Plants with Novel Traits.’ Not all plants with novel traits are genetically modified, but all are subject to the same safety standards  Each trait and crop undergoes over 200 tests on everything from toxicology, molecular biology, and nutritional composition to ensure the genetically modified product is just as safe and nutritious as its non-GMO counterpart.

After the farm

After leaving the farm, many food ingredients travel to a processing facility. The bacon in your poutine is processed at a registered butcher or meat processing plant. Every federal meat or poultry processing facility is required to follow a Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) protocol to food safety standards. HACCP is an internationally-accepted approach that requires processing facilities to identify all possible food safety hazards, design protocols to control hazards, a safety verification process and corrective actions. Potatoes, under fruit and vegetable regulations, also go through a regulated processing plant where the product is cleaned, sorted, portioned then packaged. The CFIA performs safety audits where critical points throughout the plant line are tested frequently for quality control.

If you want to be assured that your “vegetarian gravy” for your poutine is, in fact, meat-free, you can rest assured that regulations and inspection efforts are in place to ensure that product labels are factual, and not misleading (especially in the case of known allergens). In the rare event of a mislabeling, the product is immediately recalled, destroyed, and removed from the marketplace.

Product inspection extends to the non-federal registered sector, too, which includes alcoholic beverages, infant foods, and bakery products, as well as to foods imported to Canada. Products in the grocery store come from all around the world; Canadian food importers must hold an importers license. This license ensures food coming into the country meets the same standards as food produced in Canada by outlining the actions taken to keep their food safe and compliant with the CFIA’s rules.

The bottom line is that as you walk through a Canadian grocery store choosing the food that you will eat and feed your family, you can be assured that each product has passed through an internationally-renowned food safety regulatory system. Regardless of what you chose — organic, genetically-modified, all-natural, local, or conventional — the choice is yours, and all options are equally safe. From there, it’s up to you to make sure you’re storing, handling, and cooking your fine Canadian foods safely!

About the authors: Carmen is a fourth-year Food Science student at the University of Guelph and president of the Food Science Club. Lauren Benoit is a science and regulatory affairs analyst at CropLife Canada, and will be starting a MSc. degree at the University of Guelph in January, 2017.

A turkey farmer’s voice: How much do you want to know about turkey farming?

By Clair Doan, turkey farmer

As a turkey farmer it is important to be able to share our family farm story. Talking about how we grow and care for our turkeys is important to me because I am proud of what we do and, most of all, love eating turkey with my family. With the likes of social media,  it is not hard to be a part of the conversation or see the many posts about our birds and farm. However, last night I took the opportunity to view the W5 program on CTV called “Fowl Business” where our industry has been criticized for our handling of live turkeys from the farm to plate, mostly through the shackling and live stunning process at slaughter. My initial reaction was more mixed than I had anticipated, given our industry is directly impacted by consumer perceptions and influenced by media — perhaps there was some truth to this story.

I encourage you to watch this footage where the program relies on a “whistle blower” from Mercy for Animals, an organization whose main purpose is to convert people to veganism. I could focus on the inaccuracies and clear bias presented by this organization (as there were many). W5 counterbalanced this with the famous Temple Grandin. I could focus on the food itself and how consumers connect to their meals which I think is more effective, long term. As a farmer, the company implicated in the report was Lilydale, a Sofina Foods owned company, a sister firm to the buyer of most of our birds.

To clarify a couple of points first: I take great issue with undercover employees, with direct motives to identify irregularities in meat processing systems while knowingly being supported by Mercy For Animals. As well, the Lilydale employee, who was referenced a number of times, should most certainly be reprimanded and I am sure no longer works for the firm based on his actions and general lack of concern for the animals. However, in reality, we are always looking for the exception where rules are broken and people are not respecting the care and compassion for the animals.

Photo credit: Clair Doan

Photo credit: Clair Doan

The reality is the entire meat sector suffers from a similar crisis — their business of transforming a living animal into food, which for most part, people, is not a nice process to watch! Sure, we all love the end product on the BBQ, but connecting consumers to where their food comes from stops short of the animal leaving the farm.

Even as a farmer, after my turkeys are loaded off the truck, it is truly not my responsibility to what happens to them afterwards. What I do consider is ensuring that as close to 100% of the birds and meat were of superior quality as possible. As turkey farmers, I have personally undergone safe handling and loading of turkeys. We employ on-farm food safety protocols, which include all animals be respected and those suffering must be immediately and humanly euthanized on farm.

Recently, farm commodity boards have asked farmers to share their stories, to bring consumers, the media and influencers to their farm to share real stories of the people that truly care about our food system. I truly believe that we have a great story to tell on farm, but it begs the question, how much information is enough and how much is too much?

As a farmer, my primary goal is to raise healthy and productive turkeys. I do everything possible to maintain a positive environment for them including, fine-tuned nutrition, safe housing, ample bedding and medication, if it is required. The last thing I like seeing on my farm are sick or dead birds. So when it comes to slaughtering the turkeys, it is a difficult sight to watch. I don’t like blood in general and there are different sights, smells, movement and noises that come with the slaughter and processing of livestock. So like other consumers, the slaughter part of food production is never talked about, let alone seeing video footage of this stage. To me, the “Fowl Business” highlights the fact that living animals die for us to eat them, regardless of the perceived mishandling.

This past April, I had the privilege of visiting the largest turkey processors in Germany. It is estimated that 60,000 turkeys are handled per day, which equates to the entire Canadian production in about seven months at this one facility. Through using controlled atmospheric stunning, the facilities operated with utmost efficiency. When I spoke to the marketing manager, I asked “What message do you want me leaving the visit with?” His response was simple, that we value animal welfare from farm to plate and that their facility employs the latest technology which promotes efficient output of quality meat products. The visit in Germany left me with one on the most positive feelings regarding turkey meat, in that it was not a stomach turning, ethically questioning experience!

As an industry, I am interested to learn how Lilydale/Sofina will react to this news report, at the same time look forward to an overall industry reaction as I do believe it may be turkey today, but can easily be hogs or beef or chicken tomorrow. Yet at the same time, as a farmer, I am proud of our accomplishments on farm, yet we will only be successful in the future if we are part of an entire value chain that is effective at communicating our standards and expectations to all consumers, at the same time respecting their potential views on humane treatment of animals through the entire lifecycle.

The CTV show W5 called “Fowl Business” continues to irritate me by relying animal rights group spies and unfortunate employees that either lack training and demonstrate unacceptable behaviours to speak about the humane issues of turkey. At the same time there are reasons we pay for Canadian Food Inspection Agency, work within organized marketing boards, and abide by every increasing animal welfare protocols on farm that must work as succinct systems. I willingly continue to share our farm story in efforts of helping connect people with their food. Unfortunately delivering the message around the transformation from alive to dead is a difficult story to comprehend, but we must remember our food story does not end at the farm nor start at the grocery store.

This blog post first appeared on www.clairdoan.com

Be Wary of People Preying on Fear

By Matt McIntosh, Farm & Food Care

No, this isn't how a GMO is made (and no, there are no commercially available GMO tomatoes, anyway)

No, this isn’t how a GMO is made (and no, there are no commercially available GMO tomatoes, anyway)

Do you see pictures like this from time to time? If so, do society a service and call rubbish.

Contrary to what such images imply, our food didn’t drop out of the comic book universe. It may have been produced in part with science — and some pretty incredible science at that — but such science hardly looks as controversial as sticking a tomato with a needle of malignant looking kool-aid.

I don’t know who takes the time to make these images, but the purpose behind doing so is, without a shadow of doubt, to misinform and frighten. I’d like to think that the designers genuinely don’t understand the science against which they rail, but it is perfectly plausible, of course, that they are well aware of how misleading such visual creations can be.

These pictures reduce food science technology to a level akin with antagonists from the Resident Evil franchise – you know, the Umbrella Corporation’s cronies and their zombie-spawning pharmaceuticals.

Assuming, then, that there is some kind of article or information accompanying the picture, can a person trust it? Likely not.

Here’s a typical example of something I see on an all-to-frequent basis. It’s titled “FDA finally admits 70 per cent of chicken contains arsenic,” and there are some major issues right from the start.

First, the article appears on what is, essentially, a blog site and not a legitimate news source. Second, the article features an image of a chicken being injected with some kind of tan liquid — a practice which exists solely in the mind of the image creator. Third, the very title of the article implies a distinct slant on the part of the author which, coincidently, seems to be a New York media production company with some very strong views on many science-y things.

Upon reading, we learn that a treatment for chickens produced by Pfizer – one of those pharmaceutical companies – is leaving traces of inorganic arsenic in the livers of chickens; the Food and Drug Administration in the United States has, as it says, “finally admitted” to the problem, and somehow manages to simultaneously condemn water companies by saying “the level of inorganic arsenic found in the chicken livers is equivalent to the amount of inorganic arsenic found in an eight-ounce glass of drinking water.”

The easy (and wrong) conclusion? Americans must be ingesting dangerous levels of arsenic whenever they eat chicken or drink water.

Of course, this conclusion is completely contrary to what the Food and Drug Administration said on the issue – there’s really nothing wrong with chicken, or water for that matter – but that’s almost beside the point. With so many things initially wrong with the piece – multiple misleading and fabricated pictures, a clear slant in the title, and an unaccredited information source – a person should, theoretically, never even get as far as the first paragraph.

If that were the case, though, I wouldn’t be writing this.

People read, and people listen. And not just disconnected, uneducated folks either — articles and images like this do nothing but perpetuate ignorance. Stemming the spread of this type of visual drivel comes down, at least in part, to critical thinking.

We live in a fast-paced world, and often don’t have the time or mental energy to research every issue in depth. Images of syringes sticking food products, though, should be an automatic red flag declaring “approach with caution.” They are ridiculous pictures, these things, and people employing them as fact should not be trusted.

You Heard Me: I Like GMOs

By Matt McIntosh, Farm and Food Care Ontario

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Folta, 2016

Kevin Folta, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Folta speaks at the 2016 annual general meeting

Kevin Folta speaks at the 2016 annual general meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some thoughts on the Food “Free” Frenzy

By Crystal Mackay, CEO Farm & Food Care Canada

Trends continue to snowball with labels about what’s in a food product being expanded to how that food was grown or processed. Gluten-free, antibiotic-free, hormone-free, cage-free, everything-else-free labels are multiplying. It seems almost every day I see a new announcement from a company or a grocery store ad or a label on something I go to buy that has a claim like this.

With so much noise, how does one cut through the clutter and make an informed decision about what to buy and eat? Here are a few principles I feel that need some attention:

1. Isn’t choice awesome?
Let’s start here. I think we are extremely fortunate in Canada with so much food that we can have all these choices. For example, the fact that the egg counter at the grocery store can be a 10 minute experience reading about all the options for types of eggs is awesome. Some people in other countries might be happy to have one egg. Continue reading

The real dirt on hen housing

By Kristen Kelderman, Farm Animal Care Coordinator, Farm & Food Care

The Real Dirt on Hen HousingHaving recently become a new homeowner, it’s amazing how many different housing options there are are out there. You might be a high rise condo dweller living in one of the many buildings that populate the horizon or maybe in a single detached family home that is more your style.

Townhomes, executive penthouse lofts, cottage living – the options are endless with each choice presenting different benefits and amenities. If you’re anything like me, the only restriction is your bank account!

It’s not that different when it comes to housing options for farm animals. Modern barns today offer many benefits that the traditional red bank barn of our grandparents’ age would never be able to provide. New advancements in technology have allowed the reconstruction of modern barns to provide things like climate-controlled environments, enriched amenities, access to feed and water 24 hours a day, smart phone alerts if an issue arises in the barn and much more.

But how do we know what good and what bad environments for farm animals actually are? Science helps to tell us this. There has been a lot of research around the globe on housing of farm animals and on how different environments affect them. Many researchers have dedicated their entire careers to this area of science: studying animal behaviour, environmental impacts, natural behaviours and many more aspects of how housing influences an animal’s life.

Let’s talk about laying hen housing – housing for the birds that lay the eggs that you enjoy for breakfast. Continue reading