How Facebook Helped Me Make Friends With GMOs

By Julie Mellor-Trupp

I’ve been obsessed with good health and nutrition since I was a teenager. As a young mom, I did everything possible to ensure my kids’ good health. I chose organic and natural foods, and used all-natural remedies, pesticides, and cleansing agents – only the best. My guidebooks were the myriad of materials provided by health gurus, celebrities and yoga instructors.

Julie Mellor-Trupp writes from Toronto, Ontario.

Then I discovered Facebook. I joined some health groups, and learned about evil corporations like Monsanto, which was trying to poison both us and the environment with dangerous pesticides and GMOs.

My mission was clear: I needed to inform the world of these terrible things.

I was well into my first few months of this commitment when one new member in an anti-Monsanto group suddenly chose me as his mentor, asking for all I knew.

He questioned endlessly, I answered. He questioned my answers. He forced me to search for ever more information.

It got tiresome and I started throwing in links without even reading them. I just ‘knew’ that they were good links; the headlines all matched my views. He read them all – and questioned me sentence by sentence. That meant I had to actually read everything I had shared, and found to my surprise that half of the links that I had provided went against everything I believed.

I started asking a lot of questions myself on my favourite forums, seeking evidence for claims that, days before, I had merely ingested as facts.

I soon found out any challenge to a claim on anti-GMO sites had me being called a shill for Monsanto and permanently removed. I realized that by stifling all challenges and silencing dissent, group members forced others to fall in line, mindlessly and unquestioning. I was shocked that my months as a ‘good member’ meant nothing to people who had now turned against me, merely for asking for evidence of their claims.

Fortunately, I found Facebook forums where I wasn’t yelled at whenever I questioned someone’s post on the subject of food and GMOs. I even joined sites that weren’t anti-GMO, wanting to know how ‘they’ could believe in this terrible unnatural technology.

Click here to Read More about GMOs in the Real Dirt on Farming! 

I’ve learned to respect the views of people who had been educated on subjects about which I was concerned – for example, farmers, biotechnologists and, yes, even those who work for Monsanto. I recognized that some celebrity actor knows no more about science than do I – and shouldn’t have as much influence on public opinion as a university-educated professional.

I even found organic farmers who support GMOs for a sustainable future.

I have come to realize that biotechnologists and farmers are not evil, paid-off or misguided. They kiss their babies before leaving for work and strive to make a better world like the rest of us.

I’ve realized the harm that comes from being uncritical.That those who aren’t speaking from a position of knowledge or education CAN hurt my family – by not vaccinating children, by controlling what is taught in schools, and by lobbying governments into making wrong decisions.

I’ve come to realize that people don’t have a right to their own facts, and that there aren’t always two equal sides to a story.

To ‘pay it forward,’ I now run several fact-based Facebook sites.I try to help others who are confused and fearful about current agricultural practices, as well as other controversial topics like vaccines, pesticides, chemicals and media’s often-misinformed portrayal of scientific research.

I’m every bit as committed to good health as I was as a teenager and young mom, but I’ve learned so much about what really constitutes truth, and what represents distorted propaganda for other agendas.

Julie Mellor-Trupp and her family live near Toronto, Canada.

Farming is Big Business with a Big Heart

By Serra McSymytz, Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan

Throughout October, we have been celebrating Agriculture Month in Saskatchewan, a province whose primary goods-producing sector is agriculture. The theme “Our Food Has a Story” has encouraged many farmers, ranchers, and industry employees to speak up and tell their farm stories. I grew up in the farming world and have worked in the industry and even I must admit I’ve been blown away by the caring and compassion laced through every tweet, post, and picture.

The people in this industry rely on the earth, plants, and animals to support their families, futures, and freedoms. Yes, agriculture has evolved over the last fifty years. Yes, fewer farmers are managing more land. Yes, when size dictates, it makes economic sense to incorporate your operation, but that doesn’t mean the family farm has been lost to history. 97% of all Canadian farms are still family owned and operated.1

big-business-image-2-farmingfood4uHere’s an alarming statistic: there are 60% fewer farmers in Canada today than in 1901 and 548% more people to feed.2 That’s just within our borders, not to mention the hundreds of millions of tonnes of product we export to developing countries each year to help feed their people too. Talk about pressure to perform!

“…there are 60% fewer farmers in Canada today than in 1901 and 548% more people to feed.”

Thankfully, we are fortunate enough to live in a country where science and innovation are encouraged and explored. Where farmers and ranchers have the knowledge, tools and technology to grow and raise safe, healthy and affordable food in an environmentally responsible manner. Today’s farming is big business, not the simple lifestyle our grandparents grew up with. Yet, Ben Parker had it right, with great power comes great responsibility.

big-business-image-1-a-iveyWe live in the age of science and technology, where information travels far and wide and everyone has access to the latest diet craze or scientific study. Unfortunately, despite agriculture’s enormous technological advancements in the last quarter century, we haven’t put much time or energy into promoting our impressive new tools and now we need to defend them.

To the 98% of our population that has no direct connection to the farm and no way of understanding what a Flexi-Coil 5000-57FT Air Drill is, why we use ivermectin on our livestock, or spray our crops with unpronounceable chemicals like difenoconazole or saflufenacil, farming sounds scary. But, to the remaining 2%, it means no top soil loss, healthy animals, higher yields and a cleaner environment!

You’d be hard pressed to find a cattle rancher who doesn’t feed their family with meat from their herd, or a farmer who doesn’t bring his children along to check crops for disease and pests. That’s because farmers believe in the technology and production practices they use to grow our food and they want consumers to have confidence in them too.

When asked what they would like to say to non-farmers, the consensus was, “We care about our livestock, land and about producing safe food for you and your family. Wherever you’re from and whatever you do, everyone is dependent on food, so take the time to learn about how your food is really produced, from many different sources. Appreciate the efforts of farmers everywhere.”

Despite the new state of agriculture and the ever-evolving landscape of farming, our food still comes from families who care about their animals, land and growing safe, healthy, and affordable food.

1, 2 The Real Dirt on Farming, (Toronto: Farm & Food Care Foundation, 2014), 2-3.

More Than Farming — Managing a Dairy Herd

By Jean Clavelle, Farm & Food Care Saskatchewan

MorethanFarmingAgriculture is much more than farming. It’s a diverse community of people who work closely with and support those farmers who grow our food, and without this supporting network, farming would not be what and where it is today.

This month, RealDirt spoke with Morgan Hobin who is the Manager at the Rayner Dairy Research and Teaching Unit at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. The Center boasts one voluntary milking system (robotic) and a parlour (or conventional milking system), and is currently milking 104 cows with an additional 150 calves and cows that are not producing milk.

Hobin explains that although they are a commercial facility, they are not a conventional dairy. Among the requirements to produce milk that you will buy in the grocery store, they have extra space to allow for teaching dairy production to students and have two different milking systems which allows for different kinds of research.  “We also have the interactive cow walk suspended above the dairy so consumers, farmers and anyone, really, can observe the cows in their day-to-day life and to see where their milk comes from. And the other unique thing is that we are a commercial dairy in the city, which is quite rare.”

Morgan acts as the liaison between the barn operations, the research faculty (from the department of Animal and Poultry Science and the Western College of Veterinary Medicine) and the public and teaches dairy management labs to Animal Science students.

“It’s a very quiet and calm environment and you don’t hear banging or yelling or animals in distress. The animals get to take their time. It’s a pretty relaxed place.”

RealDirt: What do you feel are your most important responsibilities?

morgan-hobin-dairy-manager-1Morgan: My number one most important responsibility is taking care of the cows. This includes making sure the staff is on board for the day’s activities and goals for the week. I make sure the cows are fed the right diets, calves are taken care of, and cow’s reproductive systems stay healthy. We are a commercial facility but we have research responsibilities on top of the general day to day management so all of the team needs to be on the same page.

The second is to make sure that the research that is being done is high quality resulting in publishable data. And under that scope the most important thing goes back to the cows being taken care of. Our ultimate goal is that the research that happens here directly transfers and is practical for Saskatchewan farmers and their animals.

RealDirt: What does a typical day entail?

Morgan: I get to the barn around 7:45 am and I do my rounds. I see how much feed is left over in the bunks, and then I make adjustments for that day’s feeding schedule based on how much is left over from the day before. I look at the cows and the manure (which is important because manure tells you if they are healthy or not) and make sure that all of the cows are doing well. A healthy manure patty has good consistency, piles firmly and is a brownish colour. Manure that is too runny, too firm, has gas bubbles or grain in it, indicates a problem! Then I check the notebook – these are the notes that tell us if there were any issues from the night shift (we have people here from four in the morning until 11 at night) and deal with anything that has come up. This is followed by a team meeting so everyone can get up to speed about what is happening in the barn that day and if anything out of the ordinary is happening like a tour, or a special research project that might be starting. Then it’s all up in the air from there! I usually have a plan but every day is different.

There are a lot of tasks that happen on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. An important one is to make sure to look at our computer programs which provide specific info about each animal from the day before and a snapshot of the previous week which is another indicator of how the cows are doing and their health and well being. I look at animals that are due to calve and determine if any cow needs special attention or if we need to bring them in if they are getting close to  their due date.

And then there are all of the regular dairy farm duties. I need to pay bills, order feed, make feed sheets based on the morning bunk checks and check the bulk tank (the stored milk that will eventually go to the grocery store) to make sure we are on track for our quota (the amount of milk expected to be produced each month). And of course there’s scheduling all of the workers (we have six full-time, five casual employees, and four students).

In the afternoon, I often have meetings with faculty and researchers to hash out and schedule upcoming research projects. I also go to check on the calves in the calf barn and on the heifers and the rest of the animals outside, to see if they are doing well, body condition wise. Every second week we have “herd health” where the vet and several fourth year vet students come to check for pregnancies and do general post-calving checks on each cow to make sure they are all healthy. And, because we are a teaching centre, I teach dairy management to Animal Science and Veterinary Medicine students.

RealDirt: What do you love most about your job?

I love the fact that when I come to work I know that every day is going to be different. I love the combination of office work and caring for the animals and getting to be a part of the neat research we do.

RealDirt: What is the most challenging part?

Finding the sweet spot between meeting the demands of research and teaching while still being a productive and profitable herd.

RealDirt: What has changed since you started doing your job?

I’ve been here for two years and in that time, we’ve seen an increase in the technology that is available to help us on a cow-by-cow basis and for overall herd management. Everything is constantly evolving and improving.

RealDirt: What kind of training and education do you have to do this job?

I have a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture and a Master of Science in dairy nutrition from the University of Saskatchewan. To do this job, I think it is important to have practical experience. I went to Australia and milked cows there for a year, so I understand and can work better with the team that’s out in the barn because I understand what they are doing. And having management experience definitely helps.

RealDirt: How do you interact with farmers?

Our researchers work with the provincial dairy industry so we can link the research with industry priorities which is the ultimate goal. Often farmers will stop by to view our facilities or they might have a guided tour. Farmers want to know the research that’s happening here so they can understand what’s new and what they may be changing in the future. They also want to see how our facilities work and often compare their own to ours.

RealDirt: What is the biggest misconception you encounter in your job?

I think it’s just general animal care and how cows are housed. I think visitors’ minds change when they tour our facility. For example, we have brushes in each pen, that lets the cows brush themselves and you can see how happy the cows look while getting scratched. I think visitors are surprised at how easily cows come to see you when you are on the floor which is a clear indicator to me that they aren’t scared or being mistreated – they want nothing more than to lick you. Plus we milk three times a day and people can come in (most of the time without us even knowing they are there) and see us moving the cows. It’s a very quiet and calm environment and you don’t hear banging or yelling or animals in distress. The animals get to take their time. It’s a pretty relaxed place.

RealDirt: What do you wish consumers knew about the dairy industry?

I guess I wish consumers knew producers respect the animals and the consumers. It takes commitment and attention to detail to make sure that there’s a high quality product coming out of the farm. And we wouldn’t pay attention to detail and try to constantly improve if we didn’t care. We want to make sure the consumers are getting a high quality, safe product because we care about them.

RealDirt: What do you think surprises visitors the most when they come to visit the Rayner dairy facility?

The biggest thing is that most people are surprised how much cows produce in a day: our cows produce about 40 kg of milk per day.  That’s the “holy cow” moment. There is a lot of work behind milk production like this and we need to pay attention to every detail of the cow’s life to help them be this productive. Stressed, sick, or unhappy cows do not produce milk like that. We also like showing people the robotic milker. A voluntary milking system is a great tool because you can have a 400 cow dairy and seven milking stations and it can be managed by one person. Voluntary systems are also good for animal welfare because cows can choose to be milked three or four a times day if they want, while others may choose not to be milked more than twice, so it gives them an option.

Robots can improve welfare for the animal and improve welfare for the farmer, too. These days in the dairy industry we work hard to find staff that we can trust our animals with. People ask me do you have kids? And I say “yes, 250 of them”. I can’t trust their health and comfort to just anyone. So having robots lets farmers provide great care to the cows and allows the farmer to have a quality of life too.

RealDirt: Is there a way for interested readers to connect with you (blog, Twitter, Instagram, etc.)?

Visitors are welcome at the barn between 12:30 pm and 4:30 pm,  seven days a week, or you can contact the Dean’s office to arrange a personalized tour at 1-306.966.4058

We’re blogging about Canadians working in agriculture. Each month, we’ll feature someone different on www.realdirtblog.ca to show how diverse our Canadian agriculture industry is! Know someone that we should feature? Send us a note at info@farmfoodcare.org.

 

 

Listening and Learning Across the Table

matt in GlencoeBy Matt McIntosh, Farm & Food Care

I had a mutually-educational supper with a friend recently.

It was a pre-planned date where I, being rewarded with barbecue and malted barley, gave a 101 on Canadian food and farming — a subject of great passion for me and great interest to my friend, though one she admitted to knowing very little about.

We hit on several common topics over the course of the evening: pesticides, GMOs, and the odd anecdote from my farm-kid childhood, just to name a few. But it was our discussions around “corporate agriculture” and what the ideal farm should be that stuck out the most. Indeed, I was somewhat surprised to discover that my view of the “ideal” farm was actually quite similar to hers.

I was however astounded to learn that my friend, whether she realized it or not, saw modern Canadian farms not as independent family-run businesses, but mere corporate franchises. In her mind, the modern farm was under the thumb of — and even directly controlled by — large agro-chemical corporations.

These ideas manifested themselves shortly after I described my family and our farm. After mentioning that we grow some GMO crops, my friend asked if we actually owned the land where we plant our crops. I said that we absolutely did, though we also rent land from neighbouring farmers. She then asked if we owned our own equipment, to which I explained that we did, though some farmers find it economical to hire others to plant, spray, or harvest.

Those questions were not asked just so she could learn about business structures, however. They were asked because she didn’t know how deep into my family’s livelihood the proverbial corporate tentacle reached. Without necessarily being conscious of the fact, she was questioning our sovereignty over our own business.

The fact that farms are independent businesses is a given to me, but it wasn’t to my friend.

Untrue as it is, the idea that farmers are under the thumb of large corporations is certainly not new. Many times I’ve responded to people asking if we are forced to use specific products, if we lived in fear of lawsuits, and other similar questions, but never had I encountered the idea that our land could be literally taken from us with such ease.

In this case, I realized that in order to connect with my friend starting with shared values was not enough. I had to one more step back and describe that the vast majority of Canadian farms (97%, in fact) actually are family businesses run by independent entrepreneurs who make decisions based on personal values, business goals, and what works best on their land.

With this in mind, I asked my friend what Canadian farming should be, and for comparison, followed her answer with my own conception of the ideal.

To paraphrase, my friend suggested Canadian agriculture should be comprised of more and smaller farms that are environmentally conscious and operate independently of large corporations. This was excellent to hear because I whole-heartedly agree with all her points, and better yet, I can say with certainty that much of what she idealized already exists.

DSC_0009I told her about Ontario’s long-running Environmental Farm Plan program, the seemingly-infinite number of crop varieties available to growers, some neat innovations I come across as a farm writer, and how an independent lifestyle is one of the most attractive characteristics of a farming career. 

Considering my friend has never been to a farm like my family’s — and the fact that, like the rest of us, she is continually bombarded by anti-modernity propaganda — it’s only logical that knowledge gaps exist. That was, after all, the entire point of our dinner date. Regardless of how close to the ideal we think modern agriculture is, though, we both discovered our idea of what was “right” was more similar than originally anticipated.

It was a good conversation, and to her credit, my friend was already quite knowledgeable on some subjects, and shared that knowledge with me. Where she knew little, though, the only real thing lacking was context, and that reminded me not to take the independent business aspect of farming for granted.

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

Fact or Fiction: You can save 1,300 gallons of water by skipping your lunch burger

FactFictonThere’s an infographic floating around on social media. Perhaps you’ve seen it.

It claims you can save 1,300 gallons of water if you:
– don’t flush your toilet for six months, OR
– don’t take a shower for three months, OR
– for lunch today, don’t eat one burger.

Turns out, this is FICTION.

Let’s look at how the cow (behind that burger) really measures up.

Continue reading

Cheerios now have no genetically modified ingredients – Fact or Fiction?

FactFictonFACT: It’s true that General Mills recently announced its “original Cheerios” would have no genetically modified (GM) ingredients.

However, the main ingredient in Cheerios is oats – and there are no genetically modified oat varieties grown in North America, so with the exception of corn sweetener and a few other minor ingredients, Cheerios have always been GM-free.

Now you know!

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

Meatless Mondays are a new campaign – Fact or Fiction?

FactFictonFICTION: Meatless Mondays date back to World Wars I and II. At that time, Meatless Mondays were part of U.S. government efforts to encourage consumers to do their part on the home front by rationing and reducing consumption of certain food items. It was a patriotic way for those at home to support the war effort and the troops fighting overseas by ensuring our soldiers had access to all the nutritious food they needed. Continue reading

There’s a new void to fill in science communication

By Dr. Maria Trainer, Managing director, science and regulatory affairs, chemistry, CropLife Canada

Maria-Trainer-768x1024As scientists we generally aren’t renowned for our communications prowess, particularly communications with the public. Many of us would rather work away in our laboratories and communicate with our peers than actively seek out opportunities to talk to the public about our work. Particularly when our work is in the field of, to use the vernacular, “genetic engineering”.

Dr. Kevin Folta ─ Professor and Chairman of the Horticultural Sciences department at the University of Florida ─ is different. A geneticist by trade, Kevin has dedicated a huge amount of his own time and energy to educating the public about the science of biotechnology and so-called “GMOs”. He’s good at it too, as you can see here in a recent address he gave to a public audience at McGill University during the 2015 Trottier Science Symposium.

The downside to being good ─ really good actually ─ at talking about the science of biotechnology is that it annoys people. Specifically it annoys those people whose cause is served by preserving and promoting widespread ignorance on the topic of GMOs. These people, and the groups they represent, depend on the public not really knowing what GMOs are but being “fairly sure they’re a bad thing”.

Since the scientific consensus on the safety of currently deployed biotechnology applications is solid, these groups have had to resort to personal attacks on the handful of scientists, like Kevin, who have been brave enough to speak up.

Read more here about how Kevin became a lightning rod for the anti-science community and the breaking point, which has left a big void to fill in science communication.

Re-posted with permission.