Inside Farming: View from an Iowa Farm

By: Brendan Louwagie, CanACT Member, University of Guelph

Misconceptions in agriculture in choosing seeds, ‘I’m no pawn of Monsanto’

Farm & Food Care Ontario photo

Winter allows a bit of downtime for most farmers. We use it to look back on the prior year and to make plans for the next. We learn from mistakes, failures, and successes, and attempt to make sense of it all. Personally, I think of each growing season as a clean slate to test out theories and debunk some popular myths about how a corn or soybean plant creates maximum yield. It’s also a time when we get to make choices about what to plant, where to plant it, and what seed to use in each situation. It’s often a very personal and private decision. Continue reading

Dr. Oz’s GMO Global Conspiracy…debunked

Guest blog by Katie Pratt

Reprinted with permission from Originally posted on February 13, 2014)

Today, Dr. Oz uncovered the “global conspiracy” surrounding GMOs.  I usually avoid these types of sensationalized “investigative” reports because they are nothing more than a regurgitation of biased studies, “expert” testimony supporting the biased studies and absolutely no exploration of another side to the story.  However, this blog is not a commentary on sensational journalism.

It also isn’t meant to attack the character of Dr. Oz or the producers of his show. I don’t know them.  They could be really nice people just doing their jobs.  They don’t know me either, but I kinda wish they did because I could have helped them clarify some of the pseudo facts they presented during their segment on “Stealth GMOs”.

Dr. Oz began his rant against genetically modified organisms by describing a tomato that can withstand frosty temperatures because its DNA has been modified with a gene from a fish.

Clarification: In the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, the company DNA Plant Technology used DNA from the fish, winter flounder, and inserted it into the DNA of a tomato in order to make the fruit frost-tolerant. This “fish tomato” never went into field testing or made it to market.  Yet, Dr. Oz viewers were left to contemplate a picture of a bin of tomatoes labeled gmo and a bin labeled non-gmo.  No tomato in your grocery store is a gmo.  Only eight crops with genetically modified varieties are commercially available to farmers – corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, alfalfa, papaya, sugar beets, and squash.

Then Dr. Oz switches the topic from gmos to the use of pesticides.  He gives his own example of how plant scientists “improved Mother Nature” by making seeds resistant to pesticides.  But then, alas, insects became resistant to these gm-crops and farmers had to apply even more pesticide.

To read the rest of this blog visit

Whip up your understanding of plant biotechnology

Canadian consumers enjoy variety in their diets and this sometimes takes the form of a simple change in the foods we regularly consume, like choosing orange cauliflower or purple potatoes in the place of the typical off-white variety.

These colourful alternatives are widely available thanks to plant breeding, a technique that involves crossing plant varieties over many years until the desired colour is achieved.

Janice Tranberg

Plant biotechnology, an extension of plant breeding, offers its own variety of benefits such as healthier foods and increased yields. But consumers are sometimes hesitant to accept plant biotechnology, which is a bit perplexing given their acceptance of traditional plant breeding techniques.

Janice Tranberg, who leads the Council for Biotechnology Information in Canada, helps put consumers at ease by explaining plant biotechnology’s relationship to plant breeding with an interesting comparison – whipped cream. “There are a number of ways to turn liquid cream into its whipped counterpart,” says Tranberg. “You can use electric beaters, a hand held whisk and in a pinch, a fork can also do the trick. All three tools produce the same thing; they incorporate air into cream. The main difference is how long it takes to achieve the desired result.

Compared to plant breeding, plant biotechnology is in a faster way for scientists and breeders to achieve a desired characteristic.”

Tranberg is quick to point out that the use of the term ‘faster’ is relative. Products of plant biotechnology take years and years to come to market because of the rigorous testing they are put through to ensure their safety. Also of note is that scientists are currently using plant biotechnology to develop strawberries with improved shelf-life, texture and flavour, something that Tranberg thinks will go very well with whipped cream.

Canadian experts convinced GMO swine feed study is deeply flawed

By Farm & Food Care

Canadian animal health specialists are among the experts around the world denouncing a recent study suggesting animals are harmed by eating GM crops.

The study – published in the little-known Journal of Organic Systems (sponsored by the Organic Federation of Australia) claims researchers found severe stomach inflammation in pigs that were on a diet of genetically modified (GM) grains. But Canadian animal health experts say the study has many flaws.

Dr. Robert Friendship is a professor in the Department of Population Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph, and a swine health management specialist. He has reviewed the research report and concluded that it was incorrect for the researchers to conclude that one group had more stomach inflammation than the other group because the researchers did not examine stomach inflammation.

“The researchers did a visual scoring of the colour of the lining of the stomach of pigs at the abattoir and misinterpreted redness to indicate evidence of inflammation. It does not,” Friendship said. “There is no relationship between the colour of the stomach in the dead, bled-out pig at a slaughter plant and inflammation.”

Friendship suggests the researchers would have had to take a tissue sample and prepare histological slides and examine these samples for evidence of inflammatory response such as white blood cell infiltration and other changes to determine if there was inflammation. Including a veterinary pathologist on the research team would have prevented this mistake from happening, Friendship says.

Environment writer Mark Lynas researched and wrote a blog post [] also questioning the study’s validity.  Among his findings, the lead researcher, Judy Carman, is a long-time anti-biotech campaigner. One co-author, Lynas notes, is the president and co-founder of a company that markets non-GMO grain. “Despite this, the paper declares that the authors have no conflicts of interest,” Lynas says.

Lynas continues: “…Carman and colleagues claim significant differences in a long-term study of pigs fed GMO and non-GMO diets. But if you look at the data they present…there are obvious problems. Clearly all the animals were in very poor health – weaner mortality is reported as 13% and 14% in GM-fed and non-GM fed groups, which they claim is “within expected rates for US commercial piggeries,” a vague statement intended to justify what seem to have been inadequate husbandry standards.”

Another finding that the researchers held out as proof that the GMO fed pigs were different was that the uterus weight was different between the two groups. Dr Friendship noted that the authors did not appear unbiased in their discussion.   “The research had a number of factors that could not be controlled for,” Friendship says. “It is disappointing that the authors of the paper did not admit the weaknesses of the study design and caution readers that there may be many reasons for a difference in uterine weight. Unfortunately instead of presenting a fair discussion they made a wild speculation about the weight difference such as the heavier weight might indicate  cancer.”

Hundreds of studies have shown that GMO foods are just as safe as conventional, as summarized in this recent statement form the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS):

“The science is quite clear: crop improvement by the modern molecular techniques of biotechnology is safe. The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the British Royal Society, and every other respected organization that has examined the evidence has come to the same conclusion: consuming foods containing ingredients derived from GM crops is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing ingredients from crop plants modified by conventional plant improvement techniques.”


The real story on GM Alfalfa in Ontario – a farmer’s response

Guest blog by Quentin Martin, Ontario farmer

It is amazing how little some things change. In 1996, we grew some of the first available herbicide tolerant, or genetically modified (GM) soybeans, in Ontario. At the time opponents of the technology concocted many stories about how bad this would be for agriculture and food production. I even wrote articles at the time explaining the value of the science for our family farm operation and food production in general.

It is a little surprising to feel compelled seventeen years later to address the topic of herbicide tolerant alfalfa, due to recently published letters to editors and TV coverage of area protests on April 9th.

Some technology opponents claim “the concept of coexistence is flawed and impossible”.  This is simply incorrect. Soybeans, both conventional and herbicide tolerant, have coexisted in this province quite well for over a decade. Soybeans have become Ontario’s largest crop by land area and approximately 2/3 of that crop in any given year will contain a herbicide tolerant trait that allows for effective and safe weed control. A significant portion of the area planted to conventional breed soybeans are produced under contract for a premium; conditioned, packaged and exported. The coexistence of conventional and new technology is working fine in soybeans.

There were just over two million acres of hay and pasture in Ontario in 2012, according to statistics provided by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food. That makes this crop slightly smaller than both soybeans and corn but about twice the size of wheat, in the average year. Almost all the acres of hay and pasture will be made up of a significant portion of the high protein containing legume, alfalfa.

Protesters at a local MP’s office on April 9th claimed that genetically modified alfalfa would ‘contaminate’ their organic farms. I offer some simple facts to illustrate that such a fear is greatly exaggerated. Only a handful of acres of alfalfa in Ontario are harvested as seed, nearly all of it is harvested as whole plant hay or haylage and fed to livestock. Even if a bee were to buzz around a genetically modified alfalfa plant, take some pollen and fly to a field of conventional or even an organic field of alfalfa and pollenate a plant there, it does not change the genetics of that plant which is harvested for hay several times in a summer and for several years. If an alfalfa plant were left to set seed, it is most probable that it would be pollinated by the nearest plant of the same genetics. The key to coexistence is a farmer must buy the varieties of seed they desire. In Canada that is easy, we have a pedigreed seed system that has provided variety verification for over a century.

And finally a practical point about this specific technology.  Almost all the acres planted to hay and pasture in Ontario will have other grass species deliberately included in the seed mixture to provide a more balanced feed for the livestock that eat the resulting crop. None of the grass species have the same herbicide tolerant trait. If a farmer plants a mixture of glyphosate-tolerant GM alfalfa with non-glyphosate-tolerant grasses and sprays the resulting crop with glyphosate weed control, yes…the grasses will all perish. As a result, I predict that even if the technology is available, very little glyphosate-tolerant alfalfa will be planted in Ontario. That probably explains why no company has advanced this trait in alfalfa in the past one and a half decades.

A Canadian farmer and mother weighs in on GMO labelling

Guest blog by Cherilyn Nagel.

Cherilyn Nagel, a Saskatchewan farmer, recently had a column published that highlights the benefits of GM crops on her family’s farm and why she, as a mother, doesn’t think there is any value in labeling foods that contain GM crops. We’ve been given permission to reprint it from 

The best thing to happen for Canadian food last year took place in California.

Voters there rejected Proposition 37, a badly flawed ballot proposal that would have required special labels for food that may contain genetically modified ingredients.

For years, anti-biotech activists here in Canada have talked about pursuing a similar scheme. They’ve blogged about it on their websites and have campaigned against modern agricultural methods. They haven’t made much headway, in part because so few people buy into their non-science alarmist arguments.

The results of Prop 37 should encourage these protestors to give up: Labeling GMO’s wouldn’t make food any safer, in California, Canada, or anywhere. Continue reading

The dirty side of anti-GMO activism

By Lisa McLean

If you haven’t noticed an increase in online dialogue about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) lately, you will. Next month, Californians will vote on Proposition 37, a controversial piece of legislation that, if passed, would require mandatory labeling on foods that contain GMOs and would influence labeling practices across North America. And as the voting deadline approaches, there’s an uncanny amount of “new information” being released about the supposed perils of consuming GMOs. Continue reading

Pesticides and plant biotechnology come with significant environmental benefits

Guest Blog by Lorne Hepworth,  President, CropLife Canada

Today, farmers take advantage of both pesticides and plant biotechnology to improve crop yields, strengthen our economy, while at the same time reducing agriculture’s footprint on the environment. Continue reading

A Letter to Oprah

By Tim Burrack: Arlington, Iowa
This blog posting originally appeared on the website

Dear Oprah,
Come to my farm. Visit the land that I’ve worked since I was a boy. See this place so that you’ll never again let bad articles on agriculture tarnish the pages of your magazine or the pixels on your website.

If you accept this invitation to have a firsthand look at how an Iowa farmer produces healthy food in an economically and environmentally sustainable way, you’ll perform an important service to your readers and viewers–because right now, they’re receiving a very mistaken impression about what we grow and what everyone eats. Continue reading