Why a Century-long Trend for Lower Relative Food Costs may be about to End in Canada?

Canadian media have featured predictions of higher Canadian food prices for 2016, caused mostly by a cheap loonie and higher prices for imports. But globally, food prices are down 19% since 2014. And a deeper truth is that the percentage of Canadian family income spent on food is at an all-time low.

Canadians now spend about 10% of family income on food says Statistics Canada. Fifty years ago, it was nearly 20%, and still higher 50 years before that. Even the poorest one-fifth of Canadians spends only 14% of income on food – less than half of the 30% they spend for accommodation. And average Canadians waste a reported 20% of the food they purchase.

Canadian husehold spending on food

Percentage of Canadian household income spent on food (Source: Statistics Canada and CBC News)

Food purchases in 2016 also include a much more diverse array of choices – and in more convenient form – than ever before. About 30% of food expenditure is now for restaurant meals.

There are several reasons for the decline, but superior farming technology ranks as primary. Decades of improvements in crop and animal breeding (including ‘genetically enhanced’ crops), better pest control, improved farm equipment, and superior methods for soil management have meant higher productivity and lower costs of production. I received $11/bushel for soybeans sales in 2015, compared to $10 in 1983. But the 2015 return was actually only $5 per bushel in 1983 currency – a 50% decline. Reductions like this, while challenging for farmers, are a dominant reason for declining relative food costs. Consumers have been the big winners from improved farm technology.

Perhaps this trend will continue. There is plenty of potential new technology for improving farm productivity – in many cases with declining input usage (fossil energy, pesticides, fertilizer). Yes, even with climate change.

But a counter trend is gaining momentum – a trend towards higher costs, driven by a combination of government restrictions and consumer/retailer demands.

On the government side, we’ve seen a continual tightening in food safety standards. That’s to be applauded. But we are also seeing a trend for governments (mainly in Europe, but spreading elsewhere) to restrict technology (GMOs, pesticide usage) for reasons which lack a scientific base but which are imposed as ‘precautionary’ in nature. “We’ve no real evidence of any harm, but we’ll ban it anyway.”

A bigger driver may be consumers themselves – along with food manufacturers and retailers eager to exploit ever-changing (and typically high-industry-profit) opportunities.

We have more consumers wanting to buy – and pay higher prices for – organic foods, foods called ‘natural,’ and/or food free of anything claimed by someone to be ‘bad.’ Food ‘quality’ these days is mostly about what food doesn’t contain, not what it does.

Ignoring for this article the issue of whether the result is really better for health or environment, the effect on agricultural productivity is quite clear. US government surveys show organic crop yields average about 30% lower than for non-organic (varies by crop) – and organic price premiums are consequentially substantial. If I’d grown organic soybeans in 2015, I would have received $25 per bushel – with a cost of production about as high.

This is no threat to affluent Canadians. Even a 50% increase in food prices still means only 15% of average Canadian family income – well below the average of 50 years ago. Thanks to Health Canada, Canadian food is almost certainly safe regardless of how produced.

The trend means more land to produce the same food – 40% more, on average, for organic. That may not be a dominant concern in Canada, but it’s impossible globally. The trend may mean greater imports from countries where low-tech and cheap labour prevails. Many ‘Canadian’ organic soybeans now come from India (home for 1/3 of the world’s most hungry people!).

But many Canadians aren’t affluent. If government and food-industry actions reduce availability of lower-cost foods, some families will suffer. There are already several examples of lower-cost-of-production foods either being removed from – or prevented access to – retail shelves because of anti-tech advocacy pressures or market opportunism. There will be more.

Space permits but one example: Costco – facing strong pressures from activists – has announced plans not to handle the new Canadian-developed AquaBounty® salmon, to be grown on confined fish farms. It contains a gene from another salmon species that reduces, substantially, the amount of feed needed by growing fish, and thereby lowering the cost of production – but with no effect on food quality, and reduced pressure on wild salmon stocks.

The trend of declining food expenditures for Canadians, of the past 100 years or more, may well be over.

 

Agricultural Anti-GMO Activism is Probably Not About the Technology At All

That’s a serious challenge for those hoping new genetic technologies will evade opposition

I am a long-time champion of the use of agricultural biotechnology dating back to the mid 1990s when, as a farm organization executive, I lobbied actively for the first biotech crop regulatory approval in Canada (Bt corn). We proudly grow Bt corn and herbicide-tolerant (HT) corn and soybeans on our farm, and would welcome biotech enhancements for other crops too.

But I have also tried hard to understand the position of those who oppose GM (‘genetically modified’) crops. (I prefer the term GE, ‘genetically enhanced,’ but for this column I’ll call everything GMOs as that’s the term most others use.) I’ve read their materials, attended conferences, and had one-on-one discussions. GMO opponents have been guests on our farm.

This interaction has been difficult for me as one who deeply appreciates what the combination of the agriculture and science, especially crop genetic improvement, has meant for farmers and consumers. Discussion with those who largely reject it all is not easy.

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It would be simpler if their opposition was limited to herbicide-resistant crops. As a farmer I know the benefits, but someone opposed to all synthetic pesticide usage would not likely understand. Easily overlooked are ‘details’ like: use of glyphosate-resistant crops means less usage of other herbicides and less soil tillage – and glyphosate herbicide, with its patent expired, can be purchased from companies other than Monsanto.

But how to explain it when the opposition to HT-GMOs usually does not include herbicide-tolerant crops derived in other ways – for example, by using mutation breeding or extensive natural selection? (To be fair, some anti-GMO advocates have condemned these too, but they have in turn been criticized by organic growers who accept the use of mutagen-derived crops.)

Opposition to insect-tolerant crops, like Bt corn, cotton and Brinjal (a type of egg plant grown in south-east Asia) is more difficult to understand when it clearly means less pesticide usage and reduced damage from secondary pathogens (like toxin-producing ear moulds in the case of Bt corn) – and when the transferred gene comes from a soil bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis) used as an organic insecticide itself.

Most difficult for me to comprehend is the intense opposition by well-resourced (and presumably well-informed) environmental NGOs to the development of biotech solutions for third-world nutritional and health issues: for example, Golden Rice involving the transfer of a corn gene into rice to help counter the blindness and deaths caused by Vitamin A deficiency in many poor countries (link). Or the transfer of a gene from sweet pepper into bananas to help Ugandan farmers protect their crop from a devastating Xanthomonas bacterial disease (link). The opposition is sometimes so extreme as to include destroying research plots, thus rejecting even the testing of potential solutions if they involve transgenic changes

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A common explanation among many supporters of agricultural biotechnology is that anti-GMO activism is driven by money. That is undoubtedly true in many cases – for example, organic or ‘natural food’ marketers who have supported anti-GMO campaigns in an attempt to increase sales. It’s true for companies like Genetic ID which find it profitable to test crops and foods for GMO content, while at the same time aggressively supporting anti-GMO campaigns and GMO/non-GMO food product labelling.

In this category we can place some more traditional food marketers eager to exploit a marketing niche. The Chipotle Mexican Grill Company is a high-profile example.

But this is far from true for all anti-GMO campaigners – either individuals or multinational NGOs. Greenpeace, for example, may have attracted additional donations because of its campaign against Golden Rice, but the same effort has also cost it serious credibility in the broader context. Is Greenpeace really that callous to third-world blindness? How can you trust what Greenpeace says on climate change when the same group destroys GM crop plots in The Philippines while seeking extended bans because of insufficient field data.

The issue of climate change may in fact provide the best clue on what drives the anti-GMO campaign. For it’s here that the irrationality of the antis’ position becomes most apparent for anyone committed to science. This is the dilemma which caused Mark Lynas to switch from anti-GMO to pro-GMO, via his ‘coming out’ speech at the Oxford Farming Conference in January 2013. How can you argue the case for climate change using scientific consensus as the rationale, and at the same time ignore an even greater scientific consensus in favour of the safety of approved genetically modified crops and foods?

To get around this, anti-GMO advocates tout those relatively rare ‘outlier’ studies purporting to show harmful effects of GMO crops. And they take great offence when critical flaws in these various studies are exposed. Take the work of Pusztai on potatoes, or Séralini on glyphosate and HT corn, or Carman on GMO corn and soybeans as examples – all exposed for their critical flaws – but still treated as sacred by those for whom all GMOs are bad.

By contrast, major scientific reviews such as that by Niolia et al in Italy (accessible here), analyzing 1783 studies and finding no evidence of negative effect of GM-derived crops and foods on human health, have been largely ignored by anti-GMO folks or simply dismissed as industry propaganda. This is even though many hundreds of the studies reviewed involved no industry funding.

But if you set science aside, you can see something in the positions of the ‘antis’ which does make sense:

The positions of major NGOs on GMOs and climate change are quite consistent if one considers that the real issue is not opposition to GM technology, but rather to large petro/chemical companies. Large petro/oil companies commonly profit from fossil fuel usage; therefore policies which mean reduced fossil fuel usage are applauded. Large chemical/bio companies benefit from GMO crop technology; therefore, GMO crops are opposed.

Opposition to these corporations is the common element.

 

GMO-crop-vandalism

I realize that this ‘revelation’ is hardly a secret. The writings of anti-GMO groups are full of preaching about the evils of big business – especially big business in agriculture and food. A high-profile Canadian, Naomi Klein, has made a career of corporate bashing, including GMO and oil-company bashing, and she has many disciples. The Indian evangelist, Vandana Shiva, goes further in attacking all forms of advanced crop breeding, including Green Revolution advances, as part of her campaign against Western capitalism.

If you accept this perspective, then other inconsistencies become less incompatible, as well:

Why did we hear scarcely a peek of objection when crop scientists/geneticists were making major unnatural changes to plant genomes in the days before Bt and HT crops – using techniques like X-ray and gamma-ray bombardment, or the use of chemical mutagens which can even change chromosome numbers? I recall barley breeding at the University of Guelph back in the 1960s using tissue culture, chemicals and radiation to create barley germplasm which was ‘different.’ (I helped plant those plots as an undergrad assistant.) The same for the transgenic wheat varieties produced in France decades ago including one still favoured by organic growers. With both non-natural Canadian high-tech barley and transgenic French wheat no special testing was required for safety or environmental risk.

The explanation lies not in the technology, but in the technologists: In those days, these were virtually all university and government researchers, not commercial seed companies (and definitely not commercial seed companies owned by chemical companies). If the first large-scale transgenic crops had been produced and marketed by public breeders, likely no major NGO would have paid any attention. Who would have heard of GMO-papaya, created by a University of Hawaii plant breeder to address a local disease problem, if not for reaction to large scale Bt and HT corn, soybeans, cotton and canola developed and introduced by Monsanto at about the same time?

It’s true that Monsanto contributed significantly to its own fate. I remember how Robert Shapiro, CEO of Monsanto at the time, bragged widely about the new world of agriculture and food to be dominated by his company. Monsanto was aggressive in buying up seed companies.

I recall asking a contact in Greenpeace Canada in the late 1990s whether they couldn’t distinguish between Monsanto (whose swagger also annoyed farmers) and biotechnology (the products of which many farmers loved). His response was that Greenpeace liked things to be simple – good versus evil, not shades of grey – and the combination of an American chemical company, corporate arrogance and new unknown technology was a perfect target.

The message of ‘big chemical companies playing God’ with food plants and animals has broad appeal. This is especially so in an era when many suppliers are attempting to label their food product as ‘natural,’ regardless of the amount of human intervention which has occurred since the associated plant or animal existed in the wild state.

Large changes have occurred in Monsanto since the Shapiro ceased being CEO. In many ways the company has become a model corporate citizen. But the damage was done.

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That desire for a simple, good-versus-evil portrayal helps to explain some other inconsistencies in the anti-GMO messaging:

  • Other chemical companies are heavy into ‘conventional breeding’ including BASF, the champion of ‘Clearfield’ technology (herbicide-resistant crops derived from natural selection or mutation breeding), but no public criticism of that. (The target seems to be whether a process is ‘Monsanto-like,’ and not so much about the trait of the resulting crop per se.) Also overlooked is the fact that Monsanto is not particularly large. For example, it’s dwarfed by both BASF and DowDuPont, both chemical company competitors. Indeed, Monsanto’s annual sales are about the same as those for Whole Foods.
  • The technologies used to produce GM crops are about the same as those for many human drugs including human insulin and many of the companies involved are the same. It’s true that most drug biotechnology involves microorganisms and not higher plants or animals. However, a strain of genetically modified chickens was recently approved for human drug production – with scarcely a peep from the anti-GMO folks.
  • ‘Bigness’ is not an obstacle to the acceptance of all high-tech products. Consider iPhones and iPads from the biggest company of all, Apple. (That Steve Jobs, founder and CEO of Apple, was a far more obnoxious person than Shapiro does not enter the discussion.) However, ‘anti-big corporation’ is a theme which does resonate with many more people, and that helps explain why the activists’ message has appeal. People, by and large, do not trust big companies, and a stream of news about big-company screw-ups and high corporate salaries has not helped their cause.

Big ag companies have the added disadvantage that consumers see few direct advantages from their innovations and operations. (‘Benefits go to corporate shareholders and farmers,’ they think, overlooking long-term payoffs in increased food supply and reduced relative household expenditures for food.)

Brian Hall canola a

Biotech researchers and companies have recently developed several new biotech approaches for changing the expression of plant genes. Many people in the agricultural-biotechnology industry believe these new technologies will help them circumvent opposition to crop transformations produced using ‘classical’ GM transgenic methodologies. Many new biotech products involve within-species transfers, or the ‘turning off’ or elimination of specific genes. A new technology called RNAi (RNA interference) includes the direct application (spraying) of RNA molecules onto commercial crops to modify or prevent gene action. There is likely no change in basic plant DNA at all.

Nathanael Johnson of Grist magazine has written a great article outlining the diversity of technologies, and the overlap between ‘natural’ and manmade, while asking the question, can the term ‘GMO’ even be defined?

The bigger question is: Will the new technology and the diversity stem the opposition by activists? There are two possible answers:

If the opposition is not really to technology itself but rather to big agribusinesses, then the answer is likely no: Because the new biotechnologies are mostly being introduced by ‘big ag’ companies, the result will be viewed by many activists as changing nothing. Big companies are still in charge.

However, if the result is to make the issues more complex – a myriad of technologies, a continuum of technologies – including some in common usage for decades and indeed accepted for use in organic agriculture – this detracts seriously from the black-and-white, good-versus-evil characterization which works best for the anti-GMO crowd. It certainly complicates life for the ‘Just label it’ crowd. ‘Just label what?’

We are already seeing that confusion playing out at high levels. Sweden has announced that genetic change created by the new gene-changing ‘CRISPR-Cas9’ biotechnology is not to be considered a GMO – a crack in the strongly anti-biotech fortress mentality of many EU politicians.

It may be more difficult for NGOs to attack a diffuse array of technologies producing products perceived to have more public benefits – for example, non-browning apples and potatoes or seafood causing less environmental burden. It’s significant too that some of these new, consumer-friendly products, are coming from small companies and not chemical industry giants at all.

But if NGOs are willing to attack Golden Rice promising life and vision for millions of children and developed by the (very public) International Rice Research Institute (they label this as but a callous ‘Trojan horse’ designed to portray GMOs in a deceptively positive light), are they likely to leave other beneficial products alone? The speed with which they have moved to pressure large retailers/users like McDonalds and Costco into statements of rejection of Innate® potatoes or Aqua Bounty® salmon, years before these products could even be available in sufficient quantities to supply large markets, is evidence of how seriously NGOs view the ‘Trojan horse’ threat.

The NGOs are powerful, well-funded, remarkably good at media messaging, and have good track records of success. On the other side, the big companies whom they condemn will play a continuing major role in meeting human nutritional needs in the years ahead while using new science and technology to help meet these goals. Yes, this is even so in the case of organic and ‘natural’ foods.

This battle is far from over.

 

 

 

“A Genetically Modified Organic Wheat? It Already Exists”

Here’s my summary of “Un blé bio génétiquement modifié, ça existe déjà.” The article describes in detail how a popular European organic wheat variety was created using transgenic techniques. In fact, this organic wheat variety may be the only GM wheat commercially available in the world. Whoever thought that France and organic agriculture would be world leaders for the introduction of GM wheat?

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Readers should bear in mind that I am fluent in neither French nor genetics but have a passable understanding of both. The following summary includes some comments from me (all in parenthesis) to add clarity for readers possessing an even poorer understanding of genetics than do I.

The variety is ‘Renan’ which is apparently popular with organic wheat growers in France and German, in part because of its good genetic resistance to several types of rust and ‘eye spot’ disease. The most notable difference between Renan and other types of GM transgenic events is that Renan has small pieces of chromosomes transferred from another species which will not cross naturally with bread wheat (Triticum aestivum) – compared to single transferred genes as with other GM events/varieties (examples, Bt corn/cotton, herbicide-tolerant crops and ‘Golden Rice’).

Here’s how Renan was derived:

The story starts at le laboratoire de cytogénétique de Versailles in the late 1940s as part of its search for genetic resistance to several species of rust and other wheat diseases. They found some excellent resistance to these diseases and other pathogens in a wild grass, Aegilops venticosa.

Unfortunately, this species will not cross with T. aestivum.  To get around this, they transferred chromosomes of A. venticosa into a third species, Triticum carthicum which will cross with T. aestivum.

Unfortunately the resulting crosses between A. venticosa and T. carthicum were sterile, equivalent to mules created when crossing horses and donkeys. To get around this, they treated the crossed florets with a chemical, colchicine, which doubles the chromosome number. (That’s a technique used commonly to induce seed formation in other such ‘wide crosses.’)

The seed-producing plants thus derived were then crossed with a wheat (T. aestivum) variety. The next intended step was backcrosses to T. aestivum in order to produce a ‘genome’ which was mostly wheat but which contained the valuable genes and associated chromosome segments transferred from the wild grass. However, backcrossing proved to be very difficult because the A venticosa chromosomes would not pair with those of T. aestivum. To get around that, they exposed the seeds or florets to X rays which broke chromosomes (or at least some of them) into smaller segments, and backcrossing was then able to proceed successfully.

The result was a form of ‘T. aestivum’ which contained two segments of A. venticosa chromosomes – one segment on one wheat chromosome containing genes resistance to several rust species, and a second segment on another wheat chromosome containing the gene Pch1 giving resistance to eye spot. Further research showed that, although the ‘genome’ after several cycles of backcrossing was largely wheat (plus two inserted segments), the cytoplasm was essentially that of A. venticosa, the wild species.

This ‘wheat’ was then made available for commercial usage – interesting after no testing at all for human or animal safety, allergens or whatever – and little or no knowledge of the other genetic material transferred from the wild species.

The wheat was then crossed with Moisson, a popular wheat variety of the day, to produce a variety called Roazon, released in 1976. Roazon did not enjoy much commercial success, but it in turn was used to breed Renan, released in 1989. Renan has been a very popular variety, especially in organic agriculture in large part because of the chromosome segments containing rust and eye spot resistant genes.

So what’s the difference between Renan and many other GM crop varieties? Not much it appears except for the fact that Renan contains much more transgenic material, has not undergone the large amount of testing for safety and environmental impact as other GM events, and little is known about the mechanisms of the transferred genes.

Think of that while you enjoy your baguette at an organic café sur la Rive Gauche, Paris.

I am indebted to Emmanuel Ferrand, St Pourçain sur Sioule, Allier, France (@E_Ferrand_03) for making me aware of this article.

Note that there was an error in the initial posting where I had stated incorrectly that Agrobacterium tumefaciens was used in crossing A. venticosa with T. carthicum. I apologize for that.

 

 

Facing the Lesser-known Challenge: An Over-Abundance of Agricultural Productivity

Everyone knows about the difficulties of feeding 9-10 billion humans by the year 2050: so many more mouths in many developing countries and not enough locally available food.
But in Canada and several other developed countries we have the reverse problem: an over-abundance of agricultural and food productive capacity. About 40% of available food is not even eaten, we’re told, and still we have the potential to produce much more. That’s the subject of this column: what it means to agriculture and consumers in years ahead.

World population growth 1950-2050 (2)Figure 1. Growth in human population, 1950-2050. Source is here.

 
The obvious solution to these two challenges according to some analysts is very simple – just ship the surplus from places like Canada to countries in need. It’s a global distribution problem, they say, not one of supply.
But, readers should recognize that this approach has been used extensively in the past and it has not worked very well.
For much of 25 years, between the early 1980s and the mid 2000s, world grain and oilseed production, which represents about 75% of global food caloric intake, was dominated by excessive productivity in places like North America and Europe. This led directly to depressed global prices – often magnified by government subsidies and other trade-distorting policies – and major shipments of cheap, subsidized grains and other food commodities into lesser developed nations.
This seemingly boundless international supply of cheap imported grain and food led to complacency and serious long-term damage to agriculture in many developing countries. There was a reduction in international agricultural research and a general shift away from local food production as a national priority. Countries which were formerly nearly self-sufficient in food production, like Nigeria and Mexico, became major importers, positioning them as highly vulnerable when the food price crisis of 2008-09 occurred. For more discussion on this topic see a 2010 review by Headey and Fan of the International Food Policy Institute or my own chapter called “Background on hunger” available here.
That crisis, triggered by a combination of factors but primarily weather disruptions in several major grain producing countries causing reduced crop yields, meant lower world grain reserves and sky-rocketing grain prices. You all know the story.
The one positive from that disaster has been a resurgence in political and financial support for agricultural development especially in food-deficient countries, plus recognition that heavy dependence on imports is not the wisest strategy for ensuring domestic food security in poorer nations. Since 2009, international research agencies have received increased funding, and local governments have shifted priorities. Agencies like the Gates Foundation have provided major leadership and support.
However, scarcely a few years later, we’re seeing signs of a return of the former complacency: the use of superior technology for food production is not deemed a priority, claim some pundits. They say better distribution, not production, is what’s needed.
Twenty-five years of pre-2008 experience says they are wrong.
This is not to argue against any grain and food shipments to the so-called Third World. Emergency food assistance such as that provided by the World Food Programme during regional crises is essential. There are attractive and legitimate international market opportunities with affluent consumers in developing countries; efforts by Canadian agricultural and food exporters to serve these markets are timely. Large shipments to China of commodities like soybeans also make sense. We sell to China what we produce best (agriculture and food products); they sell us low-cost consumer products. That’s trade balance.
But major imports of cheap grains and surplus food to feed the 800 million poor and hungry in least developed countries is different. Rather than depending on imports, they need to learn how to grow their own food. We should provide them with money, education and training, good science, advanced technology and expertise if we are truly genuine about reducing third world hunger – but not cheap grain to undermine their farmers.

Teach a man to fishFigure 2. The quote could as easily be, “Teach a person to farm…”

 
So that leaves agriculture in countries like Canada facing a critical dilemma of a much different nature.
Thanks to a steady influx of superior farming technology, our potential to produce more food commodities – crops, farm animals, and foods derived from them – continues to grow.
Some suggest that climate change, new pests, loss of farmland, ‘ecological collapse’ or combinations of these and other factors will curtail future growth. However, there is ample evidence that biological and technical potential exists for much higher productivity, not withstanding these constraints. Indeed, we may be only beginning to see the gains possible through genetic improvement and superior soil and crop management. Potential productivity will grow even as the number of farmed acres declines.
But at the same time, domestic demand for food – measured in terms such as total caloric and protein intake – is leveling off. Unlike some other developed countries, the Canadian population is still growing somewhat (in fact, largely because of immigration), but the rate is slowing. And as the average age becomes older, people are inclined to eat less. Indeed, health stats suggest we all should eat less: Being overweight is a far bigger problem in Canada (and many other countries too) than hunger.
This imbalance between growth in agricultural productive capacity and domestic food consumption has meant benefits for consumers which, surprisingly, are rarely acknowledged. Real farm commodity prices (i.e., after adjusting for inflation) have trended downwards for most of the past century in Canada. The percentage of family income spent on food has declined to about 10% and that includes a much greater percentage of spending on restaurant meals and pre-purchase food preparation than was the case a few years back.

Canadian husehold spending on food

Figure 3. Canadian average household spending on food. Source: Statistics Canada via CBC.

 
Even for poorer Canadians, food costs have dropped. Statistics Canada data show that food represents about 14% of disposable income for the poorest one-fifth of Canadians, still below the Canadian average of 30-40 years earlier. By comparison, the portion of income spent on housing has increased and represents about 30% of income for the poorest Canadians. That’s a more likely cause for increased dependence on food banks than inadequate food supply or high prices.

 
Table 1. Canadian household expenditures relative to income level, 2013. Source: Statistics CanadaComponents of Cdn household income

In seeking to address the imbalance between productive capacity and domestic food consumption, farm groups have pursued new non-food opportunities for Canadian crops. Especially attractive are opportunities to replace products traditionally made from fossil hydrocarbons with those made from renewable farm crops. Biofuels are the most high-profile example, but there are many more including base chemicals and organic polymers from plant carbohydrates, lipids and fibres.
The food-versus-fuel debate has modified this shift somewhat in recent years – a result of the 2008-2009 grain price spike and the attendant debate about the role of biofuels as a cause. (In my view, the biofuel effect was minor – reference here – but others disagree.) The debate means uncertainty as to whether future non-food bioproducts are more likely to be made from traditional food/feed crops or from different crops grown on the same land. The effect on grain supply for food is the same either way, but the substitution route may be more attractive politically and to the general public and media. (Main-stream media rarely dig deeply when it comes to understanding agricultural issues.)
In either case, the result will be a continuing diversion of some of the expanding Canadian agricultural productivity away from food production.
There is another route by which the imbalance between agricultural productive growth and domestic food demand may be brought into line in Canada and other Western countries – i.e., by limiting/restricting agricultural productivity.
We’ve seen that trend developing in Europe for some time and there are signs of spread across the Atlantic as well.

Anti GMO Greepeace.JPGFigure 4 NGOs have worked to inhibit the cultivation of genetically enhanced (modified) crops in many countries.

 
One way this is occurring is through increasing restrictions on the use of agricultural technology and inputs – sometime for reasons which have a solid scientific base – for example, proven risks to health or environment – but in some cases not. A prime example of the latter is the EU restriction on the use of genetically modified (GM) crops, not withstanding their proven benefits and safety, and their even greater potential for improving crop yields, pest control and nutritional quality (a good commentary on this by Mark Lynas here).
I’ve written elsewhere about the weak scientific base for bans or de-facto bans on the use of neonicotinoid insecticides for seed treatment in Europe and Ontario. There is a real risk that this could extend to other technologies.
This will not stop the ever continuing search by agricultural scientists, agri-businesses and innovative farmers for new ways of producing more for less. But it will certainly act as a damper, even a substantial restraint in some cases – not to mention a major impediment to the use of some advanced technologies for increasing productivity and quality of specific crops. Consider, for example, how aversion to GM technology has inhibited the use of the same to control critical diseases and mycotoxins development in wheat.

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Figure 5. Fusarium head blight damages both the yield and quality of wheat. Source of photo: North Dakota State University.

 
The other way that technological advancement may be impeded is through changes in consumer preferences and creative marketing – independent of any government policy – which often feeds on consumer fears and perceptions.
Organic agriculture and foods are a prime example. Overlooking for now the question of whether they are actually better for health or environment, organic crops usually yield less per acre – and are more costly to grow per unit of food produced.
But the trend to more costly foods is much bigger than organics. Many people want gluten-free foods, even when they have no gluten allergy. Buyers want cage-free and/or free-range eggs and poultry products. The same goes for “hormone-free beef” and “no antibiotics.” The list goes on. All of this adds costs and restricts growth in farm productivity.
There is a major move afoot globally to certified “sustainably grown” farm commodities and foods. While this is to be applauded from a general perspective, it will mean higher costs and more buyer-imposed restrictions. It will also mean almost certain tradeoffs between what farmers and good science define as “sustainable” and the conflicting demands of activist groups with alternative perspectives. “Sustainably certified” is about marketing as well as environment.
None of this means that Canadians will lack for an ample-to-excessive supply of food in the future – nor will consumers in other advanced countries where a similar trend is occurring. But it will dampen rates of growth in productivity. Perhaps the long-term trend towards ever-decreasing expenditures for food as a percent of disposable income may be reaching an end.
The tragedy in this lies not with Canadian consumers, even for those with low incomes, for food prices here are likely to remain “cheap” by historical standards. Even organic food, while more expensive than regular, is still cheap in price compared to years ago. Rather the injustice occurs when irrationalities about food production spread to less fortunate countries where productivity must go up and where food represents far more than 10% or 14%, of annual income. But that topic is beyond the scope of this column.
In summary, what does this mean for future agriculture in Canada? Will our productivity and efficiency continue to increase, or will it be offset to a large extent by restrictions imposed by governments and market demands? Will growth in non-food and new export markets be sufficient to match growth in productivity? Or will the future bring a return to supply gluts, price depression, pressures for public income support and a resumption of cheap sales into developing countries, as we saw for a quarter decade prior to 2008?
Only time will tell.

What We Have Learned from the Neonic Fiasco in Ontario

(This column is written primarily for Ontario agriculture but is relevant to other jurisdictions where farm political influence has plummeted.)

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The recent decision by the Government of Ontario to critically restrict usage of neonicotinoid seed treatments for corn and soybean growers, despite limited scientific support, has been a real eye opener for Ontario farmers. This is especially so for grain farmers who are directly affected, but other farmers are also wondering “what’s next?” I’ve written about the “neonic” decision elsewhere and likely will again. (See www.tdaynard.com.) This column is about larger, longer-term implications for Ontario agriculture.
I see four major ones:
Message One: The Ontario political landscape has changed dramatically, permanently and not positively for rural Ontario and its farmers
The neonic decision can be linked directly to the Ontario election of 2014 when, for the first time in history, the province elected a majority government with almost no rural legislators.
The 2014 election followed 12 months in which the Premier Wynne served as Minister of Agriculture and Food. She worked hard as minister, spent a lot of time in rural ridings, made a serious attempt to understand issues and people – but in the end received no political benefit. Rural people still elected candidates from other Parties. Politically, her time as ag minister must have been viewed by her advisors as a total waste of time. But, in the final analysis, it did not matter: she got a majority government anyway, without rural support.
To those who think this is temporary and linked only to Liberals, think again. The message to all Parties is clear: Electoral success in Ontario means catering primarily, perhaps exclusively, to the wants of the urban population. Rural, which represents but 15% of the Ontario population according to Statistics Canada, ranks low in priority, and farm families, who represent only 1.4% of Ontarians, scarcely matter at all. Fifteen new ridings are to be added in Ontario before the next election, almost all in urban areas. As the proportionate size of rural and farm populations shrinks further in decades to come, our political significance will decline further.
Other jurisdictions with sizable farm and rural populations have experienced this long before us. Consider Manitoba where 75% of residents are in Winnipeg and the rural vote has not mattered that much for years. But it’s new to Ontario.
Message Two: To be heard, rural and farm issues must be portrayed in a context important to urbanites
Surveys show that farmers continue to enjoy a high level of trust and goodwill within the Canadian population. But that support is shallow and commonly based on a perception of farming more appropriate to one or two generations ago. Farmers are considered genuine and well-meaning, but not particularly well informed nor “up to speed,” and easily misled by big agribusiness.
Farm groups try to counter this with messages about our high efficiencies, technical sophistication and importance to the economy, but the words often fall on deaf ears. Even the fact that food purchases now represent only 10% of disposable income (with farmers share being 15% of that) garners little attention. The average urbanite really doesn’t care.
What matters more is how farming affects the urban family, and that urban family is concerned about health and food safety, risk avoidance, pleasure, and how to make scarce dollars go further in maintaining and advancing an already high standard of living (by global comparison). While average citizens may be slow to adopt superior environmentally practices themselves if adoption means more bother and a reduced standard of living, they are very receptive and responsive to messages about environmental practices of others. This is especially so for messages about the real or perceived environmental ills of industry – including agriculture.
Urbanites probably care no more about the well-being of the small minority called farmers than they do about other small minorities. While they know instinctively that they depend on farmers for food, they mostly don’t see this as an issue. (They depend on oil companies too, for gasoline and heating oil, but that does not translate into public concern for the well-being of “big oil.”) Grocery shelves are almost always full, and price and quality – not source – are what matters most – notwithstanding what local food advocates might promote.
Trust of both big business and big government is part of the dynamic. The public distrusts anything big, and that increasingly includes big agriculture/big farming.
Equally important, politicians respond to what they hear from their constituents. Constituent priorities and perspectives set political perspectives for most Members of Parliament. Those constituents are mostly urban.
The Honourable Joe Clark (former Canadian Prime Minister for those who don’t know) worded it well in his presentation at the annual convention of the Grain Farmers of Ontario last March. If farmers are to achieve politically, they need to better learn how to align their messages with the needs/goals of others in modern society. Most of those “others” live in cities.

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Message Three: Science is of declining importance in political decision making
Most farmers have come to assume that science is the foundation for decisions about technology – both its value and its safety for usage. We choose crop varieties/hybrids, fertility, new pest control products, and new equipment on the basis of science, or a combination of science and economics – and we have assumed that governments regulate the same way.
Canadian farmers have looked at Europe, watching regulatory decisions there being made increasingly by politicians in defiance of good science. We’ve assumed that this wouldn’t happen here. North Americans are different, we thought – more rational. We were wrong.
The ban on lawn pesticide usage imposed in 2009 by the McGuinty government was a sign of things to come in Ontario – even though largely ignored by the farm community at the time. Why should farmers get upset when the main effect is more weeds in lawns or even the occasional need for lawn re-seeding/re-sodding when grubs and skunks wreck havoc?
The science on the issue was clear: If used as directed on product labels, lawn pesticides represent no threat to human health and the effect on environment is very marginal according to Health Canada and national regulators in other advanced countries. But Ontario politicians listened instead to the anti-pesticide and fringe health groups and their messages based largely on chemophobia rather than sound science and toxicology. The days were ending in Ontario when regulatory decisions were set primarily by the opinions and testimonies of scientific experts. The McGuinty decision was a clear signal of growing distrust of both science and scientists by both the public and politicians.
The recent Ontario policy decision on neonicotinoids made in response to NGO lobbying and in defiance of positions of major national regulatory agencies throughout the world, is a further step down this road.
Why this shift has occurred is a huge subject. I’ve offered my own thoughts on why in an earlier column, and will not expand here.
The bottom line is that farmers can no longer rely on scientific principles and the scientific approach as a dominant basis for regulatory policy setting in Ontario. To date, good science still dominates regulatory decision making at the national level in Canada, including decisions made by Health Canada and its Pesticide Regulatory Management Agency, but there too the pressure for change from activist groups is strong. Who knows what will happen if (or as) the political environment changes?

Wheat photo back of Buchanan farm a  Old photo
Message Four: We need to respond to critical issues at the beginning, not when they become an avalanche
In my view, this is one of the biggest mistakes grain farmers and the agribusiness community made with neonics. We underestimated the appeal and the message carried by anti-pesticide NGOs and a few well-connected and media-savvy individuals in the Ontario beekeeping industry. Instead of directly challenging the misinformation or, at best, half-truths being told by these groups and individuals to a generally receptive media when they began two years or more ago, we responded with simple platitudes, not with facts and quality analyses.
The activists staged media events, developed slick media messages, built public support, lobbied urban-based politicians, brought in sympathetic “scientific experts,” even paid for ads on Toronto subways. The response from agriculture was largely one of “we care about bees too,” and hoping it all would just go away.
To cite the Honourable Joe Clark again, the activists were able successfully to redefine farmers as bee killers rather than food producers. They did it largely without opposition.
When we did respond by providing more information and trying to counter the misinformation, it was too late. The public was already convinced (falsely, in my view) that honey bees are becoming extinct and that farmer-applied neonic insecticides are the primary, if not sole, reason.
Agriculture did respond with efforts to reduce neonic-laden dust emissions, a legitimate concern, though was slow in reacting to another reasonable issue: not every acre of corn needs to be planted with neonic-coated seed. In early 2015 the Grain Farmers of Ontario came up with a very credible plan for enhancing the well-being of pollinators. But it was too late by at least a year. Maybe even two.
What industry (and not just agriculture) commonly ignores is the effect that a small group of dedicated activists with media smarts and connections can have on public opinion. I am guessing that the number of key individuals who succeeded in securing a near-ban on neonic seed treatment for corn and soybeans in Ontario may not have been more than a dozen. But they had the right elements: a photogenic and generally well-respected insect, media skills, pesticides and big chemical companies as the “villain,” media ever-ready to portray big business in a bad light and to dramatize potential threats to the natural world, and a public which knows almost nothing about agriculture and which is highly receptive to messages about the environment.
And once the public forms an opinion, rightly or wrongly, no amount of advertizing or other campaigning can cause reversal – at least not for a long time. You can’t stop an avalanche when it is half-way down the mountain.
In my view, the neonic issue is likely beyond salvation for corn and soybean growers at this time in Ontario (and for many beekeepers also concerned about what replaces neonics), and it is time to focus on what’s next. Activist campaigns are well underway on other agricultural practices including the use of other pesticides (especially glyphosate), other seed treatments, genetic modified crops, fertilizer usage, livestock antibiotics, farm animal care – to name a few.
I am especially concerned about genetically modified (I prefer “genetically enhanced”) crops. A good friend in Toronto told me recently, “My friends don’t know what GMO means, but they understand it is bad and to be avoided.” Sweet corn marketers say they avoid Bt hybrids, notwithstanding benefits in reducing insecticide usage, because of concerns voiced by customers. Polls show public attitudes to GMO technology are becoming more negative, even as the supporting science in support of benefits and safety becomes stronger. Sort of like neonics two years ago.
Each negative letter, or column, or editorial needs a response – and not a “what an idiot!” response, but an informed one – not lengthy but with documented facts, and presented in a manner which touches issues of importance to the urban majority. We need to bring in trustworthy “experts,” especially those who can communicate, to counter those provided by activist groups. And we need informed farmers to present our messages as well.
There are some truths which need to be acknowledged in all of this too: Agriculture is not a natural process. Farming affects the natural environment and farm fields cannot be centres of biodiversity. However, producing food is important too. Agriculture represents compromise between pristine and the nutritional supply for seven (soon to be nine) billion people.
Somehow, we need to get more urbanites to understand those compromises, and that they provide major benefits for them too – an abundant and diverse food supply of ever-improving quality and safety, representing an ever-declining share of family disposable income, and grown despite the continuing diversion of farmland to development, roads and, yes, natural heritage. It is so frustrating to see writer-after-writer proclaiming that modern agriculture provides benefits only to farmers while the portion of annual income spent on food – and especially that portion of food expenditures going to farmers – continues to shrink.
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That’s our new reality as Ontario farmers. What we do is important to Ontario and Canada; the statistics show that – but that fact alone doesn’t cut it anymore. If we are going to be politically significant in the years ahead, we have to change our approach. It’s a big change for farmers – maybe akin to the earlier introduction of tractors and hybrid corn.

What Killed Ontario Bees Last Winter?

I’ve being doing some investigation, trying to understand why Ontario’s honey bee losses were so high in the winter of 2013/14. A reported 58% of total colonies were killed. I was intrigued by the high loss percentage for Ontario compared to other provinces (Table 1), and anecdotal reports of huge differences among individual beekeepers (range 0 to 100% loss). I’ve talked to many beekeepers and bee experts in Ontario and elsewhere. This column summarizes what I’ve learned.

Table 1. Gross Wintering Losses by Province, 2013/14

Table of Canadian bee losses in 2013-14a
*Note: Calculated from the percent winter kill reported in the survey of beekeepers multiplied by the total number of colonies reported to Statistics Canada in the fall of 2013.
** Note: Calculated as total estimated mortality in Canada divided by the total estimated number of colonies in Canada wintered.

To begin, there is significant doubt as to whether the Ontario percentage was actually 58%. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) reports that its estimate is based on survey responses from only 97 of the 247 commercial beekeepers in the province, and only about 10% of all beekeepers. (About 90% of Ontario beekeepers are classed as non-commercial; ‘non-commercial’ being defined as having fewer than 50 colonies.) A substantial increase in the number of reported honey bee colonies in Ontario in the summer of 2014 (112,800, Statistics Canada, compared to 100,000 in late 2013, Table 1) makes one wonder if the 58% estimate isn’t too high. In addition, there is wide-spread speculation among beekeepers and other bee professionals that the Ontario Beekeepers Financial Assistance Program established in early 2014 (government payment of $105 per lost hive for colony losses above 40%) acted as an incentive to report exaggerated losses, especially since the definition of “loss” in that program seems rather subjective. (“Weak” hives are losses.) Nevertheless, Ontario did lose a lot of bee colonies during winter 2013/14.

Factor 1: Harsh Winter

The hardness of the 2013/2014 winter was undoubtedly a dominant factor. As Table 2 demonstrates, there is a close correlation between average December-to-March temperature and reported colony losses.

Table 2. Over-winter bee losses and winter temperatures in Ontario.

Over-winter bee losses in Ontario(1)
* Source of hive loss data is here.
** Kitchener, ON (Environment Canada), used as a proxy for southern/southwestern Ontario.

The winter of 2013/14 was abnormally cold compared to the historical average for Southern Ontario and bee losses were high. However, winter 2014/14 in Southern Ontario was not as cold as in the Prairie Provinces where the bee losses were far smaller. Discussions with beekeepers indicate that an inadequate supply of stored food over the winter was a major reason for large losses in Ontario. Bees do not hibernate but cluster within hives and vibrate to keep warm. To maintain hive temperature they require a steady and large supply of food stored in the hive over the winter. This requirement increases in about February when brood production begins for the following spring season. Brood temperature must be maintained at about 34C. Some commercial beekeepers have described how they visited hives in March 2014 to replenish food reserves because of the unusually harsh winter. Some beekeepers did not (especially hobbyists, I’m told) and many of their bees starved/froze to death. I assume that in Western Canada, beekeepers automatically provide larger amounts of over-winter food reserves to ensure bee survival during their long winter seasons. Perhaps because of the 2013/14 experience, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs issued a new document in September 2014, Best Management Practices for Ontario beekeepers in Advance of Winter, with detailed advice on how to help bees survive.

Factor 2: Pollination Services in Eastern Canada.

A substantial portion of Ontario hives are used for pollination services and about one-quarter of all hives are now transported to the Maritime Provinces and Quebec for this purpose each spring – primarily for pollination of blueberries (mostly) and cranberries. Beekeepers in both Ontario and the Maritime Provinces say that this process is very hard on bees because of both the inadequate nutrition provided by blueberry flowers and stress from transportation. (I’m told a 10% hive loss during the two-way shipment to and from the pollination sites is common for good managers – higher for others.)

One Ontario commercial beekeeper, who provides thousands of hives for pollination services in the Maritime Provinces, told me he devotes the entire summer after the bees return in July to rebuilding his colonies for the winter. He provides supplemental sugar-water solution as needed during the summer and collects no honey from them. He says he allows bees to forage on semi-abandoned farm fields in Northern Ontario with large numbers of wild flowers, and free from many of the pesticides and other chemicals associated with more intensive agriculture and more intensive human settlement. (He says golf courses are bad for bees.) In order to improve bee health, he has discontinued pollination of cranberries in Quebec when the bees return from the Maritime Provinces to Ontario. His loss percentage was still about 30% last winter, but only half of the official Ontario average.

A contrast is the experience of another commercial Ontario beekeeper, comparable in size to the previously mentioned beekeeper. This beekeeper provides pollination colonies to blueberries in the Maritime Provinces but then uses them later for honey production back in Ontario. He reported hive losses in the 80-90% range for winter 2013/14.

I also talked to a large commercial beekeeper from Eastern Ontario who does not ship hives to the Maritime Provinces or Quebec. His 2013/14 winter loss was only 9%.

Although these examples are anecdotal and certainly don’t represent any formal survey, they do imply that long-distance transport of bees (i.e. migratory beekeeping) for blueberry pollination contributes significantly to Ontario’s high winter-kill percentage. It’s worth noting that large-scale shipment of bees from Ontario is a recent phenomenon. I’m told that no shipments to the Maritime Provinces occurred before about 2000, and the percentage of Ontario hives shipped eastward has doubled since 2010. In addition, with migratory bee services, shippers generally combine the hives supplied by several Ontario beekeepers onto single truck beds for transportation. This process may unintentionally facilitate the spread diseases/pests among bees, adding to the potential for losses.

In a recent document, the Province of Ontario announced its intention to both increase migratory beekeeping operations for pollination and reduce over-winter losses to a maximum of 15%. That represents a very difficult challenge – probably an impossible one.

It is not my intent to condemn the use of Ontario bees for pollination services in Quebec and Maritime Provinces. That’s a process which supports Eastern Canadian fruit growers and provides additional income for Ontario beekeepers. But this comes at a cost in terms of increased over-winter bee mortality.

Factor 3. Varroa mites.

University of Guelph bee researcher Dr. Ernesto Guzman and his colleagues concluded in a 2010 report that varroa mites are responsible for about 85% of over-winter bee deaths in Ontario. Dr. Guzman stated recently he believes this percentage still applies. A measurement of only three Varroa mites per 100 bees is sufficient to pretty much ensure death for an over-wintering hive (Dr. Guzman, personal communication, and reference here). Varroa mites are considered the reason why wild honey bees (colonies which escape via swarming) no longer survive very long in the wild in southern Canada. However, during the course of their existence in the wild, be it in abandoned buildings, woodlots or abandoned beeyards, they become a biosecurity hazard as a breeding ground for varroa mites that may inflict damage (by providing additional Varroa load) to managed hives in the vicinity.

Although some executive members of the Ontario Beekeepers Association have down-played the importance of Varroa mites while suggesting that management is now effective, routine and generally challenge-free (see here for example), my conversations with commercial beekeepers suggest otherwise. Varroa mite management remains difficult and involves some critical management choices on a regular basis. A typical beekeeper treats his/her hives in both spring and fall – never eliminating mites completely in the process, but knocking their numbers down enough for bees to carry on relatively unaffected. But mites reproduce quickly, so the process must be repeated often with great vigilance.

Varroa mites develop resistance to miticides quickly so the struggle to find new and effective miticides never ends. The current products are primarily Apivar (which has been granted emergency and then conditional registration since 2006 for use in Canada), and combinations of formic and/or oxalic acid. Miticides can also be really rough on bees, so that mite control becomes a question of killing most of the mites but not too many bees. This balance is very sensitive to temperature in the case of formic acid. If you treat the bees and it gets hot soon afterwards, bee deaths can be excessive. And if it’s too cool, the degree of mite control is too low even though bees are still killed. Older pesticide products are also still used sometimes for varroa control, even though the quality of control may be limited because of developed genetic resistance to these miticides. Varroa mites have developed resistance to Apivar in the United States. (Good review here.)

The timing of the fall application is especially important to ensure that the newly formed winter bee populations are not affected by the treatment. If you delay too long, the risk of over-winter deaths mounts, but when you treat early, you are unable to market the honey production from bees foraging on late-summer/early-fall plants like golden rod and wild asters. (The honey cannot be used when miticides are applied.)

This is not to imply that Varroa mite management is hopelessly difficult, but, rather, that it is far from simple or routine. Dr. Guzman’s conclusion that Varroa mites are responsible for 85% of bee losses in Ontario seems highly relevant. Varroa mites are also effective vectors for the spread of viral diseases (see here and discussion below).

Factor four. Other diseases/pests.

I’ll mention this only briefly as I don’t pretend to understand all of the complexities involved. This diagram, borrowed from Twitter, shows some of the pests/diseases.

Bee diseases

One large beekeeper told me, “The main two diseases that bees deal with are American Foulbrood and Nosema apis and ceranae. They are difficult to control if the beekeeper doesn’t know what to look for (most smaller-scale producers don’t), and even if you do know what to look for, it’s a challenge.”

Though the magnitude of their contribution to Ontario bee deaths still remains largely unknown, bee viruses are getting increasing attention, no doubt, in part, because of their linkage to Varroa mites. Unpublished survey research by the University Manitoba found that most of the bees sampled across Canada had the Deformed Wing Virus (DWV), and DWV has been directly linked to high winter loss of bees as well as Varroa mite infestation. I’m told that DWV symptoms can be very similar to those caused by central nervous system toxins like insecticides. For references see here, here and here. However, experts say that virulence depends on the intensity of the viral infection (just as with human colds) and information about viral infection intensities in Ontario seems to be pretty much non-existent.

Factor five. Pesticides.

Insecticides have been long recognized for their negative effect on bees. Insecticides kill insects. Dimethoate (Cygon) is sometimes used by farmers for insect pest control (eg., soybean aphids), and special care needs to be taken to avoid application to flowering plants when bees are present. While bees tend to avoid plants treated with the pyrethrin (organic) insecticides, this class of pesticides is also very deadly if sprayed when bees are present.

Neonicotinoid (neonic) insecticides are also toxic to bees; there is sufficient research and other evidence to indicate that, with certain “vacuum- type” corn planters, neonic seed treatments can cause acute bee deaths if neonic-laden dust comes in contact with foraging bees nearby. However, there is very little evidence to indicate that seed treatments contributed significantly to over-winter bee deaths in 2013/14 deaths in Ontario. While there is published research showing that exposure of bees to ‘sub-lethal’ concentrations of neonics can cause some abnormal behaviour, these are virtually all lab experiments in which bees have been treated with concentrations and durations of exposure beyond what is normal under field conditions. For two major reviews, see here and here. For further discussion see my previously posted columns, here and here. See also a recent update from the Pest Management Regulatory Agency of Canada.

Factor six. Bee Management.

While no one in agriculture likes to be accused of poor management (it’s always more satisfying to blame someone else, preferably a big company), it seems obvious that good beekeeper management is both critically important and very difficult. Bee management is a very important factor in explaining differences among beekeepers in 2013/14 over-winter losses. In addition, bee management became far more difficult in Canada with the arrival of varroa mites. Beekeepers say it was once possible for anyone to keep some bees in the backyard, collect honey in autumn, and, with some simple steps, keep bees alive over winter. Now, without a lot of sophisticated skills for pest management, high over-winter bee losses are almost certain.

Two successful, highly skilled beekeepers told me how they once turned day-to-day management of their hives over to someone else for a season. (The reasons were poor health and other business demands.) In each case, the result was a high over-winter loss percentage. Fortunately, in both cases, the loss percentages plunged the following year when the owner re-assumed direct and proper management of the hives. One commercial beekeeper told me that he now needs double-to-triple the number of employees per 1000 hives compared to years past.

In summary, bee management is difficult and critically important, and probably the biggest reason for difference in over-winter bee losses among beekeepers – bearing in mind that management becomes much more difficult when the operation involves migratory beekeeping services and the movement of hives for hundreds of kilometers. I suspect many commercial beekeepers would not agree with this recent statement by the president of the Ontario Beekeepers Association to a committee of the Senate of Canada, “Beekeeping hasn’t changed a lot in over 100 years.”

Bottom line:

It would appear that a long, cold winter, inadequate over-winter nutrition, bee shipments to Quebec and the Maritime Provinces for pollination, and Varroa mites and other related diseases/pests were the dominant reasons for the large loss of Ontario hives in 2013/14. Differences in management skills were responsible for large differences among individual beekeepers. Pesticides were likely a minor factor. As for neonics specifically, one wonders: If these compounds did not exist at all, would the reported 58% over-winter loss have been significantly lower? Evidence suggests it’s doubtful – and this is before considering the alternatives which crop farmers would have used for insect management. If the Province of Ontario really wants to reduce over-winter colony losses, it needs to focus its attention on the important factors rather than the agendas of anti-pesticide lobby groups.

Critique of “A Proposal for Enhancing Pollinator Health and Reducing A Proposal for Enhancing Pollinator Health and Reducing the Use of Neonicotinoid Pesticides in Ontario” – Discussion Paper by the Government of Ontario

On November 25, the Province of Ontario announced its intention to dramatically reduce the usage of neonicotinoid (neonic) insecticide seed treatments by farmers, the stated goal being an 80% reduction by 2017. This is portrayed as a core part of a strategy by the province to reduce over-winter bee colony losses to an average of 15%. I have reviewed a discussion paper (hereafter referred to as the document) released by the government presenting its rationale and intended plan, and I offer the following comments.

In general, the document displays a somewhat superficial understanding of floral pollination and causes of over-winter bee deaths in Ontario, provides a very imbalanced view of the relationship between neonic usage and bee well-being, and proposes solutions which are likely to create serious environmental and agricultural problems with dubious offsetting benefits. The document presents a perspective very similar to that of several prominent anti-pesticide activist organizations (NGOs) though I have not taken the time to check for exact duplications.

The following are more specific comments:

1. The Document refers repeatedly to declining pollinator numbers, but presents no supporting statistics or references to credible data sources. In fact, Statistics Canada (here and here) shows that honey bee colony numbers have increased steadily in recent years in Ontario and Canada – up by 41% in Ontario from 2009 to 2014, and by 17% for Canada. The same trend exists globally with world hive numbers increasing from about 71 million in 2000 to more than 81 million in 2003 according to FAO statistics. As for wild bees, the report emphasizes declines in native pollinators, citing the State of Ontario’s Biodiversity 2010 Report released by the Ontario Biodiversity Council. But that report says that, though “some species of bumble bees, like the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee found in Ontario, have experienced severe declines,” the status of most of Canada’s 700 wild bee species is largely unknown. In addition, a major recent review by an international research team including researchers at Ottawa and York Universities stated “we show that pesticide use and habitat loss are unlikely to be major causes of decline for any of the Bombus [bumble bee] species examined.”

2. The document appears weak in basic knowledge about pollinators, even though that is its stated primary purpose. For example, the document refers in several places to the importance of butterflies as pollinators. It talks about concerns over migrating pollinators – obviously Monarchs butterflies. But while butterflies pollinate a few wild flower species, they are not known to pollinate any farm/horticultural crop and are considered to be quite minor pollinators (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada). This emphasis in the document reads like an attempt to link neonics with popular concerns about Monarchs even though no such linkage is known to exist. The inclusion of photographs of a Monarch butterfly and two of other butterfly species adds to this perception. The document also refers to a need for bee pollination services for peaches. That is simply untrue; this crop is self-pollinated and Ontario peach growers do not use bee pollination services.

3. One apparent driver for the current action by the Province of Ontario involves the 58% loss in Ontario hives in the winter of 2013/14. While this percentage is high, it is not unprecedented. Losses were 60-70% in the winter of 2006/07 in the Niagara region. Although the document suggests that 15% loss was the norm in previous years, the literature suggests otherwise. On excellent source is The Rise and Fall of the Honey Bee by Borst which includes a reference to Hiemstra, Henry. (2006) The History of Beekeeping in Ontario, Ontario Beekeepers’ Association, stating ‘Winter losses of over 50% were not uncommon even before the mites.’

4. Despite public claims and suggestions of this in the document, any linkage between over-winter deaths and neonic seed treatments is completely conjectural. A report by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), describing the survey of 2013/14 losses is careful not to ascribe cause, though it does summarize beekeeper opinions which were no doubt been influenced by an effective media campaign by activist groups blaming neonics for these deaths. Some research does indicate that sub-lethal exposure to neonics can cause subtle differences in bee behaviour. But virtually all of these results come from within-laboratory research where bees have been exposed for extended periods of time to concentrations of neonics above what bees would experience in real-world conditions. Independent reviews by leading bee experts have concluded that there are no documented effects on honeybees, bumblebees or solitary bees at field realistic doses. See Blaquière et al., 2012 – a review of more than 1500 publications over 15 years. A similar conclusion appears in the November 2014 Update on Neonicotinoid Pesticides and Bee Health by the Pest Management Regulatory Agency of Health Canada, and in a review by the pesticide regulatory agency in Australia. It’s perhaps of interest that bumble bees which have been identified as vulnerable to sub-lethal exposure to neonics, collect very little corn pollen. Corn pollen has been identified as a possible source of very low level (a few parts per billion), post-planting-season exposure to neonics.

5. Missing in the document is any consideration of reasons why the divergence is so large among data on over-winter bee losses for the most three recent winters in Ontario. For the winters of 2011/12, 2012/13 and 2013/14, the corresponding loss percentages were 12%, 38% and 58%. This is despite the fact that neonic usage for corn plus soybean seed treatment was essentially the same in all three previous cropping seasons. What was different was the severity of the three winters ranging from very mild (2011/12) to very severe (2013/14). Many Ontario beekeepers say that many hives perished in late winter/early spring of 2014 simply because they ran out of within-hive food supplies. Some beekeepers made a special effort to replenish hive food supplies in late winter and were rewarded by lower hive losses. All of this is largely missing in the document – in favour of a focus on neonics.

6. Dr. Ernesto Guzman, a University of Guelph bee researcher, and his colleagues have shown that about 85% of over-winter bee deaths in Ontario can be attributed to varroa mites. Unfortunately, this fact is effectively missing from the document – indeed, varroa mites are not even mentioned in the section called Honey bee over-winter mortality. (Varroa mites are listed along with other bee pests/diseases in a much later section.) Varroa are considered to be the reason why honey bees can no longer survive in the wild in Ontario; feral colonies die quickly from varroa infestation according to Ontario bee researchers. Also largely missing from the document is recognition of how difficult and complicated successful varroa mite management really is. For many beekeepers, excessive usage of older miticides such as Apistan (fluvalinate, a pyrethroid) and Coumophos (an organophosphate) led to mite resistance. Most beekeepers now use Apivar (amitraz) and/or formic acid, for mite control. These pesticides which beekeepers place within hives are themselves quite toxic to bees if not managed properly. This is especially so for formic acid applied in various forms which can be a major contributor to bee deaths if temperature and other conditions are not proper.

7. The document contains only a casual reference to bee viruses, noting correctly that varroa mites are effective agents for viral transmission, but stating that they “are not typically understood to be primary drivers for colony death.” The scientific community suggests otherwise. The authors of the document seem unaware of recent survey data for Canada, including Ontario, done by the University of Manitoba showing that close to 100% of sampled hives were infected with the Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) (Dr. Suresh Desai, personal communication). DWV has been directly linked to high winter losses of bees. The attribution of bee viral disease symptoms to neonicotinoids has caused much confusion among beekeepers. For references see here, here and here. A good general reference is Currie, R.W., Pernal, S.F., and Guzmán-Novoa, E. (2010). “Honey bee colony losses in Canada.”

8. The document describes the need for increasing shipments of bees from Ontario to Atlantic Canada and Quebec for pollination of blueberries and other crops. This now represents about one-quarter of Ontario hives at the present time. Unfortunately, the document ignores the major negative effect which this has on bee survival. Industry sources say a mortality rate of 15% is common for these shipments. Bee and blueberry crop experts in Atlantic Canada say that both the transportation process and the inadequate nutrition provided by blueberry flowers can be extremely hard on bees returning to Ontario. Professional beekeepers say they must devote the rest of the summer to a process of trying to rebuild bee health so as to reduce subsequent over-winter losses. Some commercial beekeepers do not ship bees east for pollination purposes, stating that this is the reason for their much lower over-winter losses. Importantly, the shipment of bees from Ontario to Atlantic Canada only began in the early 2000s, about the time that average over-winter bee death percentages rose in Ontario, but this linkage is ignored in the document. Incredulously, the document projects a reduction to overwinter losses of 10-15% in Ontario while simultaneously increasing long-distance shipments of bees for pollination services. This is highly contradictory.

Worth noting, too, is the fact that some large Ontario beekeepers who ship bees east for pollination purposes make no attempt to collect honey from the returning hives all summer long – concentrating fully on attempting to rebuild colonies before the following winter. This is one major reason why average honey production per hive has often declined in Ontario in recent years. However, honey production was up 29% in 2014 over 2013 (reference: Statistics Canada). Perhaps Ontario honey bee colonies were not as weakened in 2014 as portrayed in the document.

9. The Document refers to survey data provided by PMRA but this information is presented in a somewhat mischievous manner, and includes no recognition of 2014 findings. It is true that the most recent report from PMRA was not released formally until November 25, the same date as the release of the Ontario government document. However, the data and much of the other information in the PMRA report have been presented publicly by PMRA staff on several occasions in recent months. In addition, one would expect that provincial officials would have consulted frequently with PMRA before releasing a major provincial document on pesticide usage. The 2014 report of PMRA shows that although most reported bee deaths in Ontario in 2012 occurred during the spring corn planting season, that was not so apparent in 2013. And in 2014, about 75% of reported deaths (72% of these from only three beekeepers) occurred after the end of the spring planting season. Although PMRA concludes that neonic-laden dust escaping from certain types of corn/soybean planters was a significant factor with acute bee deaths at spring time, the agency also says available data show no demonstrable linkage between neonic usage/exposure and bee deaths thereafter. Further, PMRA noted that reports of seeding-time bee mortality were down 70% in 2014, a fact that the agency says may be related, at least in part, to measures taken by farmers and the seed industry to reduce seeding-time emissions (new “fluency” agent, “dust deflectors,” etc.). Essentially all of this information is missing from the document, in favour of a targeted focus on neonics.

10. The PMRA review makes reference to the extensive use of neonic seed treatments for canola production in Canada, including Ontario. About 80% of Canadian seed treatment involves canola with the per-acre rate of application of neonic application being about the same with canola as with corn. However, PMRA has received no claims of bee mortality associated with neonic-treated canola crops. European research summarized by the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA, references here, here and here) shows that the potential bee floral exposure to neonics is about 10 times higher with oilseed rape (equivalent to canola) flowers as with corn pollen. University of Guelph researcher Dr. Scott-Dupree and Dalhousie University researcher Dr. Cutler, in two recent major research papers (here and here), found no effect of canola-neonic-seed treatment on bee mortality. There is further discussion here on corn-canola comparisons. It is disappointing that this very major anomaly is ignored in the document – surprising since this has been a matter of major public discussion among beekeepers and farmers in Ontario for many months.

11. The document contains high-profile reference to reports from a group called the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Task Force on Systemic Pesticides. In fact, this is an international group of activist scientists known for their opposition to pesticides, and the evidence seems clear that their approach (including a high-profile news conference organized for them by several multinational NGOs in Ottawa in July) was part of a well-designed scheme designed to discredit neonic insecticides. This scheme has received major condemnation. For more detail, see here, here, here and here. The group claims to have checked 800 literature citations on neonics. (The document says they were all peer-reviewed, but a review of the citations shows this is not correct.) Bias in interpretations of the literature is as relevant as number of publications reviewed, and the IUCN group has a definite bias and agenda. A review of some of the task force review papers, for example this key one involving neonic effects on invertebrates, shows some clear evidence of bias. The reviews were funded in part by groups known to have anti-pesticide agendas and a representative of one or more of these groups was a co-author. While the authors claim no influence of funders on the contents of the papers, consider what the credibility would be if it were the reverse – funding and co-authorship by organizations known to be favourable to pesticides. As one example of bias, consider the up-front table comparing the LD50 for honey bee exposure of various insecticides to DDT. This is even though DDT was banned in many countries for reasons totally unrelated to bee toxicity (banned because of effects on bird shells and evidence of bioaccumulation in fat tissues). This appears as an attempt by the authors to sensationalize rather than to provide objective, meaningful information.

Despite that, it is reasonable for reports of the IUCN group to have been considered by the Province in drafting the document. But to have this as about the primary cited source of scientific information seems irresponsible. The other cited source is even worse, the US-based Center for Food Safety (CFI), generally known for its highly negative view to large corporations and many forms of modern technology including pesticides. (See here for example.) At the same time, authors of the document ignored published reports (see here and here) of a highly qualified panel of global experts assembled by the US EPA in 2012, in cooperation with PMRA, to examine risks, including pesticide risks, to pollinators. To cite CFI but not the EPA-PMRA materials or the review of Blacqière et al can only be classed as irresponsible ‘cherry picking.’

12. The document states, “The potential for carryover of residues may be of concern since these may be transported through run-off from fields to nearby water bodies,” apparently based largely on the work of a researcher at the University of Saskatchewan associated with IUCN. But her conclusions about ecological harm have been questioned/doubted by other Canadian researchers (reference) and the concentrations she measured were generally in the range of 0-50 parts per trillion (far below concentrations known to harm bees).

13. Totally ignored in the document is the widespread usage of neonics for flea control on household pets. This omission is hard to understand if neonics are as dangerous as portrayed in the featured IUCN reports.

14. It’s also puzzling that the document makes reference to data provided by the US EPA questioning the benefits of neonic seed treatment to soybean growers, while completely ignoring relevant data from Ontario, including tests done by staff of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. The Ontario data generally show a consistent yield advantage with neonic seed treatment. There is credible information showing that the EPA conclusion may not be accurate for the United States, as well. Under PMRA regulations governing pesticide registration, a pesticide cannot be registered for Canadian usage unless it has proven ‘efficacy,’ i.e., agronomic benefits in yield and/or the management of harmful pests. In fact, the document contains essentially no reference to any published documentation on the benefits of neonic seed treatment to agriculture and Ontario (i.e., local) food production. The document ignores a major recent report by the Conference Board of Canada which calculated that benefit may be worth $630 million annually to Ontario agriculture. These omissions suggest that the intent of the document is to emphasize only negative aspects of farm (though not urban) neonicotinoid usage.

15. The document also contains no consideration of the environmental implications of alternative practices which farmers will be obliged to employ if denied reasonable access to the use of neonic-treated seeds. Experience from Europe seems relevant. Various reports from there including one by the Home Grown Cereal Authority (an agency of the Government of the UK) have documented both crop losses experienced by the loss of crop neonic seed treatments and the shift by farmers to the use of other, generally more toxic alternatives such as pyrethroids. There are anecdotal reports of farmers applying insecticides up to five times with field sprayers in an attempt to manage insect pests which were formerly controlled by neonicotinoid seed treatments. In September 2014, the UK permitted emergency registration of two new neonic spray treatments to allow farmers to counter the damage created by the neonic seed treatment ban. A shift to pyrethroids is also occurring with corn production in France, and it seems reasonable to expect that this will be a likely outcome with the intended process in Ontario.

16. The review of what is happening in other jurisdictions is far from complete and very one-sided. The decision by the European Union to institute a two-year moratorium on neonic seed treatments was opposed by several countries including the United Kingdom. The pesticide regulatory agency in Australia released a major report noting that although neonic seed treatments are used extensively in that country, there has been no notable effect on bees. A common explanation for the colony losses in Australia is that varroa mites have not yet infected their bees. Finally it’s worth noting that the Ontario approach goes well beyond what has been introduced in Europe: the European moratorium is for only two years, after which the EU will assess the extent to which this action has proven beneficial to bee health. No such time-limited approach is proposed for Ontario.

17. While the document is careful to refer only to neonic-treated corn and soybean seeds, the wording clearly implies that the scope is broader. A new Class 12 is to be created for pesticide seed treatments, and treated seeds will commonly be defined as “pesticides” themselves. (Interesting that the Province has not chosen to do the same with neonic-treated family pets.) The document says, “The proposed policy is that the sale of Class 12 pesticides is prohibited except in certain circumstances.” This says to me that the standard practice with be for most seed treatments to be prohibited – presumably for fungicides as well as insecticides – in the longer term. At least two pesticide manufacturers that I am aware of are in the process of seeking PMRA registration for new seed-applied insecticide ingredients/products. The understanding is that these new materials are less toxic to bees and other non-target organisms. There is anticipation that these could be available for commercial usage as soon as 2016 or 2017. I am also aware that several NGOs are trying aggressively to discourage PMRA from such registrations, based on the assumption that ‘all seed-applied pesticides are bad.’ The document states that these new products if/when approved by PMRA will be automatically prohibited for usage in Ontario unless granted an exemption. And we can be assured that the same NGO lobby effort and disrespect-for-good-science in Government of Ontario decision making, which triggered the current anti-neonic initiative, will also be huge obstacles. Perhaps these will be insurmountable hurdles for any company seeking an “exemption” for the newer products. Perhaps the companies will not even try, leaving Ontario as the only North American jurisdiction where the newer, safer technology is not available for farm use.

18. The two-fisted approach proposed in the document may work for farmers who have persistent problems with insect damage to planted seeds and seedling plants, even though the process seems excessive: it requires both farmer training and expert approval (a bit like having to take a course in alternative medicine before a patient gets a prescription from a medical doctor for an infection). However, the proposed approach will not work when the insect problem is more sporadic and/or unanticipated, as is often the case. In addition, farmers generally make their choices on crop varieties to grow and seed treatments to be used many months before planting. This allows the seed industry to provide the seeds needed before time of planting – not a small task.

If the anticipated insect problem is known many months in advance, this is manageable, but if it only becomes apparent a few days before planting, the only apparent option is for seed companies to provide excess supply of treated seed in the event of this occurrence. The net effect will likely be added expense for the seed industry, higher costs for farmers, and a reduction in the number of varieties offered for sale to farmers in Ontario – all compared to neighbouring and competitive jurisdictions. And of course, if the insect problem does not become apparent until after planting, seed treatment is not an option for control and spray applications and crop losses will follow – just as is now happening in Europe. The document is silent on compensation to farmers for these added costs and crop losses. The expected response for many Ontario corn and soybean farmers (especially the former) will be to opt for banded insecticide applications just as is now happening in France. This is a step back – to using the more risky technologies which were used before neonic seed treatments were introduced.

Curiously, while the document details a need for farmer training on integrated pest management (IPM), it is silent on a similar need for beekeepers for mite control. This would seem especially important given the speed at which mites develop resistance to pesticides, the propensity of miticides to kill excessive numbers of bees when not used properly, and the incomplete registration status of some product(s) used.

Bottom Line:

This document will be well received by those groups and individuals who see pesticide bans as a desirable objective regardless of costs and benefits to farmers. It is far less satisfactory to those who want regulatory decisions based on sound science rather than advocacy or political expediency. The proposed actions will lead to higher costs of production and greater crop losses for Ontario farmers compared to competing farmers in adjacent jurisdictions. The document weakens the credibility of the Government of Ontario and its professed intent to improve agri-food competitiveness and productivity in the province. This is the second time this government has imposed a ban (or de facto ban) on pesticide usage in Ontario in defiance of good science. The document refers repeatedly to the need for a precautionary approach, apparently mimicking some European jurisdictions which use this to justify actions when there is limited or no scientific rationale. But proper use of this approach requires consideration of the known risks as well as the unknown benefits of a proposed action – something which clearly has not been done in the present document. It also will lead Ontario farmers and agriculture and other citizens and industries to question what will be the next targets for this selective, activist-driven approach.

And, given the document’s focus on neonicotinoid insecticides despite the lack of any linkage other than conjectural to over-winter bee mortality, this expensive exercise by itself is unlikely to result in any notable improvement in bee mortality in Ontario.

Greater and More-Visible Leadership on Sustainable Agriculture Needed from Farm Organizations

Two years ago I wrote a column describing how quickly major global food processors and retailers are moving to create global standards for purchases of ‘sustainably produced’ food ingredients. This change is occurring in direct response to demands from consumers and activist organizations. My column stated that farmers/farm groups need to seize more leadership in this process if they want these standards to reflect/include their own concepts, understanding and experiences for sustainable development – and not just those coming from corporate executives and pressure groups.

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Though what lies ahead was obvious two years ago, I am still surprised at the rapidity of the change, with company after company rushing to announce commitments to sustainable development – usually (though not always) followed up with credible implementation strategies. Think of McDonald’s, Walmart, Unilever, Mondelez (formerly Kraft) and many others. The CEO of Cargill was part of an international panel, recently proclaiming a commitment to reduced greenhouse gas emissions. I don’t think that would have happened two years ago. This situation has changed dramatically from 10 years ago when ‘sustainable agriculture’ tended to mean expensive organic vegetables in a pick-up truck.

For sure, some – perhaps even most – of this effort is driven by a desire for image and market share improvement. But it is also driven by a desire of responsible corporate executives to do the ‘right thing.’ Whatever their motives, the result is clear: rapid changes in the global marketplace for agriculture and food.

What’s remarkable is that this trend has blossomed in an era of economic recessions and monetary crises, and with global media headlines featuring food shortages and price concerns. Think what it will be like as media headlines shift to tales about domestic and international grain surpluses.

There are already a huge number of global and regional/national initiatives and standards for sustainable agriculture and food, including several initiatives in Canada. Many of these are commodity- (or commodity-group) specific, eg., palm oil, coffee, potatoes, soybeans, sea foods, pulse crops, to name a few. The biggest international effort may be the European-based Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI). It was started by Unilever, Nestlé and Danone and now includes 60 of the world’s largest food processors and retailers. The SAI web site provides links to a myriad of other sustainability certification programs and a form for assaying the sustainability of individual agricultural operations. It’s called Farm Sustainability Assessment 2.0, and is accessible on-line.

Expect to see the stature and significance of the SAI and SAI-like assessment processes grow in months ahead. This is positive in that global companies are showing much greater interest in how foods are produced/grown. But it’s also very disturbing in that the SAI full membership does not include a single farm group. Indeed, farm groups are not eligible for regular membership – though a half dozen are affiliated members. The latter include the Grain Farmers of Ontario (GFO) and Pulse Canada. GFO is the sole crop-farmer rep on SAI’s Farmer and Supplier Partnership Committee. Thanks to GFO for ensuring there is some farmer input.

Despite GFO efforts, SAI’s Farm Sustainability Assessment 2.0 is still highly superficial and reflects what one might expect from a group weak in farm expertise. For example, the one question on soil erosion is “Do you take measures to avoid soil erosion?” There are only two other questions about soil management. By contrast, there are lots of questions about treatment of farm labour and labour organizations. One example: “Do you ensure that the effective functioning of labor organizations is not opposed?” Check for yourself here (On-line tool or down-loadable Excel file).

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While I have featured SAI above, this organization is far from unique among sustainable agricultural initiatives in its membership or approach. Many of them seem more reflective of the agendas of activist groups, compared to farmer experience.

It’s true that there are good examples – particularly for individual companies and specific commodity sectors – where farm groups are larger partners in developing standards for sustainability. One example is the international certification developed by McCain Foods for potatoes which is based in large part on Environmental Farm Plan protocols developed by Canadian farm groups. Another example is McDonald’s commitment to work with beef farmers (more specifically, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association) in designing standards for purchases of sustainable beef. There are many other examples, most of which I am likely not even aware. But there are also cases of where farmer input appears to have been essentially zero – a high-profile one being policies of A&W for purchases of beef and chicken. (Statements about hormone-free chickens in A&W promotions are likely even in violation of Canadian advertizing rules in that use of hormone treatments has been prohibited for all Canadian chickens for decades.)

Some farm/agricultural groups are responding by collecting and presenting data on how they have improved, collectively, in various measures of sustainability. The Field to Market initiative of several major crop groups and industry partners in the United States is a great example.

The Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Crops is trying to emulate this approach which is helpful and to be applauded, though I do have personal doubts that it, by itself, will satisfy the future demands of food companies seeking third-party certification of compliance with standards for sustainability.

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As farmers, we prosper by providing what the customer wants. And if the customer wants (and will pay for) farm produce which meets specified protocols – then that’s what we’ll grow. That’s why, for example, many Canadian soybean farmers grow “IP” soybeans (IP = “identity-preserved,” generally this mostly means non-GM [genetically modified] for glyphosate tolerance). It’s not because most farmers consider non-GM to be more sustainable (arguably it’s the reverse, given the additional need for more herbicides with IP production). Farmers do this because of the price premiums.

It’s the same for the white beans (also called navy or pea beans) which we grow on our farm – largely for export sale to the UK. We take extreme cautions to avoid blending beans with GM-based soy and corn grains, and are careful to avoid pesticide residues, but there is nothing in company-directed protocols about how many times I can till the soil or about number of pesticide applications (i.e., beyond pesticide-label specifications). Meeting market specifications is not necessarily the same as sustainable agriculture.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that this approach is working for large food companies, at least in terms of their public images and in minimizing condemnation by activist groups. Reduced activist criticism of late for Walmart and McDonalds, despite their global marketplace domination, probably stems in part to their commitments to sustainable development. This is especially so for Walmart which has an Environmental Defence Fund staffer located right at its head office. Unilever has had success in deflecting attacks on its dominance in world vegetable oil purchases through leadership in sustainable palm oil production. Even Nestlé, known for its stature in marketing bottled water and for recent fines for mistreatment of workers, has also enjoyed some success.

Unfortunately, I am not sure that farmers and farming have benefited that much from this high-profile attention by large companies – especially where their focus is on protocols perhaps marginally related to real on-farm sustainability.

Publicly, current efforts are often portrayed as Big Food’s commitment to sustainable development – with farmers being portrayed as those needing guidance by food companies on ‘how to do things better,’ rather than as leaders in sustainability themselves.

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This is so unfortunate in that farmers – individually, collectively and in partnership with agricultural industry partners – have been leaders in environmental improvement for many years. This is true in Canada, for sure, and in other countries too. Take no tillage crop production, as one example, started by farmers in both Canada and the United States. (Credit also goes to public researchers and extension personnel who helped in promotion and the underlying science and to industry for improved field machinery and providing better herbicides and crop genetics to facilitate the transition).

Or take Canadian Environmental Farm Plans, started by farm groups in Ontario, and now adopted by tens of thousands of farmers nationally. Or farm-user pesticide certification requirements instituted in Ontario on the insistence of farm groups. (Ontario environment officials were initially very opposed.) More recent examples include ‘precision agriculture’ technology where application rates of pesticides and fertilizer are varied within individual fields in response to micro-scale needs. Bt (GM) technology has limited insecticide usage substantially for corn and cotton. The list of contributions to sustainable agriculture is lengthy.

Unfortunately, on-farm activities and past achievements are not enough by themselves. Farm groups need to do a better in explaining to the public and urban-based decision makers their commitment to sustainable development, what they stand for, what they are now doing, and what they are going to doing better. Farmers are tired of being dismissed by urban media and many decision-makers as simply uninformed/uneducated pawns of big business, especially on issues such as the wise use of pesticides and fertilizer, crop genetics, soil conservation and good business management.

It is easy to blame others, but much of the fault lies with us. Walmart, Unilever, McDonald’s and others are doing a good job in explaining their commitments to sustainability. For most farm groups – not so much.

It’s true that Canadian agriculture has some major efforts dedicated to ag awareness. Farm & Food Care and ‘agriculture in the classroom’ organizations come to mind immediately. But on agricultural sustainability per se, the efforts are generally on a smaller scale, and usually on a commodity- (or commodity-sector-) specific basis. We need to do it better collectively across-all-sectors.

The ideal would be to do this nationally, but in a country as large and diverse as Canada that may not be realistic. Probably it’s more achievable on a provincial or regional basis. And in no place in Canada is this more important than in Ontario with its large, dominant urban population and urban-centric media. Most Ontarians and Ontario media know virtually nothing about agriculture – or even about nutrition and food – and the current Ontario government consists almost entirely of urban-based legislators.

I don’t think it is necessary to ‘reinvent the wheel’ for much of this process. We have in place many valuable and effective programs directly related to agricultural sustainability. Some have been mentioned above. Others include new programs for enhanced animal welfare and transportation, soil conservation, nutrient and water management, and recycling. We can also build on the good relationships which exist both among agricultural groups and with the Ontario/Canadian food industry.

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What we lack is a coordinated manner for tying this all together in a highly visible process – i.e. visible outside the agriculture and food sector itself, and involving all major farm sectors. To cite but one example of a deficiency, consider the Ontario Environmental Farm Plan program. It has been in place for more than 20 years, with more than 30,000 participating farmers – probably representing more than 90% of Ontario agricultural production. A huge achievement. Unfortunately informal surveying indicates few urbanites, or even many food company executives, have ever heard of it.

To repeat: We need a high-profile, common program for saying what we stand for, what we are already doing, and how we are committed to doing better.

The “committed to doing better” is critical, for there are areas where we can and must do better. One of these is climate change and net greenhouse gas emissions. The public and governments have identified this as a priority and yet the subject is largely missing from Environmental Farm Plan processes. We must do a better job of keeping our N and P fertilizer ingredients out of rivers and lakes. We need to include economic sustainability – a key pillar in the fundamentals of sustainable development spelled out in the Bruntland UN Commission report three decades ago. This means economic sustainability not just for farm families but for the neediest among those we feed. Closely linked is the third pillar, social sustainability. Our track record on farm safety is not that great, and perhaps we can do even better with farm employees and in service to communities.

I close this column with the same thought as in the one written two years earlier: Farmers have two choices in the rapidly advancing realm of agri-food sustainability. We can lead or be led. At the moment, it’s too way much of the latter.

What Corn-Canola Comparisons Tell us about Neonics and Bees – Plenty Actually

Corn-Canola Comparisons: Neonic-Bee Problem Likely Unrelated to Pollen or Soil Residues

Corn in flower

Corn in flower

Canola in flower. Credit: Brian Hall, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food

Canola in flower. Credit: Brian Hall, Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food

 

“Why are there problems for bees associated with the growing corn but not canola, when both are planted using neonic-treated seed?” A great question: asked from the floor during a recent Pollination Guelph panel discussion of which I was a part.

The question brought everything into focus.

The implied assumption – more bee problems with corn versus canola – is quite well supported. Although 70-80% of Canadian neonic seed treatment occurs in Western Canada, mostly with canola, the complaints about neonic-linked bee deaths are almost all from Ontario and Quebec where corn is more dominant. And while much of the anti-neonic outcry in Central Canada does come from traditional anti-pesticide voices, data such as that provided by Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency do show linkages among corn, neonics and bee health, at least for some beekeepers.

Jim Coneybeare, a vice president of the Ontario Bee Association, told a major Farm & Food Care meeting last September that his bees thrive when making honey from canola (almost certainly grown from neonic-treated seed) but do poorly near corn and soybeans.

There is one obvious difference: While canola is an excellent source of nectar and pollen for bees (bees love canola) corn is the reverse. This wind-pollinated species produces no nectar and experts say bees forage it for high-protein pollen only if there are no better choices. Bees don’t much like corn and tend to avoid it. If you locate a few hives near corn fields, there are usually enough wild flowers nearby in fence rows and non-cropped lands to service the bees. But if you place many dozens of hives surrounded by corn, they’ll be malnourished. I’ve likened it to shopping for food supplies at Home Depot. (Canola is more like Walmart.)

Soybeans, a self-pollinating crop, are also a very poor source of nectar and pollen.

But on to the specific links with neonic seed treatments, where the corn-canola comparison is also highly informative: The rate of neonic application per hectare is virtually the same with the two crops and, according to available data summarized by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the percent uptake by plants grown from treated seed is also similar. (Some anti-neonic advocates in Ontario have claimed uptake is four times greater with corn, listing their source as Dr. Christy Morrissey, University of Saskatchewan. But the underlying scientific paper provided to me by Dr. Morrissey (Sur and Stork, 2003) contains no such comparison.)

Hence, soil seeded to canola gets the same amount of neonic added annually as does soil seeded to corn. And rate of neonic breakdown should be no faster in canola-seeded Prairie fields than in those planted to corn in Ontario/Quebec. Indeed, breakdown should be slower in Western Canada because of lower average temperatures and less rainfall. If residual neonic in soil is a critical contributor to bee deaths as some, including Dr. Morrissey, claim, then we should hear as many complaints about bee deaths from canola as from corn – or maybe even more so. But we don’t. Almost all complaints to Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency come from Ontario and Quebec.

Dr. Morrissey has garnered attention with a recent paper in Plos One (http://goo.gl/uJWOHr) focussing on neonic levels in Prairie sloughs (ponds within farm fields) but the data are not that convincing. When the measured concentrations are only a few parts per trillion, you can find almost anything anywhere. Morrissey’s data show neonic-in-water levels about the same magnitude as that for caffeine in the Great Lakes. In Quebec, Dr. Fournier reported elevated neonic levels at or above LD50 levels for bees in some surface waters, but subsequent calculations show she overestimated the risk to bees by at least a 20-fold factor.

So, if it’s not the soil, what about the pollen, especially given the claims by some beekeepers and anti-pesticide advocates that neonics in corn pollen are a critical cause of bee mortality?

In fact, the EFSA has looked at this in detail with some fairly detailed calculations of the daily uptake of worker bees foraging on corn and canola (called ‘oilseed rape,’ or OSR, in Europe). The concentration of neonics in pollen is about the same in corn and OSR, but of course corn has no nectar. The total amount of neonic gathered per day from nectar and pollen was estimated at least 10 times greater with OSR than corn (http://goo.gl/VVCqxF, http://goo.gl/kj5njU). In all cases, the amount of daily uptake from either flowers of corn or OSR was judged to be very minute.

Back to Canada, if neonic in pollen is a notable source of bee deaths, the problem should be much worse with canola than corn. But Jim Coneybeare’s bees thrive near canola fields. And Cutler and Scott-Dupree at the University of Guelph, in some detailed and extensive trials involving bees hives positioned within canola fields grown from treated seed, found no evidence of negative effects on bees (http://goo.gl/fvBSTu).

So that leads us to the one notable difference in neonic exposure between treated corn and canola – different planting technology – notably in the widespread use of vacuum pneumatic planters for seeding corn, though not for canola. On this, the evidence is quite clear, both in North American and European research (see EFSA links provided above for the latter): more neonic-laden dust from these corn planters can mean a greater risk of acute bee exposure at planting time. European research also shows that with proper planter modifications – notably, the release of planter exhaust dust at ground level and at a low air speed – 90%+ of the emission release into the surrounding air can be eliminated.

Bottom line: If we can get rid of the dust emission with corn planting – different planter design, better adherence of neonic treatment to seed, exhaust emission at the soil surface at slow speed – we should go most of the way in solving that portion of bee mortality associated with neonic usage in field crop agriculture.

That will leave the bee industry to deal with much bigger problems like bee pathogens, viruses (up to 100% of Ontario bees may be affected according to one unpublished survey), and proper nutrition. The latter or combinations involving  pathogens/disease, poor nutrition and severe weather is why over-winter bee mortality has been exceptionally high in Ontario this year. And if beekeepers are looking to nourish, not starve, their bee colonies, don’t locate them near corn fields.

For those looking for a single, highly readable review covering all aspects of this neonic-bee issue with an international (including Canadian) perspective, I highly recommend this report, http://goo.gl/t3tDBC, from the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority. Here’s another great review especially on effects of long-term, ‘sub-lethal’ exposure by Fairbrother et al (2014), http://goo.gl/NywA8T.

Roots – The Secret to Record Corn Yields

Corn roots (Credit Blendspace.com)

Corn roots (Credit Blendspace.com)

I’ve long been fascinated by corn yield and did my Masters and PhD research on this subject. The physiology of corn yield was a prime research interest during my former academic career in Crop Science at the University of Guelph.

Most of the research on yield has featured above-ground plant parts – eg. higher and sustained rates of leaf photosynthesis, canopy morphology, timing of pollen shed and silk emergence, and higher harvest index (portion of above-ground dry matter in the grain at harvest). All of these are highly important. Improvements achieved both genetically and agronomically have meant that 300 bushels/acre (19t/ha) is now a realistic goal for some farmers, and 450 bu/acre (28t/ha) has been exceeded.

During my tenure in Crop Science, I became increasingly interested in the role of corn roots and their interactions with soil. This was triggered, in part, by another personal research interest, soil tillage – and part by some anecdotal observations and quasi-research findings which were difficult/impossible to explain by conventional crop physiology.

My career in research ended when I became full-time chief of staff for the Ontario Corn Producers’ Association in 1985. I did return briefly to the University of Guelph as adjunct professor in 2002, hoping I could pursue my interest in corn roots. But the system had changed: there were new (justifiable) charges for the use of almost anything – greenhouse bench space or whatever – and I had no enthusiasm for resuming the ‘chase for research dollars’ which I had left years before. So I did a lot of reading (actually relatively little literature on corn roots), and ultimately returned to more non-academic activities including increased attention to our family farm business.

It’s obvious that further research on corn roots is no longer in my future, but the fascination remains. I’ll spell out below why and how I think roots are so critical to superior yields. Maybe others will pick up the challenge.

Case 1. During our initial 24 years of farming, my wife and I harvested corn with an old-style picker, carefully screening out loose corn kernels as the ears went up a conveyor elevator into the corn crib. The loose kernels fell onto the ground a few metres from the crib, year-by-year adding to the soil organic matter in a band parallelling the crib.

Eventually I noticed that the corn grown in this strip grew and developed much more quickly than did nearby plants. It silked about a week earlier, was much taller and yielded more. Initially, I assumed this was somehow a wind-barrier/warm-temperature effect. But one year the crib was not filled and the effect continued. It was not caused by warmer soil temperature since the soil in the favoured strip was wetter and likely colder. And it was not caused by higher fertility or better weed control. The only obvious explanation: higher soil organic matter meant a significantly higher rate of both growth and development in independent of temperature. We have not cribbed corn now for 18 years and the effect has largely disappeared. I suppose much of that organic matter has been oxidized, or spread elsewhere by tillage implements.

Case 2. Nigel Fairey was my PhD student from 1972 to 1976 and his research project involved studying C14 labelled assimilate movement within developing corn plants. He grew corn plants outdoors but seeded in buried 22-litre perforated containers containing a granular baked-clay medium called ‘Turface,’ plus nutrient culture. Nigel also planted corn in the soil around the pots so that the treated plants would behave as if in a normal corn stand. One of his problems was that the corn plants in Turface grew and developed much more quickly than their neighbours. They silked 10 days earlier. The reason was unknown. Nigel checked and it was not differences in root-zone temperature. He solved the problem in year two by planting the bordering plants two weeks ahead of those in the pails. He got the data he needed, graduated and moved on to a productive career. But the puzzle of the accelerated growth remained.

Corn roots (Credit: Dr. Amélie Gaudin, Plant Agriculture, University of Guelph

Corn roots (Credit: Dr. Amélie Gaudin, Plant Agriculture, University of Guelph

Case 3. In the late 1970s, I filled a large growth-room bench with corn grown in perforated pails containing Turface and regularly replenished nutrient solution. The plant density was high, about 10/m2 (equivalent to 100,000/ha) as I recall, and I recorded a yield (border plants near the bench edge not harvested) of nearly 200 bushels/acre. This was despite the fact the amount of daily visible radiation to which those plants were exposed was only about 20% of what field-grown plants would receive outdoors on a clear sunny day in mid July. This was back in an era when we struggled to grow 100 bu/acre on the Daynard farm.

Case 4. In the mid 1980s, Dr. Madhava Reddy, a post-doctorate, grew corn plants indoors, suspended in pails containing aerated nutrient solution (no Turface), with half of them being subjected to a weekly regime of partial root tip removal using fingernail clippers. This was only a preliminary trial but the results showed a much slower rate of foliar growth and development for the tip-clipped plants despite the ample supply of nutrients, water and nutrients. The roots were obviously ‘annoyed,’ and this affected foliar growth and development in unknown ways. Both Madhava and I left U Guelph soon after so the work was not continued.

Case 5 is more generic and involves the generally better rates of growth and development, and grain yield I and others see with corn grown in well-manured fields. Our neighbours, the Dupasquiers, grew great crops when they had dairy cattle manure to spread. Now with chicken manure, the crops are simply superb. I am also intrigued at how many high yield reports elsewhere are associated with ample applications of manure, especially poultry manure.

So what’s going on here? Higher soil organic matter (manure addition, kernels dropping beside our corn crib) obviously has advantages in increasing available water storage and that will increase yield in most years. Nutrients from manure are also important, though that should not have been a yield factor in the cases listed above. The boost came using the biologically inert Turface as well as organic matter. The effect on rate of development is of special interest to me as I had long believed that heat accumulation to be the primary driver of rate of development (as compared to rate of growth – plant height, for example). But in some of the cases described above, above-ground rate plant development was affected by the root environment via some mechanism apparently independent of temperature – and sometimes in a dramatic way.

Plant physiologists know that stressed roots send chemical/hormonal signals to above ground parts which cause various physiological responses including reduced rates of growth. Abscissic acid is a key hormonal messenger of this type and there are others.

But are there positive signals which roots send upward when they are essentially stress free? Signals which say the biological equivalent of “put the pedal to the metal”? Signals which will tell the plant to grow and develop more quickly, set more kernels, even more ears? And maybe which stimulate increases in rates of photosynthesis?

In the months I spent as an adjunct professor, I spent much of my time in the library and on line, looking for published evidence of a “good times” hormonal signal – sadly, without success. Perhaps that’s because it’s hard to find, or perhaps no one has looked. Or perhaps the positive signal is simply the absence of stress-signal messengers.

If it’s the latter, perhaps the “brakes” are almost always on, at least in part, for real-world corn plants. That’s a good thing for plants to survive in the normal world. But it’s not so good if the goal is record high yields.

I recall an experiment performed by the late Bev Kay in Land Resource Science at Guelph, who grew young corn plants in stable soil aggregates (from a field growing red clover) of various size categories. Plants grew more quickly in soil consisting of fine aggregates (about 0.5 to 1 mm in diameter, as I recall) than with larger aggregates, and this was an effect independent of fertility or moisture supply.

In checking the roots, Bev and his team found something intriguing: Corn roots in the finely aggregated soil grew straight. Those in larger-sized aggregates were wiggly. With smaller aggregates, the soil appeared to move out of the way as the roots lengthened. With larger aggregates the roots had to grow around.

And that’s when, and why, I developed a (now long-held) hypothesis: Plant roots like to grow unimpeded without needing to turn or grow around anything. Perhaps each turn or impediment triggers a negative signal. “We’re not sure what we’re encountering here,” say the root tips to the rest of the plant, “but better you’d slow up a bit – just in case it is bad or gets worse.”

Farmers all know that compaction hurts yield. The most obvious means is by restricting root growth and access into areas of the soil containing needed water or nutrients, or by impeding water and air flow. But perhaps it also reduces yield just by impeding root growth itself, even if water, air, and nutrient supplies are fine.

How much it yields depends so much on the roots

How much it yields depends so much on the roots

My wife is an excellent gardener, outdoors and in, and she regularly has to repot plants into larger pots or else they won’t grow and flower as they should. These plants are well watered and well fertilized, but still they do poorly when “root bound.” And what does root bound mean? Roots which are constantly running into each other or the container walls, and can only grow by turning – growing around things.

Or consider Bonsai plant cultivation with trees permanently dwarfed by restricted root growth.

Ontario farmer Dean Glenney at Dunnville Ontario has produced some really high corn yields and he plants his corn and soybeans in the same row positions year after year. He says that roots can grow easily down existing root channels. This fits my conjecture well. I’ve not met Dean personally, but understand that he also uses lots of poultry manure. The manure will also be great for reducing soil density and strength, making it easier for roots to grow unimpeded.

Old root channels may be one of the biggest benefits for cover crops, i.e., in addition to drainage and aeration benefits – provided, of course, that these channels aren’t destroyed by subsequent tillage and heavy equipment tramping on wet soils.

My hypothesis is that unimpeded root growth is highly important for top corn performance – independent of any effect on providing soil moisture or nutrients. (Not that the latter aren’t also highly important.)

It’s an untested hypothesis. I’ve spent hours thinking about ways to test this. Dr. Amélie Gaudin completed a PhD thesis recently in Plant Agriculture, University of Guelph, growing corn plants aerobically with roots dangling in a mist of nutrient solution. Her study was about genetic differences between corn and ancestral teosinte, but maybe the same system could be used to study the effects of impediments to root growth independent of water, nutrient and air supply. The challenge would be to introduce barriers/impediments in such a way that they force roots to bend around obstacles but don’t lead to stressful oxygen deprivation. Maybe there are other creative ways to test my conjecture.

To close: I’ve no proof – nothing would stand up to good peer reviewing – only a collection of anecdotal and quasi-research results pointing in a certain direction. But if you really want to be the farmer who breaks above 500-bu/acre corn yield – or even 50 bu/acre better than what you’re doing today, figure out how to encourage unimpeded root growth. And if you can sort out how to do this in a cost-effective manner (not everyone has huge poultry manure supplies, and Turface is way too expensive), you could become a very wealthy person.

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