Report by the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario on Soil Health Badly Weakened by Inaccuracies, Omissions, Superficiality and another Agenda

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There is much to applaud about a new report by the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO) called “Putting Soil Health First.” (The report is available here; a brief summary by John Greig can be found here.)

The report emphasizes the need to improve soil quality and reverse a long-term downward trend in soil organic matter levels in Ontario soils. The writer of the report demonstrates a good understanding of soil biology and its relationship to agronomic performance, and rightly criticizes an agricultural industry which has not placed sufficient priority on maintenance and improvement of soil quality. The report also acknowledges the success of this industry in producing an ever-increasing abundance of food at a declining real cost to consumers. Ontario farmers and others interested in this subject should take the half hour or so required for a read.

At the same time, I have major unease with the report. Too often, it seems as if the commissioner and/or her writers have used the issue of soil quality for another agenda: to attack non-organic agricultural practices which have little effect on soil quality and which in fact can and do make a positive contribution to soil organic matter enhancement. I’ll briefly highlight some examples below.

The report contains a strong condemnation of synthetic pesticides and fertilizer, stating that they are partially responsible for declines in soil organic matter while providing scant evidence that this is true. The report contains one small section called “How the Inappropriate or Over Use of Synthetic Inputs Can Impair the Natural System,” but even that section seems to rely excessively on anecdotal information and opinions, suggesting that temporal impairment of microbial activity at time of application means long-term, measurable changes in soil organic content. In addition, the report totally ignores good logic and evidence for the reverse – for example, the increase in crop organic matter production including additions to the soil stimulated by good fertility and by the control of leaf/plant-killing diseases and insects.

The report rightly points out how tillage encourages soil organic matter oxidation, but ignores the benefit of pesticides (herbicides) in reducing/eliminating the need for tillage. This is a huge oversight in my view.

The report seems also to perpetuate the myth than better soil structure means fewer weeds – hence, less need for pesticides. Crop plants grow better in better structured soils, it’s true, but so too do many weeds. Indeed, the main reason why these plants are serious “weeds” is that they prosper in the same ecological niche as the crops which they infest.

The commissioner also makes the strange suggestion that climate change will increase the prevalence of herbicide-resistant weeds. (The reference cited by the commissioner in support of this statement makes no such claim.)

Perhaps to place fertilizers in a negative light, the report provides an extensive report of one farm in North Dakota which reports good yields with minimal fertilizer usage. There is no mention of the decades of extensive publicly-funded research which has been done on soil fertility needs in Ontario and adjacent states. Further, discussion with organic farmers in Ontario reveals that the provision of an adequate supply of P fertilizer – and in some cases N too, for example in meeting the needs of winter wheat in May-June – represents one of their biggest agronomic challenges.

The report rightly condemns the unsustainably high loss of phosphate from farm soils and the importance of minimizing surface water runoff. But there is no mention of the significance of losses through tile drainage, nor of informed suggestions (albeit controversial) that this loss may be enhanced by deep, well-developed soil pores associated with no tillage.

The report condemns the use of summer fallowing in Ontario – which begs the question: does summer fallowing actually exist in Ontario (notwithstanding those instances where excessive spring rainfall prevents crop planting)?

The report rightly emphasizes the linkage between animal agriculture – or more specifically, ruminant animal agriculture – and perennial forage production. But it  dodges  the reality that this may also mean increased greenhouse gas emissions (from rumen methane emissions) to offset, at least in part, the resulting increase in soil organic matter associated with perennial forage production. The report also makes two really strange statements about animal agriculture – one being that livestock farms are not closely connected to crop production. (One wonders whether the commissioner or her writers are aware of Ontario’s “nutrient management” requirements for livestock farms.)  The other is the implication that manure storage – with associated emissions of methane – is not needed when farmers apply manure to their own fields. This seems to ignore the evils of applying manure to soil in winter and ministerial guidelines on lengths of manure storage required (sometimes for a year or more).

I have always been of the opinion that while composting is beneficial in reducing manure volume/weight and in producing stable organic matter, it also represents a loss of about half of the carbon content of the original organic material; organic matter converted into carbon dioxide in the compost pile would otherwise be used to feed soil organisms if applied directly to soil. The report makes a feeble attempt to argue that composting is better but its scientific support and rationale for saying so is very limited. The argument that composting reduces nutrient loss in the field (instead, the nutrients leach under the compost pile!) is equally flimsy.

The report features one organic farm in New York State which produces yields of 200 bu/acre of corn and obviously does a good job. (It does not state whether this is the harvested production from one year or two years of cropping; organic farmers sometimes don’t harvest a previous year’s legume forage to maximize soil N supply for the corn crop to follow.) However, notably missing is a reference to extensive multi-farm data (crop insurance in Ontario; USDA in the US) showing that organic crops, on average, yield about 2/3 of their non-organic counterpart. On average, it take 3 acres of organic land to produce as much as 2 acres of non, and that has obvious implications on the total amount of land needed – not to mention the cost to consumers, and the environmental cost – to meet Ontario’s food needs.

The report features the Belan farm near Inwood, and with good reason. I too am a fan of the practices of this innovative farm and their 25 years of no tillage. The report notes the Belan claim that their soil organic matter has increased from 2 to 5% because of no tillage, but also notes that this is only for the upper 15 cm of soil. I drew that conclusion once myself – that no till was having a huge effect on soil organic matter in my plots at Elora. But then Dr. Tony Vyn and Dr. Bev Kay measured soil organic matter at deeper depths and found the reverse down there. No tillage generally means a change in OM distribution rather than an increase in soil OM per se in Ontario and eastern Canada – at least in most test results (as an exception, Dr. Laura Van Eerd and colleagues have measured higher OM in no-till soils to depth, but only in certain crop rotations, at Ridgetown.) With respect to the Belan farm data, the report says “the reader should note that the ECO is not suggesting that the Belan’s situation should be taken as definitive from a soil-carbon sequestration perspective.” But then the report goes on to do the exact opposite with some extensive calculations for all of Ontario based on one farm’s numbers. There is certainly no qualification in the summary statement: “the Belans have increased the carbon levels in their soils by three per cent, which means that they have sequestered about 48,000 tonnes of CO2.” Once again, no slam is intended by me to the Belans. This criticism is about what the commissioner did with their information.

Indeed, almost totally missing in this report is recognition of the extensive research which has been done by public researchers at the University of Guelph (including Ridgetown) and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The emphasis is instead on anecdotal reports from a few individual farms. The commissioner is very critical of actions by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs with respect to soil quality, but does not appear to be aware of most of what the ministry and its staff actually do – including core funding of soil management research at Guelph and Ridgetown. I am also bothered by the emphasis on popular press reports in the reference material, with relatively few references to formal research publications. There are also many places where the commissioner seems to draw unqualified conclusions based on a single reference (often anecdotal).

Finally, I am puzzled with the occasional references in the report suggesting that better soil stewardship was practiced in days past. Statements to the effect that earlier farmers did not leave soil bare in winter are simply false. In fact, one of the first traditional operations immediately after wheat or spring-grain harvest was usually mold-board plowing– and condemned was the farmer who left any crop residue showing on the soil surface after plowing was completed.

The same applies for crop rotations. Forty years ago, many Ontario farmers grew only corn, and 160 years ago it was continuous wheat. Even my father in the 1950s grew only two crops in rotation – perennial forages and spring grain. Soil quality might benefit from more crops in the rotation, or it might not:it depends on the crops. Many alternative crops don’t produce a lot of crop residues and, hence, soil organic matter – e.g., beans, vegetable crops. We’ve already talked about perennial forages, an excellent addition to your crop rotation – IF you have a market.

My list of faults with the commissioner’s report has not been exhausted. But I expect that my reader’s attention span has. So I’ll close here.“Putting Soil Health First” is a useful report, but it could have been so much better it the commissioner and/or her writers had focused on soil health alone and avoided the temptation to promote another agenda. Sadly, I’ll now be reading with skepticism any other reports from the ECO. Will they be equally distorted? Will they too have another unstated agenda?

How to Communicate with the Public About GMOs and Related Farm Technologies

 

img_20161014_123259A recent consultant’s report for Health Canada re-emphasizes the challenges facing those who believe modern methods for genetic improvement in agriculture mean important benefits for all citizens – and not just farmers and big companies. The report says that while most Canadians don’t know what “GMO” (genetically modified organism) means, they mostly consider these three letters to mean something bad and to be avoided. The same message comes from mainstream food producers and ingredient suppliers who are now paying to have their products labelled non-GMO, even when no genetically modified equivalent exists and when to do so is in violation of an (unfortunately unenforced) Canadian law.

Anti-GMO/technology activists and their media supporters have been very effective.

To counter, people sympathetic to modern crop technology say things like, “we in agriculture must tell our own story and not let others do it for us.” Unfortunately, very few who say that have any idea how difficult this is to do.

It’s easy to get media attention for claims involving dramatic negatives – for example, claims that GM crops cause cancer in rats or kill bees. This is even when the basis for the claim is highly dubious or a totally fiction. An equivalent announcement that GM crops do not cause cancer or deaths is rarely newsworthy and gets no play, even if supported by years of scientific investigation.

When dedicated scientists and others take pains to expose the phoniness of the anti-tech claims, the process can take days, weeks or months to do so properly, and by then the news cycle has moved on. At best the counter information may merit a back-page paragraph. More likely, there will be no media attention at all. Sometimes the new information only serves to trigger a news outlet into repeating the original faulty claim. (The Economist discusses this phenomenon in September 2016 lead item called the “Art of the Lie” – mainly about US politics but the discussion is totally relevant to anti-tech activism. See also this good column by Gerald Pilger.)

I have been directly involved in communications about GM crops, pesticides and related technologies for many years, both as a former crop scientist and farm leader, and as a commercial grain farmer. I have no magic formula for success – indeed I’ve more failures than successes – but I do have some experience and offer the following advice on how to communicate.

 

  1. The focus must be on trust, not facts per se. Many farmers say that the public must know much more about how food is produced. That’s true. But more important is to instill trust – that those who grow their food do so in a responsible, safe, humanitarian way. Facts and scientific support can be useful, but they are supporting cast at best. Be wary of “the curse of knowledge.” Knowing too much can mean excessive wordiness and dependence on statistics.

 

  1. The spokesperson is really important. Farmers have high credibility, even more so than public scientists, though scientists are quite good too if they avoid scientific jargon. There is low credibility for journalists, industry reps, environmental NGOs, and governments (reference here). The trust in farmers (69%) is higher than for farm organizations (52%). That means that a strategy based on farmers and scientists is on the right track – though less so, in my view, if the farmers/scientists are seen to be fronting for companies/associations associated with the production and sale of GM crop, pesticides and related farm inputs.

 

  1. Focus on the interests and needs of the consumer –“ WIIFM” (“what’s in it for me”) – and not what’s good for farmers or agriculture. Usually “what’s in it for me” means personal health, satisfaction and family well-being. Environmental integrity is a driver, but only if it does not affect “me” negatively. As an example, Ontarions were once very supportive of governmental “green” electrical expenditures, but changed when their electrical bills soared as a result.

 

  1. Use personal stories/anecdotes/incidents, along with enthusiasm and humour – far more effective than dry statements of facts.

 

  1. Be respectful of opposing opinion and try to understand its basis. Often the opposition to GMOs, pesticides and the like is based more on fears about big company control than about the technologies themselves. Those concerns need to be addressed.

 

  1. In addition to risk and hazard, there is the outrage factor. “I don’t care if it’s safe or not, how dare you put [chemical X) in my [food or consumer product]” Within reason, those who feel this way should have other purchase options. Fortunately, food retailers provide many.

 

  1. Ignore the trolls and extremists. We spend too much time arguing with the small vocal minority who will never change their mind. Focus on those who might. (This does not mean I object when writers take pains to expose the ludicrous claims of certain high-profile anti-tech advocates – indeed, I applaud their efforts – but I don’t believe that these reactions are all that effective in convincing the public at large.)

 

  1. Violate expectations. Say something new. Editors say they are most attracted to headlines and lead sentences which state the unexpected. It’s the “man bites dog” story appeal. GMOs and pesticides are not exactly new issues in the minds of many editors; they are looking for something different.

 

  1. Be scrupulously honest and accurate. Avoid statements which are so sweeping as to be only partly correct. I know that this often makes it more difficult to write dramatic headlines. But when we state half-truths, we are no better than those we oppose. And in an era of social media and published comments, erroneous statements will be exposed immediately. Be prepared to provide supporting documentation very quickly, when requested/challenged.

 

  1. Don’t count on professional societies to stand up for ag on controversial subjects (e.g., health and medical professionals). The same for university administrators who mostly want to avoid controversy. The same for big food and agri-business companies, too. They are in business primarily to increase shareholder profits, not to champion “what’s right.”

 

  1. Avoid negative risk comparisons. “Our product/process is OK because what others do is worse.”

 

  1. The medium is important. Most people, especially younger people, get their information from the Internet – and use two portals for doing so: Google searches and social media. But these portals typically lead viewers to columns and articles in on-line versions of print media or publications like Huffington Post which are entirely on line. Radio is important too: many people listen to it as they do their daily jobs or commute to and from work. I have always found main-stream television news to be especially difficult though I do note that a declining portion of the public gets its information from this source. Focus on the Internet.

 

There is no magic to this process. A column submission which is ignored by an editor initially might be received gratefully a month later on a quiet news day. There’s a large element of luck and it’s a game of numbers – the more you submit, the more it’s likely to be published/read/used. But if the message is structured using guidelines such as I’ve suggested above, the odds of success should be better.

 

I’ll end with some special tributes – to @FarmFoodCareON and @FarmFoodCare for their efforts to communicate on all aspects of modern agriculture, @JonEntine and his @GeneticLiteracy Project which provides a continuing balance of views on agricultural technology, and to @MaryLeeChin whose advice is reflected directly in some of the points made above. This does not mean lesser appreciation to many other dedicated and gifted agricultural and food communicators whose names I’ve not mentioned here.

New Insights on Organic and Non-Organic Crops: USDA Data Show Organics Average 67% of Yield of Non-organics

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Widely diverse information exists on the size of the yield penalty associated with organic crop production. Some authors/spokespersons – often connected with organic production/marketing – claim organic yields are typically 80-100% of non-organic. (I prefer the term “non-organic” over “conventional,” because so much of modern agriculture is anything but conventional.) Other sources say 50-70% is more common.

One might ask, “Why does this matter?” Just let farmers grow what they believe they can grow profitably, sorting out yield and price-premium relationships for their individual farms, crops and market environments. And if profit expectation is too low relative to risk and management needs, then organic buyers can raise the price to stimulate production – or import organic produce from afar – just as occurs with any other farm commodity.

But the question is often voiced in more fundamental terms. Many in organic production/marketing/advocacy portray organic as morally superior and more sustainable, not withstanding some small reductions in yield. Others (example here) argue the reverse: that organic agriculture is bad ethically because of markedly lower yields and the attendant major increase in land needed to produce food.

There is more to sustainable agriculture than yield. Quality is important and so too are the long-term adequacy of input needs, energy usage and effects on environment. Organic may or may not be environmentally superior; it depends on which analysis, commentary or assumptions you read or use. But yield is highly important too.

Thus it was with pleasure that I read a quality analysis published in August 2016, by Drs. Kniss and Jabbour at the University of Wyoming and Dr. Savage in San Diego. It’s entitled, “Commercial Crop Yields Reveal Strengths and Weaknesses for Organic Agriculture in the United States.” A popularized column based on the paper was published simultaneously by Kniss. The strength of the paper is that, unlike any before, it is based on many thousands of actual on-farm records. The paper involves data only from the United States but it’s a major contribution and you must read it – ideally both the paper and column.

The following consists of a few comments on their analysis and will make more sense if you have some knowledge of what Kniss et al have written.

In briefest terms, the authors compared yield data provided for the year 2014 through a special USDA survey of more than 10,000 organic growers, with similar yield data collected for all US crop farmers through the 2014 USDA-NASS December Agricultural Survey (available here). They found that organic crops normally yield less than non organic but with a huge range in yield ratios across crops and across states. Notable exceptions are hay and haylage crops where organic crops yield as much or more – and up to 60% higher for haylage. On average, Kniss et al concluded that organic crops average 80% of non-organic.

I had serious doubts about both the 60% and 80% numbers and contacted the authors asking questions and providing further calculations using their data. I am pleased that the errors have been corrected. The stats properly show that organic haylage yielded 76% as much as its non-organic counterpart, on average. The average yield ratio (organic/non-organic) for all 65 crops included in their analysis is now 67%. Worded otherwise, 1.5 acres of land in organic production is needed, on average, to produce as much food as 1 acre of non-organic land, according to the USDA survey.

With the corrections, the Kniss et al paper produces results equivalent to those published by co-author, Steve Savage, one year ago. Here’s one graph from Savage’s web site for row crops. (Savage reported the organic yield gap as percent lower yield, rather than as a percent of non-organic crop yield as preferred by Kniss et al.) The Savage web site contains similar graphs for a range of other crops.

Savage org vs non yields row crops

The yield depression for organic corn and soybeans is similar to that reported by crop insurance officials for those crops in Ontario. However, the yield depression is greater with organic winter wheat in Ontario (an average of 42% lower over eight years) than shown in the USDA data.

The authors highlight a conclusion in the USDA organic report that 40% of organic farmers reported using no-till or minimum tillage practices. Observing organic practices in Canada, I simply don’t believe this statistic and think it is a result of a USDA survey process which involved self-reporting. Vast numbers of farmers in North America likely believe that they practice “minimum tillage” – with “minimum” generally meaning less than what they did in times past or less than what they might have done. I am aware that organic researchers and some farmers are experimenting with no-till seeding using crimped cover crops to control weeds (with mixed success). But this still represents a minute percentage of total organic acreage.

Kniss et al cast doubt on claims that high-yield agriculture allows land to be diverted out of arable crop agriculture into conservation or other purposes. They cite a 2014 US report showing a decline in number of acres in the US land conservation reserve in years after 2007. In my view, any meaningful analysis of the effects of yield enhancement on land usage has to include a much longer time frame.

The following table copied from a USDA-ERS summary of historical agricultural statistics, shows the total acreage planted to principal crops from 1983 to 2015. (The USDA-ERS report contains a related table for the years 1909-1990 but with a different inclusion listing of “principal crops.”)

US Principal crop areage

The acreage numbers show effects of poor crop prices in the mid 1980s, good prices around the year 1996 and after 2007, as well as anomalies such as the US “PIK” land set-aside program of 1983. However, the overall trend in principal crop acreage is down. For those statistically inclined, the slope of the linear regression line is -490 thousand acres/year with R2 = 0.24 and P<0.01. Some that diverted land went into urban development for sure, but I expect much was land conversion into non-cropped rural landscape. Principal crop acreage declined even as usage for both food and non-food uses (biofuels and biomaterials) grew.

A final comment: It’s a common practice for some organic farmers to plow under a soil-building crop (for example, perennial legume or buckwheat), without harvesting, in year one to provide better growth for the crop in year two. When that’s the case, the harvested crop is actually the product of two years of growth and the reported yield per acre should be halved to calculate yield/acre/year. This adjustment is not included in the USDA data and I expect no one knows how large the adjustment should be. That factor does mean that the 67% is a slight over-estimate. (The same practice can occur in non-organic agriculture, though I believe to a smaller extent.)

With that noted, I do compliment the authors on an excellent and highly useful paper containing farm-level stats on the performance of specific crops.

And from a practical standpoint, it is likely more important for farmers to know that they might expect hay yields (though not haylage) comparable to non-organic with organic production, but corn, soybean and wheat yields which are 30-35% lower, and organic grape yields 50% lower – than it is to know what the US average is for all crops is 67% or whatever. Yield data for all 65 crops are contained in supplementary tables in the Kniss et al paper.

Thanks Drs. Kniss, Savage and Jabbour for a valuable contribution.

What should I as a Farmer do about Milkweeds, Monarchs and GE crops? What does Science say?

Milkweed plants are a dilemma for crop farmers like me.

We know the harm that milkweeds with their deep roots and tall tops can do to crops. Indeed, until recently, Ontario farmers were legally obligated to kill them under the Ontario Weeds Act. But milkweeds are vital for monarch butterflies.

What’s a farmer to do?

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Milkweed plants in fence row beside soybean field

You can’t control milkweed by pulling them. They simply regrow. Our family members once walked through crop fields in summertime with small hand-held sprayers applying herbicides on individual milkweed plants.

When glyphosate-tolerant crops came along, the labour-intensive, hand-spraying chore was largely eliminated. Milkweeds were controlled with the routine spraying of all crop weeds. As a result, milkweeds are less common in my fields these days, though still very prevalent in field edges, stream banks and other un-cropped areas of our farm.

History suggests milkweed has simply returned to its previous status. The plant does poorly in hay fields which once dominated Ontario farmland, and Bhowmik and Bandeen, in a 1976 review, said the early use of farm herbicides allowed milkweed to become much more prevalent in grain fields by reducing competition from other weeds.

Mature forest, the indigenous ground cover for most of Eastern Canada, “is not milkweed habitat,” to quote Pleasants and Oberhauser. Crewe and McCracken, in a 2015 paper on monarch butterfly migration in Ontario, stated that “the regeneration of trees and shrubs in abandoned fields” reduces the prevalence of “monarch host and nectaring plants.”

Maybe agriculture once contributed substantially to milkweed’s prevalence as well as its recent disappearance from many fields.

But regardless of history, media have been full of claims about how modern farm crop technology – and notably genetically-engineered (“GE”; aka “genetically modified”) crop usage – is responsible for declining numbers of monarch butterflies.

Since this involves me as a farmer growing GE crops, I did some investigation of the underlying science.

A first strike occurred in 1999 when Losey et al of Cornell University claimed, based on indoor feeding tests, that the pollen from insect-resistant GE corn plants was killing monarch larvae. Further research showed that the risk outdoors was minuscule. But once stated, the claim resonated. Thereafter, the literature of anti-GE groups routinely contained statements about monarchs poisoned by GE corn pollen.

Two research studies from Iowa showed usage of glyphosate-tolerant crops may be a larger concern. Hartzler did cross-state surveys in 1999 and 2009 and concluded that while milkweed numbers increased over 10 years in road sides, the prevalence was down by as much as 90% in farm fields. He attributed the latter, in part, to wide-spread usage of glyphosate-tolerant crops.

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Monarch butterfly larva on milkweed plant. Source: http://www.monarchwatch.org

Pleasants and Oberhauser measured milkweed populations in seven Iowa farm fields from 2000 to 2008 and recorded a substantial decline with time. They attributed this to use of glyphosate and glyphosate-tolerant corn and soybeans. However, they stated that some of these fields were sprayed with glyphosate and others weren’t and the paper contains no information on how the pattern differed between the two. The authors also found, based on reports submitted by volunteers across the US Midwest, that there was about a 40% decline over 10 years in per-acre milkweed plant numbers in farmland in the US Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and pasture fields – lands which likely did not receive glyphosate treatment. They found that monarch egg numbers per milkweed plant were higher in agricultural than non-agricultural fields at six locations in central Iowa, and used this to conclude that milkweed loss from cropped fields is more important than from CRP lands, pasture and roadsides across the US Midwest.

Common sense says that better weed control with glyphosate-tolerant crops should mean less milkweed in farming areas/states where lots of GE crops are grown, and that could well mean reduced monarch butterfly production. However, neither of these papers provides strong proof of a cause-and-effect relationship. Interestingly, Hartzler in his paper expresses doubt that a decline in milkweed plant numbers in Iowa is closely linked to over-wintering monarch numbers in Mexico. A more specific critique is provided by Kniss.

In 2014, Flockhart et al at the University of Guelph concluded that the widespread use of glyphosate-tolerant crops, especially in the central US, is largely responsible for the recent declines in overwintering monarch butterfly numbers in Mexico. The authors went further with a broad condemnation of “industrial agriculture” though the term was not defined and the authors considered no aspect beyond GE crop usage.

As I went through the paper, I found some serious weaknesses. First, the study was a computer simulation and contains relatively few experimental data on butterfly and milkweed numbers in agricultural fields beyond those of Haetzler and Pleasants-Oberhauser. Flockhart et al recognized the limits of the Iowa data, stating, “The functional relationship between milkweed abundance and genetically modified crops use has not been identified.” However, in their paper they appear to attribute all the decreases in milkweed numbers in farm fields to the use of GE crops, rather than better weed control in general, or any other factor.

Especially puzzling to me was a conclusion that a 20% reduction in milkweed numbers in central North American had caused up to a 90% decline in monarch populations. If milkweed plant numbers were the critical factor, one would expect a loss relationship closer to one-to-one or maybe a lesser reduction in monarch numbers than milkweed plants – the rationale being that more larvae per plant would be expected if plant number is the critical limitation.

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Monarch butterfly annual migration map. Source: http://www.monarchwatch.org

Yet, my own casual observations on farm milkweed plants in late summer in recent years around Guelph have shown the same phenomenon – still a large number of milkweed plants present in fence rows and non-cropped areas, but few monarch larvae to be seen. If 100 plants have few larvae, would it be different with 200?

One explanation is it’s an absence of milkweed plants en route during migration that’s the problem. But there are serious flaws with that logic too: 1) monarch adults do not need milkweed plants for nourishment during migration but only for egg laying and food supply for larvae, 2) “monarchs are excellent long-distance fliers,” to quote Pleasants et al, and fully capable of travelling from the southern US to Ontario without need for a generational change (i.e., egg laying and larval feeding) in between, and 3) monarch numbers have been also been said to be down in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States where corn and soybean production is far less intensive and where the migration pattern does not involve travel across the US Midwest.

USDA stats show that while about two-thirds of total land area in Iowa is corn and soybeans, with about 90% of this being GE, the acreage of GE corn, soybeans and cotton crops is far lower in the southern and eastern US (typically 10% or less; references  here and here, and the link to “Tableau Public” here). It’s about 10% for southern Ontario, too.

In stark contrast to the work of Flockhart et al is a paper published in 2016 by Inamine et al at Cornell University. Using survey data provided by volunteers of the North American Butterfly Association on monarch butterfly numbers at various locations across the USA over 22 years, they assessed over-time relationships for two migration routes. One route was up the eastern US, and one through the Midwest. What they found were statistically significant time relationships for the migrations northward:  Numbers of monarchs in the southern US in spring were related to previous over-winter numbers in Mexico. Summertime numbers in both northeast and Midwest were related to springtime numbers the same year in the south. However, there was no virtually no relationship between late summer numbers in the Midwest and northeast and numbers the next winter in Mexico.

They concluded the biggest and most critical losses occurred during the autumn migration south. And since adult monarch butterflies do not need milkweed plants for nutrition, including during migration, “lack of milkweed, the only host for monarch butterfly larvae, is unlikely to be driving the monarch’s population decline.” The Cornell researchers offer two likely reasons for the decline during southward migration – poor weather (they refer specifically to “the severe ‘100-year’ drought in Texas, 2010-2015”), and habitat loss, the loss of flowering plants and nectar supply over the migration route.

Notwithstanding the conclusions of Inamine et al, it does seem reasonable to expect a major decline in milkweed plant numbers in a place like Iowa, where GE corn and soybeans treated with glyphosate are the predominant land cover, to have some effect on monarch numbers. But for a locale like southern Ontario with far lower concentration of glyphosate-tolerant crops and lots of marginal land where milkweeds flourish, it’s far less obvious.

Fortunately, monarch numbers measured as hectares of overwintering adults in Mexico have recovered somewhat since a low of 0.67 hectares in 2013/14, up to about 4 ha in 2015/16 (see here). That’s despite no reduction in use of glyphosate-tolerant crops or apparent growth in milkweed numbers. However, the 2015/16 number is well below the peak of 44 ha measured years earlier. (It’s fascinating to speculate what the number would have been in pre-settlement days, when forest and tall-grass prairie covered nearly all of eastern and central North America.)

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Milkweed growing on marginal farmland near Orangeville, Ontario

So what does all of this “science” mean for me as an Ontario farmer wanting to support monarchs while controlling weeds?

I see no scientifically credible reason to be less diligent in removing milkweeds and other unwanted plants from my crop fields and no reason not to continue the use of genetically engineered crops and milkweed-controlling herbicides. GE crops cover only a small portion of the land area of southern Ontario, and food production is of critical importance to everyone. Sustainable agriculture includes consideration of food supply, farm financial stability and many environmental features beyond milkweed plants (eg., reduced tillage associated with the use of glyphosate and glyphosate-tolerant crops).

But for fence rows, wet lands and other natural areas on our farm (which collectively represent about 1/6 of our total acreage) milkweeds are welcome – as are most other nectar-producing wildflowers, many of which may be equally important for monarch well-being.

Why a Century-long Trend for Lower Relative Food Costs may be About to End

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.