Turning the Farming Clock Back in Time Means More Expensive Food

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Joe and Hazel French cutting grain in Fullarton Township near Mitchell, Ontario, circa 1950.

Agriculture has had a great run.  An era of technological innovation beginning about World War II has meant huge increases in farm productivity and food supply.

Even though the human population has grown far more in 70 years than in 100,000 years before, world food supply has increased even faster. Though the number of malnourished humans is still 790 million according to UN statistics, the percentage has dropped to 13%. It was 32% in 1970. The number of overweight or obese people is now much larger.

The real cost of growing food has plummeted too. Average families spend only about 10% of disposable income on food in many developed countries. The amount going to farmers has dropped further – down to only 1.5% of total family spending, the amount earned by January 6 each year. Most food dollars now go for processing, marketing and service rather than for farm products. About 30-40% of retail food is not even consumed by people – diverted to animal feed, compost or landfills.

This abundance is a direct result of superior agricultural technology including advanced breeding methods and genetics, more effective and less costly means of crop pest control, and better methods for soil management.

There is no technological reason why this trend cannot continue – and continue it must in parts of the world like sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia where hunger remains widespread and where human population growth will be largest in years ahead.

However, there are clear signs that the 70-year trend is ending.

One reason is environmental. Climate change will affect agriculture negatively in many countries, and agriculture must focus more on environmental impacts including fertilizer losses and greenhouse gas emissions.

A far bigger factor is a rejection of modern farm technology and the underlying science by an increasing portion of the consuming public. There’s a growing interest in organic foods, mostly produced using farm practices of decades past with crop yields averaging one-third lower. Demand for meat and eggs from ‘slow-growth’ farm animals and ‘free-range’ chickens may or may not be beneficial for animal welfare – but they mean lower productivity and higher costs.

Public reaction against genetically modified food (despite the strong scientific support for its safety and benefits) also means a shift back to older technology for some crops and the impeded introduction of new genetic traits for stress tolerance, pest resistance, better nutrition and less spoilage.

Where food was once promoted for what it contains, labelling for ‘does not contain’ now prevails.

Affluent developed-world consumers can afford the higher costs for foods grown using older technologies. Their willingness to pay much more for organic or non-GMO labelling shows that.

Of course, there are millions for whom higher food costs are a major burden, but their needs are often ignored in the public debate.

Farmers are adaptable. While they may question a return to older practices with lower productivity and higher costs, they respect the market. If higher market prices more than offset higher costs, then many farmers will respond.

In a blessed, large, sparsely-populated country like Canada, there should be enough food even with lower-yielding farm practices. The tragedy comes when this ‘first-world attitude’ includes aggressive efforts to prevent developing-world farmers from using new technologies for more food production – technologies to protect farm crops from the ravages of pests, climate and poor quality soils. Africa, already food deficient and facing a three billion population growth by 2100, cannot afford the luxury of old-tech-agriculture – increasingly prevalent here at home.

*Terry Daynard farms near Guelph, Ontario and is a former associate dean for agricultural research at the University of Guelph.

How Tides Canada uses its Charitable Status to Attack Agricultural Biotechnology

 

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Tides Canada logo

Many in Canadian agriculture will recognize the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network (CBAN) as one of the country’s most vocal opponents of agricultural biotechnology. But very few know CBAN is actually a front for Tides Canada, one of Canada’s largest charities.

I have spent almost a year exploring, communicating and trying to understand and alter this relationship. I have done so quietly without public comment. The discussions have been polite and I’ve met decent people. But alas, I have been largely unsuccessful in effecting much change.

Hence, I’m writing this column. It’s time for you to know what’s going on.

Tides Canada functions mainly as an NGO brokerage service. It manages environmental and social programs/projects using money provided by others – including some from the larger US-based Tides – while providing Canadian charitable cover. Its disbursements vary by year but average about $25 million.

Most distributions by Tides Canada involve grants to other organizations. However CBAN is unique: it is not an independent organization but a “project” of Tides Canada.  CBAN is Tides Canada even though this is scarcely mentioned on the CBAN web site.

To my knowledge, CBAN represents a relatively small portion of Tides Canada cash flow. Tide Canada’s total expenditure for what it calls “Sustainable Food Systems” (also used to fund groups like Sustain Ontario) represents about 12% of total spending. The other 88% is for activities unrelated to agriculture and food.

The puzzle to me was/is why anti-biotechnology advocacy is a priority to Tides Canada.

My quest began in early 2016 with a visit to a Tides Canada director who encouraged me to document misleading statements by CBAN/Tides Canada. The CBAN web site contained many examples, and my lengthy document was submitted to the board chair after a substantial period of fact checking.

To their credit, the Tides Canada chair and board formed a special committee to consider my claims, and some wording changes were made to the CBAN web site. But other changes were not made including a phoney claim that the Golden Rice initiative spent $50 million on advertizing before 2001.

(The volunteer-based Golden Rice Humanitarian Board based in Switzerland informed me the claim is blatantly false, and I relayed this to Tides Canada. However, Tides Canada chose instead to believe a statement published by columnist Michael Pollan in the New York Times.)

Minor wording changes made as a result of my submission, and the respectful, way in which I have been treated don’t mask the fundamental problem:

Tides Canada endorses and embellishes criticisms of agricultural biotechnology including humanitarian endeavours such as Golden Rice, even when based on dubious sources – while not acknowledging that there are important benefits.

It disappoints me that, notwithstanding my representations, Tides Canada continues to hold this one-sided perspective, despite its professed interest in “sustainable food systems.”

It bothers me much more that this activity is supported by Canadian taxpayers as a charity even though much (most) of the CBAN/Tides Canada activity involves pressuring government(s).

The chair of Tides Canada insists that she has checked this carefully with the Canadian Revenue Agency; she claims as long as the activity is non-partisan, government lobbying is permitted – i.e., for far more than the 10% of expenditures for “political activity” supposedly allowed for Canadian charities.

This is wrong: Why should governments provide tax-exemptions for so-called charities that use much of the money to lobby government?

Canadian farmers work hard to produce high-quality food ingredients at ever declining real costs of production while striving to do so in increasingly sustainable ways. Biotechnology is part of that quest. It’s sad that Tides Canada is one of the obstacles farmers endure in their endeavour.

The Pluses and Minuses – What Genetically Engineered (GE) Crops Mean on Our Farm

 

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View across a corn field on our farm

A recent visit to the Toronto office of a prominent Canadian NGO to discuss that organization’s negative, one-sided portrayal of GE farm crops got me thinking about a recent comment from Tamar Haspel, a Washington Post journalist. She asked whether those of us who talk about the positives of GE (aka, GM, or “genetically modified”) technology ever mention the negatives?

I acknowledge that supporters like me, facing an endless negative attack, are tempted to respond with the opposite; anti-GE activists emphasize the bad and we emphasize the good – while balanced analysis tends to be ignored by all.

That risk notwithstanding, this column is about balance – or more specifically, the balance as it applies to our farm

First the positives:

European corn borer and its successful control for 20 years using Bt technology is by far the biggest GE benefit on our farm. I recall, in years before Bt, the frustration of harvesting borer-infested, fallen corn plants and ears. I remember the at-harvest losses, the mouldy ears, and the risk to my arms every time I left the tractor seat to remove fallen, tangled plants from the corn picker. (Yes, I shut the picker off mostly, but I confess there were some occasions when I didn’t as it was far easier to unplug with the machine running.)

I watched with resignation during the early 1990s as many farmers in North America moved to insecticide applications for borer control, and wondered when we would be tempted or forced to do the same.

Now two decades later, I assume almost every corn plant will be standing for weeks after maturity, even as seeding rates and plant densities have increased to produce higher yields. To use those higher planting rates before Bt would have meant even more fallen plants and picker plugging.

Despite well over one billion acre-years of corn planted to Bt-borer-resistant corn in Canada and the United States, no insect resistance has evolved. Now, I am sure that genetic resistance to current Bt genes will eventually develop in European corn borer. Nature’s like that. And when that resistance comes, corn breeders and farmers will need to use new sources of gene resistance – that’s the hope – or revert to use of insecticides – the far-less-desirable default option. But 20 (and counting) years of Bt corn with no resistance apparent yet to corn borer is really a huge success.

Glyphosate-tolerant (GT) soybeans are the next most important GE crop for us. We have a problem weed called black nightshade which arrived about 20 years ago. Nightshade seeds germinate any time during the growing season; the plants grow quickly and produce dark purple berries which stain soybean seeds badly at harvest time. They can turn an otherwise top-yielding crop into something no one really wants. Fortunately, a late application of glyphosate on a GT-tolerant crop can ensure that the nightshade plants present at harvest time will have emerged too late to cause serious crop damage.

Like other farmers, we’ve learned that we must now apply other herbicides in addition to glyphosate to prevent/delay the appearance of glyphosate-tolerant weeds. But our total herbicide expenditure is still well below what would otherwise be required on this farm.

The inevitable question is: What happens when/if nightshade becomes glyphosate tolerant? That’s partly why we also use other herbicides – to reduce the odds of that happening – and why we fight hard to control nightshade in our other rotational crops. But farming’s like that: always new pest problems and an unending search for new solutions.

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No-till soybeans

Glyphosate-tolerant (GT) corn, unlike its soybean equivalent, is a moderate blessing for us. We don’t rely on it as a core component of our weed-control program for corn. However, it does provide an effective means of eliminating weeds which escape control by herbicides applied at or near planting time. The benefit in controlling late-emerging weeds in corn is not for the current crop but to prevent weeds from producing seeds to infest the next year’s crop.  We have cut back usage of atrazine and other herbicides for weed control in corn – another benefit – knowing that we have an effective back-up plan with GE technology.

Those benefits are partially offset by the need to remove “volunteer” GT corn plants growing in GT soybeans the following year. Fortunately, that’s not difficult or expensive to do. So far the economic and agronomic benefit for GT corn outweighs the added cost, but it is less substantial than with soybeans.

Some negatives:

Bt resistance to corn rootworm is probably of no current benefit on our farm. Indeed, it is a negative in that most GE corn hybrids we buy contain that trait and we pay for it through a higher seed price – I don’t think that much but it’s still a cost. The selection of hybrids containing Bt resistance for corn borer but not rootworm is limited and often does not include those with the highest performance in other traits – especially yield potential.

Corn rootworm can definitely be a problem in Ontario. During the 1970s, before soybeans became an adapted crop in most of the province, many farmers like us grew continuous, monoculture corn which fostered corn rootworm expansion. That necessitated the use of soil-applied granular insecticides. The introduction of crop rotations like corn-soybeans and corn-soybeans-wheat solved the rootworm problem in Ontario during the 1980s, well before the advent of Bt corn. But corn rootworm has evolved to tolerate corn-soybean rotations in parts of the US Midwest – and that may inevitably spread to Ontario. Maybe Bt rootworm resistance will benefit us in the future, but not now.

A bigger negative is overall seed cost:  GE seed costs more and that’s a major reason why some farmers grow non-GE corn and soybeans. For us, that cost is more than counterbalanced by higher crop yields and reduced herbicide costs.

Some critics say the need to repurchase seed every year is a negative with GE crops. That’s not true for corn since its hybrid nature means that farmers cannot replant their own harvested seed and expect to get plants of the same yield potential the following year. It’s been that way since before 1950 when virtually all Canadian corn became hybrid. Nothing changed when GE corn was introduced many decades later.

But soybeans are not hybrid and many farmers have historically kept their own seed for planting the following year. They can’t do this with herbicide-tolerant GE soybeans because they must sign a commitment not to keep seed for replanting when they purchase the original seed. If they want to reuse their own seed, they can grow non-GE varieties of which there are many.

Personally, I do not see the need to purchase seed every year as being negative to my long-term well-being as a farmer. The profits received by seed suppliers mean increased research to produce more competitive, higher-yielding, higher-quality varieties. The burst in productivity now being experienced with canola yields in Western Canada is the direct result of increased competition and more crop breeding – caused by the combination of patented GE technology and new canola hybrids.

The development of glyphosate-tolerant weeds is widely cited as a negative with GE crops, and it is. We have none yet on our farm, but know their arrival is inevitable. However, we balance that negative against the positive – that there is a decreased likelihood of weeds developing tolerance to other herbicides, thanks to glyphosate usage. The first herbicide-tolerant weeds appeared on our farm about 40 years ago. Weed tolerance to herbicides did not begin with GE crops and glyphosate usage.

I’ll close this column with a brief listing of potential benefits with GE crops which we can’t realize because those crops don’t yet exist.

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Black nightshade weed growing in white bean field

For 35 years we grew white beans (also known as navy beans and pea beans). White beans were very profitable but tricky to grow, and the increasing difficulty of managing nightshade in white beans ultimately caused us to stop producing them. In 2015, the last year, our herbicide bill for white beans was $93/acre and we still had more nightshade than I liked. Now if there were glyphosate-tolerant white beans….

Wheat is another crop we’ve grown for more than 30 years. In recent years it has required applications of fungicide – usually more than one per year. If not controlled, Fusarium infection will cause poisonous mycotoxins to form in wheat kernels. About 15 years or so ago, Syngenta had a research program designed to control Fusarium using GE technology. But strong opposition to GE wheat technology from many sources caused Syngenta to terminate the program. That’s so unfortunate – unless, of course, you profit by selling fungicides.

So what are the conclusions?

One conclusion is that the balance between benefits and costs/risks with GE technology is very farm specific and technology specific. It’s highly dependent on the needs of individual crops and the prevalence of crop pests. Second, benefit-cost balances are not static and change with changes in pests, plant genetic improvement, cropping situations and market conditions. And third, those who attempt to make sweeping generalized conclusions about GE technologies without understanding the on-farm complexities mostly lack any real understanding of what’s going on.

*Terry Daynard and his wife, Dot, grain farm near Guelph, Ontario.

 

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.

 

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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.)

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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.