York-Laval University Paper on Neonics and Bees Marred by Inconsistencies, Data Deficiencies, Dubious Bee Management and Weak Statistics

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Two new research reports purporting to show serious negative effects of the neonicotinoid insecticides (neonics) on the health of honey bees were released in late June, 2017. One was one a major European study involving trials in Germany, Hungary and the United Kingdom (UK), and the other done by Tsvetkof et al at York and Laval Universities in Canada. (Tsvetkof et al paper is also available here.)

Reviews of the European study have been done by Iida Ruishalme and Jon Entine. In brief, a careful examination of the data (though not the authors’ conclusions) shows mostly no effects, positive or negative, of neonic exposure on bee health. Interestingly the senior author of this paper, B.A. Woodcock, was also senior author for a 2016 paper attempting to use a correlation between declining UK bee numbers and increasing neonic usage over a period of about two decades, to prove that the latter caused the former – see here, here and here for more.

This commentary is about the Tsvetkof et al paper. My conclusion, in brief:

This paper joins others in showing that honey bees exposed to high concentrations of neonics (in this case clothianidin) may demonstrate sub-lethal effects. However, the strength of this conclusion is weakened seriously by data inconsistencies and deficiencies, major questions about bee management, and dubious statistical analyses. The potential role of varroa mites and other pests and diseases is ignored.

To learn how I reached that conclusion, read on.

In 2014, the authors placed a total of 55 bee hives at 11 locations in Ontario (mostly) and Quebec, with five being within 0.5 km of a corn field and six located more than 3 km from the closest corn field. They sampled the level of several pesticides, including insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and a miticide, in living bees, dead bees, pollen and nectar in/near the hives at six times between early May and September. The data are shown for each location–by-time combination in a supplemental table provided by the authors.

Tsvetkof et al then took the average quantifiable concentration of the neonic clothianidin measured in pollen samples within hives in 2014 and used it as the basis for pollen concentrations of clothianidin to which bee colonies at York University in Toronto were artificially exposed (five colonies were exposed, five were not) in a study in 2015. The concentrations used as the base were not the average of all samples measured the previous year but, rather, the average of those high enough to be quantified (i.e., 15 of the 66 location x time combinations). Both the treated bees (fed clothianidin-laced pollen blocks) and the check (no clothianidin in pollen blocks) were also exposed to the fungicides dimethomorph and boscalid, preservatives in the pollen blocks. Worker bees from the five treated and five untreated colonies were collected, radio tagged, placed collectively in a single observation chamber, and the activity of these bees was monitored.

In another 2015 experiment, the authors fed five different dosage levels of clothianidin and thiamethoxam, in sucrose-acetone solutions, and in combinations with or without boscalid (497 ppb) and the herbicide linuron (7 ppb), to caged worker honey bees. They calculated acute LD50 values for the two neonic compounds (4 hr exposure to chemical mixtures; mortality measured after 24 hr). Relatively few details are provided on how this was done.

The authors reported that worker bees exposed to the neonic clothianidin in 2015 died younger and were less hygienic (propensity to remove dead bees from hives) than unexposed bees, that queen mortality/functionality was reduced with clothianidin exposure, and that the LD50 for clothianidin was reduced in the presence of a high concentration of boscalid. Some differences were observed in the foraging patterns of tagged worker bees.

I have reviewed the paper and the supplemental information which the authors have provided and have a number of major concerns about their experimental protocols and results.

Concentrations of neonics in bee-collected pollen

The concentrations of neonics in pollen which they collected from hives in 2014, and summarized in the following tables, seem very high.

Time of sampling Hives near corn Hives not near corn
Average clothianidin concentration, ppb (number of sites/total sites)
1 4.5 (2/5) 4.1 (1/6)
2 6.6 (4/5) 2.1 (3/6)
3 2.2 (2/5) 8.5(1/6)
4 2.6 (2/5) Not detected
5 Not detected Not detected
6 Not detected Not detected

 

Time of sampling Hives near corn Hives not near corn
Ave. thiamethoxam concentration, ppb (number of sites/total sites)
1 2.2 (2/5) 2.0 (1/6)
2 5.0 (3/5) 2.0 (1/6)
3 3.3 (2/5) 8.7(1/6)
4 3.0 (1/5) Not detected
5 1.1 (1/5) Not detected
6 Not detected Not detected

Note that these high concentrations don’t originate from the pollen of treated corn or soybeans. Corn pollen was found in only one of 21 neonic-positive samples and soybean pollen in only five of 21 and neither ever represented as much as 1 % of the pollen collected. The high concentrations came from other plants both near or more than 3 km away from, corn fields. The authors provide no information on proximity to soybean fields or other plants which may have been deliberately treated with neonics, other than to state that soybeans are grown near corn. Notably, two of the three “far corn” sites where concentrations of neonics were quantifiable in hive pollen (above 8 ppb for both clothianidin and thiamethoxam for one of these sites!) are within the cities of London and Toronto, Ontario and apparently remote from agricultural production. No explanation is provided is provided as to the source of this neonic exposure.

While not central to the theme of this paper (since the authors state that this compound is not of concern for bee well being) a very high concentration of 329 ppb of acetamiprid, another neonic, was measured for one “near corn” pollen sample in Quebec, but with no explanation provided as to source.

I have compared those reported values for clothianidin and thiamethoxam with others in the literature.

Blacquière et al (2012) provide a summary of published measurements of neonic concentrations in bee pollen including results of one extensive survey over three years in France. In it, imidicloprid was found at concentrations (where detected) at 0.9 to a maximum of 3.1 ppb though with no information available as to the source of the insecticide. Other European data cited by Blacquière et al involving imidicloprid, clothianidin, and imidicloprid (the three neonics generally used as seed treatments), generally show lower concentrations in pollen collected by bees, typically under 1 ppb and quantifiable in less than 1% of the assayed samples.

Stewart et al (2014) measured the concentration of neonics in pollen/flowers of seed-treated corn, cotton and soybean fields in Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas, in adjacent wild flowers, and in pollen collected by honey bees for colonies positioned an average of 180 m from the treated fields. Only 23% of samples (of whole plants, not just pollen) had neonic concentrations about 1 ppb, but the others ranging up to 257 ppb. (The highest sample came from a place where the farmer filled the planter with treated seed.) The arithmetic mean for all samples was 10 ppb. Neonics were measured in corn pollen at average concentrations of 0.4 to 5.6 ppb (and as high as 23 ppb for an individual sample) depending on compound used (higher for clothianidin than thiamethoxam) and the seed-treatment rate, but only at much lower levels for cotton pollen (almost all under 1 ppb) and not at all in soybean flowers. Most significantly, neonic concentrations above 1 ppb were detected in only 2 of 74 pollen samples collected from foraging bees despite their nearness to treated fields.

Long and Krupke (2015) in Indiana measured a mean concentration of clothianidin of 0.64  ppb (maximum 9.4) in 32 samples of pollen collected by bees for hives located immediately beside a treated corn field.

Botias et al (2015) in Sussex England measured the neonic concentration in the pollen of wild flowers adjacent to an oilseed rape (OSR) fields sown using thiamethoxam-treated seed and adjacent to wheat field grown from clothianidin-treated seed. They also measured neonic levels in the pollen collected by bees colonies positioned on the same farms. They found thiamethoxam concentrations averaging 15 ppb in wild flowers next to the OSR, but almost no clothianidin in flowers next to wheat fields. However, the maximum concentration in pollen collected by bees at the time of OSR flowering was 1.8 ppb for thiamethoxam and 1.2 for clothianidin (averages 0.2 and <0.1, respectively). Curiously, pollen collected by bees at time of OSR flowering contained an average of 2.5 ppb imidicloprid even though this had not been applied to either field for three years and field-adjacent wild flowers averaged less than 1 ppb.

Cutler and Scott-Dupree (2007) measured the concentrations of clothianidin in pollen collected by bees colonies located in the middle of four Ontario canola fields grown from clothianidin-treated seed. The maximum concentration of clothianidin measured in any pollen sample was 2.6 ppb. A similar though larger experiment, which was reported on in 2014, yielded a maximum concentration of 1.9 ppb.

How does one get concentrations in bee pollen of 8.5 ppb for clothianidin plus 8.7 ppb for thiamethoxam in colonies located in the city of London Ontario, remote from agriculture, but only a maximum of 2.6 ppb for hives in the neonic-seed-treated canola fields in bloom?

While the results of Tsvetkof et al generally do show more neonicotinoids in colonies nearer corn fields, they do not show that corn fields are the dominant source – indeed, they cannot be for the three within-city sites remote from corn fields, where neonics were measured in bee pollen at sizable concentration.

I do note that high neonic concentrations have been measured by other researchers in pollen collected by bees near agricultural crops. Pohorecka et al (2013) measured an average concentration of 27 ppb of clothianidin in pollen collected in pollen traps for bees returning to hives positioned in a corn field in Poland, though the concentration of clothianidin in “pollen bread” found within those hives was below the level of detection. Pilling et al (2013) also found much lower concentrations of neonics in “bee bread” than in pollen collected from returning worker bees.  Dr. Schaafsma at the Ridgetown campus of the University of Guelph has told me in personal communication that he has measured levels of neonics in pollen collected by bees at least comparable to those measured by Tsvetkof et al.

Bee health and management

The authors state “we did not chemically treat the colonies to control hive pests or diseases” in describing the 2014 research protocol and the same for the research in 2015. This is despite the fact that varroa and other pests/diseases are the dominant cause of poor health in Ontario/Canadian bees (see here for example), and chemical treatment for control of one or more pests/diseases, at least for varroa, is standard practice. Not only were no varroa-control treatments applied, but there is no mention of this potential complication for the research results – other than a simple statement that bees appeared visually to be healthy at the beginning of the trials.

This neglect is in marked contrast to the approach used by other researchers. For example, Pohorecka et al (2013) in Poland were very careful to monitor the prevalence of varroa mites and of several bee viruses in their research and bees were treated with Apivar for mite control. The Polish researchers measured no significant effect of exposure to either clothianidin or imidicloprid treated corn fields on any measure of colony health. Perhaps their diligence in controlling varroa is why.

Interestingly, the most common chemical found in bees, pollen and nectar in 2014 results of Tsvetkof et al was coumaphos, an organophosphate compound used for mite control in bees.  Coumaphos was measured in 91 samples in total as compared to clothianidin in 26 samples. Coumaphos was once commonly used for varroa control in Canada though I understand not so much lately because the mites have developed resistance. The origin of the coumaphos detected in this study is unknown; perhaps the hives were treated with it before the experimental period began. According to this Cornell University document, “Coumaphos poses a moderate hazard to honey bees and a slight hazard to other beneficial insects.”

There is no mention of the presence of other miticides in this study – likely because they were not in the list of chemicals assayed.

There is a good amount of published information showing that bees are more vulnerable to insecticides, including neonics, when weakened by varroa and other bee pests/diseases (example here). Were varroa mites, bee diseases and other pests the cause of the sub-lethal effects reported by Tsvetkof et al? No one knows because the researchers ignored this possibility and provide no relevant information.

The authors present a graph from their 2015 research purporting to show that bee queen health was worse for colonies artificially exposed to clothianidin versus those which were not. It’s graph D in the following figure from their paper. The blue dots and line are for the control treatment; yellow for treated. First, it’s doubtful, with so few data points, whether those lines really are different at P<0.05. In fact only four data points are graphed for the treated hives though I suspect that at least one additional data point may be hidden under an identical value for the control. More pertinent to this discussion is the question: how does a check treatment with only 20% of hives having functioning queens (i.e., the check treatment at about 55 days) represent proper bee management? I’m told that this would be major cause for concern if it happened in a commercial bee yard. One suspects that there was a serious management problem with these colonies at York University (perhaps poor control of varroa or diseases?).

Zayed Fig 2a

Zayed Fig 2

Statistical analyses

While I don’t profess to be a good statistician myself, I wondered about the validity of some of the statistical analyses performed by Tsvetkof et al. As a result, I checked with statistician Bill Price at the University of Idaho. Among his comments he noted the small number of data points (two) and low degrees of freedom (n=4) used distinguish the two lines in Fig 2B above.

More problems exist with graph D above. Firstly, it is highly unlikely that the two lines shown differ significantly given the scatter of the data especially for the control treatment. But there is also a problem in credibility of the basic data. The numbers for each of the treated and control treatments come from data from five hives. With five samples, how can you have a value of 0.75 for one control measurement? It’s mathematically impossible. (The 0.25 values for the treated hives are explained by the authors; a queen was inadvertently killed by the researchers so that hive was excluded for consideration for the remainder of the trial.)

He also, noted that treated and untreated bees were mixed together in one observation chamber for measurements of the respective flight behaviour and longevity of worker bees in 2015. In effect the two treatments were not imposed independently which makes statistical interpretation difficult.

There are also questions about the procedures and statistical analyses used to determine LD50s (no basic data used in calculations are provided by the authors) but I will not enlarge on that here.

Lack of colony data

A major question with this paper is the lack of colony data. Why did the authors provide no information on colony performance of the 55 hives in 2014? More importantly, why none for the 10 hives located on the York University campus on 2015 as that should have been easy to do? The authors measured a parameter called hygienic behavior (propensity to remove dead bees) in treated and untreated colonies, but there are no data on numbers of workers or dead bees – or on colony size, honey production and subsequent hive survival. (Note that the authors’ use of the term, hygienic behavior, differs from the definition often used by bee keepers in Ontario, which is the propensity to removed varroa mites from other bees.) This void contrast with the work of Pohorecka et al (2013) who measured various colony-level effects and found none – this despite the even larger exposures to clothianidin in pollen in their study.

The authors’ one-sentence conclusion: “Our findings indicate that chronic [neonicotinoid] exposure reduces the health of honey bee colonies near corn crops,” is belied by the fact that they provided no real measurements of colony health (queen vitality being the exception).

In summary

This paper joins others in showing that honey bees exposed to high concentrations of neonics (in this case clothianidin) may demonstrate sub-lethal effects. However, the strength of this conclusion is weakened seriously by data inconsistencies and deficiencies, major questions about bee management, and dubious statistical analyses. The potential role of varroa mites and other pests and diseases is ignored. Also, no consideration is given to the question of what the effect would be if/when neonics are replaced by other insecticides for pest control on food-producing farm crops.

Acknowledgements

I thank Dr. Bill Price Director of Statistical Programs, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, University of Idaho, and Dr. Chris Cutler, Associate Professor, Department of Plant, Food and Environmental Sciences, Dalhousie University for their advice on aspects of the Tsvetkof et al paper. However, the comments made in the preceding review are attributable solely to me.

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Comments on “Status and Trends of Pollinator Health in Ontario” (A review by Pindar et al., March 2017, University of Guelph)

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In 2015, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) commissioned a comprehensive review on bee health. The contractor, a University of Guelph group led by Dr. Nigel Raine, submitted its review in April 2016. Eleven months later it was made public via an obscure WordPress posting. The review is lengthy and contains a wealth of information on both honey and wild bees.

The following is for those interested in a quick overview of the review along with my personal comments.

The review provides a well-written description of the many pests and diseases which afflict managed bees. It states, “Pests affecting honey bees in Ontario are varroa mites, tracheal mites, wax moths, and the small hive beetle. Pathogens include numerous species of bacteria, fungi and viruses. Bumble bees, especially managed [Bombus] impatiens colonies, are affected by viruses, the trypanosome parasite Crithidia bombi, tracheal mites, the fungal infection Nosema bombi, and small hive beetle.”

The review joins others in emphasizing the overall importance of varroa mites and related control measures on honey bee well-being in Ontario. “Although beekeepers are actively managing their hives, mite levels are constantly rising in colonies,” says the review. Since 2016, varroa have been found in virtually all colonies. The review reports the difficulty of effective varroa control with genetic resistance developing in varroa mites to several key miticides, and the miticides themselves being quite detrimental to bee health.

The review also describes growing awareness of the importance of bee viruses to honey bee health, to a greater extent than I have seen in other public reports about bee health in Ontario. It notes, as have others, that honey bees weakened by varroa are more vulnerable to several bee viruses than was the case in pre-varroa times. The review notes the slowness of OMAFRA and the Ontario bee industry in introducing routine monitoring of Ontario bee colonies for the prevalence of viruses, in contrast to the regular monitoring occurring in the United States.

The review includes criticisms of beekeeper management in Ontario: “In Ontario, management practices are the second leading cause of overwintering mortality in honey bees after Varroa mite infestation (Guzman-Novoa et al. 2010). Specifically, having weak colonies, with insufficient numbers of workers entering the winter season, and having limited food reserves to carry bees through the winter contributes to their losses.”

Note also this quote: “the declining health of managed bees (honey bees, blue orchard bees, managed Bombus [bumble bee], and alfalfa leafcutter bees) is in part due to their management by humans.”

It is obvious that honey bee management, especially for over-winter survival, is especially challenging in a province like Ontario where hobbyists predominate. The average Ontario bee keeper has about 3-4 hives according to Statistics Canada, versus about 30 in Alberta, by comparison, where commercial production prevails.

The review also focuses on the 39% of Ontario colonies (2016 statistics) which are transported by beekeepers each spring to Quebec and Maritime Provinces for blueberry and cranberry pollination. The review notes that while honey bees are not good blueberry pollinators, this lack of effectiveness is countered by the use of large numbers of colonies per blueberry field – presumably creating stress for the bees themselves.

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The review is inconsistent in its statements about changes in honey bee colony numbers. For example, “honey bee colony numbers have continued to decline” (page 26) versus “Over the past 10 years the number of colonies in Ontario has increased by 32.7%” (page 100). The review also includes data showing an upward trend in number if honey bee colonies for all of Canada.

The review includes a graph (“Figure 2,” pasted below) which implies that in Ontario, in contrast to some other provinces, the colony winter loss percentage may be trending upwards. However, if the graph had been updated to show the 37.8% and 17.9% losses reported for Ontario for 2014/15 and 2015/2016 the trend in Ontario would have appeared differently. Statistics provided by the Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturalists for 2013/2014, 2014/15 and 2015/16 are shown in the accompanying table.

(The review is inconsistent in the recency of its data, sometimes using statistics as current as 2016, and sometimes stopping two years earlier as in this case.)

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CAPA overwinter bee lossesThe review includes discussion of the 420 wild bee species found in Ontario, including 25 bumble bee species. Unlike some areas of the world (notably the UK and other parts of north-western Europe), there is very little information available on the population status of most wild species. We don’t know whether their numbers are in decline or not. (One bumble bee species, the Rusty Patched bumble bee, Bombus affinis, has likely become extinct in Ontario.)

The review joins other reports in identifying honey bees as a serious threat to the well-being of wild bee species. Honey bees compete directly for nectar and pollen and are vectors for the spread of diseases and pathogens. (Varroa are not a pest of wild bees but the viruses associated with varroa are, and those viruses are spread during consecutive visits by different bee species to the same flowers.)

An argument is made that loss of habitat may be affecting wild bee populations in Ontario/Canada – and it would seem reasonable that this is true in some parts of the province – but there is a dearth of supporting data.

The review lists pesticides as a factor affecting bee health. However, the most serious culprits appear to be the pesticides used to control bee pathogens, especially mites. The review cites three studies from Ontario which have shown no effect of neonicotinoid (neonic) insecticides on honey bee health and notes that neonic effects are much more commonly found in laboratory studies than field research. The review gives attention to possible non-lethal effects of neonics on bees, a special area of research for Dr. Raine. However, the review pays little attention to a criticism that his conclusions are largely based on bee pesticide exposure levels significantly above what is generally found to occur in Ontario fields. (Researchers who evaluate pesticide effects on bees in artificial settings often refer to “field-realistic exposure,” when that is often not the case – especially for multi-day exposure.)

This review gives major attention to a Swedish field study where wild bee species (but not honey bees) showed sub-lethal effects when exposed to neonic-treated, spring-planted oilseed rape (known as canola in Canada). Not mentioned is the detail that the Swedish fields were planted with seed treated at 2.5 times the maximum neonic application rate permitted in Canada (personal communication, Canola Council of Canada).

Disappointingly, the review gives credence to a recent paper from the UK (Woodcock et al., 2016) where the authors claimed that a decline in the heath of several wild bees species was attributable to neonic usage, even though this conclusion was based solely on a correlation over years (neonic usage up, bees numbers down). Telling is this statement in a BBC feature on the Woodcock paper: “The authors acknowledge that their study finds an association and doesn’t prove a cause and effect link between the use of neonicotinoids and the decline of bee populations.” Contrast that with this unqualified statement in the current review, “[there were] significant negative impacts on species persistence associated with neonicotinoid use (Woodcock et al. 2016).” One suspects that a similar correlation between organic food sales and wild bee numbers in the IK would have been equally significant, statistically.

Ignored in the current review is a relevant 2011 Carleton University thesis study by Joanna James, in which she found essentially no difference in wild bee populations beside pesticide- (including neonic-) treated fields versus those receiving no pesticides.

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The authors say there is no supporting documentation, other than speculation, for a claim by others that declining wild bee populations are responsible for a decline in the well-being of 78 endangered plant species in Ontario. “Although provincial and federal governments identify the importance of pollinators, such as bees, as playing a key role in the survival for many of Ontario’s rare plants (e.g. http://www.ontario.ca/environment-and-energy/cucumber-tree-species-risk) results from our systematic literature review found no peer-reviewed or grey literature to support this.”

I am pleased the authors addressed an oft-repeated but rarely documented claim that one-third of food depends on bee-pollinated crops. The authors calculate that $0.9 billion (13%) of Ontario’s $6.7 billion in value of agricultural crop production involves bee-pollinated crops. In another calculation, they estimate that the value of pollinators to Ontario agriculture might be about $540 million per year, of which about two-thirds involves wild bees.

The review, unfortunately, is quite weak in considerations of agronomy and bee-agricultural interactions. Here are some examples:

  • The review states without supporting references that alfalfa production is increasing in Canada because increasing demand for feed and because it is cheaper to plant this crop compared to wheat and barley (page 12). Cost of production data (available here) do not support this claim for seeding costs, and I doubt that the demand for alfalfa-based feed (essentially for dairy and some beef) is increasing in Canada.
  • The authors do not appear to distinguish between alfalfa used for forage (does not require pollination) versus for seed (pollination needed). Indeed, in a table on page 110, the authors imply that the value of alfalfa seed production in Ontario averaged $109 million from 2009-2014. In reality, there is very little alfalfa seed production in Ontario and alfalfa grown for forage production is harvested in the vegetative state, often even before flowers appear.
  • On pages 103 and 106, the authors erroneously dismiss carrots and potatoes as largely insignificant agricultural crops in Ontario.
  • They refer in several places to parthenocarpic cultivars of canola, soybeans, peas, beans, ginseng, tomatoes and other crops, when it is highly doubtful that such exist. They appear to have confused the term, “parthenocarpic” (no fertilization required), for “self-pollinating.” On page 105 they refer to canola flowers being “self-incompatible and depend[ent] on generalist insect pollination.” That’s true for only Brassica rapa canola which represents less than 1% of Canadian production according to industry contacts.
  • There are several undocumented suggestions in the review that fertilizer applications harm bees (see page 132), that manure is better than synthetic fertilizers for pollinator health and a page 124 statement that sowing grasses in rotation enhances soil fertility which makes no agronomic sense. (Grasses do improve soil structure.)
  • They make a claim on page 131 that “Herbicide resistant canola fields have high levels of pesticide used,” apparently unaware of analyses such as that of Smyth et al (2014) showing substantial reductions in pesticide usage with glyphosate-tolerant canola in Western Canada.

The authors imply in other places that organic agriculture is better for crop pollination. They refer to a study by Morandin and Winston (2005), showing more complete pollination for flowers in organic canola versus herbicide-treated fields, a result they attributed to more weeds and more bees. But there are ample data to show it’s the reverse when it comes to canola yield: better weed control means better yields, implying that pollination is not the dominant yield limitation.

Many wild bee species are ground dwelling and one might expect that more frequent tillage with organic cropping (as compared to no tillage plus herbicide usage) would be detrimental to their well-being.

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The authors also try to make the case on several occasions that a diversity of wild flowers and pollinators in surrounding areas enhances the yield of major crops, but their case is very weak. Several of the literature citations are only to other authors who have made the same conjecture. On Page 39 they state, “A meta-analysis by Ricketts et al. (2008), found that yield declined due to shortage of pollinators with increasing distances between the crop and natural or semi-natural habitats.” But the Ricketts paper actually says that this relationship has generally been found to be non-existent or not statistically significant.

This is not an attempt to argue on my part that wild flowers and wild bees aren’t important. Not at all. But why not base their importance on the value of natural diversity for its own inherent sake, and not on an attempted feeble linkage to agricultural productivity?

The authors emphasize the importance of wild flowers – even include photos in the report of beautiful wild flower stands – but overlook how difficult these stands can be to maintain. I speak from experience. About 20 years ago my wife and I naturalized a four-acre field on our farm, planting wild flowers in many areas. Twenty years later those wild flowers thrive (see the photos included in this blog). But that’s only because of many hours devoted each year to the removal of more competitive species. (The ones Mother Nature prefers are reed canarygrass, buckthorn shrubs/trees, and many noxious weeds like the invasive garlic mustard and several species of thistles.)

Wild flowers are great but not easy.

In summary this review represents a valuable contribution to the understanding of bee health in Ontario but would have benefitted if it had been reviewed, before release, by someone more familiar with field crop agriculture.

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.

Moarch larva Monarch Watch 4feed3

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.