Communicating the Science of Agriculture

In October of 2013, I had the distinct pleasure of sharing the podium with Dr. Kevin Folta and Ms. Michele Payn-Knoper as we tackled the very complex (yet fascinating) issue of ag science communication.

It was an unusually chilly day, the frost clung heavily to the evergreens and an eery fog hung over the South Saskatchewan River. But nothing but warmth and the prospect of good discussion greeted us when we arrived at Riverside Golf and Country Club for the day’s events.

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There were 40+ people in attendance: farmers, scientists, policy makers and academics. It was a great day and much of what was discussed is summarized in interviews with Kevin, Michele and me that are currently up on the Genome Prairie website.

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Kevin Folta presents to the crowd gathered at Riverside Golf and Country Club

Kevin and me.

Kevin and me.

Guess what? It turns out that the event in 2013 was an inaugural one.  The Communicating the Science of Agriculture 2014 workshop will be held this year on October 9, 2014 at the Willows Golf and Country Club in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.  Our guest is Dr. Steve Savage, plant pathologist, science communicator and author of the blog Applied Mythology.  Register before October 1st to ensure your spot in the workshop!

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“Keep looking up! I learn from the past, dream about the future and look up. There’s nothing like a beautiful sunset to end a healthy day.” – Rachel Boston

The full farm and food immersion experience at #CanolaConnect!

Canola Connect Camp "swag"

Canola Connect Camp “swag”

I was excited to participate last week in the third annual Canola Connect Camp, hosted by the Manitoba Canola Growers Association. It was a full farm and food immersion experience! Writers, dieticians, chefs, media personnel and other food saavy folks, hailing from Alberta, Ontario and Manitoba, were on board the Canola Connect bus as we made tracks around western Manitoba (the Parkland Region) visiting farms and food production operations. We even got to tour the inside of a (circa 1976) grain elevator in Russell, Manitoba!

Without going into too much detail, we Campers saw much, did much (and, subsequently, ate much) in those three tightly packed, event-filled days. There is no end to how each of us could report on or write about given our vastly different perspectives and our overall enthusiasm for the Camp. For my post-Camp blog entry, however, I am going to shed some light on on-farm strategies and practices.  This is an area of interest for me (for work-related reasons) but also because there is a great deal to know and learn about farming in Canada. So much has changed in agriculture in my lifetime alone. As a farmer, it must be hard to keep up with changes in the technology (learning, investing, etc). As a downstream consumer who may have little to no connection to the farm, it is even more difficult to understand the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of food production especially when there is so much misinformation out there.

DAY ONE: On the very first day of Camp, the Dalgarno family invited us to their farm. In addition to enjoying tasty, catered meal in a neat-as-a-pin shop that would make any man (or woman, for that matter) swoon, we were able to question Andrew and his dad, Bruce, about their operations. Right off, we tackled the ‘elephant in the room’ -> GMOs (genetically modified organisms).

Bruce and Andrew talked a bit about the history of genetically engineered canola and its introduction to the market in the mid 1990s. Prior to that, Bruce said, things were much different. Remember the dust-bowls of the 1980s?

“Farmers would have to cultivate the soil to bury the straw to blacken the ground following the previous season’s cereal crop. After that, a granular, soil-applied herbicide was spread and the ground cultivated a second time to mix the herbicide into the soil. The following spring, before seeding canola, we would have to cultivate a third time to activate the herbicide. After the Canola had been seeded in May, we would then have to use a tank mix of 1 or 2 herbicides to control the remaining weeds during June.”  

These kind of activities took time and represented huge expenses for farmers – diesel fuel, cultivator shovels, wear and tear on equipment and labour. More importantly, the soil took a real beating. As Andrew says:

With repeated cultivation, the soil was more exposed to wind and water erosion because the straw was no longer able to protect the ground.”

So, how does genetically engineered Canola and its ‘supposed benefits’ fit into this? The introduction of these new varieties twenty years ago represented huge changes for on-farm management. Less herbicide applied less often meant that farmers were able to more easily adopt environmentally-friendly, soil-conservation practices like min or no till.

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Herbicides, which are a class of pesticide, often get ‘bad press’ but they are a necessary part of the food production process. Check out what Dr. Steve Savage, plant pathologist, has to say in his blog entry “Pesticides: probably less scary than you think”:

“…[W]ithout pesticides our farms would be far less efficient in terms of resource-use-efficiency (land, water, fuel, fertilizers, labor).  That is why both organic and conventional farmers often need to use pesticides.” – Steve Savage

(You can check out glyphosate’s toxicity level relative to other common household consumables here. It is less toxic than caffeine, baking soda, hydrogen peroxide and even Vitamin D!)

amount of product

DAY TWO: On day two of the Canola Connect Camp, we stopped for a ‘meal in the field’ hosted by Pat and Paul Orsak (‘shout out’ to the Miller family at Silver Creek Bison Ranch for providing the bison for the bison burgers! YUM!)

Paul, his son Owen, and a hired hand (and nephew) Jake were harvesting wheat that day.  Paul took some time from his busy harvesting schedule to talk about his operations. The Orsak family runs a tight rotation of wheat and canola. Why? It’s a business decision.  Farming is a business and in order to keep that business solvent, farmers have to make decisions based upon the marketplace, crop gePAUL ORSAK2netics and the climate.

“We respond to the market and grow what we think will provide the best return.  Some of the crops we used to grow have not provided sufficiently attractive pricing opportunities on a consistent basis to make it worthwhile.  For other crops, disease control became as issue.  Our climate has become wetter since the 1980’s and 90’s and as a result some crops do not do well in our location.”

Paul also pointed out that the genetics of both wheat and canola have improved relative to the other types of crops.  This tips production in their favour.

And how about those GMOs, Paul?

“…GMOs are just another method of plant breeding, something we and nature have been doing for centuries. Genetically engineered or modified crops are simply new and different varieties of existing crops. As knowledge of reproduction and genetics grew, it allowed plant breeders to more rapidly breed new varieties by crossing specific plants to achieve a desired end.  Genetic engineering is simply a more precisely executed extension of that knowledge. The goal is to improve crop genetics and achieve traits that are desirable.” 

[note: there is no genetically engineered wheat on the market]

Itorsak quote 2‘s not only the genetically engineered seeds that have revolutionized farming.  Farm equipment (size, GPS functionality, auto-tracking, etc) allow for greater efficiencies but most importantly – PRECISION - in the placement of seed, fertilizer and pesticides. This all greatly reduces farmers’ input costs and allows for greater sustainability in operations.

It was a fantastic few days connecting with fellow food and farm enthusiasts on the Canola Connect Camp tour! We not only visited the grain farms (above), we also visited a bison operation (this was a first for me), a cattle ranch and a bee farm!

So much to write about and so little time! ;o)

Thanks to the Manitoba Canola Growers Association and the team of Ellen, Jenn, Lori, Simone and Johanne for your roles in making this Camp possible!

Lori Dyck has compiled pictures and tweets into a Storify story of our Canola Connect Camp adventure here! More pictures have been posted by Jenn Dyck here!

Want to get to know that “Farm to Food” connection a bit better? Check out these resources:

Connecting with health food educators: a great experience!

Dr. Steve Savage and me at Nutrition File Seminar, February 2014.

Dr. Steve Savage and me at Nutrition File Seminar, February 2014.

Earlier this year, I was invited by Alberta Milk to speak at its Nutrition File Seminar (Calgary and Edmonton) alongside some pretty terrific people including: Dr. Steve Savage, agriculture speaker, writer and myth-buster; Shirzad Chunara from Alberta’s Ministry of Agriculture; Terry Fleck from the Center for Food Integrity; and Herman Barkema, DMV, PhD and Professor of Production Animal Health with the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Calgary. We had the opportunity to speak to a room full of bright, engaged registered dieticians about different facets of the food production value chain.

Guess what I talked about? :)

Anyway, the good folks at Alberta Milk invited me to take my 45-minute talk and distill it down into a 1000-word article for the August issue of Nutrition File for Health Educators newsletter (a real challenge for a wordy-person like me).  Success! Here it is:

“Like ships in the night? Consumers and genetically modified foods: adrift in a sea of misinformation.”

NFFHE Newsletter – August 2014

(Check out the hyperlinks to some credible web sources that are embedded at the end of the article.)

 

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Retraction reaction…

Cami Ryan:

Mark Lynas just tweeted that the Seralini study is being republished in a low impact journal.  Hmmmm… kind of explains why my dated blog post on FCT’s retraction of the Seralini study has suddenly come up on the radar for some folks. Check out the comments. Add some more!

Originally posted on Cami Ryan:

The recent retraction of the Séralini study by the journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology journal (more at Retraction Watch) has been a hot topic over the past few weeks.  The editors of the journal wrote a letter (Letter_AWHayes_GES (1)) to Seralini on November 19, 2013, inviting him to voluntarily withdraw the article.  In the event that Séralini chose not to do so, the editors informed him that they would retract the article.  Apparently, Séralini opted not to withdraw and the article was retracted by the editors in late November.

The Séralini study should never have been published in the first place. There were fundamental problems with the study (even grammar errors) which makes me question the quality of peer review — not to mention the low number of rats used and lack of controls.

Sample size and controls, in this case, represent huge red flags. There are well…

View original 379 more words

The consumer and GMOs: adrift in a sea of misinformation

Last month, I had the opportunity to present to a group of registered dieticians and nutritionists at the Alberta Milk sponsored event, the Nutrition File Seminar.  It was a great opportunity to connect with those that work directly with consumers and have to tackle some of the most difficult questions about how our food is produced every day!

I shared the podium with some really smart folks: Terry Fleck with the Center for Food Integrity, Dr. Steve Savage, Dr. Herman Barkema of the University of Calgary and Shirzad Chunara from Alberta’s Ministry of Agriculture. We were all there to answer those questions that consumers often ask about food and food production.

My topic? GMOs. Link to the presentation is HERE.

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The topic of GMOs is a complex one.  Many of the sites listed on the first 10+ pages of a simple Google search will point to statements like “GMOs have not been proven safe” or “they have not been tested safe for consumption.”  GMOs are often referred to as dangerous, toxic or even as time bombs. Many state that GMOs must be “immediately outlawed or banned.”  All this serves to do is to create unnecessary fear in the minds of the consumer. And it most certainly is not a true representation of the science and how genetic engineering and genetically engineered crops have and can benefit farmers and consumers – and society more broadly.

Every major international science body in the world has reviewed multiple independent studies—in some cases numbering in the hundreds—in coming to the consensus conclusion that GMO crops are as safe or safer than conventional or organic foods.” – Jon Entine, Forbes.

Here is a partial list of those organizations worldwide that Jon refers to:

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B.J. Murphy (@SciTechJunkie) lists some of the statements that those organizations make in support of GMOs here.

I like to quote author and journalist, Michael Specter who says: “We’ve never lived in a time where we needed science so badly.”

Yes. And we have never lived in a time when we are in a position to so readily deploy science in such meaningful ways.  Yet, we are often blocked by a loud but vocal minority of individuals and organizations that have the capacity to influence the public’s opinion on such things.

It’s good to remember that…

“…no single agricultural technology or farming practice will provide sufficient food for 2050…instead we must advocate for and utilize a range of these technologies in order to maximize yields.” Mark Rosegrant, Director, International Food Policy Research Institute (2014). 

Everyone wants a safe and healthy food supply. But people also need to have access to accurate information in order to make informed choices about their food. Want to know more (facts) about genetic engineering, GMOs, regulatory bits and bites and other related stuff? Check out my five part series on GMOs and public perceptions: Part 1, Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5.

The dose makes the poison.

Paracelsus was a 16th century Swiss German physician, alchemist, astrologer who found the discipline of toxicology. He came up with this basic principle of toxicology: The dose makes the poison.

“All things are poisons, for there is nothing without poisonous qualities. It is only the dose which makes a thing poison.”

So many of us misunderstand basic chemistry and what ‘toxic’ really means. I can relate. Chemistry was my WORST subject in high school. Most of what I have learned (and since become interested in) has been cultivated through my PhD studies and in projects since then.

Toxicity is an indicator of how poisonous a substance is to a biological entity. Any chemical can be toxic if absorbed or consumed in large enough amounts. Chemistry is all around us and we are all comprised of chemicals (matter). Some chemicals are man made others occur naturally: in our bodies, manufactured in plants, in our food and in the air we breathe.  In fact, there are more naturally occurring chemicals than man-made ones.  Chemical reactions and interactions in our bodies occur all the time.

Joni Kamiya-Rose posted this status update the other day on Facebook which, in turn, inspired my blog post for today.

joni rose toxic

To Joni’s last point… YES, wouldn’t that be great! I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t want safer options.

To (further) clear up misunderstandings and provide some context on toxicity, I crafted this table.  In toxicology, the median lethal dose, LD50 (see column 3) is the dose required to kill half the members of a tested population after a specified testing time. The test was developed by J.W. Trevan in 1927. In the table , I outline a variety of familiar (some less familiar) materials and their toxicity levels.  Please note: the LD50 levels outlined in the table below are based on oral ingestions by rats.  Toxicity rankings are based on the EPA’s categorization (I through IV) (Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations).

toxicity table

 

Verdict: promise not YET met #GMOs

Biology Fortified just launched a series that digs into and critically examines the claims about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and what they realistically offer up in terms of economic, environmental, social and nutritional benefits.  The first of the series entitled “The Promise of GMOs: nutrition” is penned by Anastasia Bodnar. She tackles the claims about GMOs and enhanced nutrition profiles, allergens, and crop oil content. Her diagnosis?

verdict

I admit it. Those five words depressed me.

But maybe not for the reasons you might think.  My initial thought was how will the GMO naysayers like Vandana Shiva, Gilles Eric Séralini and Jeffrey Smith use these words as a vehicle to add yet another layer of grim, gray paint over the possibilities of genetic engineering and GMOs?

I’m a bit of a history junkie.  I came across this article by Wayne D. Rasmussen -> “The Impact of Technological Change on American Agriculture” published in The Journal of Economic History in 1962. In it, Rasmussen explores the transition from animal power to mechanical power between the early 19th century and into the mid 20th century.  Rasmussen characterizes the evolution (and revolutions) in agriculture over time and backs up his work with data. His data, shown here in graph form, highlights just how far agriculture advanced over more than 150 years in terms of overall production (wheat, corn and cotton) and in the reduction of man hours to produce those crops.

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Adapted from Rasmussen 1962

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Adapted from Rasmussen 1962

The introduction of mechanized innovations and other inputs into agriculture practices not only increased production but they also reduced man hours to production ratios.  The time it took to produce a bushel of grain dropped from an average of 440 man hours per bushel in 1800 to only 38 by 1960.

Now, this did take more than 150 years.  Some innovations were adopted more quickly than others and under different economic circumstances or social pressures. As Rasmussen (1962: 579) states, “rate of adoption…is dependent upon the strength and variations in demand for farm products.”

Today, we are dealing with different kinds of innovations in agriculture: genetically engineered crops.  At one extreme, these crops are held up as a revolutionary technology that will meet the demands for a growing world population while at the other end of things they are unfairly demonized as harbingers of evil. And maybe the truth (and value) lies somewhere in the middle.

An FAO study conducted in 2011 reported that 43 per cent of the ag labour force in developing countries was comprised of women and most of the time spent in the fields by these women was weeding.  In South Africa, new varieties of genetically engineered have been introduced that cut down that weeding time. Not revolutionary by any means but good news, right?

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There’s still loads of opportunity ahead.  But there are barriers.  It is hard to get past the constant drumbeat of propaganda that is misleading, drives public opinion and can impact formation of sound public policy.

Even if the value of genetically engineered crops and GMOs winds up to be something that is less economic or nutritional and more ‘social’ (like, reduced weeding times) who are these people to stand in the way of that ‘promise’?

Dr. Amanda Maxham in her #GMOMonday post at Ayn Rand Centre for Individual Rights says “GMOs should not be held to impossible standards or justified with lofty world-saving promises.”  I agree with her. I also echo her closing statement:

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