Our Struggle With Reducing Emissions

A farmer and his tractor. Picturing a farmer without one is like picturing a person without a smartphone – you can’t survive without it! Nearly every farmer in the last century (at least in North America) has had one, whether it was a 12 horsepower steam-powered engine of the past or a 620 horsepower diesel-powered monster of today. There is no item more ubiquitous on farms in this part of the world than the venerable tractor.

dsc_0536Tractors, however, are not what they once were. Certainly, the most obvious changes include physical size and operator comfort, but there are other changes, too – changes that are threatening the reliability of our crucial workhorses. As our world becomes ever more fixed on the subject of climate change, the emissions of even our tractors has become a major consideration for policy makers – and that is causing some very real problems for farmers.

Some Background

Diesel engines, the power behind our tractors for many decades, are now under intense scrutiny. It all started back in 1996, with the first federal standards for non-road diesel engines coming into effect. Tier 1 standards were developed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the California ARB, to be phased in between 1996 and 2000. These regulations were initially pretty mild. More advanced engine design, which was already taking place anyway, was enough to meet these emissions targets, and would be through Tiers 2 and 3 as well.

In 2008, through to 2015, regulations became much stricter with the adoption of Tier 4 standards. Nitrogen oxide (NOx), widely believed to be one of the more severe greenhouse gases, and particulate matter (PM) had to be reduced to 90% below 2008 levels – an ambitious target. The only way to achieve these targets, especially the even more stringent Tier 4 final of today, was to install diesel particulate filters (DPF) to catch and trap NOx and PM before they leave the tailpipe. The other part of the equation is the use of diesel exhaust fluid (DEF), which is injected to cause a more complete burn of the fuel inside the cylinder (read more here and here).

On our farm, we purchased our first Tier 4 tractor in 2012, which was a John Deere high-clearance sprayer. Since then, two of our four-wheel drive tractors, one of our combines, our skidsteer, our sprayer, a semi truck and our pickup trucks are all under Tier 4 regulations.

The Problems

Last week, we were hauling winter wheat to Kola, Manitoba, a 450 kilometer round trip. We have a few semi trucks on the farm these days, but only one is relatively new – our 2013 Peterbilt. Since it’s the newest (which should mean it’s the most reliable), it’s the best one to make the trip – right?

In fact, it never made a single run. The DEF system failed on it on its way to town one day, which put it into limp mode. What does limp mode mean? Well, it couldn’t even generate enough power to pull an empty trailer to the truck shop in Weyburn, a 40 km drive. Dad’s pickup truck had to tow it most of the way (incidentally, a great advertisement for Dodge trucks). The repair bill? $1,400 just for the parts. All to fix emissions equipment.

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The one in the middle is the one with the exhaust filtration system (yes, the one with the pink fuel tanks – ask my sister about that detail). If you look closely under the bunk, you can see the little tank by itself. That’s the DEF tank.

The problem with this stuff is that it is extremely fragile and not suited to our type of work. In the instruction manual for that semi, it says that it will occasionally need to “burn” the particulate matter (PM) out of the exhaust system (otherwise it will clog up). When it decides to do a burn, you must “simply drive for 45 minutes and it will complete its cleaning cycle.” All well and good – except we rarely have to haul that far. At least 80% of our grain goes within a half hour radius from home. So, we’re supposed to just drive to Regina for the fun of it? Great use of our time – and our fuel.

Worse, if we don’t get a burn done on a regular basis, the system will clog up and need to be cleaned out; a process that runs thousands and thousands of dollars. And this is all for one of our four semi trucks. Oh, and our 1995 Peterbilts? Yeah, they run just fine.

And that’s just our trucks. One of our combines, a 2013, has a DPF (that’s the filter in the exhaust). One day, near the end of harvest (thank goodness), it decided it needed a burn. It made that call around mid-afternoon, and by the evening it barely made it home. You see, when those systems run a cleaning cycle, the engine has to run extremely hot to burn the PM out. On a combine that runs in hot, dry, flammable chaff all day, it can’t do a burn while it’s operating. So, it has to sit and idle to do one. Our combine sat and roared away at full throttle for 45 minutes that morning to complete its cleaning cycle. Tell me again, this is good for the environment how?

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This is the combine’s monitor telling you the status of the cleaning. Notice the time remaining – it had been doing this for awhile already, too.

Our tractors, which run both DPF and DEF (exhaust filters and fluid), became so unreliable that we had to keep new DEF filters on standby. They would literally shut down in the middle of the day because the DEF system failed. I do not understand how a $400,000 tractor should ever have to shut down because the emissions system wasn’t working exactly right.

What’s the Solution?

I’m not going to go into a debate about climate change and whether it’s real or not – that’s a discussion for another time and place. But the fact is that emissions equipment is costing us serious money. Not only does new equipment cost more because of the technology investment engine manufacturers have to make, but it has severely compromised the reliability of the machinery we so greatly rely on.

We have a few options to deal with this situation: one, run old equipment and give up the other technology and improved reliability new machinery brings; two, buy all new machinery and hope the newer DEF and DPF systems are better (doubtful); or three, delete the DEF and DPF systems from our equipment and run without (supposedly illegal – but quite likely the best option).

Regulators need to understand how critical the timing of our operations is. We absolutely cannot afford to be shut down for emissions equipment problems. There must be allowances for DEF and DPF failures so that we can run until the problem can be fixed.

If climate change is such a serious issue that we must limit emissions of farm equipment to this degree, governments should be prepared to step up and help us pay the tremendous repair cost of these systems. And until these exhaust filtration systems are built to withstand the rigours of farm labour, they should not be required on our equipment. Feeding the world – and our families – is a higher priority for me than a few extra pounds of nitrous oxide emissions.

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My Food Story

In October, I, along with my sister Sarah, was invited to join in Sask Ag & Food’s “Ag Month” campaign. The idea was for us, as well as others in the agriculture and food industry, to tell our food story. I think this was an interesting concept, and I was honoured to be asked to be apart of it. You can find out more about it here.

Since then, I have thought a lot about this idea, and what it truly means. As farmers, we typically think of our products as a commodity, and we forget sometimes that we are at the front line of producing the food on your table. That may be your loaf of bread (our wheat), your plate of spaghetti noodles (our durum), the cooking oil you use for frying up a chicken breast (our canola), or maybe your lentil soup (I think you can guess this one). It may also, indirectly, be the steak you enjoy (cattle have to eat something!), or the beer you have with your friends.

All of these things come directly from my fields, raised with my soil, my input purchases, my expertise. The problem is that once my crop gets unloaded at the elevator or processor, I don’t get to see what happens to it. The farmer’s share of your dollar spent on food is very small: that loaf of bread you bought? My share of that $2.50 is only $0.09!

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I couldn’t find a similar display of a loonie… But I think it’s close enough!

Even though my share of the dollar is relatively small and I have little control over what happens to my food after I sell it, I still have tremendous interest in producing good quality, nutritious food. It matters to me that the food I produce is healthy, because I know that my family could end up eating it too.

I had the opportunity to attend the GrowCanada conference in Ottawa this week, where I was able to listen to a variety of speakers address several different topics. One that really stood out for me was the idea that when our grain, pulse and oilseed crops leave our bins, they are healthy and nutritious. All the building blocks are there. Whether it remains that way is totally up to the processing industry, post farm-gate.

Often, farmers get a lot of blame for a lot of the health problems facing the developed world right now. Obesity is a major issue in Canada and much of the developed world. But what influence do we actually have as farmers? When my durum leaves my farm, there is nothing intrinsically unhealthy about it. In fact, there is a plethora of data out there showing that the nutrition profile of our wheat today is very little changed from a century ago – despite what many non-Celiac gluten-free dieters may claim. All the ingredients are there to combine with other foods for a balanced, healthy meal.

However, I believe pointing figures and passing blame is not the right approach (unless a food safety issue arises, of course), and we should instead talk about how to eat a more balanced diet. Everything works in moderation. The point, I think, is that the food farmers produce is intrinsically nutritious.

At the busiest times of the year, we all come together as a family to plant, grow and harvest the best quality, highest yielding crop we can. This farm, like so many others out there, is owned and operated by a family, along with some great employees that have families of their own. I will never grow a crop that I wouldn’t feel safe about feeding to my own son.

Farmers care about the food they produce, and they care about the people that eat it. If we farmers feel safe growing GMOs and using pesticides and fertilizers, that means we believe our own children are safe eating it. While I don’t presume to be an expert on all things food, I do believe that millions of farmers, each one growing and using these products, is a strong testament to the safety of our food.

My food story is growing safe, healthy and nutritious food, and having fun while doing it. Farming is a wonderful way of life, and I feel so proud to be a part of it. To everyone who enjoys food, thank you. You make it possible for me and my family to do what we love – growing your food.

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Photo credit: Vanessa Lanktree Photography

An Open Letter To Justin Trudeau

October 18, 2016

Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau, P.C., M.P. Prime Minister of Canada
80 Wellington Street
Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0A2

Dear Prime Minister,

My name is Jake Leguee, and I am a farmer in Saskatchewan. I am writing this letter to express my tremendous concern with your plan to impose a carbon tax on my province. I chose to publish this as an open letter so the rest of this nation has an opportunity to understand what a carbon tax could mean to other farmers like myself.

While I recognize you have environmental goals you wish to pursue, understand that the consequences of a carbon tax may be severe for my farm. Mr. Trudeau, you may not have much experience with agriculture, but let me tell you, it is an amazing career. Not only do I get to run my own business, but I get to run one that is also a way of life. I get to farm alongside my father; my mentor, business partner and friend. My sister and I are the next generation of this business, and our whole family comes together at planting and harvest to get the crop in the ground, and to put it in the bin. My son was born a year ago, and I hope someday he may have the opportunity to farm alongside me, just as I do with my father.

Farming is, at times, a difficult business. One bad weather event – one storm, one cold night, one windy day – can devastate us. If we don’t get a crop, our bills still have to be paid. And nature does not care one way or the other.

Not only do we rely on the vagarious disposition of Mother Nature, we are also exposed to the volatility of the markets and – indeed, the point of this letter – politicians.

A carbon tax has the ability to drastically increase my costs, without creating an incentive to reduce my emissions. In fact, I already have such incentives. Our farm’s move to no-till started in the late 1980’s, as many other Prairie farmers did, to reduce risk of soil erosion, increase soil organic matter, and, ultimately, increase yields. No-till (essentially means that tillage is avoided if at all possible) has been a boon for our farm, and it allows the storage of massive quantities of carbon dioxide.

As equipment changes and my farm grows, there will be a continuous need to upgrade to newer machinery. Due to the emissions laws already in place, our newer equipment has lower emissions; but that came at a cost. Emissions equipment on our tractors is faulty, unreliable, and expensive to fix. If my tractor’s emissions system has a plugged filter, it can shut down my seeding operation for hours, even days. When you have only two weeks to get your crop in the ground, this is hardly acceptable.

Adding a carbon tax to my farm’s cost of production will make it less profitable, and ultimately less competitive with my neighbours to the south and across the oceans. I can only take what price is offered to me; I cannot pass along a carbon tax to my customers. I cannot switch to electric tractors, or run all new equipment to have the latest in emissions technologies. Sometimes my field needs to be blackened to clean up sloughs from excess moisture, or to deal with high residue crops. That tillage pass already represents a cost to me, and I don’t need a tax to encourage me to avoid it.

So, let’s exempt farmers, right? Make it revenue-neutral? While that may seem a simple solution, how will you go about that? I still have to purchase fertilizer, crop protection products, fuel, machinery, and so on. If those industries are paying a carbon tax, you can bet they will pass along that cost. What about my grain buyers? If a craft beer manufacturer has to pay a carbon tax, they may have to reduce what they pay for their malt barley. That also costs my family farm.

If a carbon tax drives up my farm’s costs without creating an incentive for me to reduce emissions, why have one at all? It does not achieve the required goal of reducing emissions, and hurts my family in the process. I thought your government was going to help the middle class?

Mr. Trudeau, please reconsider your plans to impose a carbon tax on my province. You speak about working together as Canadians, of uniting us as a country. Your proposed carbon tax will be divisive, ineffective, and detrimental to Canadian agriculture. Your carbon tax will hurt my family’s ability to make a living doing what we love to do – feeding the world.

Sincerely,

 

Jake Leguee

My Experience Attending Table For Twenty

On July 5th, I was invited to attend an event called “Table For Twenty”,  a celebration of twenty years of biotechnology in crops. Too often, we spend our time defending GMOs, pesticides and the like, and not enough time is spent in recognizing the amazing achievements this technology has allowed. Twenty people from all different occupations were invited to the event, with representatives from CropLife Canada (the host of the evening), the government of Saskatchewan, universities, industry professionals, students, and of course, farmers.

My wife and I had the pleasure of attending the event, and as one of the very few full-time farmers at the table, I was asked to say a few words. In the nature of the transparency I try to practice in this blog, I felt it was important to share with you what I spoke about. Here it is in full:

Hi, everyone, my name is Jake Leguee, and I farm about 3 and a half hours southeast of here. I have to admit, I am humbled to be here, and it is an absolute honour to speak to you about my experience in growing biotech crops. Our farm operation is a family one, with my parents, my older sister and my wife all heavily involved. We farm about 12,000 acres of cereals, pulses and oilseeds and yes – some of those are GMOs, and no – I’m not on Monsanto’s payroll.

For a long time, I watched as our industry was continually attacked and derided for many of our production practices. I watched as pesticides were blamed for all sorts of terrible things, like cancer, destruction of the environment, and more health conditions than I can count. I watched as genetic engineering, one of humankind’s greatest achievements, was labeled as “Frankenfood” and was incriminated for a medley of problems every bit as broad and as devastating as pesticides had been.

I watched as an industry that feeds the world, that provides a living for thousands of farmers just like me, was ostracized by what seemed to be a majority of the public. I knew these products were safe; I had used them for much of my life. My father has been farming for 40 years, as his father did before him. We grow genetically modified crops, we use pesticides, we use fertilizers, and I know firsthand the benefits they bring to the table.

So, I had to ask myself, what could I do about it?

I don’t have the ability to talk to every person on the planet one by one, and I certainly don’t have the money to run advertisements during the SuperBowl. But, I could write, and people might be interested in reading the perspective of a farmer. So, for the last 3 years, I have been writing about the life of a farmer, and I am continually amazed at how interested people are in just what it is that farmers do. They seem fascinated by why we grow GM crops, why we use pesticides and fertilizers, and how we make our decisions.

I grow genetically modified crops because they bring value to my farm. They allow me to control a broader variety of weeds with lower application rates. Because of the success of these crops, agriculture companies are able to generate profits from them, and as a result, inject more money into breeding better varieties. This generates a cycle of better and better varieties being developed each and every year, which further increases my ability to grow crops in a broader variety of weather and climate challenges. The phenomenal success of herbicide tolerant canola has been a game-changer for our farm and many others, and the continued investment in soybeans and corn will enable us to have success with these crops, despite their limitations due to our short growing season. This would never have happened without genetic modification.

The exciting part about all this is the reality that we have only scratched the surface of what we can do with genetic engineering. With the emergence of new technologies, such as gene editing, the future is wide open. Drought and frost tolerance, insect and disease resistance, improved photosynthetic efficiency; these are all traits that would make my farm more resilient and less susceptible to weather shocks.

But to be able to take advantage of these exciting new prospects, we need to get the consumer on our side. We need people to understand why we farmers need access to these products. Farming is a challenging and extremely risky business. One bad weather event, one storm, one cold night, can impact the very survival of our family farm. We need access to new technologies that can help mitigate the weather extremes that have had such an impact on our family.

I was born in 1988, a year that many farmers would like to forget. Dad talks about the 80’s a lot, and not too fondly – well, except for my birthday of course! It was a decade of drought, with searing heat waves and limited rainfall. To say it was a challenging time is a severe underestimation of the difficulties farmers faced.

We will see another decade like the 80’s, and the 1930’s too. But this time will be different. With the rise of pesticides and the release of GMOs, we have been able to virtually eliminate tillage. There won’t be another dust bowl. No-till is the saviour of dryland agriculture – but it only works if we have access to pesticides and GM crops.

I believe public perceptions are starting to change; I believe we are getting the message out. But we must continue to advocate for agriculture and tell our story. Because our story is a great one. It is a story of families, of generational farms, of environmental stewardship. My goal, and I suspect the goal of most farms, is to someday leave this land in better shape than it was in when I started farming it. To allow my children to farm in an even better world than we do today. Biotechnology is the key to achieving this goal.

Thank you.

I want to extend a huge thank you to CropLife Canada, and all of its staff, for doing an outstanding job of promoting a positive conversation about agriculture; from the work they put into producing the video I was apart of (see it here), to hosting the Table For Twenty events, and everything else they have done.

One more thing I want to add to this: to all of you who have read, shared and talked about my blog (good and bad!), thank you. My goal in doing this is to try and create a conversation about agriculture; not arguments, not insults and finger-pointing; a constructive discussion that broadens all of our views on such a controversial subject. I have had an amazing ride in this project, and I am excited about what the future holds.

Thank you!

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How Much Roundup Do Farmers Actually Use?

A lot of consumers have concerns about Roundup (aka glyphosate). Yesterday we once again were bombarded with attacks on the much-maligned herbicide in the yearly “March Against Monsanto”. Many will also remember the World Health Organization’s classification of glyphosate as a “probable carcinogen”. When faced with such a maelstrom of public disapproval (even if it is a vocal minority) it’s very difficult to separate fact from fiction. What is right and what is wrong? Is glyphosate dangerous? If so, should farmers be allowed to use it at all?

I think the best way to cut through such a deluge of hostile press is to delve into the facts about this much-maligned chemical. I keep hearing how we farmers “douse” our crops with glyphosate; that we apply massive quantities with no concept of safety, ignoring label rates, and simply apply it as many times as we want to whatever crop we want.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Here’s the reality.

Is Glyphosate Toxic?

Roundup JugGlyphosate is one of the safest herbicides ever developed for mass use. It is a non-selective (meaning it kills most plants) chemical that targets and blocks the so-called shikimic acid pathway. This is required for amino acid synthesis in plants. Without amino acids, plants wilt and die from starvation. Since the shikimite pathway is not found in humans, glyphosate is of very low toxicity (read more here).

Now, science jargon aside, if you consume enough glyphosate, yes, it will be poisonous. Of course, it would take quite a lot; the LD50 (lethal dose for 50% of test animals) of glyphosate is 5,600 mg/kg. That’s over 5.6 grams of glyphosate for every kilogram you weigh. You weigh 80 kg? You would need to consume 450 grams (that’s half a kilogram, or close to a pound) of glyphosate in one sitting for a potentially lethal dose. If you’re consuming that much of anything I’d say you should be concerned (read more here).

How Much Do We Use?

Below is a picture I took of a typical rate of glyphosate. In that Gatorade bottle there is 600 mL of Roundup. That little bottle will treat one acre of land. Now, I understand that an acre is a little hard to visualize. One acre is 43,560 square feet, or about three quarters of an American football field. That 600 mL spread over one acre amounts to .014 mL per square foot. That doesn’t sound like much, does it?

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Here’s the other thing; most of the Roundup we spray in a year doesn’t get sprayed on crops at all. We use it to clean fields up before seeding and after harvest. Yes, some Roundup Ready crops get glyphosate throughout the season (e.g. canola, soybeans), but that really only amounts to about 20% of our acres. And even then, we are only talking about one or two applications per year to growing crops.

The reality is we simply don’t use that much glyphosate on a per-acre basis. Is glyphosate the only herbicide we use? Of course not! We use a variety of pesticides on our farm to control a variety of pests. Do we still need glyphosate? Unquestionably yes. Without it, no-till would be next to impossible. We would be forced to go back to tillage to clean our fields before seeding. That would be an environmental tragedy.

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This is just an example of the numerous products we use in a year.  You can see a combination of herbicides and a fungicide, each one useful for different problem pests. This is only a sample of the variety of chemicals we use.

All of these products are used to control weeds, diseases, insects and so on. We need them all to keep each of our many different crops clean; but glyphosate is still the base we build our entire year upon. It is the one herbicide that controls them all. That is why careful management of it, and creative tank mixes with products like tribenuron, sulfentrazone, carfentrazone and so on is so important to ensure its long-term survival. Tank mixing other chemistries makes it much more difficult for weeds to become resistant – the infamous “superweed”.

Nikon J1 204The concerns about so-called superweeds are real, to a degree. Yes, too much glyphosate spraying on the same land over too many years can cause weed resistance. However, too much tillage on the same land year over year can actually cause the same problem; it is far from unique to glyphosate and GMOs (read more here). Any pest can and will become resistant to a control measure over time; it’s natural selection at work.

Separating Fact From Fear

I realize how difficult it is to separate facts from fear. There is a lot of data, a lot of studies, and a lot of people with an agenda pushing you to believe one thing or another.

If you don’t trust anyone else, trust farmers. We use this stuff, and have for decades. We wouldn’t put ourselves, our families, and our customers at risk if we believed glyphosate and other pesticides were truly dangerous. I use glyphosate and other pesticides because I believe the benefits outweigh the risks. I believe they are the best tool we have to look after our land in a sustainable fashion.

The reality is you are the one buying what we’re growing. It is your choice. Just know that glyphosate, despite all the hostile attacks on its safety, is one of humankind’s greatest achievements. This venerable herbicide, with nearly 40 years of use behind it, is still one of the most important tools we farmers possess. It allows us to control weeds without threatening the future of our soils. The dose makes the poison, and at the rates we apply this incredibly low-toxicity herbicide, you have nothing to fear.

 

Rise of the Superweeds

One of the arguments against GMOs has been that they caused the evolution of so-called “superweeds”, an epidemic that apparently has the world headed for a crisis. Some claim that we will soon be unable to sustain our modern agriculture techniques, and GMOs are at fault.

Fortunately, the reality is quite different. Superweeds are indeed a problem, and their evolution is causing significant problems for farmers. However, we do have options to control them, and emerging technology is going to help us out.

Superweeds – What Are They?

Superweeds really aren’t that super. They aren’t bigger, faster growing, or more competitive than “normal” weeds. All a superweed actually is is a weed that is resistant to a certain type of control. Becoming resistant to Roundup (glyphosate) doesn’t automatically make a weed more competitive, it just makes it more difficult for us to control them. It eliminates one of the tools we have in our toolbox.

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Palmer amaranth is one of the most prolific glyphosate resistant weeds in the US, producing up to a million seeds per plant. (Superior Ag Resources photo/Tom Sinnot)

A common misconception is that superweeds are only resistant to glyphosate, but that is actually not accurate. Weeds have been evolving resistance to many kinds of control for as long as agriculture has been around. In fact, in India, farmers used to hand weed barnyard grass out of rice. Barnyard grass was very similar in appearance to rice, but it had a distinctive red stem. As farmers removed those weeds year after year, a different strain of barnyard grass with a green stem became more prevalent. Eventually, farmers could no longer tell the difference between barnyard grass and rice; they had selected for green stems (read more here). Essentially, you could call that particular strain of barnyard grass a superweed. 

What Causes Superweeds to Develop?

Like the example of the red-stemmed barnyard grass, evolution of resistance to glyphosate and other chemicals is really rather simple. Continuous application of the same chemistry to the same fields year after year will allow that one weed with natural resistance to proliferate. One year, there’s one of them. That weed produces dozens or – believe it or not – millions of offspring. In year two, depending on how many germinate, survive and reproduce, an exponential increase in resistant populations begins.

All that particular weed has is a mutation that allows it to survive the chemical. Lentil harvestSometimes, it can only survive a lower rate, which is why proper application rates are
so important. As that weed begins to spread, it finds its way into other fields and other farms. Combines do a great job of blasting weed seeds hundreds of feet through the air, and with the right wind, weed seeds can even be blown into adjacent fields.

Whose Fault Is It?

Are farmers to blame for this? In a word, yes. We are responsible for understanding the chemicals we apply on our own fields. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to throw myself and my colleagues under a bus here. But there have been many farmers that simply grew Roundup Ready crops over and over for over a decade – applying incredible selection pressure to their weeds. Could pesticide companies do more to educate farmers on this subject? Yes, but they have vastly improved their education efforts. A fantastic example is Bayer Crop Science’s Mix It Up campaign, which informs farmers how their products can improve resistance management (read more here). I think the key going forward is that assigning blame gets us nowhere. Let’s instead focus on solutions.

When Roundup was first released, it was a novel herbicide that was considered to have “Low” susceptibility to resistance. Because of its mode of action, weeds would have to develop a complex resistance mechanism. Sadly, this assumption led to an overapplication of glyphosate, much of it at rates too low to be totally effective, and has thereby resulted in the loss of one of the great inventions of the modern age to many regions.

How Do GMOs Fit In?

The introduction of Roundup Ready crops in the 1990’s caused a surge in the use of glyphosate. It was cheap, safe, very effective on weeds and easy to apply. Despite what has been coming out in the media about glyphosate lately (read more here), it is actually a very safe product with no known health effects in humans or animals. It was a breakthrough in agriculture, one of the greatest of our time. It is because of this that its overuse was simply inevitable.

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A young GM canola crop with developing weed competition.

It is, however, important to distinguish that although Roundup Ready crops contributed to the overuse of glyphosate, they did not cause resistance themselves. Glyphosate is not the only product with resistance problems. Other chemical groups also have issues, such as sulfonylureas, imidazolinones, PPO inhibitors, plant growth regulators and so on have all led to the proliferation of their own resistant weeds. None of these products are tied to glyphosate resistant crops. In fact, even insects and plant diseases have evolved pesticide resistance. In Europe, for example, flea beetles have become resistant to pyrethroid insecticides. Canada thistle became a problem in the prairies largely because of cultivation, which allowed their roots to be spread all over the fields.

Any type of pest control can and will cause pest resistance if the selection pressure is high enough. Unfortunately for RR crops in the United States, the selection pressure was simply too high.

What Are We Doing About It?

Every problem has a solution, and superweeds are no different. The way to fix this problem is actually pretty simple – rotation. Using a variety of crops combined with a variety of chemicals prevents weeds from building resistance. Take that Roundup-resistant weed and hit it with something else. Maybe a different chemical, maybe a little bit of strategic tillage, maybe even just a more competitive crop.

There are some incredibly exciting developments in the world of crop protection. RNA interference technology may just be the new frontier in weed management. Palmer amaranth, a particularly problematic weed in the US, resists glyphosate by producing extra copies of EPSPS, an enzyme required for amino acid synthesis that glyphosate binds to and prevents growth, eventually causing death. It overcomes the glyphosate application by simply producing so many copies of EPSPS enzyme that it overwhelms the glyphosate molecules. To stop this from happening, RNAi prevents the production of the EPSPS enzyme. With less of it produced, glyphosate is once again effective (read more here and here).

While RNAi is very new and is probably years away from production, it is promising to see innovations like this on the horizon. In Australia, where weed resistance is a major problem, some farmers are using the Harrington Seed Destructor to destroy weeds as they leave the back of the combine, which is proving to be incredible effective. Robotic weed destroyers are prototypes today, but could be a game changer in the near future. But in the meantime, we must protect what we have. Careful rotations and proper application techniques will go far to secure the usefulness of the chemicals we have for the foreseeable future.

Superweeds are nothing new. Weeds always have and always will evolve survival mechanisms against our strategies to control them. GMOs are not the culprit here; a lack of discipline in the use of our most valuable chemistries is the reason we are having the problems we are having. Panic by local governments and knee-jerk reactions will not help us deal with weed resistance. Education, research and new ideas are what we need to combat this problem. Weeds have always been one of farmers’ greatest challenges, and we will have to continue to be innovative and determined to stay ahead of them.

Thinking About The Future

It’s that time of the year again. As the year winds to a close, farmers of all ages and geographies look back on the year that was – and what 2016 and beyond will bring. In agriculture, everything changes so fast that merely keeping up is no small feat.

For me, the year that was 2015 changed everything. It was the year my son was born.

This past year truly will go down as one of our farm’s great successes of the decade. An above average crop coupled with excellent prices has delivered us one of the best years we have seen in some time. Unprecedented lentil prices continue to amaze farmers and grain traders alike, with difficult conditions in India and a burgeoning global market for pulses creating incredible demand for what we grow. 2016 will be another big year for lentils on the prairies – and, coincidentally, is the International Year of Pulses.

But what about beyond that? Recently, I attended the GrowCanada conference in Calgary (thanks again to CropLife Canada for that!), where I saw a group of fantastic speakers talking about the future. One that stood out for me was Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire: Canadian Forces veteran, senator, author and humanitarian. He spoke about many fascinating things, but one thread that sticks with me was his goal-oriented mindset. While everyone else talks about their 5-year plan, he is the one thinking about the 6th year and beyond.

As farmers and business people, it’s in our DNA to plan for the future. Every year is a gamble. But too rarely do we step back and look at the big picture. We face a world of change in agriculture. A revolution in how we do our every day business is already underway.

For instance, 2016 will be my first year owning a drone. What do I plan to do with it? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure yet. Like our new weather station, it is probably a data-collection device without a way to process the data. But that day will come. Right now, we are collecting massive amounts of data from every crop year. It truly is amazing how much information we pull from our fields. Drones will allow us to collect even more. We will learn details about our fields that we have never really seen before.

As the popularity of drones rises, their potential uses grow. Today, you can buy a drone that sprays your crop for you. Of course, to replace our high-clearance sprayer would require dozens and dozens of them, if not hundreds, but you get the idea where our industry is going. Our days driving machinery out in the field are probably numbered. As futurist Jim Carrol said at the conference, “You will probably overestimate the change in the next two years, and underestimate the change in the next ten.”

Data is driving changes in more than just field operations. Data-managing platforms, such as Agri-Data and Farm At Hand, are some of farmers’ most-used tools today. Everything we do we can track and measure. No more missed spray applications, no more lost bins, and near-perfect cost of production numbers – if the program is properly utilized, of course.

As we drive into the future, I wonder what it will look like for my son, Asher. I believe he will see more change in his life than even my grandparents saw in theirs – and that’s saying a lot. Will he be a farmer? Who knows? His life is his own, and he will make that choice many years from now.

If he does choose to farm, what will it be like? Will he ever run equipment out in the field? By then, it may all be autonomous. He may use something like Google Glass to look at his crop and instantly know what nutrient deficiencies it may be experiencing, what stresses it faces, or whether spraying a fungicide is necessary. Someday, he might even edit his crop’s DNA to adapt it to certain fields. His entire method of managing his crops may be completely foreign to me.

However, that won’t make it wrong. If my grandfather could see how we farm today, while he might find it confusing, he would discover that the underlying principles are much the same. Just like him, I’m trying to grow healthy food for a hungry world, hopefully improving the quality of the land it’s grown on at the same time. And I’m sure I will see the same principles in place when and if my son decides to farm.

I don’t know how many people told me that having children changes everything. In fact, I kinda got tired of hearing it! But the day we brought Asher home, I realized that line is such an understatement. My whole world changed that day. But there is something so amazing about bringing a child into this world, and the light and innocence he radiates. Something about looking at him makes me realize that the future of this planet, and our own sometimes troubled human race, is so very bright. Our most basic need is food, and I am proud to grow it. The coming decades will be amazing.