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.

palmer-amaranth
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.

Nikon J1 205
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.

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Why GMO Labeling Will Never Work

Nikon J1 234Would you want to know if your food contained GMOs?

There has been a major push to get foods containing genetically modified ingredients labeled. Some brands have voluntarily done so, but most have not taken that step. Several countries around the world require GMO labeling, including China, Brazil, Japan and many others. While the US and Canada have debated going in this direction, there has been no binding action- yet. A poll conducted by The New York Times found that a whopping 93% of people want mandatory labeling for GMOs.

Some advocacy groups demand labeling because they claim GMOs are unsafe, and we as consumers should know what’s in our food. Even many supporters of GMOs agree that it would be best to just get on with it and label it already; the campaign against it is doing more harm than good, and people will buy food containing GM ingredients if they believe it is safe. While I can see the merits of such arguments, I believe it would be a colossal error to label food containing GM ingredients. Labeling food containing GMOs will ensure consumers avoid them- it’s a matter of simple psychology.

People Fear What They Don’t Understand

survey conducted in January by the Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics found that over 80% of Americans support mandatory labels on foods containing DNA. For those who don’t remember high school science class, DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is our blueprint- it’s what makes us what we are. Almost every life form on the planet contains DNA. So, yes, all food contains DNA. But, if you didn’t know what DNA was, and someone asked you if you’d want to know if it was in your food, you probably would say yes. Why not? What if it’s harmful? It certainly sounds scary if you don’t know what it is.

Another example of the the general public’s ability to be fooled on scientific wording is the dihydrogen monoxide hoax. It all started back in 1983, in an April Fool’s edition of a weekly newspaper in Durand, Michigan. Apparently, dihydrogen monoxide had been found in the city’s water pipes, and it was “fatal if inhaled”. There have been several hoaxes since, each one stating dire warnings of the dangers of the substance. For instance, dihydrogen monoxide “may cause severe burns” and “has been found in excised tumours of terminal cancer patients” and “everyone who consumes it dies”. What is dihydrogen monoxide? Well, its chemical name is H2O, but it is better known as water.

The truth is, if you frame it right, you can make anything sound terrifying. Take A&W’s new marketing campaign. They advertise their beef as “better beef” because it is produced without hormones or steroids. They ignore the fact that you would ingest more hormones from their fries than you would from conventionally produced beef. But, for the uneducated, why not eat beef produced without those components? It clearly sounds safer.

If you put a label on something as “product x free” or “contains product x” you immediately label product x as something ominous- especially if a quick Google search comes back with dozens of websites claiming how dangerous product x is. I suspect that if we label our foods with many of our breeding methods, we will create fear. Genetic modification is only one way of breeding advancements in our crops. One such breeding method is mutagenesis, which involves using mutagens such as UV radiation or mutagenic chemicals to cause random or site-directed changes to an organim’s DNA. A food product developed under this method can be labeled GMO free. I don’t want to demonize mutagenesis; it is an effective way to develop desirable traits in our crops. But let’s be realistic here; why is genetic modification somehow more dangerous than any other method?

GMOs already have an undeservedly bad reputation, especially considering how safe they are. If the government makes GMO labeling mandatory, the odds are very slim that their reputation will improve.

Are GMOs Actually Safe?

The simple answer is a resounding yes. I’ve heard the claim more than a few times that research on GMOs is scant, and Monsanto is funding a ton of propaganda. This could not be further from the truth. In fact, there are thousands of studies on GMOs. A literature review completed in 2012 delved into 1,783 studies on GMOs over a period of ten years (2002-2012). The authors couldn’t find one credible study proving GMOs are dangerous in any way whatsoever. In their words,

“We have reviewed the scientific literature on GE crop safety for the last 10 years that catches the scientific consensus matured since GE plants became widely cultivated worldwide, and we can conclude that the scientific research conducted so far has not detected any significant hazard directly connected with the use of GM crops (source).” 

Another literature review, dubbed the “trillion meal study”, reviewed 29 years of livestock consumption of GM foods. The result? Not one negative health effect. Surely, in nearly 30 years, one animal somewhere must have become sick if GMOs were actually dangerous (read more here). The only studies that have shown dangers to GMOs have been shown to be biased and fatally flawed (an example is the Seralini rat study– it was redacted from its publishing journal).

Do We Really Need GMOs?

If you go to the World Population Clock, you’ll find a number somewhere above 7.3 billion, with over 72 million more added so far in 2015. Our population growth may be starting to slow down, but the reality is that there will likely be 8 billion people on this planet by 2024- a staggering number. How do we feed them all? We will need every tool available to us, genetic modification included. Moreover, it gives us the ability to reduce pesticide use, fortify our foods with essential nutrients (e.g. Golden rice) and grow more food on less land. Let’s try and leave the rainforests where they are. And, more importantly, let’s not let any more children die from Vitamin A deficiencies.

Everyone has heard of GMOs, but few have taken the time to understand what they are. You always fear what you don’t understand; it’s basic human nature. A greater public benefit would come from education on GMOs; what they are, how they’re made, and why we need them. Let’s stop giving people a reason to be afraid of them. Let’s take the unknown out of it. Consumers want to know what’s in their food: instead of giving them an acronym few actually can decifer, let’s explain to them why GMOs are in their food, and why it’s a good thing. If consumers knew the truth about GMOs, there would be no need for labels.

References:

American Association for the Advancement of Science. 2012. Statement by the AAAS Board of Directors On Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods.

Eenennaam, A. 2013. GMOs in animal agriculture: time to consider both costs and benefits in regulatory evaluations. Journal of Animal Science and Biotechnology. 

Entomological Society of America. 2014. Insect-resistant maize could increase yields and decrease pesticide use in Mexico.

Gemma, A. et. al. 2013. Plurality of opinion, scientific discourse and pseudoscience: an in depth analysis of the Se´ralini et al. study claiming that Roundup Ready corn or the herbicide Roundup cause cancer in rats. Transgenic Research.

Nicolia, A. et. al. 2012. An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research. Crit Rev Biotechnol.

What’s The Beef? M&Ms and Hormones. 2013. Farm Meets Fork.

My Interview With CropLife Canada

This summer, I was given an opportunity to do a video interview with CropLife Canada on the use of biotechnology and pesticides on our farm. As another way to interact with consumers and tell our story, it was something I simply couldn’t pass up. They did a fantastic job and I couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out! I want to extend a huge thank you to CropLife for taking the time to try and educate consumers on why farmers use and need these products to help create a sustainable future. Check out the video here:

If you want to read more of my thoughts on biotechnology and pesticides, check out these posts:

Why I Grow GMOs

Why I’m Not An Organic Farmer

Glyphosate: A Carcinogen?

There are many more posts like these few, all to be found here.

Who is CropLife Canada?

From their website: “CropLife Canada is the trade association representing the manufacturers, developers and distributors of plant science technologies, including pest control products and plant biotechnology, for use in agriculture, urban and public health settings.”

If you want to find out more, visit their website!

Is The Customer Always Right?

There is a growing number of consumers that are uncomfortable with current agricultural practices. Use of genetic modification, concerns over animal welfare, and the perceived disappearance of family farms is causing a growing distrust between the public and the food industry. Recent marketing campaigns by some food giants have attempted to remedy this; but they really struck a nerve with farmers.

A&W’s “Better Beef”

First of all, A&W’s “Better Beef” advertising focuses on their goal to purchase beef that has no added hormones or steroids. Why? If you check out their website on this…. you don’t really get a reason why. They just say that their beef is natural and tastes good. They don’t provide any evidence that hormones and antibiotics are a bad thing to use. While I will freely admit that I’m not a cattle grower, this campaign is frustrating to me. No facts are presented as to the dangers of hormones – which are minimal, considering that the amount of hormones in a single birth control pill are thousands of times greater than you would find in any hamburger.

GMO-Free Cheerios

Similar marketing is being done by General Mills’ Cheerios, which are now “GMO-free”. This is somewhat of a misrepresentation of the product, since Cheerios are made from oats, which is not a GMO crop. But, there are some other ingredients that possibly contain GMO ingredients, such as corn starch, so apparently those are no longer in the cereal.

Chipotle’s “The Scarecrow”

The worst marketing of all is by Chipotle. While they do not have a presence in my area, they are a popular American restaurant chain. Their advertisements depict farms as evil, factory operations that care only about profits, with the “little guy” being far more caring and sustainable. The video, called “The Scarecrow” is a harrowing tale of terrifying corporate farms. In truth, it is an exceptionally well-done, emotional video.

The ironic part of the video is that it suggests that you should buy your food from small businesses, when Chipotle is a massive restaurant chain with $3.2 billion in annual sales. Interestingly, they have increased revenues from $2.7 billion in 2012 to $3.2 billion in 2013, when this ad was released. Chipotle is hardly “the little guy”, and it is rather disingenuous for them to accuse farms like mine of being “factory farms”.

I understand the goals of all these marketing campaigns. These are businesses that are trying to capture a new market of consumers that want their food grown safely and sustainably. They are trying to increase their profits by doing this, which is of course the goal of any business. So far, it may be working, with Chipotle displaying greater profits since they enacted this marketing plan.

Nothing More Than Marketing Ploys?

While the goal of increasing profits is certainly sensible, there is more at stake than that. Possibly the most interesting example of the three of them is General Mills. In their own words, the decision to release GMO-free Cheerios “was never about pressure” from critics. As their blog said, “It’s not about safety. Biotech seeds, also known as genetically modified seeds, have been approved by global food safety agencies and widely used by farmers in global food crops for almost 20 years.” They simply did it because they thought their “consumers might embrace it,” (read more on this here).

They are essentially stating that although they believe genetic modification is safe, they are going to advertise against it to make more money. Does this not seem disingenuous? Growing up in the country, I was always taught to stand up for what I believe in, whatever the cost. It seems that General Mills did not understand that message. Sure, they, along with A&W and Chipotle are potentially increasing profits, but they are sending the consumer the wrong message. They are telling the consumer that genetic modification is dangerous, conventional beef production is wrong, and most farms (and by extension, my own farm) are evil factory operations that care nothing for the welfare of people and animals.

Time To Take A Stand

I don’t believe in that mentality. I believe that science should tell us what is safe and what isn’t. I believe that rather than succumbing to public pressure, as a food industry we all need to do our part to educate the consumer, and let them know that the food they eat is safe, and has been rigorously tested. Sure, there are always improvements that can be made, and yes, I am all for safe food and humane treatment of animals. But Chipotle and A&W’s campaigns send a message to the consumer that simply isn’t true, and General Mills is marketing a product against their beliefs as a company.

I believe GMO’s are safe. Otherwise I wouldn’t grow them. I believe that my neighbors and friends treat their livestock with respect and care, and don’t overuse hormones and antibiotics. I am part of a corporate, large-scale grain farm, but that doesn’t make it any less of a family operation that cares for the land it manages and the food it produces. If the customer doesn’t agree with this, then I believe that the customer is wrong, and I will not change my business to cater to that.

Nikon J1 139I will continue to grow GMO crops, and I will continue to use pesticides and fertilizers when and where needed. Through this blog and through my day to day life, I will continue to try and educate people about why we do what we do on this farm. Maybe this isn’t the best marketing plan. Maybe I could make more money by growing organic food and going after niche market consumers. Nevertheless, I believe that we need these tools to feed a growing world sustainably, and I will therefore not sell out to public pressure the way that General Mills, A&W and Chipotle have. After all, if you don’t stand up for what you believe in, do you really believe in anything?

Why I Grow GMOs

What do you think about GMOs?

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Is there a more emotionally charged question out there in this part of today’s world? Certainly, it is understandable that the food we eat be an engaging issue for consumer and producer alike. There has been a drive from the consumer to learn about the food they eat. They want to know how it is produced, and whether it is in a sustainable fashion. Ultimately, and most importantly, they want to know if it is safe.  An unknown factor like genetic modification is a cause for concern for these people, because the long-term effects are not readily available to us.

I support and applaud those in the public that ask these critical questions. Too many people don’t think about the things that are done by the government, business and other organizations. The problem isn’t in people asking questions; it is in people asking the wrong questions to the wrong sources – and believing the answers without question.

I am a farmer that grows genetically modified (GM) crops. Not all of my crops are GMOs. In fact, in a usual rotation of 5-7 different crops, only two are GMOs. Canola and soybeans, two of my farm’s most economically important crops, are GMOs. Other crops, like wheat, peas and flax, are not GMOs, for there are simply none available. Contrary to popular belief, I do have a choice to buy GM crops or alternatives. So why do I grow GM crops when there are so many other cropping options?

That is a good question, and the answer will be different for every farm. In my life on the farm, canola and soybeans are our two newest crop options. In Western Canada, we have been growing wheat for as long as we’ve been farming. Flax and peas are old crops for us as well. Canola is one that we have really only been growing in earnest on our farm for the past 15 or so years. We only just started growing soybeans 3 years ago.

I suppose we could grow old open-pollinated canola and conventional soybeans (these are not GMOs). But would we do that? The claim I hear from some consumers is that GMOs are hazardous. By association then, I must be either cruel or naïve to grow these dangerous crops, putting other people at risk.

But here is the question I pose to the GMO haters: do you really believe I would grow these crops if I believed they were unsafe? My family eats the food we grow. I would not put them at risk if I truly believed GMOs were hazardous.

Honestly, I don’t believe they are. GM crops are not dangerous1. In the almost 20 years since Monsanto started genetically modifying corn, soybeans and canola, the evidence has become clear that the benefits of genetic modification far outweigh the risks1. This isn’t an opinion by a biased industry representative. The information I use comes directly from peer reviewed journal articles, the best source of information on anything scientific. GM crops also have dramatically reduced use of the most dangerous and volatile chemicals to control weeds2. Most of the GM plants we deal with are “Roundup Ready”, which means they are resistant to the active ingredient of Roundup, which is glyphosate. The way we measure the toxicity of chemicals like glyphosate is its LD50 number. This refers to the amount of the chemical, given all at once, which results in the death of 50% of the test animals3. The acute Low Acute Toxicity for oral consumption of glyphosate in rats is an LD50 value greater than 5,000 mg/kg of body weight4. This means that if you were a rat, and you weighed in at 3 kg, you would have to consume 15 grams of glyphosate for it to become toxic to you. That is quite a lot. Comparatively, the LD50 of caffeine is 192 mg/kg body weight. How much coffee do you have in a day? The point is, the dosage makes the poison, and any chemical can be toxic in a large enough dose.

Today’s farm operation is a complicated business. Every year, we run through the numbers on each crop to decide which ones to grow and on how many acres. Canola and soybeans, and especially canola, are profitable crop options for us. So yes, we do grow these GM crops because they allow our farm to make money. Are they making us rich? I wish! But they do allow our farm business to make enough money to survive, and hopefully, over time, prosper. Is this not the dream for us all?

Ultimately, the question of why I grow GMOs comes down to the fundamental freedom that we all have in our democratic society: the freedom of choice. It is my choice to grow GM crops. Conversely, if you don’t approve of them, it is your choice to buy something else. However, keep in mind the unintended consequences of doing so. GM crops allow us to use less toxic pesticides at lower rates. Furthermore, we can achieve unprecedented yields with the incredible biological advances made with these GM varieties. We need to grow 70% more food by 2050 to feed this growing world5; we are going to need all the tools we can get to accomplish this.

My farm grows GM crops, and I am proud to say that we do.  They are safe and sustainable crop options that we have the right to grow if we choose to. I hope that you will think about what I have said the next time someone asks you, “what do you think about GMOs?”

References:

  1. Stella G. Uzogara, 2000. The impact of genetic modification of human foods in the 21st century: A review. Biotechnology Advances 18 (2000): 179-206.
  2. RH. Phipps and J.R. Park, 2002. Environmental benefits of genetically modified crops: Global and European perspectives on their ability to reduce pesticide use. Journal of Animal and Feed Sciences, Vol. 11, pp. 1-18.
  3. United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2012. Lethal Dosage (LD50) Values. http://www.epa.gov/oecaagct/ag101/pestlethal.html
  4. Cornell University, 1994. Extension Toxicology Network. http://pmep.cce.cornell.edu/profiles/extoxnet/dienochlor-glyphosate/glyphosate-ext.html
  5. Agricultural Development Economics Division, 2009. High Level Expert Forum – How to Feed the World in 2050. http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/wsfs/docs/Issues_papers/HLEF2050_Global_Agriculture.pdf

Why I Write

Why does anybody write? Is it some compulsion to make oneself heard? To leave something behind? We all want the world to remember us when we leave it. A page, a book, even a blog, is something that stays around forever (well, as long as humans are around and we don’t forget how to read, that is). But is that really the entire reason? Are we really so melodramatic that all we care about is for some random person to read our written words years after we are dead and forgotten?

I don’t think that’s true. Or, at least, not the entire truth. My reason for starting this blog probably includes those things, sure. I think anyone who has written anything would be lying not to believe that at some level, there is a conceitedness to putting words to a page that describe your life, or parts of it. But the point here is the main reason I write at all. I don’t have any illusions about how many people may read what I have written in my fledgling blog, A Year in the Life of a Farmer. I don’t have any delusions of grandeur here.

I started this blog because nobody really knows what the life of a farmer is really like. Unless you’ve lived it, and I mean really lived it, you don’t know who the people are that produce your food. Everybody wants to know where their food comes from. Everybody wants to know if it’s GMO, or laden with pesticides, or what its carbon footprint might be. But these are all just numbers and words. If you really want to know how your food is produced, you need to know the person producing it.

I am a farmer. I live out on a farm with my wife and our dog, and our yard sprawls over many acres of trees and grass and, well, slough bottom. Our trees are kind of ugly, with deadfall and cursed caraganas sprawling through the uneven rows that complement the newly-seeded grass that has yet to even cover the ground enough to keep weeds down. Hard to believe I can grow crops but I can’t make our stubborn grass grow. Anyway, whatever our yard is, it is our own, as is the land around it. This is the life we have chosen to live. This is the life we will raise children in. This is the life I am so happy to live everyday.

We farm with my older sister and my mom and dad. We are a family farm. Sure, there is the complex and sometimes frustrating structure of partnerships and corporations, and yes, you could call us a corporate farm. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is our family who run it.

This is a blog about a farmer. This is a blog about a family farm. But beyond that, this blog is really about the day to day life of farming; the joys and the frustrations, the despair and the hope, and the trials and tribulations that encompass what we do. I am not afraid to tell you we grow GMO crops. In fact, I am proud to say that we do. We use pesticides, where they are needed and at the rate required for the job. We take care of our land, whether owned or rented, and try to grow the crops that will sustain our farm for the long run, environmentally and economically. If you have a problem with this, buy organic. I make no apologies for what we do to feed a growing world.

If you want to get to know the person behind the food you eat, if you want to understand what it takes to produce the wheat in your bread, or the barley in your beer, or the canola in your cooking oil, read this blog. You may find what you were looking for all along; someone growing your food that genuinely cares about the future of this planet, and its people. My name is Jake Leguee, and I am a farmer and an agvocate. Thanks for reading.

The Cinderella Crop of the Prairies

Rapeseed. The crop with quite possibly the worst imaginable name to try and market as a health food source. A plant with undesirable components, such as erucic acid and glucosinolates, and lacks many necessary attributes to be successful in today’s marketplace.

Everything changed when several Saskatchewan scientists decided to take this cool-season crop, relatively well adapted to life on the prairies, and convert it into something amazing; we now call it canola.

In the Canadian Prairies, we generally do not receive enough heat in a growing season to successfully grow corn or soybeans on a large scale (although that is changing with new varieties- a topic for another day). Traditionally, we are known as wheat growers, and for good reason. We export a pile of wheat from our farms, and we always have. Canola is relatively new, but it has been a godsend for us.

Rapeseed, the origin plant for canola, was grown in Asia for thousands of years for cooking and lamp oil. With the introduction of the steam engine in the eighteenth century, rapeseed oil was proven to be a very useful oil, and was grown extensively in Asia and Eastern Europe before the Second World War. During the war, rapeseed supplies were short in Canada, and it became a cropping option for many farmers. But, prices weakened after the war, and acres slumped.

Saskatoon was the birthplace of rapeseed research on the prairies, and after 25 years of work by many brilliant scientists and technicians, a new crop was developed. Indeed, this plant was so different from the rapeseed it came from that it needed a new name to differentiate it. In 1978, “canola” was coined from “Canada” and “oil”. Since this incredible innovation, canola has overtaken wheat as the primary crop of choice for prairie producers, with over 20 million acres grown in 2012. It is now grown in many areas of the world, including Australia, Brazil, Europe and the United States.

Yes, this crop is genetically modified. No, it is not a Monsanto product. There are a few different companies that produce canola genetics large-scale, including BASF, Monsanto and Bayer CropScience. Bayer has been immensely successful with its InVigor line of canola, which is our farm’s genetics of choice. Try not to look at the GM crop as “evil”, as these varieties have saved us from having to use much more toxic chemicals to control weeds in this crop. Glyphosate and glufosinate tolerant canola has allowed us to prevent the overuse of many chemicals that are prone to cause weed resistance, despite what you hear about glyphosate resistance. We would be in trouble without these chemical options, which would damage not only our economy here, but it would limit access to one of the world’s healthiest options for cooking oil. Canola has an excellent mix of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated oils, which have been linked to a reduction in cholesterol levels, among other benefits.

Growing canola has its challenges, but it is one of the easier crops to grow, thanks to its competitive nature. We seed canola as shallow as we can, or it may not come up at all. That is why we use precision air drills, such as this one:

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Once the little seed germinates, it is slow to get going. The plant starts out very small, and adverse weather can really wreak havoc on it. Excess moisture, a late frost, or insects called flea beetles can be very damaging. Here is a young seedling that is still only about 1-2 inches tall:

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Once canola gets a couple of leaves developed, it quickly becomes a formidable plant. The root system delves into the soil while the leaves gather energy for its fight against its opponents. This next plant is a couple of weeks older, and is far more competitive:

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It is at or before this stage that we try to apply a weed control product, which for this variety is glufosinate (Liberty) and clethodim (Centurion). Since canola is genetically resistant to glufosinate, and because clethodim is a product that works only on grassy weeds, the canola will not be injured (unless excessive rates are applied, in which case injury can occur). In the next photo, you will see canola reach a stage that will make any farmer excited- rosette stage.

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This is where the hybrid vigour of canola really hits hard. These leaves are six inches in length, allowing them to gather a great deal of sunlight energy. The ground is now essentially covered, preventing germination and growth of weed competition. Again, this is another benefit of these powerful varieties. In other crops, the ground is not covered as quickly, and more chemicals therefore are needed to control weeds. Once canola reaches this stage, weeds are no longer a concern.

These plants are using a huge amount of nutrients at this point, consuming lots of nitrogen and sulphur every day. For a crop like this, synthetic fertilizers are a necessity. There is no way organic farming can provide enough nitrogen, sulphur and phosphate to allow this crop to reach its potential. For this reason, we apply nitrogen, phosphate and sulphur at seeding time.

In the next photo, you can see canola push past rosette stage into stem elongation, or “bolting”. Farmers refer to this stage as bolting because of how quickly the stem grows up from the base of the plant. While it usually takes a month to reach rosette stage, bolting happens within a week.

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The tinge of yellow you can see atop these plants are the flowers. At rosette stage, buds are formed at the base of the growing point. When bolting occurs, the buds are pushed upwards, with yellow flowers opening as they move upwards. Very soon, as the flowers continue to unfold, summer on the prairies begins with the magnificent beauty of bright, yellow fields of canola:

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In the Prairies, the striking beauty of these fields now is a common sight. As the flowers unfold, pollinate, and eventually fall to the ground, more flowers continue to develop in a seemingly never-ending loop. Generally speaking, the longer this crop flowers, the better the yield. Hot weather, especially above 30 degrees Celsius, is very damaging to these flowers, causing them to “blast”. The flowers will simply dry up and pop off the stem. Consecutive days of weather like that is very damaging to yield. This crop uses a lot of moisture, and rain at this time of the year always puts a smile on farmers’ faces.

There are a few dangers at this time of the year. Weeds are no longer a concern, but disease and insects are. Sclerotinia sclerotiorum is the primary disease of concern (Sclerotinia Stem Rot, or just Sclerotinia). The flowers are littered with spores released from little mushroom-like organisms that live on the soil surface, and as they fall, they land on leaves and stems. The disease moves into the plant and chokes off the flow of nutrients from the root system to the flowers and pods. Fungicides control this disease, which are usually a worthwhile investment in warm, wet summers.

Insects such as grasshoppers, lygus bugs, diamondback moth larvae and Bertha armyworms can induce severe damage to canola during flowering and into podding, chewing on stems, leaves and pods. We determine whether we need to spray for these insects by way of economic thresholds, which are developed by agronomists with government agencies. These economic thresholds are calculated from a number of factors: insect numbers, cost of application, value of the crop and number of predatory insects that will feed on the negative ones. We always try to spray in evenings and early mornings, as bees tend to forage in the heat of the day. Spraying insecticides is not fun, and it is very expensive to do. We avoid it as much as we can, but sometimes we must spray to save our crops from utter destruction.

As flowering finishes up, generally after 2-4 weeks, the fields lose their yellow colour and pods are the dominant feature. Each pod contains many little seeds of canola, which slowly mature over a period of 20-30 days after flowering has finished.

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Once flowering is completed, the countdown to harvest begins. Our canola is in a variety of stages, with some still yellow and some just like the picture shown (obviously; that is where the picture came from!). Swathing occurs about 20-30 days after flowering ends, with harvesting occuring 10-18 days later. We are excited for this time period to come.

Hopefully this has given you some information of value on our most economically important crop. Canola has been a wonderful experience for us, and it will be a part of our rotation for the foreseeable future. If you want to know more about crop diseases, insects, and other parts of crop production, check out some of my other posts. Now you know where your cooking oil comes from!